The COVID-revealed weaknesses in our family systems

Are you feeling overwhelmed and stressed by the intense prolonged, family time created by the pandemic? Many American parents are having trouble adjusting to this new normal. Everyone’s stress levels are high, but the extra strain of parenting young children has been magnified by isolation.

For those working from home, there are the constant interruptions and scheduling challenges. You may have seen some anecdata on this on Facebook. Larry Snyder, who describes his children as “responsible, self-sufficient, and mature,” counted an average of 15 interruptions an hour - an interruption approximately every 3.4 minutes. And he says he didn’t count distractions like shrieks of laughter or violin practice. This is why we feel like we can’t get much work done at home.

Parents who are used to staying home with their children or homeschooling have lost many of the supports they’ve always relied upon. The homeschooling that is happening during this pandemic is not representative of the way most homeschooling families operate. Gathering with other homeschooling families or stay-at-home parents isn’t an option. Field trips aren’t an option. Parents with essential jobs are going to extreme lengths to make sure they don’t infect the rest of their families, which often leaves the other parent alone with the kids 24/7.

Children are also suffering from the decrease in social interaction. Boredom and loneliness has led children to demand more playtime with their parents during a time when many parents are craving alone time and adult interaction. Regardless of the boundaries you typically have in place, you are probably questioning if you should change them and wondering what your temporary “quarantine boundaries” should be.

In addition, parents and children may be wondering what they will do if they get sick. If a parent is in the hospital, who would care for their children? How could that person’s safety be ensured? If a parent tests positive for Covid-19, then there’s a reasonable chance that their children may also be infected. Even if the children are asymptomatic, as it seems many of them are, that doesn’t mean it’s safe for them to move in with vulnerable grandparents.

With daycare either unavailable or too high-risk, parents, most often women, are feeling compelled to leave the workforce--even if their positions haven’t been eliminated or suspended.


The nuclear family isn’t ideal

Since the 1950s, the nuclear family has been held up as the ideal family arrangement in Western societies, although the arrangement was always fragile during normal times. In January 2019 Prosperity Now released a scorecard that showed 40% of American families didn’t have enough savings to make ends meet at the poverty level if they faced a major financial disruption. The elderly are shunted off to retirement homes to wither away, instead of being venerated as the most knowledgeable members of society. New mothers perhaps feel the combination of pressures most acutely: <href="#Maternity-leave-facts-in-the-United-States">only 12% of women in the private sector have access to paid maternity leave, with 25% of women returning to work within two weeks after delivery. Precisely in the period when they need the most support, many new mothers (particularly in higher income brackets) are largely isolated in their homes with their babies for much of the day with family living far away. Rates of post-partum depression and parental burnout are increasing.

In non-pandemic times, nuclear families who can afford it outsource household tasks like cleaning, childcare, dog walking, and cooking. Even with this shift to outsourcing, women were still spending significantly more time on childcare and domestic tasks than men. Unpaid, care-related labor has traditionally fallen to women, and so when services are inaccessible, the responsibility then falls back onto women.

Even women who are able to socially distance themselves at home are picking up more than their share of the mental load; the internet is flooded with women sharing how difficult it’s been. (And others telling us what we should be doing to ‘thrive’ during quarantine--spoiler: you’re doing it all wrong.)

While the childless are struggling to find ways to fill their days, families with young children are struggling more than ever to get everything done. It’s not only more socially understood that women will be the caregivers, but income inequality makes it more likely that the ‘easy decision’ will be to let the mother’s salary go in favor of the father’s higher-paying career. It’s simply accepted that the mother in this situation will care for the children 24/7 with little respite; when a stay-at-home father realizes he can’t do this for more than three days in a row, the mother might dissolve her entire company to give him a break.

The dominance of the nuclear family in American society leaves parents exhausted, scared, and vulnerable. If a caregiver gets sick or loses a job, in a multi-generational family home, there are other members who can step up to compensate. In a single-parent household with a few children, or a two-parent household, one person getting sick or losing a job is far more disruptive to the family’s life.

When the nuclear family is considered the gold standard, where does that leave single-parent families? Claims that the nuclear family is the “most stable and safest environment for raising children” stigmatize single parents, many of whom are mothers from non-dominant cultures. It also ignores racial differences in the impact single-parent family structures have on children. Stay-at-home orders tend to assume the presence of two parents, and the 30% of families with fewer than two parents at home have been left to figure out how to balance their needs with safety concerns.

During the pandemic, we are seeing the inadequacies of the nuclear family magnified. The American Dream and the nuclear family have become inextricably linked, and it leaves behind women and citizens who belong to non-dominant cultures.


Race, culture, and Covid-19

Unsurprisingly, families of marginalized, non-dominant cultures are in a worse position than families of the dominant culture even in the good times, so on top of being more physically vulnerable to COVID-19 (due to the effects of systemic racism), the financial hardships of the pandemic are disproportionately hitting people of non-dominant cultures.

