By Elizabeth Seay
April 11, 2020
Once a day, we go outside for our family walk. As we leave our house in Brooklyn, we hear sirens, and we see nurses heading to the hospital up the block. We step over discarded masks and blue gloves. But there is some comfort for us in walking together, two by two: me beside my 13-year-old daughter, and my 15-year-old son and my husband just ahead.
The homebound parents I talk to now describe bouts of anxiety, impossible efforts to work from their bedrooms, a thermometer constantly at hand, and bewildered, restless, disappointed children who are mourning sports and structure. “I’m on my last nerve.” “My wife is ready to kill our daughter.” We like to talk about how fed up we are with our kids.
What we don’t talk about as much are the ways that being locked up in our houses together is making our families feel closer and more fulfilled. It’s particularly true for parents who worked long hours before: In a time of great fear, they have the guilty, secret pleasure of finally having time with their children.
It’s strange that such joy can coexist with such a sad backdrop. But it’s a profound contrast that so many parents are living with these days: the horror of the coronavirus as well as the pleasure of being with their children in a way that they nearly lost when things were normal.
“There’s a sense of shared vulnerability, and it’s when we’re vulnerable that we connect to each other because that’s when we realize we really need each other,” says Brad Sachs, a family psychologist and author in Columbia, Md. He says that in the past few weeks when he’s been in touch with families he works with, he has seen many developing richer connections. “I see families tapping into an undercurrent of love and care within the family and within the community at large that was sort of obliterated.”
We ourselves were swamped with activity before. I went full time at work just as my children hit middle school, a uniquely challenging time, and as my children got busy with school and sports, we spent less time together. We’d always had weekend breakfasts and family dinners, but regular breakfasts were hard and dinners often rushed. Our parenting seemed dominated by arguments over screen time and school. Our home felt functional but neglected.
Then the coronavirus crisis came. Suddenly it was just us. And in quarantine, long-held wishes we had for our family—ideas that had started to seem like fantasies—began coming to life. We started gathering around the table more. Family dinners grew longer; family breakfasts became more frequent; and with no offices to get to, no weekend sports or other plans, what was to stop us from having lunch together, too? Instead of reading news sites absent-mindedly as I ate lunch alone at my desk, I could talk with people who matter to me.
Gone are the pressures the family dinner imposed when it was our only meal of the day together and our only shared time. Then, we needed it to go smoothly, with everyone on their best behavior. Now, if one day my daughter dislikes all the lunch food on offer—I believe the exact quote is “That is so unappetizing I could throw up”—we can be easy about it. So she’ll fry an egg for herself later. We’ll catch up with her at the family walk in just a few hours. Then there will be dinner, and later our nightly TV show (“Madam Secretary” because we can’t agree on another show).
I’ve spoken with other moms who agree. “I’ve never had a time before when for weeks I made three meals a day from scratch and we all sat around the table and just talked. There’s something about checking in three different times that’s very different,” says Ada Calhoun, a New York City mother and the author of “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.” All that contact is intense, she adds. “It’s like dog years. In lockdown; every week is like two months. In the good way and in the bad way. It can feel like a lot of togetherness, but also, it’s lovely.”
Family activities don’t always go perfectly. One early family walk included a full-family argument over whether to turn right or left. But now every day, by the time late afternoon rolls around, we are ready to get out.
I’d long heard about how my husband and his sister cooked dinner at times when growing up, and we’d talked about having the kids do it for years, but we’d never gotten around to it. Now, with so much time on our hands, we could make it happen. The kids were game. They started with homemade macaroni and cheese. It was good to hear them laughing and rattling around in the kitchen. My daughter, the more passionate cook, was firmly in charge, and her older brother was an accommodating sous-chef. “Don’t come in, Mom,” I heard. “OK, you can come in, but don’t look at the floor.”
How can good things be happening at such a hard time? Why are we feeling more connected? There are several explanations.
As much as we know about quality time, actual time counts for something. More time means more opportunities to connect. After years of rushing around between work and home and school and sports, we are all just here.
As parents, we’ve relaxed our expectations. After years of battles over the children’s phone use, we’ve allowed plenty of phone time for my son and TikTok for my daughter. After all, we still have to work. We even appreciate the phones as a social lifeline.
Dr. Sachs sees another way in which relaxed standards benefit children. He sees parents who are letting go of their focus on children’s achievement in academics, sports, and other arenas. “With parents and children released from the prison of hyper-competitiveness, of judging yourself, comparing yourself with other people, being a virtuoso, there’s a tremendous release of pressure and an opportunity for the generations to connect with each other in a more fundamental and humane way,” he says. “Everyone now is aware of how vulnerable they are, no matter who is talented or privileged and masterful. And that brings people together, and children need that.”
He adds: “If we’re going to survive, it’s through our attachment to each other and affection for each other, not our talents and extraordinary personal accomplishments.”
In crisis, there’s also what I think of as a “Little House on the Prairie” effect. Raised on the books, I’ve long envied Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier family for their ability to stick together in tough times. In daydreams, I’ve lived a shadow life as Laura, and now I am Ma. (If Ma’s signature dish was tacos. If Ma’s greatest butchering skill was breaking down a pineapple.) But what most defined Wilder’s era was that families faced real dangers together, with everyone involved in the work of survival. Crisis can restore parental authority and, like communities pulling together, so too families revert to cooperation.
While parents may want to spare their children worry and difficulties, Dr. Sachs points out that involving children in the work of the family benefits them. “When parents have made clear we’ll all have to budget now, and when I’m home on a conference call, you’ll have to take care of your little sister, there’s an infusion of self-regard that children feel when they take on responsibility. When we talk about building self-esteem, it doesn’t come from being praised or accomplished; it comes from being necessary.”
And it is true what the child experts say: Boredom can be good for kids, forcing them to come up with activities themselves. My daughter’s copy of “Little Women,” shunned on her shelves since she was a baby, is sitting by her bed with a bookmark in it. Busy by nature, she is discovering long-lost hobbies, making lists of things to do on her little whiteboard. She keeps a journal. She makes cupcakes, chocolate-chip cookies, avocado toast. One day, she makes smoothies and brings her brother the bigger glass.
Of course, our family still has long stretches of time with a staggering lack of purpose, the children closeted for hours. Door-slamming has not disappeared. Bickering is frequent. “She licked her fingers and then touched my computer.” “Why can’t we have pancakes for breakfast?” “Mom’s trying to work so stop talking.” “Stop being mean to me.” “No, you stop.”
Meanwhile, my husband and I are aware that all this is just a respite and could change tomorrow. Like so many families struggling now, we could get sick, or our parents could get sick, or we could be laid off, all things that could overwhelm what is good.
And what does this say about our cramped lives before? If things get back to normal, will we lose this closeness again?
One activity we’ve revived is something we hadn’t done together since elementary school: My teens helped to start seeds for our container garden on the deck. My son chose tomatoes and carrots. My daughter chose watermelons and zinnias. We all pressed seeds into soil. We were starting some of these plants a little early, and I didn’t know how well they would thrive. But it was still exciting when, weeks later, pale shoots began to push aside the soil, unfolding, rising, still shaking off seed hulls and bits of dirt. It was a reminder that there are still things in our lives that are wonderful, and they may even be here when this spring is over.
Ms. Seay is a Wall Street Journal news editor in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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