Ally always thought she would be able to go home. When the 28-year-old took a job as a geochemist at a mining company in Santiago this January, her Canadian passport was like a safety blanket – a reminder that there was a refuge for her on the other side of the world if she needed it. But, as the rapid spread of COVID-19 forced Chile and Canada and many other countries to close their borders, Ally felt her escape hatch closing. “When I got the job offer and I did the pros and cons list, I always reminded myself: At least I would be able to go home,” she said. “I could liquidate my assets, I could do whatever it took to get back. This is the first time I’ve felt like, Holy shit, I can’t do that anymore.” Her family begged her to try and catch a flight while she still could, but that would mean jeopardizing her dream job just to move back in with her parents … and then what? She also worried that she might be bringing danger into the place that feels safest: “If I came home, I would probably go to my parents’ house, and they’re in the risk category. I would risk infecting the people that I had come back to be with.”
Going back to your parents’ house is usually an option of last resort, like the shelf-stable can of beans you know you can always eat once the pantry runs dry. Still, whether it’s out of financial need or in a moment of personal crisis, many of us have, at one point or another, slipped off the mask of adulthood and retreated to our nests, finding comfort in letting ourselves be taken care of. But that’s not a good option right now. With an extremely contagious virus that tends to be harder on the old, all those things that typically provide solace in times of crisis — gathering with community, being close to loved ones — are a source of risk. If we want this pandemic to end, we have to fight the urge to be together. “I know it feels like we’ve been hunkering down for a while now, but every day is crucial,” says my friend Megan Halbrook, an infectious disease epidemiologist and doctoral student at UCLA, who reiterates that young adults are carriers of this virus and so should refrain from public transport, like air or train travel and even driving.
Staying away from home and family is not a new reality for people who live and work far from their loved ones. But this pandemic has turned many of us into expats in our own countries. Our current barriers aren’t marked just by border guards and passport controls but by the space between us, that 6 feet of social distance needed to keep the virus from leapfrogging from your body into someone else’s.
38-year-old Michelle lives on the Upper West Side with her husband and her two kids, and her mom lives on Long Island, about an hour’s drive away. Normally they flit between one another’s homes, with Michelle’s mother coming across the bridge to take care of the kids every Friday. “She’s just like the good fairy who comes and takes care of us all and reorganizes the drawers and does ridiculous things,” she says. As the coronavirus crisis mounted, Michelle found herself gripped by a longing for home that she hadn’t felt in a long time. “I have my own little nuclear family, but part of me still considers home to be my mom’s house on Long Island. And I don’t know when that feeling will ever stop,” she says. After weighing the risks, Michelle made the tough decision not to move herself and her family in with her mom, even though she wanted to. “It’s super weird when you’re like, I physically can’t go see the person who I most want to see. Everyone is making the comparison to 9/11. At least then we could be together, we could hug each other and be in each other’s presence. Part of why this is so anguishing is that it’s forcing you to be apart.”
The pandemic has punctured the illusion of self-sufficient adulthood that those of us in our 20s and 30s have worked so hard to cultivate outside our familial homes. You can have a job and an apartment and a social life and a Great Jones pot on the stove and still find that, when crisis hits, you want nothing more than to be in your childhood bed with your mom making you your favorite food. “When this all started, my mother made repeated offers to pick me up and bring me back to stay with them,” said 25-year-old Rebecca, whose parents live in Massachusetts while she is in New York. “I really wanted to, and even now I feel sad that I’m not there. But a bigger part of me knows how irresponsible it would be.”
While concern for one’s elderly parents is part of the equation, in a larger sense, social distancing involves prioritizing collective well-being over personal comfort. For many young North Americans reared on the gospel of individualism, this is the first time they have had to make that sort of sacrifice. These sort of foundation-rattling events can throw our priorities into stark relief. Where is home? Is it with my job, my friends, my dog, my apartment full of stuff? And if the life we have worked so hard to build doesn’t feel like home, what’s missing? “I’m texting and FaceTiming them more than ever, but I’ve never felt farther from them,” says Rebecca. “I’ve spent years saying New York is my home, but now I’m not sure.”
For many people in my circle, being in a relationship is the biggest counterweight to resisting the tug of home. 31-year-old Jake moved to New York from Montreal for work in the tech industry. The crisis has left him spinning, unsure whether to head back to Montreal and be with his parents (and risk not being able to get back in the country for a while, and perhaps losing his job and work visa), or stay in New York in an apartment with two roommates. “It’s not fully a come-to-Jesus moment, but for me being a single person has been a big part of what I’m grappling with,” he tells me. While seeing his friends get married is often a stark reminder of his own singledom, rarely has it felt as immediate as it does right now. “I know that I delayed [settling down] for myself purposely to advance my career and have a lot of fun dating in the best city in the world. But when shit hits the fan, I’m ultimately a single guy who’s 31 and just wants to be with his parents.”
Others have found themselves being pulled in the opposite direction. 35-year-old Chia grew up between London and L.A., where her parents now live. She has been in California for the past three months working on a contract job in the film business, while her boyfriend and apartment are in London. When she lost her film job last week, she was forced to decide where she wanted to be — with her parents, who both have preexisting respiratory conditions, or back in the U.K. “It’s like, if I get stuck on one side or the other, which one do I want to be on? It feels like having to choose between them,” she says. As Chia anguished over her decision, her parents encouraged her to return to London while planes were still going. In spite of the risk to herself and the broader public health imperative to stay put, she felt she had no choice but to book a flight.
“I think my mother saw the anxiety in me and her response was, You have to go home to England, you have to go and be with the man you love in your own space,” she said. “And my dad not being the gushy emotional type pointed out that even if they get sick, I’d have to speak to them through a video screen anyway, which on a sick and twisted level rang home for me. So I bought a ticket. It’s literally the worst decision to ever have to make.”
Some names and identifying details have been changed.
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