The Midults' guide to coping with unlockdown... and the new social distancing etiquette

The Midults have the answers to your dilemmas as we step into a strange new world post lockdown... from family rows to fears of going out

The new social distancing etiquette is confusing
Credit: Martin Tognola

Dear A&E,

I’ve always had a packed diary and early in lockdown I planned Zoom quizzes and arranged ‘digital work drinks’, but recently I’ve stopped all that and can’t face socialising. I dread picking up my phone as there’s always another invitation to a barbecue or picnic. I just want to be left alone, but I also know that’s not ‘me’. My boyfriend is getting frustrated. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t have the energy to get back into the swing of my old routine yet, but he doesn’t understand. I’m stuck as I don’t know how to get everyone to leave me be. — Exhausted

Dear Exhausted,

We are also exhausted, anxious, unsure and panicking. Some people around us are raring to go, untouched by the sheer strangeness and sadness of the past few months, but they are very much in the minority. What you are feeling is not only valid and understandable, but it is also collective. We are assuming you are not depressed, but you might want to have a conversation with your GP to check. 

Our behaviour has radically altered. We’ve been indoors and we needed to adjust to that change. Now, as we are told we can venture outdoors again, that adjustment is, for many, tougher, slower and fraught with unwelcome self-judgment. So go easy, Exhausted. No one is timing you, except you. 

Getting back to normal is going to take some time Credit: Martin Tognola

So now you sit there, gazing at something that looks a lot like your former life except that it is lined with demands and confusions. Sure, at the start of the lockdown it was frightening, but it was a novelty. In terms of performing our civic duty, staying at home was not such a vicious ask. We shot into lockdown, but many of us are limping out. 

Zoom quizzes and all that jazz, were also a novelty, but they were no substitute for real connection, and that’s what isolation is all about. It’s not about geography, it’s about loss of human connection. You found a way to manage that, Exhausted, and you will find a way to manage the next stage, but take baby steps. Think about what you enjoy, who you have actually missed, and set your boundaries accordingly, but also review them as things move on.

It is intimidating. The disease is still here and the landscape remains scary. And then there’s our old friend expectation making it all worse. We aren’t emerging like skinny butterflies or rising like courageous phoenixes. Most of us have failed to write a novel or master a new language. But we are nonetheless different. And, do you know what? That is fine. You’ll get there, Exhausted. We’ll all get there. In our own sweet time. 

'Our friends are being overly relaxed with the lockdown rules'

Dear A&E,

Last week my wife and I went to our friends’ garden for 
a barbecue. We’ve known them for ever and I’d consider them our closest friends, but it was difficult as, firstly, they set a table for us all to share 
(I thought we’d be on separate ones), and though we brought our own glasses 
and china, they insisted that we use theirs. As we left, the wife tried to hug us, which took us aback. We made a joke, but it was all quite awkward. I’m now concerned as we’ve invited them to supper in our garden, an arrangement made before all of this, which we are regretting. They were overly relaxed during the stricter part of lockdown too, frequently visiting the shops for non-essentials and meeting up with others. We’re in our 60s and in good health, and yet it still feels risky. We’re not sure whether to cancel or have a frank discussion. It’s all rather tricky. Any suggestions would be appreciated. — Awkward

Dear Awkward,

No one wants to be the stick in the mud; the one with the clipboard and the regulations. It makes you feel very uncomfortable and resentful to be seen in this light – especially as everyone is working out what feels safe and what feels dangerous.

Socialising now is a bit like stepping on to an icy pond to see how much weight it will take. But, as with everything in life, you can’t expect people to have exactly the same point of view as you. Your friend was probably caught up in a rush of emotion after a nice evening and it overflowed – hell, it has taken 90 per cent of Emilie’s lockdown energy not to hug everyone. Annabel meanwhile, is delighted with the newfound personal space. It’s hard to be constantly setting emotional and physical boundaries, especially as the rules are ever-shifting.

See the evening you had as a lesson learnt. And now there is a perfectly charming conversation to be had. You can say to your friends, ‘Maybe we are being neurotic, feel free to call us annoying, but we are still concerned about the virus and so we’d love to see you, but we’ll stay at arm’s-length like the bores that we are.’ They will understand and even if they don’t agree they will accept it.

