A highly educated professional woman in her 60s walks into my office ...
Let me start again.
A highly educated professional woman dials me up on Vsee and begins our virtual psychotherapy session. She is angry and a bit undone at a recent conflict with her children, in their 30s, who are scolding her for what they consider her poor judgment in exposing herself and her husband to the coronavirus recently, even though she and her husband tested negative. But that wasn’t the end of it for her children. They have been engaged in daily surveillance of their parents for months now, even going so far as using a phone app to track them and calling them up if they’re driving to find out where she’s going and why.
This patient’s story was not an isolated case of this kind of behavior. This is a thing. I’m hearing it everywhere from friends and from patients of a certain age. These are all sensible people with their mental faculties intact, holding responsible jobs in professions like law, medicine, and teaching, whose children, new parents themselves, have seized upon the occasion of the pandemic to enact major role reversals. These adult children are enforcing the equivalent of house arrest on their parents, withholding contact from grandchildren, with the rationale that it is all in the interest of keeping their parents safe.
The parents we are talking about are not COVID deniers, not by a long shot. They get daily bulletins from the CDC and their local representatives; they read The Inquirer and the New York Times, and some of them have had major crushes on Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo. They have been working from home since March, supplying themselves and their families with PPE, becoming experts on the delivery and curb pickup performance of local grocery stores and restaurants, and following quarantine rules to a fault.
And yet, their grown children have become scolds and nags, using oddly familiar language to coerce them into compliance with draconian precautions while feeling free themselves to widen their own pandemic bubbles and rationalize their own greater degrees of daily exposure. They are young and not as at-risk, after all. But when you hear an adult child saying to a parent with exasperation, Why are you fighting me on this? Why are you making me the bad guy here? you have to wonder, what is going on besides filial affection and concern?
Of course children want their over 60 parents to avoid getting sick, but so do the over 60 parents, none of whom relish the prospect of dying alone on a ventilator. What is striking about this behavior is the way the children have moved, prematurely and unasked, into managerial and caretaking roles. I know a couple, otherwise quite sensible, who have not left their house for any reason, even a trip to the grocery store, since last March, because their children check up on them and get hysterical at the thought that they might do some reasonable activities, ones that show up on the approved lists daily: going to the grocery or pharmacy, going to necessary doctor’s appointments. This anxious, nearly phobic, behavior is purportedly for the benefit of the grandparents themselves who, it seems, have already been affected by the virus in ways that have left them demented, lacking in good judgment and unable to assess their own risks intelligently from day to day.
It’s not a stretch to see something a bit vindictive and table-turning in all of this behavior. Mothers and fathers are now saying to their grown children, you need to trust me to make good judgments for myself. Didn’t they just hear that same line from their kids maybe ten years ago? And the bad guy thing? Doesn’t every mother end up saying that to her teenager at least once, usually in the presence of her husband, the good guy? But there is also a fear that mirrors the fears of parents for their adolescent and young adult children at those times when their anxieties can feel insulting and smothering to them.
If this is what you find yourself doing to your parents, stop and think about how it felt to you. Trust that your parents are still the grown-ups and intend to stay healthy for you and your children and to stick around until they are so old they really might need you to take care of them.
Elaine P. Zickler is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Moorestown N.J. She is on the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.