Early in my grandmotherhood, I almost made a terrible mistake. My ten-month-old granddaughter was home from day care with a fever, so I went over to babysit. Toward the evening, the baby’s fever spiked to a terrifying 106.8. By then my son-in-law was home. My first impulse was to panic, but my granddaughter seemed … well, she seemed okay, somehow, just very hot. I was trying to take cues from my son-in-law, who seemed concerned but not inclined to rush to the ER. I was still learning the delicate dance of being a grandma—loving a child as fiercely as if she were your own, yet knowing that she isn’t actually yours.
Her fever came down a bit with Motrin, and I went home. Later my daughter texted to thank me for helping out. “You at least have experience with a highly feverish baby. This is our first!” Uh-oh, I thought. Were they actually counting on me to be the one who worried? And had I fallen down on the job and endangered the baby’s life, all because I didn’t want to be an interfering mother-in-law?
I’ve been feeling similarly lost and afraid in recent weeks as I struggle to understand the Delta variant’s risks to kids. It’s so hard to know the right way to handle our current situation. Caregivers rely on their child-rearing intuition. Many also rely on the instincts of involved grandparents or other supportive “alloparents”—aunts, uncles, godparents, friends. When young parents can’t Google their way out of an emergency, the rest of the village can offer guidance with a modicum of wisdom and confidence—we’ve seen troubles like this before, and we have a sense of how things will turn out.
But now we have no instincts to rely on. The highly contagious Delta variant makes even our prior understanding of the coronavirus pandemic feel shaky, and we don’t know the true risk to the approximately 50 million children younger than 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
So I’m left watching helplessly as my daughter and son-in-law negotiate the scary path ahead for their two daughters, ages 6 and 3. That’s hard for someone like me, who’s always been uncomfortable with the gray areas of life. Delta presents us with a moment of true uncertainty, when decision making is new terrain for all of us.
George Bonanno is a clinical-psychology professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies resilience. He is the author of the forthcoming The End of Trauma and also, fortuitously, my neighbor. He told me that in unclear situations, people struggle to understand the likelihood of any given outcome and so take a variety of cognitive shortcuts.
In the context of Delta, that might mean giving undue weight to anecdotes—stories we hear from friends, or read in news articles, about breakthrough infections or severely ill children—that lead us to picture the worst- case scenario at every turn. “The way to combat it is to arm yourself with information,” Bonanno told me. Look beyond the anecdotes, he said. What percentage of children under 12 get infected based on the data we have so far? What percentage of infected children actually get sick? Those are the guideposts we should use in figuring out how far we need to go to protect our too-young-to-be-vaccinated kids.
My daughter and son-in-law have done all the right things throughout the pandemic: They got vaccinated as soon as they were eligible; they wear masks in every public indoor space, as do their girls; we spent the first months of lockdown at a safe distance. But as the uncertainty around Delta lingers, our family consensus about risks and benefits has frayed a bit. My daughter has a higher risk tolerance than I do, and she places more value than I do on a childhood with a rich social life and varied athletic activities. Still, since when has a neurotic grandma gone with reassuring statistics instead of pure, unadulterated worry?
I called Elizabeth Lanphier, a bioethicist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, to see if she could give shape to the helplessness I’m grappling with. Lanphier has written about wanting to enroll her 4-year-old in a vaccine clinical trial in hopes of getting the child protected as soon as possible. Decision making in the context of Delta, she told me, means everyone in the family is equally confused. “Grandparents are no more experts in it than parents are,” she said—and maybe that’s a good thing. “That can bring them into the shared experience of puzzling over it together.”
I’m happy to puzzle over it with my daughter and son-in-law—though, I must admit, having helpful instincts has in many ways been my favorite part of grandmotherhood, when I’ve felt most qualified to give my granddaughters the attention and protection I long to provide. Like when my intuition turned out to be right about my granddaughter’s crazy-high fever: My daughter bought a new thermometer the next day and discovered that the old one was broken, recording temperatures at least a couple of degrees too high.
But right now it feels like my instincts are set to the wrong register. There’s so much I don’t understand—about risk, about rectitude, about wanting certainty and being denied it.
Parenthood means getting accustomed to being unable to keep your kids from harm no matter how desperately you want to. Every time you think you’ve gotten them past some terrible precipice, another one is around the corner: They survive fevers in their infancy and broken bones in childhood, and suddenly they get driver’s licenses and interact with strangers and there’s nothing you really can do to protect them. With COVID-19, we mask up and wash our hands and get our vaccinations as soon as we can, and then we all try to carry on.
Grandparenthood comes with one additional wrinkle: witnessing the hazards of your grandchildren growing up without any right to intervene but with the same desperate desire to keep them secure. This bout of Delta decision making in the dark could be a chance for caregivers to learn to live with uncertainty, and to model it for the generations who depend on us. We grandparents, in particular, are running out of time to learn—and to teach—all this. COVID-19 is one in a long string of hazards that await our precious grandchildren, whether imminently or decades down the line. Maybe our accumulated wisdom is most valuable now not in providing all the answers but in demonstrating how to do the best we can in the face of vulnerability—a situation our loved ones will face again and again in their own adulthood, when there will be nothing we can do to keep them safe.