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For some parents of young adults, the pandemic offered a second chance at connection

(Eiko Ojala/For The Washington Post)

Even before the pandemic, the Derenoncourt family didn’t get together as often as they’d like. With adult children in Canada and Massachusetts and another teen with them at home in Maryland, it was all Sonia Stines Derenoncourt and Herby Derenoncourt could do to connect with their kids individually by text or email.

But when Palm Sunday rolled around last year, in the early days of the pandemic, they decided to do the fashionable thing and meet over Zoom — all of them. Even though they had never met online before, it felt right. They felt like they needed to see one another.

It gave Sonia, 55, an idea: Maybe they could meet like this regularly for dinner, especially because the scary pandemic was settling in, and it looked as if they wouldn’t have a chance to meet in person for a while.

The “kids,” ages 30, 27, 19 and 17, agreed that it could be fun.

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The first dinner after Palm Sunday lasted about two hours, “because we had so many questions and we were so thrilled with ourselves,” Sonia says. Since then, they’ve met every other week without fail. They pick a theme in advance, and everyone brings food according to the theme. One was “colors of the market,” like the outdoor markets they encountered when they lived in other parts of the world, and they each made a colorful spread. Another was the Caribbean. Whatever the theme, they are always there, even if they’re busy. Sonia recalls one dinner where her daughter Goëthie, who is in law school in Canada, was on camera but also working on a project during dinner. Sometimes Leeah, their 19-year-old, checks in for the first hour, then drops off to study for midterms or attend a club meeting at college.

“For me, the benefit has been this connection, something to look forward to,” Sonia says. “Between now and the next call, I think, ‘Oh, let me write that down to remember and talk about that.'"

Sonia Stines Derenoncourt of Olney, Md., has started a new tradition of bimonthly Zoom dinners with her adult children. (Video: Joshua Carroll/TWP)

For parents of adult children who thought the days of togetherness were over, or at least different, because their children were grown, the pandemic has taught them something: that despite distances — even borders that they couldn’t cross — they could be together and find comfort in one another. And now, after months of finding creative ways to connect, stay in touch and weather a scary, grief-filled time, those families are hoping to hold on to the rediscovered connections.

For the Derenoncourts, Zoom dinners will continue. “Definitely,” Sonia says as her 17-year-old daughter states her agreement in the background. “Normally, I’d be sending them these boring texts and begging them to text me back. Now there’s just that connection.”

The family doesn’t just eat together. They catch up on how they are and on what they’re thinking and dreaming of. Sonia digitized old family movies and has showed them on the calls. “I don’t even watch the videos. I watch their reaction,” she says, as her children remember playing in Zambia or goofing around in the pool when they were little.

At the end of each call, the family takes turns sharing something they’re grateful for and something they’re looking forward to. “We get an eye into what’s coming up ... and what we’d normally not share,” Sonia says. “It creates the space for that.”

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The pandemic has given families a reason to connect “more deeply, more authentically,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the new book “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.” “We’re going from perfunctory, ‘Hi, how are you?’ ... Now it’s, ‘Hi. How are you? How are you doing today?’ There’s an acknowledgment of crisis, struggle, fear, in the simple pleasantries we exchange.”

And that, she said, is a shift we must take going forward, even when times are better. She hopes families emerge from this pandemic with a deeper interest in understanding one another’s inner lives.

When Doug French’s elder son, Robert, 19, moved home from school during the pandemic, Doug, 55, wasn’t sure how things would go.

It was a joy to have him under his roof again, truly. That was no surprise. What Doug discovered, though, was how much fun it was to discuss current events and other topics with his son. “He’s a big absorber of news. He reads so much that he’s actually thinking he needs to dial it back, because he knows ... he gets riled up,” Doug says. “I like the way his brain’s turned out.”

In a parallel universe, the two would have been living their separate lives — Doug at home in Michigan, Robert at school near Asheville, N.C. They’d text or call. There would be holiday visits. Robert and his younger brother, Thomas, 16, would split time between their mom’s house and Doug’s. But since Robert moved in after Thanksgiving, they’ve had time together again like they couldn’t have dreamed. And with that, they’ve gotten a new understanding of one another.

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Robert decided to stay with Doug and work at a tire store, then travel the country this summer, post-vaccination, and return to his college, Warren Wilson, in the fall. But neither wants to give up their new connection.

And so the two have decided to start a podcast. “When he’s away, it’ll be a great way to stay in touch. We can chat, and I can record it, then post it,” Doug says. “Then the family can listen to it. I’ve taught my 80-year-old parents to listen to podcasts. So now they get to hear stuff out of their grandson’s mouth.”

This time together, Doug says, has helped him realize on a deeper level that his son is not a project, but his own complicated, wonderful, full person. “I’m proud of him,” Doug says.

Alexandra Rosas, 58, discovered her relationship with her grown son had changed when they were at the grocery store, somewhere near the frozen nuggets. That’s when her son Xavier Schultze, 23, stopped, pointed to the ceiling where the music was coming from and excitedly asked: “Do you know who this is?” The grocery store was piping in “American Pie” on its speakers. Earlier, it had been James Taylor. “All my high school songs, he knows them now,” Alexandra says.

He was at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in his senior year and had to head home during spring break. It was — like for so many burgeoning adults — devastating. But music gave their house a glimmer of joy. Over morning coffee, Alexandra and Xavier would listen to the Eagles, Aerosmith or Jimi Hendrix. “And he’s like, ‘What is this?’” Alexandra says. Soon, he was being schooled by his parents in the intricacies of how Hendrix and Prince were similar. Why Don McLean wrote “American Pie.” Mother and son found a new thread to bond over.

“My heart goes out to people and their incredible loss,” Alexandra says. “At the same time, I never thought I’d have this bonus year with him.”

Her oldest son is away in the military and her youngest is a senior in high school. This time with the two boys at home, along with their father, reminded Alexandra that she can put down whatever thing she thinks is important for two minutes and take in the gift that is being together. After having Xavier away at college, “I see him differently than I’ve had the chance to in four years,” she says.

When Xavier leaves the house for a philosophy PhD program at UW Madison that he was just accepted into, “I’m going to send him little YouTube links. ‘Remember when we were by the pork chops and we heard Aerosmith?’” she says. “It’s just going to hold us together. It’s just a pleasant reminder. There’s some bright spots that happened in there.”

Lythcott-Haims sees the shared trauma of this pandemic as something that, for better or worse, will strengthen bonds. “The beauty of it is we’ve all gone through it. Many of us have suffered profoundly. But ... we all know we’re all doing our best, and there’s solidarity in that.”

“Being an adult doesn’t mean you don’t get to kiss your family members. Or that you’re emotionally in a straitjacket or emotionally independent,” Lythcott-Haims says. “This has shown us we’re a social species. ... We need those interactions. They’ve learned that. And we have, too.”

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