Family distancing in a time of Coronavirus
October 22, 2020 6:00 AM   Subscribe

How to better handle the situation and communicate with my stepson since I don't want him to come back to my house right now ?

Due to the present state of affairs concerning the spread of the coronavirus, I don't want my stepson to come back to our house (wife, daughter & myself) right now. He's 30 yo, has just resumed a higher education, and it's been the 3rd time since March that he has asked us to stay at our house. He's my wife's son, and we don't want him to feel rejected, but each time he has stayed here has been quite worrisome.

The first time, because he has been working in a different region (we live in France) where the incidence rate was much higher (we live in a rural area).
Then while he was staying here, he had a tendency to state that the virus was nothing at all, just a kind of flu, bla bla bla. He got back to work, asked us to stay here a second time, then decided to resume his studies, got to another region, came back. He used a carpooling service, and while he was with us, met with some friends, spent some evenings with them, went to the restaurant... I confronted him, told him that I didn't agree with it, and he told me that he wasn't ok with the conditions under which he could stay at our home and then went to a different city to attend his university classes for a while.

I have to specify that I'm considered a person "at risk" because of my heart condition (an open heart surgery has been postponed because of the virus).

On the basis of his pattern of behavior, I told my wife that I wasn't ok with him coming back anytime soon, especially since the numbers are going up and everything is shutting down here.

He called a moment ago to ask us if he could come back, because his classes are going to get online and he doesn't need to attend to anything. My wife told him I wasn't sure. There was no further conversation, except through text messages : he had to cancel his carpool reservation, he won't come to see us next Christmas or even at the end of his school year, we're being ridiculous, we're being unjust because our daughter (10 yo) keeps going to school, my wife keeps working and thus put me at risk...

Am I overly cautious ? ( he seems to think that he's not putting anyone at risk because to him he behaves in a sensible way).
Is there a way that I could frame my need for security so he wouldn't feel rejected ?
posted by nicolin to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know your stepson but the tension reminds me of myself when I was 20 (47 years ago), still in school, mediocre grades, part time job, not sure where I was going in life, living with my mother. Then my student loan eligibility dried up, I had to scramble to figure out what I was going to do, ended up working at night and finishing college during the day (sleeping seldom). Then a better job, moved out to an apartment, which got burglarized, etc.

So in other words, there comes a time when situations in the world at large constrict and force difficult decisions, and we grow by making those decisions, living with the consequences and moving forward. There's no harm in asking for help but for one reason or another help may not always be available. This is a harder world than I grew up in, but he is 10 years older than I was.

I think only you and your wife are qualified to make the decision of who lives with you during these unprecedented times, and you are (so to speak) the Supreme Court, especially with regard to young daughter. His attitude and behavior aren't helping his "case".

My answer may not be the best, but it seemed there's some urgency, so I thought I'd give this one internet stranger's opinion on the topic.

On edit, you asked about framing. I would say that at this time it is not possible, a vaccine would change things, and you might also mention the difference in opinion on the nature of the pandemic would make the situation difficult. You are not rejecting him, only the living arrangements he requests.
posted by forthright at 6:28 AM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should hold the line on what your conditions are for him staying in your home with you -- that he has to follow your family's lead on socially distancing. But is there any way to reframe the problem that makes it a different problem?

Some examples:

Does your home have a basement or any separated areas with a bathroom that would allow him to have his own space with a bathroom (add a microwave and a mini-fridge so he doesn't need to be in the kitchen three times a day) and live in the home without actually sharing much space with you so that his risk is not your risk?
Does your family have enough income to assist him in paying rent wherever he is so that he doesn't feel like he needs to come home to save money?

Looking for alternatives to his desire to come home might give you room to have a conversation that's not just about your rules and him breaking them -- which would be a chaffing conversation for a child returning to their parents home even when they weren't pandemic rules.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:37 AM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Does he otherwise have somewhere to go, or is he going to be homeless? That is, are you essentially asking your wife to put her child out on the street? If he doesn't have any other option, could you offer to pay for him to stay elsewhere for some period of time?

OR ... is there a way you could let him stay in part of your house but remain isolated? He's clearly old enough to understand that you have different standards for how to behave during a pandemic, even if you two fundamentally disagree about it.

