About three months into Washington’s coronavirus pandemic-induced stay-home order, Emily Eastlake, a Seattle software engineer, was working from home when a colleague posed the question: “Where would you go if you could live and work from anywhere?”
“Tacoma,” Eastlake and her husband Greg Hyde joked at the time. Since the pandemic began and day care centers shut down, both their parents had started helping out with their young son during the day. But with the West Seattle Bridge closed, their parents’ commute from Tacoma to West Seattle had become a struggle, and Eastlake’s mother now slept at their house three days a week.
Six weeks after they joked about it, Eastlake found out she was pregnant with their second child and they offered on a home in Tacoma.
The pandemic has upended family life in ways that were unimaginable just over a year ago.
Before March 2020, home was separate from work, school and day care. Now all these things are centered at home. Parents are adjusting to new roles, routines and relationships, and beginning to wonder if their old ones will ever return.
According to Julie Brines, a University of Washington professor studying the sociology of families, some families are undergoing dynamic and structural changes that may prove permanent.
Brines acknowledges that there are limitations to how comprehensive a picture studies can paint — current data is limited to primarily cisgender heterosexual families and those who have access to reporting tools used in studies. However, Brines says one fact probably holds true for most: People are re-centering their families as the focal point of their lives.
“For a lot of people living today, they’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s a big adjustment away from having your experience of life through relationships with others [to now] being defined mostly in terms of your contact with your family,” said Brines. “That’s a big deal.”
‘I don’t want to go back’
Five days a week for 25 years, Antonio Aramburu spent roughly two and a half hours daily commuting from home to his job in downtown Seattle.” He would get home just in time to wish his kids good night before bedtime, and he longed to spend more time with his seven children.
So when Gov. Jay Inslee’s instituted a stay-home order last March, Aramburu saw the silver lining.
The long commute “was killing me,” said Aramburu, who now works at home. “I was low-energy and not able to be there for my kids how I wanted to be.”
Now everyone is home, including Aramburu’s wife Mary Aramburu and their school-aged kids — a high school freshman, one in middle school, and two in grade school. They also have a 3-year-old and a newborn who was born during the pandemic.
Antonio Aramburu says he’s loving the extra time with his family, and Mary Aramburu appreciates the extra help. Where the couple sees the toll of the stay-home order is with the kids’ schooling.
“They’re not getting the attention they’d get in a classroom. I want to be there for my kids, but I’ve got to work” said Aramburu. “I appreciate the public school system. It’s just a sucky situation to be in for all of us.”
Schooling aside, having a larger family has been a boon at a time when other children are struggling to socialize beyond video chats, says Aramburu.
“[The kids] miss their friends, but we’ve got seven kids!” he said. “They know how to keep each other entertained.”
Aramburu worries about his newborn — he’s noticed that his youngest is much warier of people than his older kids were at that age.
While the couple misses their social lives (they met through church but haven’t been to church in almost a year), Aramburu says his bonds with his family are stronger than ever.
Whenever the pandemic subsides, Aramburu hopes he’ll be able to continue working from home so he can stay more involved with his family.
That’s consistent with what UW sociology professor Pepper Schwartz says will happen post-pandemic.
Many will be reluctant to give up the time with their families, said Schwartz. They’ll be looking at jobs that don’t demand being in the office daily, and other ways to save commuting time.
“I don’t want to go back,” Aramburu said.
Living in a huge trauma bubble
Although there have been silver linings to this time, for many, the past year has been one of loss, hardship and crisis.
Marilyn Roberts, a volunteer family education coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — Thurston Mason, says most of the calls she gets these days are from people in crisis.
One in four people in the U.S. has a mental health condition, and with the isolation and/or being in close quarters with family and roommates due to the pandemic, people are struggling, according to Roberts.
“We used to turn to people — friends and family — for support. That’s lost right now,” said Roberts. “When the family unit itself is stressed, it can’t necessarily support recovery … we’re living in a huge trauma bubble right now.”
Some teens and adolescents say they’re talking to their parents more and value their families more, according to Brines, but there’s also been an increase in reports of isolation and depression among young people.
There have also been increased reports of intimate partner violence — a recent study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found this could be due in part to “quarantine conditions,” which the study says are associated with “alcohol abuse, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.”
And for some couples, Schwartz says, the extra time together magnifies what would otherwise be minor issues in their relationships.
“It could be as simple as picking up after someone normally, but now it’s all day every day,” Schwartz said. “It’s putting a lot of pressure on people who would normally not be spending this kind of time together.”
“Make this time matter”
Jennifer Lee, a single mother who shares custody of her 7-year-old with her ex-partner, didn’t see her own situation represented amid the many stories about parents sent scrambling when schools closed last March.