They’ve been excluded from support structures like access to housing, mortgage tax breaks, and now access to PPP loans. They’ve been subject to disparities in air quality and funding for education. They are more likely to live in a food desert where it’s more difficult to find reasonably-priced, healthy food.

Workers in nursing homes, and other essential workers are disproportionately women and people from non-dominant cultures in the US (information on the disproportionate impact in New York City here, the Bay Area here and Boston here); note that there are discrepancies between these city-level data and the Economic Policy Institute data that I link to for statistics on women). These workers were already working for very low wages. Now, without any additional compensation, they are working in more dangerous conditions, largely without proper protection.

Families of non-dominant cultures face higher risks and consequences related to Covid-19 itself - not just the resulting economic hardships. When we think of the places where Covid-19 is spreading the fastest - meat packing facilities, nursing homes, and prisons - these are places where minorities are more likely to suffer than members of the dominant culture.

Multiple factors, including those related to systemic racism, have also made people of non-dominant cultures more likely to have conditions that are known to increase the danger of Covid-19 like diabetes and hypertension. In the US, people of non-dominant cultures are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to live in poverty.

The willingness of some politicians to accept unacceptable conditions for members of non-dominant cultures makes us as a society more vulnerable to the virus.


How to get through Shelter in Place

Now that families can’t outsource childcare and domestic chores, many are finding themselves completely overwhelmed.

Being home with our children all day long every day is draining the parents of middle-class America. Faced with acting as caregiver, teacher, housekeeper, while continuing to work full time from improvised home offices has left parents feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and inadequate.

Children are accustomed to having every minute planned with engaging activities. When they are expected to work or play independently, they are at a loss and find themselves unable to manage their time without constant direction.

People are desperate to get out for lots of reasons, but we need to stop viewing the pandemic as a problem with two possible solutions: open everything or stay in quarantine.

We need to think creatively about how we can safely resume some activities, and how we can lessen the burden of isolation for those who can stay home, and provide care options for those whom we are deeming ‘essential workers’ and are asking to keep us supplied with food, toilet paper, and a steady stream of Amazon packages.

Quality time without exhaustion

Do you feel pressure to play with your children? When we see social media images of parents creating elaborate obstacle courses for their children or making volcanoes, it’s easy to feel like we have to make sure we keep our children constantly engaged in “quality” activities. And, of course, without their usual playmates many children will be constantly trying to recruit adults for pretend play.

If given a choice, many children would engage in play with their parents most of the day. And is this really surprising? When they were tiny we engaged them every moment we could, pointing to things and extending conversations to develop their language abilities. They got used to our attention, but when play became more about their goals than ours, we got bored. No wonder they protest when we beg off! We know that playing pretend is good for children, and when they don’t have playmates, parents often feel pressured to fill that role.

One alternative is to nurture independent play. Using this method, parents try to blend into the background and let their children lead their own play. It can take some getting used to, but proposing activities that match your child’s current schema can be a huge help.

Quality time strengthens the parent/child relationship, but quality time does not have to involve lots of parental energy. Quality time can involve short periods of time when the parent focuses attention completely on the child and on engaging their play - but also by fully engaging with the child during caregiving tasks like meals, bathing, and storytime. It doesn’t have to mean hours of pretend play every day.

Isolate in a constellation

Isolating together in a ‘constellation’ is a potential option for those of us maintaining social distancing and exercising caution. If you can find some like-minded neighbors, the burden of constantly acting as parent, teacher, cook, and house-keeper - often while working full time hours - can be spread out between multiple adults.

Finding this type of relationship might be a challenge, but the payoff can be large. Some families compared the process to dating. You’re looking for a family who shares your values to at least some extent. They need to be located close by, and hopefully your children can play well together.

Families could potentially share the burden of meal preparation and child care. Sometimes it’s easier to care for 4-6 children than it is to care for 1-2. Children will engage each other, this might even allow the adult in charge of supervision to get something done - as long as the task doesn’t require quiet!

Finding other families to share responsibilities with might be a good practice to consider beyond the pandemic. Choosing extended families can help reduce the burdens on the nuclear family.

A new vision for schools

As difficult as it is to admit, school really wasn’t working for children before the pandemic – and especially for children of non-dominant cultures – the majority of whom leave with only basic math and reading skills due to a variety of factors like chronic underfunding of their schools and their experience of bias in daily interactions as well as in how rules are applied.

Instead of promoting a one-size-fits-all educational system, in the short term we need to provide a variety of educational structures to meet different families’ needs. Not every family wants their children to attend school next year, and home education for these children frees up space for people whose families need their children to attend school. Older children could study from home more often, making campus space available for younger children. We won’t get the formula right the first time, so we need to give ourselves permission to try things, see what’s working and what’s not working (and for whom it’s not working) and adjust our approach quickly if needed.

Forest schools in city parks could become more common, as they are in Germany. Social and emotional learning should be the primary focus of the next year, to ensure that children feel safe and loved, which will enable advances in more traditional academic learning in future years. Funding should be provided to schools and families who are home educating in inverse proportion to the amounts that schools have historically received.


