I am not a big hugger. Or, rather, I was not a big hugger until mid-March, when we were no longer able to hug anyone other than the person or people we lived with. Since then, I have craved the opportunity to embrace people I care about, sometimes with an intensity that has left me in tears.
Yesterday’s headlines that Ontarians are now allowed to hug were a much-needed great start to the day. Until, that is, I read the rules about who we can hug. As my daughter and I texted about whether we could hug, in our only moderately complicated extended family, it was quickly obvious that the hugging regime was designed to work for people who live in very traditional, nuclear families; families where bio-parents remain together with their children, living in the same home, and have only two sets of grandparents, whose relationships are similarly straightforward.
This is not a reality for many, perhaps even the majority, of families in this province. In some cases, adults live alone, but have a close circle of friends, who have their own circles of friends. Other adults live in polyamorous relationships, with multiple intimate intersections, as well as non-physically-intimate friendships. Members of nuclear families often have people outside that small circle with whom they are physically affectionate. And, given that almost 50% of intimate relationships end, there are a lot of people living in blended or expanded family structures.
My daughter and I contemplated many possibilities as we discussed whether or not she and I could hug. In the midst of those contemplations, I received an email from the facility where my 91-year-old mother with dementia is living: in-person visits, outside, will be possible in a week. Visitors must have proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the previous two weeks, book the visit ahead of time,wear a mask, not touch their family member and not give them anything.
This opportunity, which I thought I had been hoping for, just raised a host of other questions. I live a four-hour drive away from my mother. Do I get my test done here or where my mother lives? Do I make the appointment to visit her first, just in case there is a long waiting list, or get the test done first? What if I do all of that, drive to her, and then the weather does not allow a visit? Will I be able to use a bathroom while I am there? Will she remember who I am? Will she recognize me in masked form? How can I explain that I am not allowed to touch her, not even to give her a small kiss? What does that negative test really mean, if I encounter someone with the virus in the time between when I am tested and when I see my mother?
Am I a bad daughter for wondering whether I want to visit with her under these circumstances? After all, it was just 18 months ago that my sister and I had to persuade her that I was not dead, as her dementia had led her to believe. Perhaps I should just hope she thinks that again and let sleeping dogs lie.
Drawing the line(s)
After my Saturday night cocktail, I decided to make a chart of the interconnections among our family. I defined our family as my partner and me, our children, their partners or housemates and our grandchildren, and then added in anyone any of those people have a close connection to.
Here is the cast of principal characters: My partner and I each have two children who, of course, each have another parent (and, in the case of my kids, step-parent and half-sibling, who has a partner and child). My daughter and my partner’s son both have children and no longer live with their children’s other parent. My daughter has a current partner.
This exercise made planning our annual festive season family gathering – which usually makes me tear my hair out as we try to accommodate everyone’s other commitments so we can get all of them around the table for just one meal – seem like a cakewalk:
My partner and I are our own bubble. We have been hugging one another for more than 30 years (and plan to continue to do so).
My son, J, lives in relative isolation on his farm, bubbled with the woman who owns the farm and her close friend, who has been living there since early March. Assuming there is no animal transmission – he has a barn and pasture full of goats, sheep, pigs and poultry — I could probably hug my son.
My daughter, K, lives with her partner, K, who has a parent in frail health. K travels for regular physically distanced visits with her parents, who live in another city, and would like to be able to be physically closer to them. K has a twin sister who, with her partner, her children and her partner’s children (all of whom also spend time with their respective other parents), live much closer to their parents. Should K’s parents hug bubble with her sister or with her or with both? Should our family’s hug bubbling be limited so K can hug her parents? That question remains unresolved at this time.
My daughter’s oldest son, M, lives in Toronto, where he is bubbled with five friends. We don’t know who those friends associate with. M has come home this week for his first visit since the pandemic hit, during which time he has spent time with my daughter, his brother, his father and, physically distanced, his friends and us. His father has a parent with compromised health issues with whom he spends time. I don’t think I can hug M.
My daughter’s youngest son, L, lives halftime with her and halftime with his father and has gone with his father to see his grandparents, although only for physically distanced visits. Fortunately, L is 14 and not all that interested in being hugged by his grandmother, so I will take him off my list of possible hug companions.
My partner’s daughter, J, lives alone, but is a nurse who works in physical proximity to her colleagues and patients. She also spends time with her mother, her brother, Z, and his sons. I don’t think I should hug her.
My partner’s son, Z, lives in another city. His two young sons, D and I, spend half their time with him and half with their mother, B. At the beginning of the pandemic, Z and B brought B’s mother into their bubble so she could assist with child care. Since then, B’s father has been looped in. B’s father has a partner who has adult children. Z, D and I are coming for a visit next weekend, but I don’t think I should hug any of them.
I can keep hugging my partner, which is great. I think I can add my son to my hug bubble, and I will be delighted to do that. I still have eight empty spots on my hug card, but as I considered asking siblings and friends if they would like to hug me, I realized their relationships, like mine, were complicated. I also realized I did not want to ask someone to join my hug bubble only to have them say no.
The only question left was whether or not to have another cocktail, and I answered that in the affirmative very quickly.