In the first installment of our “pandemic home tour,” I began by noting what has been happening in contemporary families, citing findings described in my 2017 book The Stuff of Family Life and then contrasting them with pandemic-related patterns. I discussed the sleeping spaces of children and young adults as locations for identity transitions when they move from childhood bedroom to dorm room or apartment (now thwarted by pandemic pushes for young adults to remain home while starting or continuing an adult chapter of life). I named adults’ bedrooms as locations for the placement and sometimes accidental display of intimate objects (now turned into both rest and paid work spaces with technological devices that simultaneously give outsiders glimpses into our private worlds and connect us to intimate others via video calls). In this portion of our home tour, we head into kitchens, hobby areas, dining rooms, patios, and beyond to uncover the ways that inequalities and ideologies about families and homes are shifting during the pandemic.
It has long been the case that kitchens and hobby areas (such as tool sheds or craft rooms or, in my house, the dining room table) are labor-rich spaces in the home, both for everyday household labor such as cooking and washing dishes, and for activities more likely today (especially among middle class families) to be labeled as leisure such as sewing, woodworking, baking, or home décor projects. And while men and women are looking more similar to each other than in the past with regard to home-based labor and leisure, it is still the case that women bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities, including those that are about the aesthetic representation of the home via pandemic-inspired “statement” décor and the provision of carb-loaded comfort via sourdough starters.
Now in the kitchen we see a move toward more home-cooking as restaurants have had to close or limit their capacities. Over the last several months in hobby areas (or on dining room tables) we have seen an increase in home remodeling projects, Marie Kondo-ing, and crafting (including fabric mask-making) as people renew their interests in domestic hobbies and notice the spaces that need fixing up or cleaning up more than before. In other words, in light of lessened travel and more time spent at home, we are seeing more attention to domestic display and more at-home leisure, especially among those who can afford the time and money needed to decorate, bake, or sew for fun.
The move to more at-home cooking, eating, and hobby-making is one that is experienced by men and women differently in even more pronounced ways during the pandemic. Inequalities between men and women have been exacerbated in the management of home and work responsibilities such as homeschooling and cleaning (and in the disproportionate reduction of work productivity among women). Who has time for hobbies when paid work and homeschooling children co-occur? Whether it is helping a child with homework, setting up a home office at the kitchen table next to groceries, or pulling out the power tools to fix that door that has been squeaking since pre-COVID days, the labor associated with increased time spent at home is not equitably distributed and seems to be reverting to more traditional gender roles than we’ve seen in some time.
The living room (or family room), a more public space within a home as compared to a bedroom or bathroom, has long been a place where parents, children, and guests interact and sometimes compete over its use. It is also seen as a place of relaxation and socializing, with TVs and low tables and couches meant more for plopping and chatting than for sitting up straight. During the pandemic, when the invitation of outsiders into a home carries with it a whole new set of safety-related meanings, and when there are more people spending more time at home (thus competing over space), spaces just outside of homes have been turned into spots for “living room-type” interactions. Patios, porches, balconies, and rooftops are the new second living rooms – the social hour locations and retreats from the “bustle” of home. It is no wonder that sales of outdoor couches have skyrocketed (it is also no wonder that the patio heater I ordered online seems to have doubled in price between August and September).
Any decent family scholar will tell you that a home tour should never start or end at the doors of a single home. There are countless spaces beyond a single home that are part of contemporary family stories, before and during the pandemic. For example, what about those families who spend time in two or more home spaces – divorced or separated families, created families, transnational families, and intergenerational families who do not limit their frequent connectedness to one dwelling? In my 2017 book, I wrote that it is a mistake to presume a home has clear boundaries and is limited only to those whose private lives are connected. In fact, to do so lessens our ability to understand families as they really are, including inequalities and problems that are hard to eradicate because they are too-often hidden behind closed doors.
During the pandemic, we have seen kids navigate different quarantine rules and space allocations in the households of separated parents. We have seen the creation of “pandemic pods” to allow for at least some enhanced social interaction among those who may not share a dwelling but who would call each other brother and sister. We have seen political moves that render national borders impermeable between countries for people who are just trying to return to their families. We have seen people unable to visit aging parents or grandparents in their homes, in senior living homes, and even in hospitals. In all of these cases, we are realizing perhaps more than before that we don’t always get to control the boundaries in our family lives, and that, when we do feel a little bit of control, we create connections rather than barriers.
We spend a lot of time in our families working on defining and dealing with boundaries. Who counts as family? When will I be an adult? Who is entitled to work spaces in a home with doors that close? Can I wear pajama pants during my work call? Which spaces are off limits to kids and visitors? The pandemic not only shines a spotlight on these boundary-making processes that we were already doing, it disrupts them. Let’s pay attention so that we can more fully and intentionally use our home spaces to see connections between us and others, and to be aware of the significance of space and objects in our relationships.
Defining family life as an entirely private affair fails to account for how our family lives actually are. We constantly interweave public and private life, and not just by opening fence gates and creating desire lines across our lawns or apartment building carpets that emerge from countless visits with neighbors. What happens in the world is happening in our homes. Our private stories are curated in public social media outlets. And during a pandemic, our private health stories are part of public health concerns. Now, while seeing grandparents through windows and putting plexiglass and cotton fabric between our faces and six feet between our bodies, we realize just how not-human those boundaries feel. We realize that rendering family life as entirely private, as entirely home-centric, also renders us home-bound and missing out on the larger social connections that sustain us as social beings.
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.