Solutions For the Pressure Cooker of Family Quarantine
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

Solutions For the Pressure Cooker of Family Quarantine

Our advice columnist has the answers — plus, how to give thanks and give back

Like so many other folks, I’m working from home and sheltering in place with my wife and two kids, including a toddler. But it’s not a big house, and we’re all here all the time. I love them, but I’m just trying not to lose it. Homeschooling, childcare, domestic duties, marriage: How do I preserve my sanity right now?

There’s a reason people love working from home — well, endless reasons. It’s more comfortable, there’s no commute, you can focus on doing actual work instead of office small talk. But up until recently, “working from home” came with certain assumptions: your kids are at school, you aren’t living through a national emergency, you can go outside without the risk of breathing in death. And now, here we are. You and your wife might be figuring out new work schedules and workflows, your kid’s trying to figure out remote schoolwork, you’re trying to figure out remote schoolwork, nobody knows how to stay out of each other’s way, the dishes are piling up, there are toys everywhere. There aren’t enough chargers for all the electronics. Et cetera. Et cetera.

The danger here is that your whole day just dissolves into eight-plus hours of stress goop. And what’s the antithesis of goop? Structure! That means discovering a rhythm. You have a spot of intensive work, then a lull. Your wife has one, too. God willing, they don’t overlap. Small children are structure-resistant creatures, yes, but you know your kid, when they take naps, when they need to play, and you’ll be able to figure out when they should be working on their spelling. Create a family schedule with your wife and try to stick to it if you can. Working from work provides you with a sense of knowing what to expect; the more you can replicate that, the better.

After you’ve given your stress goop structure, you need to help it flow through its locks and gates. That means communication. Everyone needs to know what’s going on. Your co-workers need to know when you’re taking a daddy-break. Your wife needs to know when you’re going to take a stress nap and leave her in charge of parenting stuff. Your kids need to know when they can freely thump around without disturbing your video meetings. Again, this is all about creating and managing expectations.

Lastly, build in some stress goop overflow points. Your schedule won’t hold fast every day, or maybe even any day. You won’t be able to communicate every need. Stick your head out the window, scream into a pillow, take a masked-up, gloved-up, six-foot-radiused walk. Eat well, sleep as best you can, follow an exercise video or two off YouTube. If you have a therapist, see if you can schedule a remote appointment. Enjoy a moderate amount of your relaxing substance of choice. Whatever you need to deal — because frankly, you won’t preserve your sanity. Not at first, anyway. What we’re all going through is, for Americans, an unprecedented disruption of our entire way of life. Forgive yourself for losing it.

So many people are struggling right now with all the coronavirus stuff. I’m doing okay, but what can I be doing to help everyone else?

Be glad that you have your health! The first thing to keep in mind is that you can’t help everyone else. You’re but one person, and you have limited resources to do whatever helping that you can. But there are as many ways to help as there are people to help.

If you have some means, the easiest thing to do is to spend a little money. For this crisis in particular, there are the obvious fundraising efforts, like the ones for hospitals seeking to buy protective gear for health care workers or for medical groups like Doctors Without Borders; there are GoFundMe campaigns galore imploring anyone with change to spare to help all sorts of folks weather the storm. Look around a little, it shouldn’t take long.

But keep in mind that all the groups that needed money to help people before the outbreak still need that money. As people lose their jobs by the millions and unemployment spikes, so does food bank demand. Tenants’ rights groups and legal aid societies are still trying to keep people in their homes and out of jail since governments aren’t committing rent relief or reducing inmate populations. Shelters need funding so that folks without a home can safely ride out stay-at-home orders. Your local newspaper needs subscriber revenue to help you keep up with the coronavirus updates in your area. Every little bit helps.

If you’re committed to action but your pockets are a bit light, there’s still plenty you can do. A mutual-aid group has probably sprung up in your vicinity, and if you check your building lobby, your homeowners’ association bulletin board, your neighborhood Facebook group, or even (gulp) Nextdoor, you’ll find that there are ongoing efforts to deliver groceries and run errands and sew makeshift surgical masks. Sometimes it’s just having a nice, socially distant conversation with people who have been otherwise isolated from their friends and families, offering a little human contact.

Those with the greatest ability to get things done are, of course, governments. They say whether kids are going to be in school, who is entitled to unemployment benefits, which businesses are going to qualify for financial assistance. And when you check in on your elected and nominated officials, take a moment to consider whether they’ve done the most good they can with the power and state resources you’ve entrusted them with. Thank the ones who did a good job. Scold the ones who did a bad job. Keep it all in mind for the next election.

This is an enormous, slow-moving, all-consuming catastrophe that has created a seemingly endless well of need. In the face of all that, if you are feeling truly overwhelmed, maybe the best thing you can do is nothing. Stay home, don’t order delivery, don’t order unnecessary packages, don’t put yourself in the mix where you might spread the virus around or catch it yourself. Getting sick or getting someone else sick only adds to everyone’s problems. It’s not a lot, but inaction isn’t necessarily borne of ignorance. Sometimes, given an overwhelming multitude of choices and decisions, we should just give ourselves over to the paralysis and do the least harm.