After a few pages of reading a story where you were a spy, an astronaut or some other adventurer, you would be faced with a choice: Do you go left into the jungle to find the albino tiger or try to swim across the maybe-piranha-infested river? Do you take a ride with the swashbuckling sea captain or think something is funny about the cut of his jib and decide to stay put in your small boat, despite your lack of provisions?
Each choice sent you to a new page and a new decision. Sometimes, your choices would make you the hero. Other times, your choices killed you and your friends.
A few decades later, I’m a 47-year-old mother of six children, and I seem to be trapped in a Choose Your Own Adventure story about the coronavirus pandemic with no discernible way out.
The plots in reality are somehow simultaneously more boring, and yet higher-stakes, than in the books: You’re a parent who’s exhausted from cooking similar meals every day for your family for months on end. Do you order in from a pizza place — even though the delivery person may or may not be wearing a mask and you don’t know who opted to come into work that day despite feeling a little dizzy?
Your son’s friend is having a small birthday party, “socially distanced.” You get there, and all 12 kids are together on top of each other, unmasked; some are wrestling. The parents are nowhere to be seen. Do you drop your son off or take him back home with you?
Your younger children have mastered the intricacies of Netflix and have learned how to use Safari to break through the YouTube Kids barrier. Do you take up your neighbor’s offer to use their pool every week for swim lessons to get them away from screens — even though you know the swim instructor’s significant other frequently travels to a coronavirus hot spot?
It’s your daughter’s birthday, and more than anything, she wants to hug her grandma — your 73-year-old mother. Do you risk it?
For parents these days, every single choice feels fraught with potential peril — the real-life equivalent of: “Your kid has lost her shoes. Do you send her to run through the field of glass shards or have her stay put in the pit of poisonous snakes?”
When I was a kid myself, I found the Choose Your Own Adventure books mesmerizing, yet incredibly stressful. Who wants to discover that your choices have killed you and your traveling companions? Sometimes, I’d make my choice but hedge my bets: I’d cleverly leave my finger on the previous page so I could pretend that I hadn’t made the choice I just did if things went south fast.
I loved the books anyway, though. I think it’s because when I was a child, I was intoxicated by the sense of agency they conveyed — the idea that there was a world, even if only imaginary, in which my smallest choices actually mattered.
But being an adult and having to make choices that truly do touch on life or death every day — with no useful guidance from the people who are supposed to be providing it — is far worse. Before the pandemic, I was never a particularly anxious person. (Though if my teenagers read this, they might find that assertion hilarious.) You better believe I am now.
Yes, I do understand that even under “normal” (whatever that means) circumstances, the choices we make for ourselves and our kids have larger implications than are immediately visible to the eye. Encouraging your child to try out for a regional play, for example, may lead to his meeting the girlfriend he wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. But those implications never seemed quite so alarming and perilous as they do now, and as they will for the foreseeable future.
Four months into the pandemic, even the things that seem the most benign — can my son meet his friend at her house for a lawn visit if it looks cloudy outside and there’s a chance it might rain? Do I let my daughter go on a bike ride with a friend who’s not wearing a mask? — have unknown, and worse, unknowable, implications for our health and the health of those we love. Sure, there’s a spectrum of risk, but many, many choices lie solidly in the blurred “indigo” category of that spectrum. And most of us aren’t epidemiologists, doctors, statisticians or experts on the aerosol spread of viral particles; we’re just parents, trying to do the best we can for our kids and, ideally, for the rest of the communities in which we live.
Unlike in the books, where the worst that happened was that you accepted your fate quietly and started reading the next story, parents get judged for our choices, no matter which way we decide. We’re judged in the court of public opinion and on social media and in our friends’ and frenemies’ unspoken thoughts if we spend too much time thinking too hard about the implications of our choices. (“What a scared sheep!”) The same will apply if we don’t consider the ramifications of our decisions enough. (“What a selfish moron!”)
So in the absence of universally respected authority or a portable Magic 8 Ball, we are left on our own to choose our own adventure, in a story we never would have started if it were up to us. We make these decisions step by step, alone, fumbling blind in the dark, just relying on the banister of hope. We hold on tight and pray we don’t step the wrong way and fall down the stairs, taking our families with us.