My College:
Family Life

The Pandemic and My Long-Distance Relationship with My Mother

Ianni Le

When I first committed to a college halfway around the world from my mother, she was understandably apprehensive. She didn’t like the idea of me being all alone in a new environment, fending for myself.

Eventually, she grew to trust that I would be okay on my own in Colorado. She felt better when she heard I was settling in, as all college freshmen do, and had established a good group of friends who could be my support network and help me navigate new challenges.

Back then, my mother still had my younger brother to take care of at home in Shanghai, China. Last year, my younger brother also left home to go to school in the States, leaving my single mom alone with only our family dog to keep her company.

Though she missed us, she handled her empty nest syndrome well, picking up new hobbies and keeping busy as she adjusted to a quiet house. The last few months, however, have been substantially more difficult for her.

When the novel coronavirus started to spread throughout China, I was devastated that my mother was all alone at home, forced to stay put and take care of herself without help. I spent the majority of my days in early February either on the phone with her, checking the news or looking at plane tickets.

I wanted to be home with her; to help her buy groceries, keep her company, take her to the hospital for her check-ups and generally just protect her from everybody else. It wasn’t necessarily feasible for me to return to a country working desperately to reign in a highly contagious virus — and my mother certainly wasn’t about to let me put myself in danger to be with her — but it soothed my nerves to imagine I could fly back if she needed me.

Deep down, I knew I couldn’t do anything to help besides promise her I was keeping myself safe and offer her comfort and entertainment whenever possible.

The sense of helplessness I felt as my entire family in China tried to keep themselves safe was crushing. There was nothing to do but sit back and watch, offering comfort where I could. I know they all wanted nothing more than to have my brother and me safe, but we wanted nothing more than to be with them during such a terrifying time.

Like I said, that was early February. When March came around, the coronavirus started taking over the United States right as China had managed to control it within their borders. Now it was my mother’s turn to worry.

She became the one constantly alternating between calling me, checking the news and looking at plane tickets. She wanted her children home with her, back in Shanghai where things were starting to regain a sense of normalcy. Restaurants and offices were reopening, quarantines were released and the number of new cases decreased substantially.

The past few weeks, she's called every day around 7 p.m. MST (9 a.m. Shanghai time). She calls to make sure I’m eating and staying indoors, to check in generally and to hear me reassure her that I’m not in any immediate danger. I take extra care never to miss her call these days, as she has been extra prone to worry and insomnia.

Though I would love nothing more than to be with my mom right now, I can’t risk infecting her while her immune system is still compromised from a surgery she had a little while back. I check in with her, too, during these calls — I make sure she’s eating, that she’s healthy and not putting herself unnecessarily at risk.

She was a bit late calling the other day. Worried, I called her instead, but she didn't answer. Five minutes later she called me back, a call I unfortunately missed, sending her into a panic.

Her mind immediately went to her biggest fear: I was calling because I was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and needed to be hospitalized thousands of miles away from her.

When we finally connected, she explained how powerless the whole experience made her feel, unable to protect her children as is a mother’s prerogative. She made me promise to let her always initiate our daily calls and never to call her unless something was really wrong — allowing her to retain some feeling of control even though in reality she has none.

I left that phone call with a much deeper understanding of how difficult this has all been for my mom.

Because the United States is taking a different approach than China in handling the virus, my mother isn’t entirely convinced my brother and I are safe. Though neither of us lives in a big city or an area where the virus is unmanageable, her maternal instincts are going crazy. Her sleep has been increasingly disturbed and restless.

As long as I can remember, my mother has been there to protect me and my brother. She taught us both to swim, to ride bikes, to be good people; she taught us everything we know, including how to be strong and independent. Since we’ve grown up, we need her less for physical things like tying our shoes or remembering our snacks, but even still, these days I find myself more than ever needing her hugs and her voice telling me everything’s going to be okay.

As a child holding my mom’s hand everywhere we went, I could barely comprehend the love in everything that my mother did for me. As an adult living almost 7,000 miles away from her mother, I feel all my mom’s love and care ten times over.

I'll always remember the first time I had to go to the doctor’s office in college alone. It seems silly to admit but while I was getting my blood drawn, I teared up a little because I had to do it without her. Even though needles have never bothered me, every time I had to get a shot growing up my mother would always hold my head in her arms, stroke my hair and tell me it was going to be okay.

I can only imagine how parents all over the world are feeling during these dangerous times. Healthcare workers unable to be near their family lest they infect them, families stuck under one roof trying to stay safe and keep the peace, families forced to live apart like mine.

Regardless of the differences in our situations, there is so much love and care going back and forth in all of our relationships right now.

I know we’re all going to come through this situation stronger and with so much more respect, love and understanding for one another.

Ianni and her mom

Ianni Le is a freelance writer and content creator. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. Ianni grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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