My daughters — standing by a coffee table smothered in markers, our old iPad and printouts of “distance learning” classwork — were crying so hard their cheeks were puffy and red. Just minutes before, they’d been playing with a walkie-talkie, trying to interview another kid in the alley for our home “newspaper.” But tears were gushing down the cheeks of my younger daughter, Hilary, 6, a kindergartner. My second-grader, Margot, nearly 8, has a lazy eye and wears dark pink and purple bifocals, which were fogging up. She took them off and rubbed the lenses with the bottom part of her red-and-white striped Santa’s Helper pajamas.
“Margot said she wanted a new sister,” Hilary said.
“Did you say that Margot?” I asked.
“I can’t remember. Maybe,” she said.
I sat down in a chair. Hilary climbed on top of me and shoved her head into the crook of my neck, her tears smearing my cheeks. Margot kissed me near my lips and neck, apologizing and saying over and over, “It’s all my fault.”
I sat quietly with uncertainty, torn between my impulse to investigate and keep soothing and my desire to flee. Did my daughter’s tears contain trillions of coronavirus particles that might somehow seep through my skin? Were stealth droplets heading like poison darts straight for the first orifice they could find?
Normally, I love a good cuddle. Every night, my wife, Caroline, and I lie next to the girls in their beds. Sometimes, we tickle them. Other times, we play thumb wars. Or I hold up bunny fingers and dart them around their heads until they can catch them with their hands. Or I whisper serious questions into their ears, inquiring if anything made them sad or happy that day, as though they were in a confessional.
But the hatches needed battening down. In our living room chair, I slowly pushed both of my daughters off me. Wait right there, I said. Inside a cabinet, a green-and-white canister of disinfecting wipes stood at attention, ready for service. Its label promised: “Kills 99.9% of bacteria in 15 seconds.” I grabbed two wipes and slathered them on my neck and face, a process that might have satisfied the left part of my brain but also filled me with shame, as it does now in this confession.
What kind of paranoiac had I become? How could I cut short the cuddling of my children in their time of need to tend to my anxieties, which may or may not have been grounded in any facts? How could I halt my own happiness? The hugs, the hand grips, the crazy number of kisses on the cheek — these are the loving embraces between parents and small kids that give me so much pleasure, the kind of contact that won’t last much longer as they grow older. There is perhaps no greater time for this kind of touch than now, when they are this age, when their parents are in their early 40s, and when we are trying to shield them from a global pandemic. And yet there I was, denying myself and my offspring.
Why? Because every time I go online, I see seemingly contradictory pieces of information that scare me into thinking that kids, as asymptomatic as they might be, can still infect us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kids are not at a higher risk for the virus and that adults make up most cases. Yet the agency still cautions us to limit their social interactions. David Price, a doctor from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City who has been treating coronavirus patients warns in this clip seen more than 3 million times: “There’s a whole debate about whether kids are transmitting this disease, and it’s probably true.”
And, in March, a Washington Post recently reported that many epidemiologists suspect children’s mild symptoms “may simply be masking that children are getting infected by the same rates as adults.”
“We know from pandemic research that closing schools can be effective in slowing down transmission because children are often a driver of infection,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told my colleagues. “They spread it to parents, relatives and the wider community.”
If my children got it, how would I know they contracted the virus if they are asymptomatic? How would I know how to protect everyone else in the house, including my wife, so that neither parent gets sick? These questions make me uncertain and all the more hesitant to cuddle to the degree I normally would.
It’s one thing to constantly monitor myself whenever I touch the kitchen sink or Amazon boxes. But it’s absolutely wrenching every time I find myself constantly wondering whether I need to run to the hand soap after my kids embrace me.
Part of my fear of becoming sick is driven by the prospect of not being able to help my wife, who works full time, at the worst possible time.
What kind of mental torture would overtake me when quarantined in our downstairs basement? How would I cope if I heard my daughters bawling but was powerless to hold and assure them, and could speak only through the bottom slat of the basement door or through the kids’ walkie-talkies?
The numbers make me panic. Just the day before my kids’ meltdown, the CDC released an analysis of U.S. cases showing that, from Feb. 12 to March 16, 38 percent of those sick enough for hospitalization were younger than 55. (I’m 41.) Then, The Washington Post reported a startling new finding: More men are dying of the coronavirus than women. In Italy, men make up nearly 60 percent of confirmed cases and more than 70 percent of deaths.
When I returned to the living room, the kids were still crying, so we sat on the couch. We talked it out and everyone agreed to a truce and to the simple fact that sometimes we say stuff we don’t mean.
