Apr 4, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus reshapes American families

Illustration of paper cut-out families under outlined houses

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

It used to be scarce and hard-earned, but suddenly family time is abundant in the era of shelter-in-place.

Why it matters: For the first time since the early 19th century, many parents and kids — and even grandchildren — are all under the same roof round-the-clock. And if past periods of emergency are any guide, this enforced togetherness could deepen our relationships for years to come.

The long-term view: While cooped-up families may now be powerfully sick of day-to-day whining and bickering, sociologists say that — historically speaking — enduring hardship together builds stronger connections.

  • The U.S. divorce rate plummeted during the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crash.
  • Expect the same during the pandemic, says Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
  • “When society is facing a tremendous challenge or there’s a big uptick in suffering, people orient themselves in a less self-centered way and in a more family-centric way,” Wilcox tells Axios.

Several families tell us they're growing closer as they're forced to ride out the pandemic as a clan.

  • "The strangest thing I’ve noticed is a sense of bonding," says Steven Singleterry, who works in finance and lives in Brandon, Mississippi.
  • "We spend much less time on electronics and more time together," he says. "I think it’s a product of schooling the kids from home as well as home becoming the new all-in-one."

The challenge: Forcing multiple generations to live in the same space can test our patience. People with young children struggle to balance caregiving with work, and adults who have moved back in with their parents are figuring out how to recalibrate the relationship.

Some families have devised creative solutions:

  • Christopher Mims, a Wall Street Journal columnist who lives in Baltimore, says his young kids have built an entire LEGO-based trade economy that keeps them occupied for most of the day. "They interrupt me constantly. ... But each day it gets easier. They get wrapped up in deep imaginative play and I can ignore them for long periods," he tells Axios.
  • Singleterry's take: "We’ve instituted more hands-on activities with regard to art and music that we had not done previously — the kids have enjoyed that."

For many families, the current situation "forces a total re-evaluation of work-life balance," says AnnMarie Thomas, a professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota.

  • "I think the key way family life has changed, for families where the parents are fortunate enough to be working from home right now, is that the family is always all here," she says.

The other side: While millions of Americans are enjoying a family renaissance, others are living through the worst of times.

  • The Brookings Institution estimates that around 60 million essential workers are still going to their jobs on the front lines, and that's affecting their families.
  • Those who are still going to work in critical industries are frequently putting in longer hours than usual — not only spending less time with kids, but also often dealing with child care crises.
  • Many families are dealing with the loss of loved ones or jobs, which tend to disrupt family life and harm people's marriages, Wilcox says. "We can’t minimize the ways this is a shock to the system for many families."
  • And experts say we're staring down a domestic violence crisis fueled by anxiety, stay-at-home rules and economic uncertainty, reports Axios' Ina Fried.

The bottom line: For better or worse, these months spent inside the home will have a lasting impact.

  • Some families tell us they hope they can stick to cooking at home more often.
  • Some parents say the break from their normal routines has freed up time to play outside with the kids — something they hope to keep up.
  • Historian and author Judith Flanders told me: "In good family situations, this is fabulous. Then in bad family situations, the badness will be magnified."
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