Sabina Read is trying to take a “glass half full” approach to life as her household – and the rest of ours – now knows it.
Unlike most of us, she has her tools as a psychologist to help COVID-proof our now-literally closest relationships; in Read’s case with the husband, two daughters (one boyfriend), and dog with whom she is 24/7 sharing a roof.
While parents of older, more independent, children report enjoying the bonus bonding and some couples say they are using the time to refresh, Read concedes that for any relationship with submerged issues, without careful management the coming months could be “diabolical”. “Alcohol use is already on the increase, and if the relationship was already on the slide you will have to work twice as hard to keep the dynamics at bay,” she says. For some families, “it’s going to have devastating effects” as people are forced to confront problems, “instead of rolling over things”.
But, as someone whose family is doing well, she has strategies. These include frank conversations about roles in the home, sticking to disciplined schedules, structured sharing of childcare and observing vital, personal time out.
“One of the main challenges is lack of autonomy and independence when we don’t have a choice, we love being among our little tribe [even if the tribe is just two people] but that starts to feel less appealing when we’re there by force instead of choice,” says Read.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to find ways to step away from the tribe, literally. All humans value their privacy and having time to think, away from the group – not only introverts.” Read, who lives and practises in Melbourne’s east, is already hearing “a lot of agitation and frustration”, especially around who does what in households while people are working. Setting explicit expectations about how things will run is important as many adults wrangle a cluster of fresh stressors.
“We’re dealing with external pressures such as financial stress, concerns for health of extended family, job uncertainty; I’ve talked to a lot of people who have taken pay cuts to keep their job. Fear levels are pretty high.”
For the half of the Australian workforce now working at home, there is the added pressure of needing to communicate constantly, longhand or over screens with colleagues usually within talking distance.
Bulk emails plus non-stop connection to work is already contributing to “a sense of overwhelm”. Read’s key recommendation is to create schedules, delineate duties including care of young children during work hours, and stick to those routines.
“It’s important to take the time to have that conversation about how are we going to share chores and honour the independence time we crave; it’s not just going to fall into place,” she says. Parents coming up with structures such as alternating who keeps young children entertained so the other can work uninterrupted for fixed blocks and setting down whose turn it is to provide meals etc are making isolation work-life work.
Read cautions against allowing households to slip into outmoded gender roles, (a phenomenon widely being discussed among working mothers on Facebook). In her own home, “we’ve had some really clear conversations”, especially around limiting comings and goings. “I was really impressed with how they responded.”
Ros Knight, a clinical and counselling psychologist and president of the Australian Psychological Association, says that for families in which there are adults working and children now being home schooled, a lack of downtime is going make for “a very difficult time”.
“For parents who have to get through their own workload, the kids’ education load, and manage their own household, and having to find their own space, and doing all that without any of their usual downtime activities I think it is very stressful,” said Ms Knight. “That situation takes a deliberate mindset to make it work well.”
She is also a fan of family meetings, “almost like it’s a work environment”. Detailed plans should be made about how to get everything done, who needs which room and what equipment, and when, and other practical issues. Families should stick to their normal waking, meal and bedtime routines.
Parents strugglring to oversee home schooling should manage expectations on themselves and ignore social media (especially those posts by the parent loving “engaging with that science experiment”) and take time out to walk and chat with friends without anyone able to listen over their shoulder.
“Most of us aren’t teachers for a reason; we normally like our own kids, but we definitely didn’t want to be teaching our own kids. There can be a really unhelpful level of pressure on parents,” says Ms Knight. Working parents should remember to log off and do something fun, lest “parents start to feel like disciplinarians all the time” due to the school load.
Couples should remember to still grab time alone and exercise. “Most of us didn’t choose our life partner with a view we'd be spending 24/7 with them without the ability to escape and do our own thing.”
Parenting author and psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg stresses the importance of parents “tending to their own lockdown wellbeing first, ensuring they get enough sleep and exercise and good food to maintain energy to handle the upped stress.
“My advice is to respect each other’s need for time and space, make sure we allocate our time into ‘me’ time and ‘we’ time in a very close environment, and where there isn’t an opportunity to escape maybe try noise-cancelling headphones,” says Carr-Gregg.
He recommends regular family meetings and “emotional check-ins” to make sure children are handling the weird lack of freedom OK. “Given one in seven children and one in four adults have psychological problems, I suspect that will go up because of the hardship and isolation, therefore I’m imploring the heads of families to put on their own oxygen masks first.” The removal of choice about how we run our relationships day to day is being felt as “incredibly intense” by some, according to Jayne Ferguson, a senior clinician at Relationships Australia Victoria. Even the lack of practical space is upping the heat. “People don’t all have spaces they can work from that are free of distractions and don’t serve another purpose; if you’ve got a home office, great, but if there’s children in the home then people are fighting for that space,” she says.
“It can be very anxiety-provoking being in the same space with your partner and kids all day long when you normally get the opportunity to spend time with different adults and have different conversations.”
There’s an apt comparison between the current extended isolation and long Christmas holidays – after which Australia experiences an increase in relationship breakdown and separation every year. “In February we normally get slammed as a result of that Christmas period, the rubber hits the road. We suspect that will happen for us once things settle down with this virus,” she says.
“There might be a novelty for a short amount of time but it will wear off very, very quickly.” Starting and finishing days with normal routines is important to maintain household equilibrium, as is keeping work and school work contained and taking regular breaks in which you go outside. And despite the fun memes about day-time and night-time pyjamas, Ms Ferguson says you should put on work clothes by day and relaxation clothes to signal “I’m in home mode” at night.
She warns “one of the very prominent presenting issue for couples is division of labour”, which is now “more in their face because the dirty floor is still there and more on your mind because you can see it”. A big flashpoint for couples is when one feels there is not a fair and equitable split of the domestic load, and Ferguson is also a fan of defined allocation of chores.
“You need to agree that no one’s work is more important, and no one should be left with the lion’s share of the household duties,” she says.
“Given the current circumstance and this rising anxiety that’s bubbling up, it can be very confronting and distressing for couples when you think you know your partner’s values around that, and in fact it’s demonstrated they are the opposite, or not what you thought they were.”
All three experts agree the key to navigating the isolation hothouse is excellent communication. And try to keep some of it fun. “Also communicate some of the joys and opportunities in suddenly having the time when we’re all in the same place,” says mother-of-two Jayne Ferguson.
“I have a 14-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl and I’m really enjoying the time. He’s actually more available to me now, so there are some real silver linings in this, even though it’s not always easy.”
First published on The Age Lifestyle.