It’s easy to get the impression that the majority of Americans are spending their days at home, isolated with their nuclear family. The idea of the family as the main source of care and refuge has dominated both media coverage and public-health messaging since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
If doctors, politicians, and reporters think of the family as the default source of care in our lives, that’s likely because Americans have idealized the two-parents-plus-kids household since the mid-20th century. But this fixation on the nuclear family overlooks the diversity of U.S. living arrangements, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent cover story for The Atlantic. In fact, as of 2017, only 20 percent of American households were composed of two parents with children. The rest were single parents living with their children (7 percent), childless cohabiting couples (25 percent), adult roommates (20 percent), and people who live alone (28 percent).
Disasters have a way of illuminating our human capacity for care and connection, but a pandemic is a cruel messenger: It reminds us of our essential interdependence while amplifying the isolation of our modern lives. Even as some states have relaxed restrictions, and then tightened them again as infections rise, the best public-health advice has always been for people to stay as close to home as possible. Hugs and handshakes are discouraged; so is travel. Important rituals—graduations, baby showers, even weddings and funerals—are happening through our screens.
Despite the ongoing physical distancing, Americans continue to find ways to look out for one another. The narrative of family as the most legitimate form of interdependence can make it hard to see the many ways people are building infrastructures of care that reach well beyond the family unit.
At the beginning of 2020, Eva Hagberg was living alone in Brooklyn after leaving her marriage. When the pandemic hit and New York City issued shelter-in-place orders, she invited her friend Jason Snell to move in. Because Snell had a mild cough at the time, he stayed in the back bedroom for two weeks while she left food by his door. They arranged lunch or dinner by text and sometimes sang Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” to each other through the walls. The two have been friends for years and had previously lived together for short periods of time, so they say the decision to live together during the pandemic was an easy one. Because both have erratic sources of income—she’s a writer and he’s a multidisciplinary artist—they realized another practical way to support each other was to combine their financial resources.
Hagberg says she learned a lot about caretaking over the past seven years, when she needed a series of surgeries on her brain, heart, and abdomen. In her book How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship, she writes about the profound ways friendship helped her through that extraordinarily difficult time. “All those experiences that I had before the pandemic have just prepared me for this,” she told me.
When Hagberg got sick with COVID-19 in April, she gave her doctor Snell’s number. “We had a go bag packed, a plan,” Hagberg said, “but by the time we could have used the plan, the hospitals were so overcrowded and I was so sick that trying to get to an ER felt impossible.” While she lay in bed, “feeling very close to the void,” her doctor coached Snell through how to take care of her. She thinks having him around probably saved her life: “It’s [been] a really profound experience for me ... I believe that we all care for each other in different ways. Some ways are material, some are financial, some are emotional.”
The psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary published an influential paper in the mid-’90s arguing that belonging was a fundamental human need. They suggest that not only do humans need a sense of belonging, but we will “invest a great deal of time and effort in fostering supportive relationships with others.” They go on to explain that external threats—like, say, a highly contagious virus—can increase our tendency to bond with those around us.
In a recent paper, psychologists at the University of British Columbia and UC Riverside found that feelings of social connection had not significantly declined since before the pandemic. In mid-February, participants, primarily recruited from the U.S. and the U.K., were asked to think back on the previous week and rate their agreement with statements like “I felt close and connected with other people who are important to me.” Then in early April, after the widespread implementation of widespread physical distancing measures, the researchers decided to reach out to the same participants and see if their answers had changed. More than 90 percent reported practicing physical distancing at that point, but on average, they reported feeling a little less lonely than they had seven weeks earlier.
One of the study’s authors, Elizabeth Dunn, is a friend of mine, so I called to ask about the results. She was surprised by the data, she told me, but suspects that they result from humans’ innate need for belonging. “If you strip people of the usual sources of that need, they aren’t just going to go without it,” she said. “They’ll find other ways to fulfill it.” Dunn and her co-authors believe that video calls and neighborhood cheers for medical workers may be satisfying that need, and possibly even elevating feelings of connection, though they caution that longer-term social restrictions might yield higher social costs.
Scott Coppersmith has found an inventive way to care for his neighbors from a distance. Coppersmith designs light fixtures for restaurants and hotels, but when the hospitality industry in Southern California, where he lives, closed down almost completely in mid-March, he felt restless. He picked fruit from the trees in his yard and delivered it to neighbors, and built a workspace for his girlfriend, but it wasn’t until he found a design online for a box that uses UV-C light to sterilize medical equipment that Coppersmith knew what he wanted to do with his time.
