In my 2017 book The Stuff of Family Life I show how home spaces and objects – room by room and life stage by life stage – tell the stories of contemporary family life. In 2020, the stories have taken some pandemic-related turns, including the shift of some home spaces to new functions (for example, my dining room is also my classroom, my office, and – evidenced by the loud chewing noises near my feet during my classes – my dog’s lunchroom). In this two-part series I provide a “pandemic home tour” in which I contrast the stuff (and spaces) of pre-pandemic family life with what is happening now.
In this installment I highlight bedrooms and home offices, calling attention to identity transitions and changing ways that intimacy is (and sometimes is not meant to be) shared in our interactions with others.
I begin our home tour in a child’s bedroom. A few years ago when I surveyed college students about how they defined home, it became clear that a geographic move away from a childhood bedroom accompanies the perception that this move signifies increasing independence, where the accessories of childhood are left behind. Even if stuffed animals and childhood bedspreads find their way into residence hall rooms, students strategically curate these items for a new audience in a more public setting, all the while wrestling with the best way to materially symbolize a burgeoning adult identity. Rather than putting a teddy bear on top of a bed, a student may hide it in a drawer to keep the childhood vibe to a minimum, only pulling it out at bedtime or to show it to a few intimate friends as they talk about their childhoods.
In the time of COVID-19, many college students are either starting college in their childhood bedrooms or returning home to those spaces to continue their higher education journey once their campus closes. In fact, the proportion of all 18- to 29-year-olds who live with their parents has now surpassed 50%, which is a higher proportion than seen during the Great Depression. The process at play this fall for young adults who otherwise would live on the campus of a residential college or university or in an apartment involves a renegotiation of adult-type roles with family members who may see them as children. Alongside this role renegotiation is a material and spatial negotiation that asks whether the spaces and objects of childhood are amenable to burgeoning independence (and amenable to display to new college and job peers in Zoom classes). Preliminary evidence suggests they are not. Starting college in a bedroom with a Disney Channel poster unironically displayed on the wall during class may not be the most desirable Zoom background for college students who want to convey an adult identity.
And further, it is not just 18-year-olds navigating a new adult experiences in childhood bedrooms. COVID-19 has also sent millennials back to their parents’ homes (sometimes because they cannot afford to live on their own, sometimes because they choose to return home to have or provide social support even if they could afford to keep their own places). Role negotiations (and sometimes decisions about room décor and object display) between parents and adult children are thus trickier than even a year ago. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic may alter the definition of adulthood now that the criterion for geographic separation from parents is not necessarily possible, nor maybe even desirable, for 18- to 29-year-olds.
As our tour moves into home spaces that may offer privacy for adult members of families, such as a couple’s shared bedroom, we notice the storage and display of intimate objects such as pajamas, hygiene products, and even love letters. Intimate objects have always been great locations for examining how public and private boundaries can operate within a home. We know this because a request to see someone’s sock or underwear drawer would be met with furrowed eyebrows more than a request to see inside someone’s new barbeque.
In our pandemic world, bedroom spaces have been infiltrated more than in the past by communication technologies such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Our bedrooms have, in more cases than in the past and primarily for those who are privileged to be able to work from home using computers and communication technology, become our home offices. So now not only are children and pets Zoom-bombing work meetings, the intimate bits of our shared bedrooms are more likely to be accidentally seen by work colleagues in these video meetings. We are also establishing etiquette for these kinds of encounters, suggesting that the interaction rituals associated with these new platforms and spaces are becoming routinized and filled with meaning.
At the same time work colleagues get to see our private spaces, video conversations are more likely than before to be the place to establish new intimacies (via online dating apps) and maintain existing ones (via Zoom celebrations such as weddings). So, not only is the bedroom increasingly likely to serve as an intimate space where work occurs via digital platforms; the creation and maintenance of intimate connections requires those same platforms. The home-work boundaries we may have had in place before have been punctured, revealing that the public-private distinction that may have pushed bedrooms further into the realm of “private” has blurred. We must now spend energy on transitioning between using the laptop for an online dating encounter and that same laptop for a work meeting. The laptop, meanwhile, rests on our bed.
In the second installment of our home tour next week, I’ll showcase kitchens, hobby areas, living rooms, patios, and places where home is situated in more than one place. By doing so, I will uncover the ways that gender inequalities in families are manifesting themselves during the pandemic, as well as ideological shifts related to families and homes that are emerging in response to pandemic-related physical and spatial barriers. I discuss how the pandemic is showing us how connected we’d actually like to be, within and between families.
Michelle Janning, is the Raymond and Elsie Gipson DeBurgh Chair of Social Sciences and Professor and Chair of Sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She is the author of several books on how spaces and objects not only symbolize what’s happening in contemporary families, but also shape family life itself. She also sewed a couple hundred fabric masks this summer to give away so that she could have people visit her on her patio. Michelle’s latest article is from Bringing Children Back into the Family: Relationality, Connectedness, and Home, in the Sociological Studies of Children and Youth Series. The book is available to buy from this link – to get 30% off from any book in the series use the discount code BCBF. Janning’s work is described at www.michellejanning.com.