Defining Family in the Time of Coronavirus
Today’s families rarely look like the nuclear families of the past, and it’s hurtful to keep defining them that way
There are so many things to be paying attention to and concerned about during the coronavirus pandemic. We are facing something we have never experienced before, with huge health impacts that are sure to get worse and economic ramifications that will last for a long time, with no end in sight.
And we are seeing some ugly sides of human nature play out, from panic buying to racist attacks on Chinese people as our president insists on framing the pandemic as the “Chinese virus” and “foreign virus.”
As disturbing as those are — and they are disturbing — I am also seeing some other disturbingly narrow-minded thinking, especially when it comes to defining “family.”
I was lucky to be out in nature this weekend before Marin County shut down its parks, beaches and open spaces because of crowds. A group of five young women were attempting to take a selfie — 6 feet apart, aka socially distancing, as California and other states have been encouraging or requiring residents to follow.
I offered to take a photo of them and they took me up on it. When they returned to their blanket, no longer 6 feet apart, I made a joke about that.
“Oh, well, we live together,” one answered good-naturedly. And I realized I had made an assumption.
A lot of us are making assumptions nowadays as we attempt to police who might be breaking the social distancing rules. We are worried, understandably. We want people to do the right thing, to flatten the pandemic curve. It matters!
Yet we don’t require families to be 6 feet apart from each other. But what defines a family nowadays, when families no longer look like the traditional nuclear family — mom, dad and 2.5 kids, which was a blip in history, anyway?
And that is causing some people to be judgmental and maybe worse.
“Everyday, I have been seeing hoards of bikers and hikers — clearly not related nor living under the same roof,” someone ranted in a post on Nextdoor. But how would anyone know who was related to whom and who lived with whom? The five young women I photographed may not have been related by blood, but they lived together under one roof like a younger version of “The Golden Girls” — why would they need to be 6 feet apart from each other when out in nature?
The U.S. Census defines a family as consisting of “two or more people (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption residing in the same housing unit.” That, sadly doesn’t take into account couples, married or not, who live apart together or even long-term committed cohabitors.
So it isn’t just marriage that makes a family. And as more people choose to remain single, families of choice may become more important — and perhaps even more enduring — than families of origin or by marriage.
Meaning we probably shouldn’t be too sure we “know” who is related to whom and who lives with whom. And, while we’re at it, who is in charge of children in a household.
In California and elsewhere, schools are closed for the next few weeks, perhaps months, and children are at home. What does home look like? Does it have a married mom and dad, a cohabiting couple, stepparents, grandparents, foster parents, a single mom, a single dad, a gay couple, a lesbian couple, a throuple?
Who knows? It shouldn’t matter as long as the children are being loved and cared for.
And yet, there’s only one person who seems to be at fault when kids aren’t paying attention to the shelter-in-place, social-distancing rules now in play.
Guess who it is?
Oh, you know exactly who it is.
On one Facebook post making the rounds, someone complained that teens were hanging around and not social distancing. “Quarantine is not spring break. Moms, check your teenagers.”
Even in a more positive post, about not needing to create a perfect home life during this stressful time, the message is clear — there’s only one person in charge of that:
My house is not a school. It’s a place to feel safe, loved and encouraged … especially during this time. I have given myself a lot of grace during this time and am doing the BEST I can. … Because if this quarantine has taught me anything it’s that we got all the time in the world right now! TAG a mom that needs to hear it!”
Tag a mom. Not a dad, not a parent, not a caregiver. Just Mom. Even if there’s no mom. Or two moms. Or any other way children can be raised in a loving family.
Only moms seem to responsible and accountable. Always. Pandemic or not.
I know. I hear you. People are dying, people are suffering, people are losing jobs, businesses, everything. Life feels impossible and overwhelming right now, and I imagine it will be that way for a long time to come. Why focus on this of all things?
Because what we need right now is gratitude and compassion, and to be able to show up as best we can for each other. And that also means being aware that our language around family may be hurtful to others.
Don’t assume you can tell who’s a family and who isn’t and who lives together and who doesn’t. Don’t assume children have a mom or a dad. If you have to assume anything, assume that all of us are struggling and everyone needs help and maybe you can be there for others without creating more pain.
Stay safe, stay human.