On a road trip to Montana with my young daughter few years ago, I realized about seven days in that moral authority sort of breaks down after awhile in a car together.
I realized it somewhere in North Dakota heading east, when she asked me if she could have an extra bag of chips, and I said, “No.”
And she, 10, looked at me with lidded eyes that said: “Man, I been sitting beside you in this car for seven days. Mountains and plains, snow and rain, foul-smelling motels in towns where the best restaurant was Taco John’s. Exactly what special sense of judgment of proportionality or appropriateness are you bringing to bear as you tell me this one more bag of Cool Ranch Doritos is too much?”
“Oh, go ahead,” I said. “And get me another O’Doul’s out of the cooler, will you?”
I’ve thought of that moment during COVID, as that daughter, now 17, and her mother and I have all been basically in the same car for about nine months now.
We’re beginning not to recognize one another. And it’s having an effect on the way we relate.
In the normal life of a family, moral authority shifts all the time, based on who deserves it because they are having a terrible day or week or year. Or based on who ought to have it because the current situation happens to require their particular strength. Or based on the fact that they just achieved a thing that brought the family a measure of pride! Sometimes it’s Father knows best, sometimes Mother knows best, and sometimes it’s Daughter gets to pick the restaurant. That can change day to day or moment to moment.
But there is moral authority—and it comes, as I have learned in its absence, from the everyone in the unit having a knowable variety of experiences, which give them different perspectives, ideas and priorities that must be heeded.
So if my schoolteacher wife gets home from work and I ask her how her day was and she just shakes her head and says, “you can’t even imagine,” our now teenage daughter and I figure she’s probably right about that. And since we can’t imagine her day, we owe her wide birth and what she says, most likely, goes.
On the other hand, if she’s been operating from the kitchen table all day (since March), where I occasionally stroll through to get a cup of coffee or make a sandwich—though it’s still quite possible that what’s happening on her computer or in her head is unfathomably terrible, she’s less likely to claim that, and I’m less likely to acknowledge it if she does. Same goes for me, and same goes for our daughter.
The basis for our rotating moral authority breaks down during a year-long pandemic sock-in, because our very personalities are blanched by the severe limitations on the freedom in which we have developed as characters.
It becomes hard to make family decisions, because it’s hard to have arguments, because every game is liar’s poker and the first liar doesn’t stand a chance. We’ve lived exactly the same life over the last year and now you’re telling me you think we should buy fire insurance? Let me guess: You read that on the Internet? My wife and I just took a month to decide whether or not to repair our old Subaru or trade it in.
It makes it hard to parent. My daughter is a junior in high school. My will to stay on top of her grades and to check on her homework—even though her teachers now email parents and I could ask her every day because she’s in the very next room and I can hear hear teacher talking as I type this—it comes and goes. Except in semi-frequent spasms of panic—how are your grades? what should we be doing about the ACTs? have you emailed the college soccer coaches?—I feel less like her parent than I ever have, and behave more like her roommate than I approve of. Who’s checking on my homework?
And maybe worst of all, empathy begins to break down. Someone announces they’re depressed or just in a bad mood and they get the same reaction when a sailor complained of scurvy on Day 31 on the Santa Maria: “What makes you so special?” I think mutinies happened not when the sailors decided the captain was crazy, but when they began wondering after too many days floating listlessly together with still no sight of land: “What does he know?”
In such an environment, the grumpiest person wins. The stubbornest person wins. The craziest person wins.
And we all just have to hope this doldrum lifts soon, and we can resume our rightful roles.
Meanwhile, we miss the people in our household most of all.
And they miss us.