Reducing our vulnerability for the future

Now that we realize how over-valuing the nuclear family, the perpetuation of the patriarchy, and structural racism have left us vulnerable, where do we go from here? The nuclear family is promoted by government policies, and research indicates that children generally do better in continuously married households. This hardly seems surprising, though, given that society has pathologized any family structure other than nuclear families for a few generations now. What if instead of trying to get people to adhere to one family structure, we supported them in creating a stable, loving environment for themselves and their children - no matter how many adults are continuously present? We need to develop a vision for a multitude of potential family options to counter the two-parents-plus-children model that has been espoused by evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

1. We need to envision and work toward new kinds of family groupings. Multiple nuclear families, families without romantic partnerships, a version of extended families with non-biological relationships?

2. Building homes and neighborhoods for new kinds of family groups. Families have been modifying homes for years to allow for unique living arrangements. We need to stop designing endless cookie cutter single family homes and start designing homes that accommodate different family structures and groupings.

3. More parental figures - formal or informal. These types of arrangements, while not wide-spread, are beginning to form. California has a law that allows children to have more than two legal parents. One family has shared their experience with this relationship that includes a includes a hetero-sexual couple and their friend, an asexual, who are raising their daughter in a three-way, legal partnership. The Netherlands recently became the first country to allow children to have up to 4 legal parents.

4. Universal programs that would make families less vulnerable could be adopted: universal childcare, healthcare, and paid parental leave are already practiced in countries around the world. The idea of universal basic income is becoming more mainstream, and it’s been tried in a quite few places.

5. Changing our patriarchal system, not just to ensure women have a seat at the table, and make traditionally female-dominated caring careers more attractive and acceptable to men, but also to enable people of all genders to live more fulfilling lives.

6. Rather than focusing on finding ways to promote a vision of the nuclear family around the world, embrace diversity. Learn about family structures that are successful in other cultures. Encourage the depiction of non-nuclear families in different types of media.


Short-term and long-term paths forward

So in the short term, supporting our children in learning how to play independently can really make a huge difference in our ability to navigate a situation where externally-provided childcare is no longer available. Children become accustomed to and eventually accept things that become routine. Start with a few minutes after each meal when you ‘aren’t available,’ and work upward from there. (And never, never, ever interrupt a child who is playing independently!)

Isolating in constellations can provide additional relief, whether this happens informally with neighbors watching each other’s kids who are social isolatedly-biking on the sidewalk for an hour, or more formally over longer periods of time.

And in the longer term, instead of promoting a single view of family structures and vilifying all others, we may find that accepting and supporting families of many different types provides us with immediate resilience in disaster situations in the future, as well as models we can learn from when some family types weather the upcoming storms more effectively than others.

About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. N on June 1, 2020 at 3:35 AM

    I know you don’t like negative feedback Jen, but…
    ever since I’ve read/heard some of your claims about education I’ve started doubting how good your research is (although I do think it was significantly better when you first started the podcast). Especially when you interview an “expert” who only presents their side of the research and we don’t get to hear the opposing views at all.

    So I click on one link in this article where I thought to myself *really*? That’s sounds wrong. “essential workers are disproportionately women and people from non-dominant cultures in the US” and think says, in table 2 “Essential workers by gender, education, and race/ethnicity, 2019” for “All essential workers” that 51% are male (which sounds about the same as the general population) and 55% are white (which also sounds about the same as the general population, according to “white Americans with no Latin American ancestry make up 52.7% of the population”). Seems essential workers are not disproportionately women or people from non-dominant cultures.

    • Jen Lumanlan on June 16, 2020 at 1:31 AM

      Hi N,

      Thanks for your comment; I’m sorry to hear that the podcast has fallen short for you. My first source on this was a NYT article: You are correct that the source I identified does not point to women as disproportionately holding essential jobs, so I have updated the article to reflect other sources for this and noted the potential discrepancies in the sources.

      The Census data direct from the source (rather than from Wikipedia) states that 76.5% of Americans are “White alone,” which means that Whites are under-represented in every single category in the Table 2 you mention, so I did not make any updates here.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,


  2. Nicole Tahoe on June 18, 2020 at 9:28 PM

    Now that restrictions are loosening how do we begin to trust others with assisting in the childcare? How do we deal with trust issues between parents and families who have opposing views about what is safe and not safe during the pandemic? I.e. one family group goes in public without masks but the other family members disagree with that risk and how to navigate interacting with them.

    • Jen Lumanlan on June 29, 2020 at 5:43 AM

      Nicole I think what you can do in this case is to talk with the other family about what risks feel appropriate for each of your families to take. Maybe one family has regular contact with an immunocompromised person who cannot be exposed to the virus, so they must take extensive precautions. They might be willing to co-isolate with another family who is also willing to be in a fairly exclusive ‘pod,’ but not with a family who doesn’t usually wear masks out in public. Ultimately you need to make the decision about who you will socialize with based on your family’s unique circumstances – and I would tend to be up-front about that with others to minimize the potential for misunderstanding.

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