Heartland parenting complicated by COVID

Shimmying in his blinding white high-top Converse, the latest addition to his increasingly fashion-conscious wardrobe, Calvin, my 17-year-old son, bursts out, “I’m a good boy! I’m a good boy! I’m a good boy!” Puzzled by this uncharacteristic child-like repetition, I set my banjo down and take in his 6’ 1” frame as he dances in my direction.

“What’s so hard?” I ask, wondering what temptation he’s averted this time and perhaps wishes he hadn’t.  It’s a game night.

“Three parties,” he said, “I didn’t go — not one.”

“Mom,” he continues, then immediately halts, in the way children insisting on undivided parental attention stop after calling out.  I look at him again, this time straight into his chestnut eyes.  “Mom, the bars are full. The streets are crowded.  No masks.”

I nod, unblinking. The world is a mangy mess. The New York Times and our local Daily Iowan are announcing record-breaking numbers of COVID cases hovering close to 180,000 cases a day. Headlines the world over are declaring lockdowns. An aerial photo of Paris shows every highway jammed with people escaping with hopes to navigate the pandemic by quarantining in the French countryside safely. Living in Iowa City five hours from several major urban centers–Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis–I have news for the world. The countryside is no place to escape from COVID.

As my mother would say, the heartland is watching chickens coming home to roost. Iowa, the nation’s largest hog and corn producer, is making a bid to be the largest producer of per capita COVID cases. Poorly resourced rural hospitals are finding COVID a final straw in their ability to meet rural Americans’ health needs, and the overflow led to a 400% patient increase at our academic medical center in a two-week period.

As I watch the COVID map turn from orange to red, I’m green with envy for leadership that does not shirk responsibility for the health of its people, that does not put the public health in the hands of college students, saturating small cities like mine with a tempting cocktail of football crowds and open bars that my son is challenged with navigating.

Calvin and I have been talking — fighting, if I’m honest — about staying away from crowds for half the year. Early on, I painfully insisted Calvin decline invitations to movie nights, card games, sleepovers, graduation parties. After three disruptive moves related to my medical training, Calvin was enjoying hard-won friendships. He wanted nothing to do with social distancing.  The politicization of safety measures fixed him in the crosshairs of his friends’ and their families’ divergent political views. Half advocated for and wore face coverings. The other half, diverging along predictable political lines, scoffed.

As the magnitude of the pandemic registered, my anxiety grew. Flipflopping safety measures didn’t help matters. First, we were told to wear a mask and then preserve PPT for ER and ICU staff not to, then either a mask or a face shield, then both.

I want to live. To protect me, I need Calvin’s cooperation. This is a hard earn in a world lacking coherence. Local governments, schools, the CDC, hospitals, businesses, and families are all responding differently. Bars closed briefly, and then football season was canceled when 2,000 college students tested positive. Then, under pressure from parents, players, and presumably money interests – it’s no secret that revenues associated with games bring over 100 million dollars– football and bars made a celebrated comeback. Governor Reynolds maintained that masking up was a personal choice, and personal choice would prevail over public health.

Last year I let Calvin stay out past midnight, but now, I can’t help calling long before the strike of 12 to ask, “Where are you?”  It’s all I can do to show I love him, and I want him safe, too.

I am asking Calvin to exercise a degree of self-restraint that I know is unreasonable at 17. We are swimming in the messy deep end of a public health disaster. I can hardly imagine what it would require to meaningfully reduce our combined risk of bringing COVID home to each other without a national coordinated public health initiative.

“Go to bed, Mom,” Calvin blurts. “What are you doing up? Go to bed.”

“Why?” I ask. “I’m practicing. It’s my house. Do you have plans?”

“So I can sneak out, and you won’t see,” he says, his self-control visibly eroding.

Your children are not your children. I recall the lines from Sweet Honey in the Rocks acapella adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s poem, a song that served as my mantra, a prayer for a future different from my parents’. I now sing for Cavin.

He throws his head back, laughs, scrolls to the next message. “Go to bed,” he repeats.

“It’s my house,” I respond in a predictable parental refrain. Even so, I put the banjo away and walk towards bed. I hear his body softly settle into the couch.

I don’t know if he will be “good” or go out again tonight or tomorrow to meet up with friends and get into mischief. More than anything, I want Calvin to make it.

In the unmasked crevasse of our national divide, I might fall, but I want him to carry on, to keep dancing and singing out.  And should I fall, even as a result of COVID he delivers to my door, it won’t be him I’ll blame. Even if he interrupts my plan to master that damned banjo and make a little more good trouble, averting what may tempt me, leaving me to declare a few more times to the world, “I’m a good girl, I’m a good girl, I’m a good girl,” as I live out my values as a physician, a mom, and a citizen, it won’t be him I’ll blame.

Because it’s us who voted, or failed to vote; us who let our inner demons and greed collude to make a world that let Hawkeyes continue playing, bars overflow in a college town, a pandemic rage to new heights across the landscape of this bad American mistress we call the home of the free.

Sarah Averill is a radiologist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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