Seattle Public Schools sent out a survey on Jan. 7 asking whether parents wanted their children to return to in-person schooling or continue with virtual classes. Parents got five days to return the survey. For Lee, who anticipated that she and her ex would have differing opinions on the subject, this wasn’t enough.
“What about parents who have a parenting plan in place that requires mediation or a court appointment? There was no time to try and figure it out,” she said. “I feel kind of lost in the conversations of the pandemic.”
Lee and her ex abide by a signed parenting plan to facilitate their shared custody arrangement, but a pandemic isn’t something it accounted for. With little visibility into or control over what happens at her ex’s house, Lee isn’t sure what his COVID-19 safety standards are, and behaviors from one household can have deadly effects on the other. The uncertainty makes Lee anxious — something she’s sure her daughter has picked up on.
Still, Lee has worked hard to “make this time matter” with her child, she says.
She’s more involved with her daughter’s schooling, is building a support system via virtual interest groups, and having difficult conversations — about the hundreds of thousands who’ve died, about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
And of course, sometimes they bake cookies together at 10 a.m. and take walks in their pajamas. She’s trying to ensure she’s not “adding to the trauma of this time” for her daughter.
“Once you have a kid, you don’t have a choice except to survive this and to make it OK for them,” she said.
The time spent together has brought mother and daughter closer and changed how Lee sees herself as a parent.
“I want to be her safe place during a scary time,” Lee said. “Pandemic or not, I want to always be this road back to home, however far she goes.”
Returning to a new normal
For some, coming home was the best way to cope with the pandemic’s challenges.
As a military kid who rarely saw her own grandparents growing up, Eastlake never imagined her parents would be very involved with her own children’s lives.
Now a year into the pandemic, Eastlake practically lives with her mother and mother-in-law, who help care for her one-year-old most days. The pandemic has transformed their family of three into something that resembles a multigenerational household.
The new situation seems to be working and comes with benefits. Eastlake enjoys seeing the stronger relationship between her son and his grandparents.
“If I were to go away for the weekend now, my mom isn’t the equivalent of a babysitter [for Ben], where I have to leave instructions,” she said. “She’s been here day in and day out for the last year.”
With her second child due in April, Eastlake has changed her mind about several of her parenting preferences due to the ways her family life has morphed during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, her son frequently came down with colds or infections that he got from day care. After day cares closed and her son was at home, he finally recovered. Now, Eastlake says she may not enroll her second child in day care right away, and the grandparents might continue to be more involved in their grandkids’ lives.
Helping kids through traumatizing times
As founder and owner of A Nanny for U, a child care matching service, Rebecca Dyk says she’s heard from more moms in tears during the pandemic than before.
In pre-pandemic times, she says, the tears were about parents leaving their kids with their nannies to go back to work.
“Now, it’s fear and having no time to do anything themselves,” she said. “They’re scared.”
A Nanny for U helps families find nannies who are taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously. With many parents working from home, caregivers have in some ways become a bigger part of the household, and communication between both parties is more important than ever, she says.
Also, with more parents at home, “they have become more present than ever before, just really tuned into their kids,” Dyk said. And that has translated into fewer reports of child behavioral problems.
Conversely, Christine Tang, executive director of the parenting support organization Families of Color Seattle, says behavioral problems can erupt when children, now home all day, expect more attention than working parents can give.
Her own children, 6 and 8, “understand that I have a job, but they don’t necessarily understand what that means,” says Tang.
Before the pandemic, most school-aged children would have spent most of their day under the direct supervision of an adult, she said. Now, those children only see their teachers online and, even with their parents at home, they’re on their own for most of the day while their parents work.
“That is a huge change for a child,” she said. “Behavior is a form of communication in children. Since the pandemic has started, we as parents have noticed a lot of new behaviors in our children, including some regression, some otherwise unexplainable behaviors. We have to remember that children experience trauma in very different ways.”
And these are traumatizing times.
For some families of color, especially Black and brown families, the pandemic has hit them harder, Tang says, but one silver lining has been “a respite from concerns about biases and the way racism shows up in schools.”
They have been able to help their children navigate the events of the past year — the Black Lives Matter protests, the killings of Floyd and Taylor, the insurrection. As a mixed-race Black mother herself, Tang was relieved to have her children at home in those fraught moments.
“I was their teacher in those moments. They learned about those things from us, the real stories in age-appropriate ways,” she said. “I don’t know what that would have been like in an in-person school environment.”
As the pandemic continues, Tang imagines we’ll learn more and more about how this time impacted children, parenting decisions and family life.
In the meantime, she’s happy to report that last May, the pandemic inspired her to finally buy and learn to ride her first adult bike.
“It’s one of the few activities that was safe and enjoyable for all of us to do,” she said.
Now, clad in a helmet, knee and elbow pads — and after crashing into her son on her first ride — she and her family regularly ride bikes together.