By Dan Weil
Aug. 16, 2021
Amid the fear, loneliness and heartache of the pandemic, there was also a guilty pleasure for many families: They had never been closer. Whether doing puzzles, watching TV shows, eating meals or simply taking walks, parents and children got to spend time together that never seemed possible before Covid.
But as some parents return to the office, or at least to full-time work, and children return to school and resume their social lives, the question many parents are asking is: How do we hold on to that togetherness when we no longer have to, when we’re pulled back into the old habits of our overscheduled lives?
The first step, psychologists and other experts say, is simply wanting to keep that togetherness. ”It starts with an awareness by parents that this was good,” says Nicholas Aradi, a psychologist in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Dr. Aradi says families have to recognize that this was a “wake-up call” about the importance of family ties. “Then there has to be a commitment to continue whatever they did to increase closeness.”
Once parents see the value, they need to put the past year and a half under the microscope. “For those families who found the pandemic beneficial, it’s useful to think about what drew them closer,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. “Was it having meals every day? Playing games? Make that a part of your new routine, just like you do with exercise.”
Drew Martin, a 56-year-old technology consultant in San Diego, and his three children (ages 25, 22 and 20), have been able to continue some of the activities that strengthened their ties during the pandemic.
One of those activities is surfing, which the family began doing once the local beaches opened.
Mr. Martin, who is single, had little experience with the sport before the pandemic. But as gyms shut down, surfing gave him a chance to get exercise and be with his kids at the same time.
“I just enjoy being out on the waves with them,” Mr. Martin says. And they apparently enjoy it, too, because they continue to invite him along even as their lives have started to return to normal.
During the pandemic’s peak, the Martins also enjoyed small social gatherings, including an impromptu performance on their patio by out-of-work musicians who are friends of his son. They passed the virtual Venmo hat afterward. Now they are planning the next music night, with a lot more people invited.
Another makeshift social event for the Martins during Covid was a socially distanced winter holiday party on the patio, including friends of the Martin children who were unable to travel home to see their families. His children want to have the party again this year.
“We had to break traditions, but hopefully we did things that can become future traditions,” Mr. Martin says.
The family of Beau River, a 44-year-old partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting in Chicago, has particularly enjoyed outdoor experiences during the pandemic—hiking, gardening and just goofing around. And they will continue to do those activities, Mr. River says, with a focus on vacations related to nature.
He says he learned through the pandemic that “peak” experiences, such as the family’s annual visits to Walt Disney World, are less important for his children (ages 6 and 9) than his “consistent” presence. “What the kids remember is that you’re around,” he says.
To stay around them more, Mr. River is now generally going to the office only two days a week, compared with four days pre-Covid. “On days when my wife [a nurse] goes to work, I plan on being at home and unplugging at 5 p.m. to be present with my kids and play before dinner,” he says.
They are doing many of the activities they started during the pandemic—such as playing board games, doing puzzles, kicking around a soccer ball, and taking bike rides and walks. These kinds of activities have a different, less-pressured feel than the typical pre-pandemic activities, such as basketball practice or homework. That’s one of the reasons they don’t want to give them up.
Mr. River has learned from the Covid experience that it’s all about putting focus on the children. “Kids notice when your attention isn’t there,” he says. “They want the autonomy to go to their friends, but to know you’re there and available.”
The one difficulty he’s having: It can be harder to be emotionally present for his children than it was before Covid, when Mr. River could use his commute home as a time to transition away from his work.
He hasn’t completely figured out yet how to make the switch without the commute. “I just try to be mindful of how my brain is still in work mode,” Mr. River says. “I try to dial in and be present for my family. It’s more of an awareness piece than anything.”
Freelancing from home
Prior to the pandemic, Kerry Gaertner Gerbracht, a 42-year-old art consultant and mother of an 8-year-old in Brooklyn, worked outside the home, usually 50 to 60 hours a week. She lost her job early in the pandemic and started freelancing from home. She liked it so much that she plans to continue, even when normal life returns.
“Being home more, I’m more involved with my son’s day-to-day life,” Ms. Gerbracht says. “I can do more with him, like taking him bike riding and to the playground after school. Going to the beach is our favorite activity.”
She can spend more time with her husband, too. The family has taken road trips to upstate New York and Cape Cod.
One activity from the pandemic that’s important for families to continue is eating together, says Alexandra Solomon, a psychologist and psychology professor at Northwestern University. “Research shows that families that eat together a few times a week have less conflict and more closeness.”
Children may resist some activities because they trigger memories of fear, confusion and sadness from the shutdown, Dr. Solomon says. In this case, parents should be open to new activities that foster togetherness.
Husbands and wives also must be sensitive to their own stress that may result from the pandemic’s fade, Solomon says. The stress could come from going back to the office or from one spouse doing more housework with the other now at the office. “It’s about empathy, walking around in each other’s shoes,” she says.
As for renewing contact with friends, it won’t be just children doing that. Parents will as well. So families must keep in mind maintaining their own closeness, even while they’re looking outside, psychologists say.
“Having a diversity of relationships is important,” says Brigham Young’s Prof. Holt-Lunstad. “There may be a greater opportunity for nurturing them outside the home, but you need them inside the home, too.”
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