SALT LAKE CITY — When the novel coronavirus pandemic first disrupted American lives, the plaintive question for most seemed to be “When can we go back to normal?” Amid shuttered businesses, online school and silenced entertainment, the world felt surreal.
Nearly three months into navigating that disruption, it’s clear some aspects of life born in unsought social distancing will be nurtured into the future. People want to keep them.
Families say they’ve enjoyed having more time — Thank you, less commuting and extracurriculars! — to take long walks and play board games and tackle overdue projects, especially with their fellows in confinement.
Folks have picked up abandoned hobbies, developed new skills, gotten to know each other better and explored their neighborhoods more deeply. Research says more men are sharing household chores. People are paying more attention to locally owned businesses.
This is a story of silver linings. And a few things people can’t wait to leave behind.
April Ethington of Midvale has noticed that in quarantine her children interact more. She and husband Brickmann blended their two families years ago and have eight kids, ages 4 to 18. All but the oldest have been home in forced togetherness, creating really touching interactions and bonds she might not have predicted.
“The little ones know the big ones better than they did. They jump on the trampoline and do crafts with them more,” she said, adding her older kids would normally be spending more time with their own friends or on extracurriculars.
Ethington said she’ll do everything she can to nurture those connections into the future, even “hiring” the older kids to take younger ones to some of their activities, like tumbling, when life opens up. That will take some of the mom-as-chauffeur load off her, while strengthening sibling ties.
Meredith Foster, a Salt Lake City mom whose son Colin, 18, is still at home, said she used to exercise at the gym, but started exercising in her neighborhood during social distancing, unexpectedly leading to new relationships.
“This has allowed me to meet more of my neighbors and get to know the community a bit better,” she said.
Her extended family has been physically distant, but emotional distance is narrow. “I have learned to connect with family and friends more meaningfully,” Foster said. “Whether using newer technology (Zoom/Marco Polo) or more old-fashioned methods like telephone and letter writing, it’s definitely been a blessing to connect in this way.”
Michelle Levander has been working from home, spending time with her twin sons, nearly 18. Their togetherness has included playing Scramble and Monopoly in the evenings. She’s also spent more time on “long, meandering talks about good books or family jokes” with her mother late at night. Levander, director of the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California, said she’s part of “The Coronavirus Task Force,” which she describes as a “wryly named text group chat among all my siblings and my nephew.”
Outside the window
Alex Wilson and his wife Denny Aldridge started gardening with their daughter Mae, 6, and will keep that going in the future, also teaching baby Esther when she’s old enough to poke the tomato and carrot seeds into the soil. Their garden provides more than food, Wilson said, offering togetherness, exercise and a chance to teach Mae where food comes from.
“I think we would have been doing it regardless, but she’s at an age where we’re trying to expose her to as many enriching activities as we can, which is difficult during lockdown,” said Wilson, who owns R. Alex Wilson Fine Violins in Salt Lake City. “Like a flower blossoming, she needs all the sunshine of the world to grow and flourish. Being isolated has been incredibly difficult for her.”
W. Bradford Wilcox, sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said his family has taken up gardening, too. He predicts they will be more active in general as a family. They have been mountain biking a lot — “Just a lot more activity out of doors, which we aim to keep up. It’s been good for our younger kids,” he said. “But our teens are ready to get out and be social.”
“I’ve learned to slow down and appreciate the beauty of the world,” said Randall Carlisle, former TV anchor and now media specialist at Odyssey House. “... Working from home and isolating from other people has subtly forced me to realize how beautiful the view of the mountains is from my window or how rapidly an indoor plant is growing or how much people I can’t see mean to me.”
Some changes have evolved, others are by design. The Ethingtons wanted their teenagers excited and learning while they were doing everything from home. So they required their two 16-year-old boys and their two 13-year-old girls (they each brought one of each age into their blended family) to start a business, complete with name and logo and a plan to find customers.
When the world goes back to green, the boys still plan to run Mowlicious Lawns, their lawn mowing service, which has been a neighborhood hit. The girls will still make banana bread for their Bread Bites Bakery, April Ethington said.
Getting things done
Because they both work — Aldridge teaches at West High School — Mae and Esther are usually in school and daycare. Wilson said he has enjoyed the extra time with his kids. He’s used part of it to start teaching Mae to play violin, though eventually they’ll turn that over to someone else.
Foster and her husband, Devin, decided in January they’d like to eat in more and do meal prep as a family. They plan to keep doing it. “Little did we know just how many opportunities we would have during quarantine to share the planning and preparation responsibilities,” she said. “Three months of three meals a day has given us ample time to expand our menu repertoire and try new recipes and techniques.”
Levander said she’s loved cooking with her sons, too.
Kitenge Kasongo of Taylorsville mostly goes to work while his wife Mado, employed in Granite School District’s preschool and daycare, more often stays home with the children, ages 6 months to 12 years, a brood that includes their kids, Kitenge’s brother and a nephew. It’s meant a fair amount of juggling.
That hasn’t let him off the hook at home. He helps with the kids, so like much of working America has become pretty good at Zoom conferencing. His days are longer in pandemic: At night he helps the children do schoolwork on the computer he uses for work during the day.
Kasongo, a refugee from the Republic of Congo, said while the pandemic has required adjustments, it’s also great practice for future crises. And they now know they can help teach their children, though English is not their first language and he sometimes needs translation help.
April Ethington, who owns a salon, has enjoyed the slower pace and not having to run kids around so much. “We run around like crazy all the time,” said Ethington.
She’s excited for schools to reopen; her kids have missed the activities and sports. But in quarantine, they started taking a weekly class together and plan to keep doing that monthly. They’ve also been camping more and will continue that monthly.
Wilson said while he’s especially looking forward to schools reopening, they won’t toss the structure they developed to help keep Mae on track with online school. They developed a checklist of what she needs to accomplish each day that’s proven helpful.
Wilson thinks he’ll do more work at home than he had been, maintaining the best aspects of life before and life during the pandemic.
The Ethingtons got a “quarantine” pup, a mini golden doodle. They are definitely keeping that.
Despite how much families want to keep from a period of enforced social distancing, they’re anxious for parts of the experience to go away.
“I worry that in the future we will all be afraid to hug someone or even shake hands or be in a crowd. I understand social distancing right now, but fear that people will be forever scared of close human contact and I think that would be a sad commentary on our existence,” said media expert Carlisle.
Levander would most like to lose forever “that horrible feeling of going into the supermarket as if it’s a hazardous waste site.” She’s not fond of face masks or “the ridiculous substitute for instruction that is remote school.”
Foster describes her leave-it-behind list as mostly conceptual.
“I have detested the feeling of uncertainty that encompasses everything from job security to supply chain/food availability, to whether my graduating senior can plan to go to college next fall. As a planner by nature, this uncertainty has been unsettling, to say the least. As a control freak, COVID-19 has reiterated how little control we actually have over so many aspects of our lives ... with is also deeply unsettling.”
She said people feel pressure to be creative in everything from meal prep to daily planning, scheduling and schoolwork. “The pressure to be productive across all of the many roles we’ve been asked to assume during quarantine has been immense. I will be glad to have someone ask what we are doing or what we are eating and to say in response, ‘I don’t know. I honestly haven’t thought about it.”