"Family Estrangement During a Pandemic," by Erin Taylor

Last June, I made the decision to cut off my Dad, who still lives in Oklahoma with my Mother and little sister. This week, in light of the fast spread and high death rate of Covid-19, I made the decision to open up lines of communication, in case my mother, an “essential” employee, catches Covid-19 and dies. My brain has been somewhat on fire and it’s painful to feel like the last year of distance—ha ha ha, a true social distancing—and therapy, focused on grappling with the various traumas my father put me through, have gone to waste. I didn’t mean to talk to him, I really didn’t. A month ago, I told my housemate that if my Father were on his deathbed I wouldn’t reach out to him. But this week, when it became clear that my Mother would have to continue working, risking her life every day in order to keep my family afloat, it felt like I was standing at my mother’s deathbed. So I called my Dad.

This isn’t a recommendation. I don’t know what is best for you. I barely know what is best for myself. I do know that many people are going to be quarantined with abusive family members or forced to decide if they should reach out to family members who may have neglected or abused them. This is difficult enough without an ongoing global pandemic, and it is only even more fucked now that we have to grapple with estrangement and loneliness in a world where we must isolate from our chosen families and communities. I’m scared of what this might mean. So, here’s a guide for how to navigate familial estrangement in a crisis.

If you’re stuck at home with family members that you consider a danger to your safety and well-being, the domestic violence hotline can be found here. If you have friends who live nearby who have space, reach out to see if they will let you stay with them. I wish I had more to say here, because I can’t stop thinking about how being quarantined with some of the people I’ve  lived with—some family members, some not—would have been more dangerous than any illness.

Please stay safe. If you have a bedroom that is all your own, try socially distancing there  and use the excuse to stay away from others. If you have abusive parents who don’t understand why they can’t come near you, use concerns for their health—even if it’s more for yours—to convince them to stay away. Lock your doors.

Even if you are one hundred percent in the right for not wanting family members in your life, in times of crisis it becomes even more painful. When I cut out my Dad, I accepted I was “estranged” from him, but it also led to much emotional and physical estrangement from my other family members, despite not intending to cut them out. During the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were tweeting “ha ha how many of your worrying parents are sending wild coronavirus articles?!”, I couldn’t help but think “wow a new standard to base how much I’m loved around that I will fail.” It’s difficult to not get overwhelmed by these comparisons. It’s a reminder that we were not loved or protected enough in normal times, much less in times of crisis. 

Do you owe it to abusive or neglectful parents to reach out to them? No, you do not. Do you owe it to abusive or neglectful parents to go take care of them or visit them in the hospital while they’re sick? No, you also do not owe that to them. Even though we are currently in a pandemic, it doesn’t change past actions of abuse or neglect. It doesn’t put a band-aid over wounds that last lifetimes. 

That being said, I reached out to my Father not because I felt I “owed” it to him or in case he were to die of Covid-19. I don’t forgive him for all the pain he caused me. When I reached out, I told him directly to not discuss the reasons we hadn’t  spoken for most of the past year. I reached out to him simply for the sake of the other family members who I do love.

My family lives in the Bible Belt and I am quarantined in my apartment in Brooklyn. Despite my income basically vanishing in a week, I’ve found myself having to order supplies for my pregnant sister, about to be a mother of three.  I’m scrambling to save as much money as I can in case I have to provide for her or my younger sister, who is seventeen, in case both of my parents die. Years ago, I accepted that being working class means I can’t prioritize my own needs emotionally and financially. That includes having to reach out to my Dad after a very public estrangement took place. I have made memes about my Father’s abuse, even as recent as a few weeks ago. I am still navigating the pain I feel talking to him, balancing that with the relief I feel knowing my Mother isn’t facing a global pandemic completely alone. 

It’s also possible to reach out in contained ways, such as only having one route of access. Stick to email, phone (texting or calling), or a social media platform of your choice. If you decide to let a parent or family member back into your life during this crisis, it’s important to maintain boundaries. Cutting someone out is one of the biggest boundaries of all and the decision to let someone back in is yours alone. You can decide how that takes shape and you can decide to take back that permission at any time. If you are considering re-establishing contact with a family member during this period, ask yourself if talking to them would only exasperate your current stress. If you think it is something you can handle—and feel that you should—then do it. If you can’t handle it, that’s also okay. It’s okay to want to prioritize yourself right now even if everything is telling you otherwise. It’s okay to love yourself first. 

It’s okay to not know how to approach this and it’s okay to choose to let some conversations never happen. At the same time,  if you are worried that there are things you want to say, the time is now. I say that even though I don’t want to say the things I need to say to heal and I feel like in a pandemic, I shouldn’t. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. It just means I am taking it one day at a time. I suppose this “guide” is mostly me saying you’re not alone. There are more grown adult children who have cut out their parents than we all realize, and we are all facing this together. We are all just attempting to understand how to love each other through this crisis. 

If you have been cut out by a child or family member, please remember that they don’t have to talk to you. If they want to talk to you, they’ll reach out. Trust me, estranged children spend as much time thinking about their parents as their parents spend thinking about them. If they haven’t reached out, it’s because they can’t, or they don’t want to. Respect these decisions and wait to see if they have it in their hearts to reach out to you, if they don’t, well you made your bed through your own actions. 

A couple days ago, I called my Dad while smoking a joint in an empty room in my apartment the other day. Our subletter had skipped town in favor of being close to family. I smoked a joint and sobbed while I spoke to my Dad about NYC going on lockdown. I’ve been calling my Mom as she drives to her work. I’ve been telling her to wear gloves.I’m bracing for every possibility. 

I wonder what the world will bring, what our new normal will be. I wonder if my parents will survive this and I grieve them as I have grieved them during my entire life. Estrangement doesn’t begin and end with quarantine. It’s possible that someday I’ll stop  talking to my Dad again. Until then, I will keep communication open and prepare for mourning. I will try and love myself the best I can.

Erin Taylor

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