Editor’s Note: Two years ago, Covid-19 turned the world upside down. While the pandemic is not over, The Best in Us is a series that highlights people whose pandemic stories exemplify the resilience of the human spirit.
It will just be two weeks.
That’s what Kerry Stutzman thought when she invited her 22-year-old son to come back home to Colorado – and bring his girlfriend with him.
The rapidly spreading novel coronavirus had virtually shut down big cities like Chicago, where Palmer Skudneski and his girlfriend Anabelle Adams were living. Stutzman was visiting them for St. Patrick’s Day and saw how busy streets started looking like eerie ghost towns. Supermarket shelves were going bare.
Stutzman started to worry about their safety.
“There was this sense of – oh my gosh – they’re going to get stuck in this big city with no family and be all alone in these apartments,” she recalls.
It would be better to ride things out in a house together until things got back to normal, Stutzman thought. She knew it wouldn’t be long.
It was March 25, 2020. Nearly two years later, Palmer and Anabelle are still living in Stutzman’s Denver home.
But so much has changed since those early pandemic days, for Stutzman and her family – and for the world.
There’s no doubt the coronavirus pandemic brought uncertainty, tragedy and trauma into many of our lives. In many cases, close quarters and an easily transmittable virus had devastating results. And some who were sharing a roof 24/7 – multigenerational families, single parents with young children, near strangers-turned-roommates – found it stressful or suffocating.
But there were silver linings, too. For Stutzman, having Palmer back home has been one of the biggest ones.
“It was just beautiful,” she says.
She describes getting to know her son as an adult as an unexpected gift. And she’s not alone.
A third of Americans reported positive effects on their relationships since the pandemic, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Families connected through weeknight dinners, game nights and TikTok dance routines.
Navigating conflict brought some couples closer, while acquaintances moved past small talk and evolved into full-blown friends. Two years later, many of those relationships are deeper than they were before. The way we care for our loved ones changed.
It’s not just something Stutzman saw in her own family. The family therapist and self-described “parentologist” heard about it in conversations with her clients and saw it on her street when she looked out the window.
Families with younger children started watching each other’s kids. One neighbor bought a projector and began hosting an outdoor movie night. Another hosted Ethiopian coffee ceremonies on her front porch and invited neighbors to come by.
“The pandemic has been a reset to how a lot of families think about family life and what matters,” Stutzman says. “It’s been painful, and we’ve lost things in it, but I think we’ve also gained something so important…more connection with the people that matter the most to us.”
To really understand what her family gained, Stutzman says it’s important to talk about what she almost lost.
‘He hated me’
Stutzman is a mom to three children and a stepmother to three more. Raising Palmer, she says, was among the toughest challenges she faced as a parent.
“This kid was just a punk of a teenager. He was tough. He was the one who snuck out. He was the one who got the letters written by the neighbors complaining. He was this really hard kid,” she says.
Once, Palmer convinced his little brother to go inside a manhole. Another time, he lit a bunch of towels on fire in the street, sending police and fire trucks to their neighborhood.
Stutzman can laugh about some of the antics now. But there are moments when thinking back on Palmer’s teenage years still makes her cry.
“There was a period when he hated me. And for me that was the hardest part,” she says. “He was really clear that he just couldn’t stand me.”
A painful divorce had divided their family. Palmer was depressed and full of rage. Sometimes he’d refuse to come over to her house or show up for family dinners. Stutzman kept trying to connect. But it felt like her middle son had put up a wall that was impossible to penetrate.
“He was just that really angry, hard teenager that was hard to discipline. I was scared to give him consequences. I was afraid that he was going to do something that would lead to his death,” she says. “I used to be afraid to go down to his room sometimes, like, is he going to be there?”
Palmer remembers that time, too.
“I got really pulled into this terrible, dark cycle. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with her. We would fight all the time. … It’s something I now look back on with such sadness,” he says. “I would get home from school and wouldn’t want to say a word. Everything she would put together for us, I would throw it back in her face.”
Eventually, things got so bad that Stutzman sent Palmer into therapy for the summer.
“He came back so much sweeter and loving,” she says, “like the veil had been lifted.”
Palmer says at first, he still had some reservations when he returned home from that summer away, but toward the end of his time in high school he started to warm up to his mom.
“I saw that she’s super cool, she’s awesome, she’s sweet,” he says.
But it wasn’t long before he was out the door and off to college at DePaul University.
“I honestly never had a chance to build that adult relationship with her,” he says.
Stutzman had to watch from afar as the boy she’d struggled to raise began to grow up.
During the pandemic, they started seeing each other differently
The pandemic, she says, finally gave them a chance to reconnect – and for her to see the man her son has become. There were family dinners and game nights, hikes in the wilderness and heart-to-heart talks.
The coffees and meals Palmer had refused as a teenager became time they both treasure.
“Now it’s such a treat. We love to get breakfast or lunch. We sit there and we talk for hours,” Stutzman says.
And she loved having a front-row seat to watch his relationship with Anabelle blossom. She’d already spent some time on family trips with Palmer’s girlfriend, an investment banker. But during the pandemic they grew closer. Stutzman feels like she gained a daughter – and a sense of comfort in seeing that her son was in such a strong relationship.
“I got to watch them, how they worked through stuff, how they spent time together. I would get to see them cuddling. … Just all these little sweet things they do,” she says.
For his part, Palmer says at first he was dreading returning home, as many kids would.
“It sounded like it was going to be kind of a nightmare,” he says. “I wasn’t really loving the idea of having her tell me to put my dishes away.”
But with so much uncertainty in the world, Palmer says he found comfort in his mom’s efforts to take care of their family.
“She created a household that we were so excited to be part of, because of the space she created and the importance she put on family,” he says.
And what he appreciated most was having the chance to get to know her as an adult – seeing the joy she gets from her work as a therapist, and the way she and his stepdad love and support each other.
“It was humbling and inspiring to start seeing her as a human, not just as a mom,” he says, “seeing what her life looked like.”
As Palmer weighed the next steps in his relationship with Anabelle, witnessing daily struggles his mom and stepdad dealt with as a couple – like stressing over bills – made an impact, too.
“They’d argue, then later be back on the porch snuggling. That to me is such a reminder of what a healthy relationship looks like,” Palmer says. “It’s been really cool to watch them be so sweet, and face challenges, and always come back to each other.”
A mother’s message
Stutzman knows many parents have been struggling in the pandemic. And that even without Covid to worry about, those with challenging children worry their family won’t survive the strain.
But she has a message she hopes other parents will hear – something she’s long believed that became even clearer to her the more time she spent with Palmer in the pandemic.
Sometimes, she says, the kids who are the hardest to raise turn out to be the coolest adults.
These days, Stutzman is helping Palmer and Anabelle plan their wedding. Palmer graduated from DePaul last year and is working as a youth coach – a career leap he says he wouldn’t have been able to take if he hadn’t been living at home and saving money.
And Palmer is applying to grad school now. He’s hoping to become a therapist like his mom.
CNN’s Harmeet Kaur contributed to this report.