Do try to be gentle, though. We are all finding coming out of lockdown confusing – everyone is doing their best. So we should try not to shame people around this stuff. And remember, you have to do what feels right and sits well with you – it is (and has always been) absolutely OK to cancel plans for your mental health and physical safety. Those rules haven’t changed.

‘We haven’t been able to grieve properly’

Dear A&E,

My father passed away last month after a long battle with lung cancer. We knew it was coming and we’d prepared ourselves the best we could. Only my mother, my sister and I attended the funeral. It was strange and empty and didn’t feel like a proper funeral. It’s like 
I haven’t been able to grieve properly. I’m also worried for Mum. She puts on a brave face, but I know she’s struggling and 
I don’t know how to support her, or support myself. I live in London, an hour from her. I’m terrified that she’ll go downhill now she doesn’t have my dad to focus on. I keep saying, ‘I’ll think about this later,’ as I’m busy with work and home-schooling my three kids, but I just feel so desperate, for her and for me. — Sad

Dear Sad,

We are so sorry. Even though you knew he was going to die, you can never really be prepared. Both our fathers took years to go, but after yet more years of floundering in unacknowledged anguish, we eventually learnt that it is essential to recognise the legitimacy of your grief. This was always going to be terrible, but mourning in the time of Covid adds layers of complexity that must make everything so much harder.

In search of wisdom, we asked the advice of Julia Samuel, psychotherapist, grief therapist and author of the must-read This Too Shall Pass, and here’s some of what she said. ‘The first task of mourning is to face the reality of your father’s death, which has been suspended and prolonged by Covid-19.

‘There are also things that you and your mother can do together that will help you both: acknowledge that however strange you both feel, what you’re feeling is normal. Perhaps create a ritual that you and your mother can do in your separate homes that connects you to each other and to your father/her husband – maybe lighting a candle and playing some music or looking at his picture. Create a space that is focused on him and allows each of you to feel whatever comes up in you.

‘Also, exercise outside every day to reduce your anxiety, even if it is only for 10 minutes: a fast walk or run, then breathe in for a count of seven and out for 11 to calm you. Journal some of your thoughts and feelings. Give yourself treats that console and comfort you.’

Keep talking to your mother, Sad. Share Julia’s advice with her. You can’t fix this, but you can stay close and connected. You won’t always be sad, but we are sorry that you are going through this and we send you our love.

‘My teenage son has gone wild’

Dear A&E,

I’m worried my 17-year-old son has gone wild and I’m not sure how to rein him in. Lockdown meant he had to leave sixth form early and I felt for him as he didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to his friends. He was then glued to his PS2 and wouldn’t even go out for a walk. Now he’s gone to the other extreme. He’s always off ‘out on his bike’, which I know is code for meeting his mates. He reassures me he’s safe and keeping his distance, but I’m worried he’s not. He’s drinking and last weekend he didn’t get home until 3am. My elderly mother lives with us, so I’m obviously worried for her. Short of grounding him, which will lead to world war three, I’m not sure what to do. — End of My Tether

Our reader's teen son has been coming in at 3am and she is not best pleased Credit: Martin Tognola

Dear End of My Tether,

The thing is, your son is doing exactly what he should be doing at the end of sixth form – really it should be a firework of a summer. Poor him. He’s probably untethered in a way that’s unnerving to witness, having had his life derailed and yet still being driven by the usual teenager impulses. As psychotherapist Philippa Perry puts it in her parenting self-help manual The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: ‘While impulsivity exercises their emotions, their capacity to think, “That’s a bad idea,” has not yet caught up.’

She suggests a three-step approach to potential harmony. First, define the problem. Maybe start with something like, ‘I feel worried/scared when you go out because 
I am still concerned about Covid-19 and 
your grandmother remains at risk.’ Note 
that you are talking about your feelings not his shortcomings.

Second, find the feelings behind the problem. So that might involve you saying, ‘I totally understand that you have lost this summer, all your plans and hopes and the fun, and I understand that you should be having the time of your life.’

Next, try brainstorming solutions with him. Can you keep your mother separate from him? Can he avoid all contact with 
her? Can he be fed at different times and 
use his own set of cutlery and dishes to 
minimise the risk of infection? (Not to mention the endless disinfecting.)

Work through the issue together and, most importantly, initiate these conversations when he is neither angry nor hung-over – and when you are neither angry nor hung-over. We always get our timings wrong when it comes to kids: strike while the iron is cooling.

The best you can hope for is that he will hear you, take some responsibility for himself and exercise caution. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.

