"Science Will Always Fail You:" A Family Drama

We were planning

Mom and daughter at Christmas
Photo by cottonbro studio

We recently traveled for Thanksgiving.

We got Covid.

I've told this story before, but we have new information now. So you'll want to keep reading. I'm writing about this because I want people to know how easy it is to catch and spread Covid. I also want people to know what crazy, selfish things people say when you try to protect yourself.

It's important.

You see, my spouse wanted to see his parents. They were the only ones coming. Everyone else was going to stay home. He assured me they still take Covid seriously, although not as seriously as we do.

He wanted to do this one indoors, unmasked.

I told him I didn't want to.

We did it anyway.

We've had these conversations many, many times now. In the end, I've relented and put all of my energy into planning the safest Covid gatherings possible, usually outside or surrounded by air purifiers, with no help or support from anyone else. This is what we call emotional labor.


We met up at our new house, still mostly vacant. It's about the same size as the old one, just somewhere we don't have to worry as much about droughts and tornadoes. We brought a large HEPA air purifier. So did they. We also set up a Corsi-Rosenthal box. We did nose sprays.

His parents didn't.

When his parents arrived, they smirked at my filter box and said something like, "How creative." I didn't bring up Covid.

They did.

They said they were still being careful, masking indoors and avoiding large gatherings. His dad said he'd recently canceled plans to attend a high school reunion. He was worried about Covid. His mom told a story about a teacher she knew who'd gotten it four times. "She says she's fine."

We've had these conversations before.

In retrospect, these conversations feel suspicious now. It feels almost like a good cop, bad cop routine. One of your in-laws talks about taking Covid seriously. The other one describes it as mild.

Weird, huh?

My mother-in-law blew her nose. About an hour later, she blew it again. I noticed. I didn't say anything. My spouse listens to me most of the time, but he also increasingly worries I'm taking Covid too seriously. He pushes for more relaxed gatherings, and I push back.

At one point, his mom went with my daughter into the back end of the house. As they walked off, I looked at my spouse.

He was just sitting there.

I grabbed one of the air purifiers and followed them down the hall, plugging it in next to them. This is what I deal with.

The next afternoon, I started feeling sick.

What was going on, I wondered. Covid normally incubates for 2-3 days. I'd never read or heard of anyone feeling sick 12-16 hours after being exposed. I started thinking about where we could've been infected. I thought about a recent outdoor party, the only other place my daughter had been that wasn't part of our normal Covid safe routine.

My symptoms were just a headache and some fatigue, but I don't take chances with things I can directly control.

I reapplied my nose spray and moved an air purifier into my room. My in-laws came over again. I wore my N95 mask and briefly announced I wasn't feeling great. I isolated at the other end of the house while everyone else spent the afternoon together. They thought I was overreacting.

After they left, my spouse told me our daughter was also feeling sick. "I'm pretty sure it's not Covid," he said.


Two days later, I was feeling fine. My daughter was feeling better but sounded a little hoarse. We decided to hit the road.

It was Black Friday.

When we travel, we don't go inside anywhere except uncrowded rest stops. We eat outside, alone. We wear N95 masks. We use hand sanitizer.

That's when we got the call.

My in-laws had tested positive for Covid. My mother-in-law was taking Paxlovid. My first thought was, "Did we give them Covid?" It was the only thing that made sense.

There are two likely ways we could've gotten Covid. First, my spouse took my daughter to an outdoor party with dozens of staff, parents, and family all crowded around, unmasked, eating. Research shows that you can absolutely catch Covid from crowded outdoor events.

Second possibility:

My in-laws gave us Covid, despite assuring us they were still taking it seriously. Research shows that the incubation period has been getting shorter with every variant, down to one day for some of us. The symptoms are your body's response to being invaded by a pathogen. It's something I understand now. It doesn't matter what the CDC or anyone else says about symptom onset. Those are just averages. There's no magic timetable for when your immune system starts to respond to an invader. And if you're in tune with your body, it's possible to notice symptoms before most people would.

Bottom line:

If you said you caught Covid from an outdoor party, a lot of people would call you paranoid. If you said you got sick with Covid less than 24 hours after an exposure, a lot of people would call you paranoid.

And yet, both happen.

All of this has led to some difficult family conversations. My spouse wanted to see our entire family for Christmas. That made me extremely uncomfortable, and I told him that several times. Still, I was going to try to make it work. We were going to bring HEPA air purifiers. We were going to try to host everything at an AirBnB. We were going to do nose sprays. I was trying to find an affordable, portable UVC device to give everyone even more protection.