“Daddy, you smell funny,” Margot said. “Did you just shave?”
I decided to confess. I told her that Daddy had to go into the kitchen to wipe his face and that we need to stop ourselves from breathing too heavily or close on people in the house.
“Kids don’t get the corona,” Margot said, and “I don’t have the corona, so don’t you worry.” She grabbed my hand, thrust her head against my shoulder and looped her arms around my neck. Hilary folded herself into my lap. Soon, it was a pile-on, but I pulled the creatures off me and stood up. “I have to go upstairs,” I said, “and take a work call.”
Investigating my concerns
Was I being crazy?
I rang up Danielle Zerr, the division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Washington. She said — contrary to Dr. Margot’s claims — that children can contract the novel coronavirus. “But it’s less clear to what degree they might be transmitting it to other people,” she said. “It may be that children are less sick and less contagious, but that is not known yet as a fact.”
Was I wrong to take a disinfectant wipe to Hilary’s tears on my cheek?
Zerr laughed good-naturedly.
“Tears are probably okay,” she said, “unless they have conjunctivitis.”
She gave me the green light to keep cuddling, as long as the kids are doing their best to wash their faces and hands.
“I don’t think you’re being a crazy person to think about this; it’s reasonable,” she said. “But you’ve got to hug and cuddle with your kids.”
Still, her voice contained a note of caution, especially when she mentioned how kids were still gathering in group activities, “when that’s really going counter to what all the school closures are all about.”
Why exactly is touch all that important to the well-being of our children? It might seem self-evident that parents need to cuddle with their kids to boost their cognition and emotional well-being.
For years, psychologists have zeroed in on many factors to explain the power of cuddling, such as increases in the hormone oxytocin and the school of thought known as “attachment theory,” which stipulates that early bonds with our parents profoundly shape our adult behavior, according to a 2015 article in the magazine Scientific American.
Neuroscientists, too, have long been studying touch. But it’s only been within the past couple of star that they started focusing on “affective or emotional touch,” based on the existence of a certain class of nerve fibers stimulated by caresses that parents give to kids. These fibers, known as “C-tactile afferents” and found on places such as the forearm or back, transmit messages directly and slowly to the central nervous system. They are, the magazine notes, “keenly tuned to the gentle velocity and comfortable skin temperatures of a caress, an affectionate pat, or any other form of so-called light or innocuous touch.”
These nerve fibers also exist on people’s faces.
So, in the age of the coronavirus, it’s all well and good to cuddle, but we should be careful about caressing or patting our faces or kids’ faces, Francis McGlone, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists on touch who is based at Liverpool John Moores University, told me in an interview.
“It’s a Catch-22, but we can override the ‘don’t touch your face’ rules by stroking upper arms or shoulders,” McGlone said. “You can get the same kind of stress relief without the risk of transmitting the virus.”
Late in the day, the kids were riding their bikes up and down the alley adjacent to our home, racing their friends, sometimes at a close distance, which was making me nervous. Another parent emerged. It was the mother of two of our kids’ closest friends. She told me she’d asked Margot earlier what the worst part of the pandemic was.
My daughter’s answer: “My daddy won’t hug me anymore.”
The parent and I laughed, but I was masking my embarrassment. Even though Margot was technically wrong, it was clear that she felt I was not the same dad anymore, that she interpreted my withholding and paranoid cheek wipes into something more severe. I mean, now I was getting really paranoid: Did she think I was punishing her?
That night, we all gathered on the couch. The kids wanted me to download the Will Smith animated movie “Spies in Disguise.” I turned on the television. CNN was on and, given the 24/7 story, I was quickly trying to navigate the On Demand section so the kids wouldn’t overhear anything too scary. While I was searching, Margot and Hilary were pawing for cookies on the coffee table. Meanwhile, CNN’s Erin Burnett was interviewing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). The chyron read: “NYC EXPECTED TO RUN OUT OF MEDICAL SUPPLIES IN 2-3 WEEKS.” I needed to find that Will Smith movie — fast.
My thumbs were moving fast on the remote control’s arrow buttons. Then Margot grabbed my hand. “Daddy, I know you’re worried about the corona. It’s going to be okay,” she said. “If you get sick, I will take care of you.”
I turned the volume down — something I should have done much earlier — and dropped the remote control. Then I scooped Margot in my arms and squeezed her tight. She leaned back and breathed hard against my face. She hugged me and moved her face close to mine, trying to kiss my cheek. And, since I could not help myself, I instantly darted my head downward and into the space between her collarbone and shoulder, praying she would feel grateful for my calm nuzzling and forgive me for my restraint, my fear.