The box is capable of sterilizing six N95 masks at a time, but it also works for phones and other small items. “It’s basically a light in a box,” Coppersmith said. “That’s pretty easy for me.” He consulted with engineers and a friend who runs the intensive-care unit at a nearby hospital to make sure the design was safe, effective, and durable enough for frequent use. UV sterilization is imperfect—over time it degrades the quality of masks, and things like lip-balm residue can impede its effectiveness—but for those with an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment, it’s extremely helpful. Coppersmith has sold or donated several boxes to his friend’s hospital and other organizations in his community. He keeps a box on his front porch for his neighbors to use. Local authorities distributed N95 masks when wildfires ravaged the area a few years ago, so many people in the community already have masks at home.. The nurse who lives next door comes by every night after her shift.
Many communities have people like Coppersmith, who are using whatever skills they have to help those around them. Within days of the shutdown in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I live, a COVID-19 community support group appeared on Facebook. The group now has more than 34,000 members offering everything from volunteer dog grooming to grocery pickups to free therapy sessions. Many other cities around the world have formed similar groups.
Lou Murrey is the coordinator of the Stay Project, an organization created by and for people ages 14 to 30 in central Appalachia. Murrey describes its mission as making “our home communities places we can and actually want to stay.” Before the pandemic, Murrey spent most days applying for grants and planning events. Now the group has pivoted to a more immediate and pragmatic form of mutual aid. In addition to providing tutorials on how to apply for unemployment, it has raised and distributed more than $25,000 to support members who are out of work. Since some members live in rural areas with limited internet access, the group’s leaders are trying to come up with ways for them to stay connected without using videoconferencing software, which can quickly eat up an entire data plan.
Many of the group’s members are queer. Murrey credits this fact for their ability to care for one another despite the geographic (and technological) barriers between them. “Queer folks are good at making community beyond the family unit, because we don’t always find community within the family unit,” Murrey told me.
In Toronto, Rachel Ricketts, a racial-justice educator and writer, has been raising money for an even wider-reaching community. As soon as businesses began closing, Ricketts understood that the most marginalized people were going to be hit hardest by the pandemic. Because she had a large platform, she set up a GoFundMe page right away. “I always strongly feel that the redistribution of wealth is always necessary, and now more than ever,” she told me. “So it came to me very quickly: Let’s just raise as much money as we possibly can and give it to as many people as we possibly can.” So far, she’s raised more than $56,000 for Black and Indigenous women and gender-nonconforming people in the U.S.
Ricketts said she was blown away by how much money she’d been able to raise. But she added that seeing requests for support arriving in her inbox each day has been difficult. Many of the Black and Indigenous women reaching out to her have lost work and need help paying rent or buying medication for family members. “I get really sad and really angry, because I don’t think people should have to make this request to a stranger,” Ricketts said, “and I don’t feel like I should be the one who has to allocate [the money].”
She’s also been moved by how many of the recipients use what they’ve been given to care for others, despite having so little themselves. She told me about one woman who donated $25 she hadn’t used back to the fund. An Indigenous recipient bought groceries for her family and then used the rest of the money to make masks for others on the reservation where she lives. “We call it ‘donations,’” Ricketts said, “but it’s just care. These people deserve to have care.”
Roy Baumeister believes that natural selection has instilled people with a desire for belonging and connection. Living together in social groups has helped our species survive and reproduce. “Providing care for others is high on [the list of reasons] why that worked,” he told me when I reached him by phone. I asked Baumeister about the many people who are donating money to strangers right now through online relief funds. Are those acts of belonging?
“Doing that kind of stuff does give a sense of meaning, and meaning is about connection to others,” he said. But, he cautioned, it’s possible that the good feeling someone has after donating is more about having done a good deed than it is about feeling connected to others.
In the time that I have been reporting this story, I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between care and belonging. Many people, if asked, would say that we care for our friends and family members because we love them. But the psychologist Alison Gopnik thinks the opposite is true too: We love people because we care for them. We are biologically wired in such a way that caretaking generates a sense of love and connection that isn’t limited to nuclear-family relationships.
“I think what the science says is that impulses toward altruism and cooperation are really profound and deep parts of who we are, and they’re arguably rooted in these close relationships we have in families,” Gopnik told me, adding, “We start out having this kind of automatic altruism toward the people that we’re close to, and we can … extend it out further to the world at large.”
Without exception, everyone I spoke with mentioned how those they were looking out for were also looking out for others—not out of a sense of obligation but because they know intimately how valuable care can be. I asked Gopnik if she thought the caretaking networks necessitated by this pandemic might shift how we think about care going forward. “I think that’s going to be a real question,” she said, “and I don’t know what the answer to that is going to be.” Gopnik believes that, if anything, COVID-19 has illustrated how narrow our modern ideology of care really is.
While it is true that giving to others can provide a satisfying sense of having done a good deed, these acts of care also feel like gestures toward the kind of world many people want to belong to: one with a robust and durable infrastructure of care. As we move forward, we can continue to think about care as belonging primarily to the realm of the nuclear family, or we can think of it as a tool for spreading far and wide the kind of love and connection that has always bound our species together.