‘I’m terrified of moving to 
a new city during a pandemic’

Dear A&E,

My husband has been offered a job in London, a city 
I only know as a tourist. This opportunity is fantastic for him, but I feel very fearful. I am normally outgoing, but I have become terrified about the thought of going somewhere so highly populated while Covid-19 is still around, and travelling on public transport. I am very anxious that I will not be able to build a life for myself in London. I know no one and fear that places where I might normally hope to meet people, such as adult education classes, will be closed or online-only. Things I dreamt of doing like going to restaurants, museums and the theatre may be limited or too dangerous. I’m not sure what to do. — Anxious

Dear Anxious,

When we first read your letter, we thought, ‘Poor you, what with the awful timing, the idea of lockdown in a new place without all the usual props is like facing a new kind of isolation...’ And then we thought again. We want you to turn your anxiety on its bony little head, look at things another way and think, ‘Opportunity.’

We are going to pass on what writer Glennon Doyle (incidentally her Instagram videos have been one of our essential survival tools) says about difficult things: that they can be ‘bruti-ful’. In other words, the path can feel tough and unpleasant but wonderful things can grow out of the discomfort.

Because yes, who wants to move to a major city, where the infection rates have been high and all the glories of being in a metropolis – the restaurants, theatres, museums – are only just limping towards reopening? But equally, wouldn’t arriving in a new city in full flow feel incredibly overwhelming? Isn’t it worth thinking about this as a moment of stillness, a resettling as you resettle? A chance to start in a gentle stream rather than diving directly into the rapids?

This is a monumentally scary change – of course it is, with or without Covid-19. Emigrating is off-the-clock disruptive. You’d have to be a robot or a sociopath not to be freaked out. But why not just flip it in your mind? Also, send out a flare on Facebook – if lockdown has taught us anything it’s that communities are everything, and people are generous about connecting others in situations like this. Get to know your local neighbourhood within London: your coffee shop, your pharmacist, the farmer’s market. Take a breath. Ground yourself. Start small and, before you know it, you’ll be hungry for big.

'My husband's job is at risk but he won't stop shopping'

Dear A&E,

My husband was furloughed in March and may be made redundant. But ever since, he’s been constantly online shopping. Every day there’s another parcel arriving. I’m an impulse buyer too, so his shopping has never bothered me in the past, but given his job situation and the fact I’m freelance and most of my work has dried up, I’m really worried for our future. I’ve tried discussing it and he nods, but the next day more packages arrive. If the worst happens, I have no idea how we’ll pay our mortgage. Our recent wedding ate up our savings. How do I make him take this seriously without sounding naggy? — Worried

Extra time at home has meant lots more time to shop online Credit: Martin Tognola

Dear Worried,

Money, hey? For some of us it is the source of all disquiet and terror. And at this time of uncertainty, money worries are front and centre, as livelihoods are lost, investments wiped out and futures derailed.

 But before we get to money, your husband needs to take your concerns seriously. Because that is marriage. It is also teamwork and friendship, and is essential. So – naggy or not – if you have raised heartfelt concerns and he has ignored them, then that’s a whole other problem.

But we don’t feel, from your letter, that you have really pleaded your case. You are too concerned about being a vibe-killer. Try showing him the situation in black and white: on paper. A spreadsheet. Remove any denial and mystery and everything should flow from there, whether it’s wiggle room or focused belt-tightening.  The problem is, websites like Amazon make it all too easy, like spending Monopoly money rather than a fast-dwindling resource. But there are excellent apps that track ‘harmless’ spending, such as Money Dashboard, as well as digital banks like Revolut, which show what you’ve spent the second you buy something – plus, you can’t get overdrawn.

 It could be that your husband’s spending is an assertion of confidence in the future because even though his job may be at risk, he is not planning to be poorer. But he is unlikely to realise the extent of your panic unless you are explicit.  Also, without belittling the potential problem, do bear in mind that while sometimes money panic is about money, other times it is about spiralling anxiety or lack of communication. So consider that. And remember  that money isn’t an all-powerful deity, even though at times like this it feels that way.

Listen to The Midults’ podcast, I’m Absolutely Fine!, now on Apple Podcasts

Tell us what you think our reader should do in the comments section below.

Do you have a dilemma that you’re grappling with? Email Annabel and Emilie on [email protected] All questions are kept anonymous. They are unable to reply to emails personally.