But if I were going to be sleeping rough and my own mom wouldn't let me stay at her house, that would be a major rift in the family relationship with permanent consequences.
posted by mccxxiii at 6:51 AM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I mean it kind of is unjust if your daughter is still going to school, and your wife to work, and you won't let him do anything outside the house. I think it depends on if he truly needs to stay with you, and how much you want him to.

What are your current household's rules? I would let him know that you'd love to have him stay (if that's true), but he will have to abide by the same covid rules as the rest of you, whether that's no restaurants, no friend meetups, only masked meetups outdoors 2m apart, etc. Then if he breaks that, he'd need to leave.

As far as the carpooling goes, could he do a one-way rental and then borrow your car while he is with you?
posted by sizeable beetle at 6:54 AM on October 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Well, if your daughter is going to school and your wife is working, he has a point about the risk you're already taking on. Have you framed clearly in your own mind how that's different from the risks he was taking when he lived with you previously? Is going to dinner with friends worse because it seems more optional to you? I don't know where your wife works, but your daughter going to school could be encountering many people who aren't being strict about quarantine. Any of your daughter's classmates could be living with someone who is going out to restaurants and using carpooling services. This really makes me wonder if there are other non-COVID issues that make you willing to keep your wife's son from coming home.

I think you can make it clear that if he's going to stay with you, he needs to follow the rules you've set up for the household whether he agrees with them or not. But I really don't see how having him there in general is a greater risk than the risks you're already taking through your wife and daughter. He has previously said he couldn't stay because of the conditions you've set up. You could tell him those are still the conditions and let him choose.

Also, how does your wife feel about all this? That matters too.
posted by FencingGal at 6:56 AM on October 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Going to school involves wearing a mask 100% of the time, and my daughter has made the extra effort of avoiding the school restaurant, so we're eating together every day.
+ my daughter is 10 yo, so she doesn't have another place to go to, while he's got a rented place where he can stay as long as he wants.
posted by nicolin at 7:05 AM on October 22, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Your wife has to work so as to keep money coming in so that your 3-person virus bubble can survive 'til this is over. Your child has to go to school so as to prepare for the day when she'll need to work so as to keep money coming in so that she can survive for the rest of her life. For your stepson to add himself to your bubble, he would have to change his mindset to accomodate the global pandemic currently in operation and agree to your bubble rules, which are that you go outside to do things that enable you and your bubblemates to survive, not to see friends at restaurants. He's right that this is unfair, but he's wrong in thinking it's unfair just to him. It's superunfair to all persons currently affected by the global pandemic that we have going on right now, here on the planet we call Earth. But the thing about that is, it's a global pandemic, so each and every one of us must adapt to the unfairness, and part of that is not trying to take close family members on extended guilt trips because they'd rather you not act like there isn't currently a global pandemic threatening all our lives. Sorry that gives him a sad, but it would be better to keep protecting yourself and your child and your wife and go ahead and let him be mad that he can't gad about France and get free room and board with you whenever he wants to visit the restaurants of your area.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:08 AM on October 22, 2020 [26 favorites]

Best answer: You're not overreacting. Even if you didn't have a heart concern, you wouldn't be overreacting. As long as you're communicating clearly about your expectations and rules, you're doing everything right. I'm saying this as both an epidemiologist and a step-parent. 30 is not an age at which you should worry about handling your kids with velvet gloves.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:10 AM on October 22, 2020 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Is it not just a case of "we love you, we'd love to have you live with us if you were willing to live as we do, keeping in-person interaction to the absolute minimum possible. Our household is more vulnerable than most so we understand that's a lot to ask, we'll still love you and think you're acting responsibly if you'd prefer to stay in your flat so you can socialise with your friends" (probably delivered by jointly with your wife, or by your wife alone).
posted by plonkee at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Also he should understand that you're not willing to take on any additional risk BECAUSE your wife and child are already having to go outside the home. It's not like risk is an on-off thing - we make choices on what risks we accept because they are worth the increased danger, but that doesn't mean we should say "well, I'm already being exposed so I might as well be even MORE exposed"
posted by brilliantine at 7:29 AM on October 22, 2020 [34 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you're being unreasonable, but depending on how important it is to find a way to make this work, you may be able to come to a compromise:

Another way of phrasing what brilliantine said is talking about a "risk budget." You can accept a certain amount of risk. A large part of that risk budget goes towards your wife working and your daughter going to school (just like a large part of a household budget goes towards utilities, housing, and food). After those essential activities, there is not enough risk left over to support some of his fun activities.

