"You just have to do what's best for your family."
As a mother to two young kids, nearly every decision I've grappled with has been met with this phrase, which has – for years – served as the official motto for anyone looking to offer judgement-free, supportive advice to parents.
Should I breastfeed or switch to formula? "You just have to do what's best for your family." Should I continue working or take a few years off to stay at home with my baby? "You just have to do what's best for your family." Hire a nanny or enroll in day care? Buy organic? Put them in the gifted program? Limit screen time? Let them join the football team? "You just have to do what's best for your family."
But when the pandemic arrived on families' doorsteps, different questions emerged, but the same refrain kept knocking.
Almost overnight, what was once a blanket salve for individual concerns has morphed into a harmful antiseptic, one that certainly helps fix the intended problem but is not without side effects.
Should I wear a mask even though it upsets my kids? "You just have to do what's best for your family." Should I force them to wear one, too? Should I still pay day-care fees even though it's temporarily closed? Should I still have my kid's birthday party? Should I wait to get a vaccine until it's proven to be safe? Should I hire a postgrad student from a local college, gather up some mom friends, rent out a small studio space, and form a microschool? Should I still go to my cousin's house for a small family picnic?
"You just have to do what's best for your family."
Almost overnight (or, you know, over the course of many months that have felt like years . . . whichever way you want to take it), what was once a blanket salve for individual concerns has morphed into a harmful antiseptic, one that certainly helps fix the intended problem but is not without side effects.
Because doing what's best for your family, and acting solely in one's own best interest, no longer works during a public health crisis. Every decision carries consequences, often far-reaching ones that you can't possibly know without one of those detective-level webs of photos pinned to your wall, yarn connecting you to your cousin to her visiting friend to her hairstylist to her kid to his preschool teacher to her live-in 87-year-old grandfather.
But, I get it. It's a hard adjustment to make, and one I'm struggling with daily, having had 30-plus years of practice in making decisions in my own best interest. I've been socialised to see my personal choices as just that – personal. I haven't been trained to look for the subtle reverberations they cause once they're out of my direct line of sight. And that's because I'm a white, middle-class woman who was raised in a nation that favours individualism, personal liberties, and a "don't tread on me" ethic – all of which have long been seen as America's most admirable traits. In some arenas, they certainly are, but in the face of a pandemic that has already seen five million cases and killed 162,000 people, these beliefs just can't apply if – as our Declaration of Independence attests – we also want to be the America that gives all of its citizens the unalienable right to live.
So I understand that it's hard for even the most altruistic among us to grapple with a new value system that requires so much more collective bargaining, so much more interdependence. Many of us already know that shelter-in-place mandates are not acts of tyranny, nor is the inability to get a haircut or tattoo. We know that we can't go to bars and restaurants and simply say, "It's my life, I'll accept the risk." We know there are societal issues with prioritising the reopening of Disney World over schools and the safety of professional athletes over young students.
We know this much, but we're still not registering the full scope of what we, as parents, are responsible for outside the walls of our home. We still aren't acknowledging that where we live and how we live there carries a far-reaching impact.
And as if the pandemic wasn't enough of a wakeup call to our interconnectedness, the racial unrest that erupted following George Floyd's murder served as the snooze alarm. Many well-meaning white parents, myself included, peeked through their blinds and looked outside their doors with newfound perspective. But just as we show signs of solidarity with our fellow citizens – by posting small black squares to our Instagram feeds, sticking Black Lives Matter posters on our front lawns, and sharing links to articles about how to raise anti-racist kids – when injustice comes to our front steps, we're still conditioned to batten down the hatches and look out for ourselves until the storm passes.
We know there are societal issues with prioritising the reopening of Disney World over schools and the safety of professional athletes over young students, but we're still not registering the full scope of what we, as parents, are responsible for outside the walls of our home.
When the public school system began to implode this past month, and when parents were tasked with unenviable decisions to send their children to school or leave them at home, many of us have rushed back inside to hide under the covers of individualism. We've moved to the suburbs for more space, we've formed pods with our like-minded neighbours, we've scrambled to enroll our kids in safer private schools, we've hired stuck-at-home Ivy League students as babysitters, we've resigned from our careers to indefinitely homeschool our children – all wholly terrible choices we never would have wanted for our families yet privileged options all the same. Despite our best efforts, we continue to see our only move – to do what's best for our family – as the exact same opportunity-hoarding that has been responsible for white flight, school segregation, and gross education gaps between white kids and their brown and Black counterparts.
Again, I get it. I'm right there, making the same mistakes and feeling the same urges to solve just the problems closest to me. We all are. We're all faced with impossible decisions, with no right answers and certainly no gold stars. We're all exhausted, we're anxious and afraid, we're balancing far too much, and we just want to give our kids (and, f*ck it, ourselves) the best we can offer during this tumultuous time.
But we simply can't continue to act alone when, as the most basic level of COVID-era hygiene guidelines has made abundantly clear, we are definitely not living alone.
As we debate that seemingly harmless family gathering – in which we'll grow tired of talking through our masks and inevitably let our guards down – we must consider the fact that reports are now revealing that such get-togethers, exclusively among trusted friends and family, are driving up cases of coronavirus in many communities.
As we debate "pandemic pods" in lieu of our district's demoralizing reopening plans, we need to consider how they replicate the very segregative measures many of us just months ago agreed to rise up against. How our ability to use our financial power to supplement our children's online education in ways others cannot is textbook inequity. How unenrolling our children from their public schools plays right into the privatization playbook we've openly admonished during Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's tenure.
We're all faced with impossible decisions, with no right answers and certainly no gold stars. We all deserve grace and empathy as we weigh these choices against what makes sense for ourselves and the communities around us.
As we debate whether we'd dare give our children a COVID-19 vaccine, we should consider, first, that it will be safe. And then we must remember that vaccines happen to be the most medically sound example of heroism, of using our bodies to help others. That by getting a vaccine, we are creating a literal human shield of protection around those who are medically fragile, who are immunocompromised, who are on chemotherapy, and who are too young to get the vaccine themselves.
It's a tenuous task to make these extra considerations, and we all deserve grace and empathy as we weigh these choices against what makes sense for ourselves and the communities around us. Sometimes, we'll have to do what's best for our family, I'm sure of it, but sometimes we will be able to do the next hard thing. And when we are able to do that, even if it feels like we're barely treading water to do so, we must. We must stay vigilant and fight. We must put out our neighbour's house fire even if it'll result in some water damage to ours.
If we don't think a school arrangement is safe for our child, it's on us to work to make sure that the schools reopen in a way that is safe for all children (and, ahem, teachers). If we read social media posts that are spreading conspiracy theories about vaccine efficacy, it's on us to shut it down. If we see our loved ones hosting BBQs, it's on us to remind them that it's at these events that people contract COVID and bring it back to their households. That we don't live in isolation, as much as we have been isolating. That our barista and our grocery store clerks and our school's janitorial staff and our children's classmates with food insecurities and IEPs don't exist in a vacuum – they all live within their community. If we don't take care of them, they might not be there when the pandemic ends.
And who even knows what's best for our family without its community.