Do you come from a big family? If you are an American, statistically speaking, probably not. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average family consisted of 3.14 persons in 2019, which is tiny, considering the size of the average household in 1850 was around 5.5. I was thinking about these numbers recently in relation to the pandemic. Many families today are split up in the wake of the quarantines. Additionally, I have a number of single friends who are living alone in quarantine. While restricting movement can be hard for anyone, it can be an excruciating exercise when you are discouraged from visiting those who are closest to you.
As silly as it is to say, historically, families all used to live in one place. Large, close families increased one’s chances at survival. In medieval times, a strong network of kinship provided you with vital resources including, most importantly, defense. More recently, and still in developing countries, children are an asset. Children from appalling young ages by today’s standards would work on the farm, help out with the family business, and even provide basic childcare. Industrialization brought sweeping changes to the role of the family. While the family was once thought of as a unit of production (i.e. family members contribute to the family’s well being), gradually the family became a unit of consumption (i.e. family members exhaust family resources [most notably children]). In short, a large family became more of a liability than an asset. Over time, as industrialization and education levels increased, the rate of infant mortality decreased, and with the advent of reliable contraception, we begin to see the modern family structure emerge, where parents provide for a small number of offspring and such offspring have minimal duties until adolescence or even adulthood.
Today, a freedom to move around means that families are more spread apart. Children live in different cities, states, and countries from their parents and marry partners who come from different communities than their own. With the ongoing pandemic, families can be completely split up. I imagine that if the pandemic had occurred 200 years ago (and somehow magically spread as quickly without the aid of airplanes), many of us would not be facing the quarantines alone. All of my single millennial-aged friends would probably all have been married by their ages (26 – 34) if this were the 1800s. In fact, these young adults would likely already have a few children cooped up in cramped quarters with them.
I have seen a barrage of lovely videos featuring children visiting grandparents from behind glass and birthday ‘drive by’s’ for kids. Our families are smaller and more spread out today, but the connection is still there. The pandemic has erected physical barriers between us, however, at the same time, I feel that nowadays more families are somewhat distanced even without the pandemic. In a weird, perverse way, I feel that the panic around the pandemic has compelled people to reach out more to loved ones even if they cannot physically see them. I, myself, and many of my friends who live away from home, go several days (and, at times, weeks) without contacting a family member outside of a few text messages. It feels as if there has always been some distance between us and our families; the pandemic just legitimizes this gap. On the other hand, however, many of us are experiencing the exact opposite—we are spending every waking (and sleeping) hour with our immediate family. Near or far, the pandemic is a good time for reflection.
Once our movement is again unrestricted, how will you manage your closest relationships? Will you visit more often? Call more regularly? Or, for those of you who have been in quarters too-close-for comfort with your family, perhaps, you will consider a solo vacation to wherever! (I kid.)
Either way, I hope you have the support you need during this difficult time.