The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 1.1 million people worldwide, including more than 223,000 in the United States. It destroyed the American economy and led to spikes in suicides and drug overdoses. Its devastation should not be minimized.
Yet there have also been positive consequences, including, for many families, more time for meals together, conversations, games, movie nights and bike rides. The abrupt slowdown in modern life has given people a chance to deepen their relationships and create new rituals together.
“We loved spending time together,” said Gail Bennett, who lives with her husband and 16-year-old son in Greenwich Village, New York. “Before, life took us in a million different directions. But since the pandemic, we’ve been spending a lot more time together at meals, especially at breakfast and dinner.
Research in recent years has correlated family meals with a host of positive outcomes for children: better grades, lower teenage pregnancy rates, better self-esteem, greater likelihood of dating. college and lower rates of drug addiction.
The most comprehensive study, published in The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in January, found that regular family meals are associated with healthier eating and better family relationships.
“We don’t take time for things like family meals,” Bennett said. “Without local and national mandates, we wouldn’t do it any other way.”
In recent years, family dinners have become more common for wealthier families, who are more likely to have the time and money to prepare a meal together. But recent survey data from the IMF Foundation indicates that the pandemic-induced lockdown may have narrowed that difference: People at all economic levels seem to be eating more meals together.
Of 1,000 people surveyed in August, 94% said they cook at home and eat the same amount or more with their families than before the COVID-19 outbreak. Almost 80% said family meals were the highlight of their day.
Relationships grow stronger
Michael and Joanna Bopp, parents of four teenagers in the Washington, DC area, said their relationship with their children has never been stronger.
“He’s my mate now!” Joanna Bopp, a teacher in Virginia, said of her 19-year-old son Andrew. “It’s so rare that teenagers are at home. It was a special moment for us. “
“This age is so educational for them,” Bopp said. “The lockdown gave me a front row seat in their lives. They got stuck at home, unable to see their friends, and still yearn for community. When they can’t have their friends, they turn to us. We’re their second choice – but I’ll take it!
The COVID-19 shutdown has not been without its struggles for families forced into close and constant contact.
“No one is supposed to be in a house with four teenagers for seven months,” said Kate Swanson, of Fishers, Ind., Laughing.
More time for conversations
While there were tense moments as she and her husband adjusted to living locked out with their children, Swanson also noted the increased regularity of in-depth conversations.
“Things around us are changing so quickly,” Swanson said. “We love that we were able to unravel the unprecedented events of racial injustice, problems with our health care system and many other things with our children as these events are occurring.”
While more than 60% of American workers were able to work from home at least part of the time during the pandemic, others were not so lucky. For Hudson Flynn, a 16-year-old who lives with his parents in Greenwich Village, the lockdown has turned his family’s livelihood upside down. Her parents work in the theater – her mother is an actress, her father a producer – and COVID-19 has led to canceled work projects.
“We are normally such a transient family,” said Flynn. “It took a while for us to adjust to the fact that we are all at home at the same time, living in neighborhoods so close.”
But they made the most of it. They began new family rituals, such as daily walks to the hospital around the corner from the house, where they and their neighbors gathered at 6 p.m. every day to applaud the medical workers on the front lines of the crisis.
They used a film projector – their “pandemic buy” – to optimize family movie nights by creating a theatrical experience in their cozy confines. They plan to keep these family rituals – family walks and movie nights – even when the pandemic is a memory.
It’s too early to say what long-term impact the pandemic will have on families – or on society as a whole, for that matter. But Gail Bennett’s son Galen has high hopes for the future.
“I think it will make us all more connected and more empathetic,” he said.
Galen’s optimism is echoed in recent survey data commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, which found that nearly two-thirds of Millennials and Gen Zs still believed the American Dream was possible – despite growing up in the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the financial crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has caused horrific suffering. But that doesn’t mean families haven’t found positive ways to cope with the pain inflicted this year.
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” William Shakespeare wrote. A meal together, a family bike ride, an unhurried conversation. Few things in life are sweeter in a dark and uncertain time.
Alexandra Hudson is an Indianapolis-based writer, Novak Scholar 2019, and Young Voices contributor. She writes a book on civility and civic renewal for St. Martin’s Press. Follow her on Twitter: @LexiOHudson