Can you work with him to find ways to reduce the risk he brings so that it fits in your budget (and can you trust him to stick to whatever those agreements are)? Can he roll down all the windows and wear a mask in the carpool car? Would he agree to only dining with his friends at a distance, outside? Can he quarantine for 2 weeks when he gets to your region before moving in with you? Can you ask him to get tested regularly? Do you have a plan for what happens if he (or anyone else in your household) gets sick? Can you install better filters in your HVAC system or buy some air cleaners to put in rooms you all share? It may also help you to know that the risk of inter-household transmission is only about 20%.

But also, he is a 30 year old man who should be able to understand that the world will not bend to his will.
posted by natabat at 7:50 AM on October 22, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You are not being unreasonable. School and work are not optional for many people, and it sounds like that is the case for you. In-person socializing and restaurants are more likely to be optional for many people, and it sounds like that's true for your household. For your family, the necessities fill up so much of your risk tolerance that your household rules don't allow the somewhat more optional things. That's reasonable and your son is old enough to understand that, given that it sounds like he has another place to stay and his request is about a preference, not a dire need for shelter.

That said, you can couch it in a lot of "we love you, we miss you, we hate this too, we very much want to spend more time with you, but from past experience our current household rules make you miserable. If you think that's changed and you would be happy here given XYZ household rules that apply to all of us equally, then we'd love to have you, but if not, it's not going to work." It's about your risk and your household's rules, not judgment of his choices, and it sounds like he's taking it as the latter. You may need to lean really hard on the former to make sure it gets through.
posted by Stacey at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: whatever you decide, your wife needs to stop framing this as coming from you. (I assume you and your wife are on the same page.) If your wife has the same requirements you do, then it is reasonable for her to be the one to state them.

And speaking as an adult child with a stepparent... I myself am much more inclined to comply with requests that I consider goofy, when they're presented to me as my own parent's preference rather than my step-parent's. I love my parent and care about their welfare and happiness. So maybe if your wife stops saying "your stepdad says X" and rather "the only way you can stay here is if you abide by X, that's what I need from you to make it work" there'd be a better chance of compliance.

That said, I read your question again and I didn't see anything in it that suggested he has any actual need to be in your house? Like it sounds as if he just wants to hang out in your town rent-free and do online classes? That sounds like an easy no. Even a careful person, as an extra variable, is a liability now; and if there's no reason to justify it, then... why?
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:17 AM on October 22, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: the risk of inter-household transmission is only about 20%.
That sounds like "how to manage a community" information rather than "how to manage your household" information. Because if nobody in the household has it, the risk of a household transmission is 0%, right? But if somebody in the household gets it, that % goes way way way up, right? Way past any 20%. (We know this from the experiences of the US first family and the family of the younger Cuomo bro, for just two of many instances.) It seems to be saying "20% of the COVID-positive people in any given community caught the virus from exposure at home; 80% got it from going to large gatherings or working in high-risk jobs or waiting in line to vote or fillintheblank." So if OP's stepson unfortunately joins that 80% and he's living in OP's household at the time, then OP and OP's wife and daughter are much more than 20% likely to join the cited 20%.

Household transmission is the dominant route of disease spread regardless of quarantine.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:22 AM on October 22, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Risk isn't "fair". You are not obligated to increase your exposure venn by a couple hundred people just because your daughter goes to school and your wife goes to work, that's not how this works. Adding one indiscriminate person to your circle increases the risk in the school and work pools, as well. Your family has prioritized those two risk pools, that's the decision that's been made and agreed upon. He can share those priorities or he can find a place to stay with people who prioritize higher-risk behaviors like he does.

I agree that your wife needs to stop framing this as something you want, and rather a decision she is participating in.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:38 AM on October 22, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The (unavoidable) risks you are, as a family, already taking are just making it more reasonable not to take another risk, not less so. Risk adds up.