"Would they all be willing to do nose sprays? Are they all going to wear N95 masks? Can they start using air purifiers?"

"I mean, we can't make them."

"Will they test?"

"I don't know."

During this conversation, it came out that his parents were actually feeling "a little stuffy" before they came over to visit us.

So they knew they might've been sick.

Instead of testing, they hid it from us. Not only that, but they let us spend the entire last week thinking we gave them Covid, when they might've already had Covid, and they didn't test until after visiting us.

As of today, we've canceled our holiday plans. My spouse called his family and let them know. His mom didn't take it very well.

"Science will always fail you," she said.

"Put your trust in God."

His mom said she was worried about our mental health. She tried to convince him that I had anxiety. And of course, she's not wrong. I did recently spend a night in the ER with a post-Covid fungal infection, listening to doctors wonder out loud whether I had diabetes or HIV.

You could say I'm a little on edge.

My spouse and I come from very different families. He grew up going to evangelical private schools. Most of his relatives don't believe in evolution, pronouns, or diversity. He split from this worldview in college and then got a master's degree in biology. He very much believes in evolution, pronouns, and diversity. He's been trying to bring them to the light. He sends them books and articles about science. They don't read them.

His aunt got very upset when Quaker got rid of Aunt Jemima.

"They're ruining my childhood," she said.

Meanwhile, I never really had a mom.

As you can imagine, I didn't grow up going to church. My dad bought me science kits. He made me join the math team. On top of that, my mom's schizophrenia delivered us all a painful but important lesson. If god exists, they don't want you to put all of your trust in them. That wasn't the deal. There's nothing they can do to alleviate your pain and suffering.

You have to deal with it yourself.

That's the point of life.

That doesn't mean god hates you. It means god built a universe, and you just aren't the center of it. Your needs don't matter more than a virus's needs to stay alive and pass on its genes. You have a brain. You have the ability to work together with other humans to solve problems. You're supposed to use those. Putting all your trust in god and begging for miracles is exactly the kind of learned helplessness that evangelicals complain about.

Isn't it?

My dad and I have struggled over the years, but his pragmatism surprises me. When I told him we're canceling our holiday travel plans, he understood. He already knew about mycoplasma pneumonia. He still wears an N95 mask. It's been almost four years, and he's never had Covid.

He's a Novid.

I've learned a lot over the last week. I've learned that my in-laws have been lying to us. They haven't been taking Covid seriously at all. They've been pretending to, in order to trick us into letting our guard down. They haven't been masking. They haven't been using air purifiers, except when we insist. They haven't been testing, at all, ever, unless they get scared about their health and they decide they want Paxlovid. Otherwise, it doesn't matter.

My in-laws believe, "science will always fail you." They say that, and then run to the doctor for medicine when they feel sick.

That's evangelical hypocrisy, in all caps.

There's two kinds of love. There's selfish love. That's the kind of love your family shows when they tell you to ignore science. It's the kind of love that cares about what they get out of the relationship. It's the kind of love that gaslights you into making bad decisions for their sake.

Then there's selfless love.

That's the kind of love where you put someone else's needs ahead of your own, even if it makes you feel bad or look strange.

We've been careful, but not careful enough. I've indulged my spouse's urgent normalcy. I've compromised my own standards so that he can cater to a family that loves religion more than their own family. As a result, our daughter was exposed to Covid at one of two different events. Both times, we could've made better decisions. Emotions got the better of us.

What happens next?

We won't be going near any family for Christmas. I'm done planning Covid safe gatherings with no help and no support. If it were up to me, we would never be in the same room with them again. They've proven we can't trust them, not even a little. Of course, that's not how parenting works.

There's going to be a next Christmas. There's going to be a next birthday. We'll have the same conversation, where my spouse wants to try and plan something and I really, really don't want to. I can tell him no. I can persuade. I can beg. I can refuse to go. I can't stop him from taking our daughter to a Covid un-safe gathering. I can't force his family to wear masks.

The last week has made one thing clear.

We can't make it work.

It takes an entire family to plan a Covid safe holiday. One or two people can't do it on their own. That's what I was trying, and that was my biggest mistake. It doesn't matter how much you care. It doesn't matter what you do with nose sprays, HEPA filters, and UVC disinfection. If the rest of your family refuses to help, then nothing else matters. You can't do it for them.

This holiday has been a watershed for me. This week has shown me what happens when you cave to the urgency of normal, even a little. Nobody helps. Nobody tries to understand. Nobody listens. You just get more pressure to cave even further next time, and it's not worth it.

My mother-in-law says science will always fail you.

Science didn't fail us.

She did.

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