No one in the world would say: if you're going to ride your motorbike after drinking a glass of beer, you are already taking a risk, so you might as well drink seven more and then leave your helmet and protective clothing at home, because it won't make a difference anymore.
Well, no one smart, anyway.

And fairness doesn't enter into it. That's a childish way of looking at it. You're being ridiculous? Well, why would he even want to stay with such ridiculous people?

He has demonstrated that he does not see corona as something that he should be doing everything in his power to avoid. That alone makes him dangerous to you, and an unsuitable person to add to your bubble.

He's already stated that he wasn't ok with the conditions under which he could stay at our home. Those conditions haven't changed. I do think that your wife needs to be the one to tell him that, though.
He will probably still feel rejected. He's not wrong: you are currently rejecting him as a guest. But I think you're being entirely reasonable here.
posted by Too-Ticky at 8:38 AM on October 22, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Exposure risk is additive. I would tell him he has to sufficiently convince me that he knows what that means and how it works before I consider letting him live with me.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:46 AM on October 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed that
- you're really not overreacting
- your wife should be taking a stronger stand on this to your son, instead of laying it all on you
- the risk from your daughter and wife's combined activities is less than the risk of your daughter, wife, and son's combined activities
- your daughter has to go to school, your wife has to work, but your son doesn't have to live with you
- by coming over he's not just adding to your risk; he's also adding to your wife and your daughter's risk (and that of everyone they come into contact with)
- if he does actually need to live with you so badly, then he should be able agree to quarantine when he comes and afterwards stay in the house and not see friends. It won't kill him.
- if he just wants to come live in your area, but still wants to have a social life, then he should look for a place of his own to rent, or stay with friends, and you can all meet outside for masked walks and picnics.
- if he could afford to live elsewhere, and his real reason for wanting to live with you is purely to save money, then he's valuing his money over your health, which is not something anyone should accept

But your wife should be the one knocking sense into him.

Finally, if he said you're being "unjust because our daughter (10 yo) keeps going to school" - he's thirty years old. "It's not fair" is properly the whine of someone half that age. Does he not know that? If it takes a pandemic for him to learn the meaning of adulthood, then he's been really lucky so far. It's not fair that there's a pandemic, that your health is compromised in the first place, that you have to be constantly afraid someone is going to infect you, that your wife has to go out and work in these conditions, that your daughter has to go to school in these conditions, that you can't feel truly safe in your own home. It's not fair that you can't expect and trust your own son to be more careful about his family's health. A thirty-year-old is an adult, and should know his own burden in making the world fair. Helping to keep his parents and sister safe is part of his responsibility. Worrying about your feelings and stress levels is part of his responsibility too. Justice can't be something you only expect to receive and not to give.

"We love you, and we want very badly to help you. But this is a time when we need you to help us and to show your love for us. Please show your care and respect for us by keeping us safe and caring for our peace of mind as well."

(Out of curiosity, if he were staying with you, would you and his mother be cleaning after him and cooking for him? Or would he be thanking you by lightening everyone else's load? And have you been supporting him financially during his adult life?)
posted by trig at 10:38 AM on October 22, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You might find it useful, and helpful to him, to share this discussion with him.
posted by anadem at 12:31 PM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think it's a great dynamic that your wife is deferring to you and then communicating that to her son--or that you were leading these conversations with him yourself. No wonder he feels hurt and rejected. I'm presuming your daughter is your daughter, not your stepdaughter? He could be feeling some jealousy and resentment, that the rules are different for her than for him. Does he know she's wearing a mask at school all the time and not eating there too? It might be helpful for him to hear that.

But it also sounds like you and your wife need to get on the same page. What is her perspective on this? Would she let him come home? Are there a set of rules or guidelines under which he could stay?

It could be that he is taking things more seriously now. We know a lot more now than in the spring (I'm not sure what the talk in France was, but in the US, we heard so much about the incredible risk to older folks that some folks the same age as your stepson got the impression that they weren't at serious risk of Covid).

It might be worth a conversation where your wife asks him what rules he's willing to follow.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:16 PM on October 22, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks an awful lot for all your answers, we read them together with my wife and my daughter yesterday, and, as suggested, this thread may be put to good use. Thanks again !
posted by nicolin at 12:44 PM on October 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

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