A new definition of home in a time of uncertainty.
When most of us imagine the typical family, we probably picture a mother, a father, and 2.5 children — maybe a white picket fence, too.
Then again, this picture of the “normal” family might just be a remnant from the 1950s. These days, families take all forms.
A family can be headed by grandparents, consist of single adults with no children, or include same-gender parents, to name just a few options.
But even these small, diverse families have their drawbacks.
Writer David Brooks argues that the concept of the nuclear family simply hasn’t been working.
“We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families… which [only] give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options,” Brooks writes in The Atlantic.
In 2020, the definition of family transformed even more.
Along with the dissolution of our old living patterns, new types of families cropped up to offer support, connection, and a new definition of home in a time of uncertainty.
We spoke with some of the families who’ve found themselves living in a new dynamic this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Jamie Hickey and his wife, Tara, had been busy running their small but successful office furniture business and taking care of their two young daughters.
As office workers began to migrate to home offices and office buildings began to close down, Jamie realized he would need to be smart about saving money until his business was up and running again.
That’s when Caroline got in touch. Caroline is — wait for it — Jamie’s ex’s mom.
“It sounds odd, but it actually really isn’t,” he’s quick to reassure me.
Apparently, Caroline and Jamie’s wife, Tara, have been friends for years after connecting on Facebook. When Caroline heard about Jamie and Tara’s financial concerns, she suggested that they move in with her.
At first, Jamie thought it was a joke. “I laughed at it,” he recalls.
Nevertheless, the idea quickly “became a real thing.” In fact, it was hard to think of a reason not to accept Caroline’s offer. Her husband passed away 4 years ago, and she lives alone in a large house.
For Jamie, Tara, and the kids, the move was initially about saving some money. But soon enough, it was clear that living with Caroline had other perks, too. Even though Jamie and Tara tried to “stay out of her hair” at first, they began having dinners with their host.
“I think she likes having the company,” Jamie says. “She does crafts with the kids, you know, she goes to Michael’s, and she buys little stuff to do.”
After all, Caroline had never had grandchildren of her own.
Of course, this unconventional setup won’t last forever. Jamie and Tara are, understandably, eager to get back to their own home and their own belongings.
But for Caroline, their departure will be bittersweet. She’s already asked Jamie and Tara if she can have the kids on the weekends.
“She’s taken on a real grandparent role, seriously,” Jamie says. While the virus may have changed a lot for the Hickeys, it’s also given them a brand new member of the family.
Nicole Sud is the founder of the parenting blog 3 Under Three. Like the rest of us, Nicole and her husband Mohan didn’t see the pandemic coming. In early 2020, the couple was focused on raising their 2-year-old daughter Anais and preparing for the imminent arrival of twins.
In addition to their busy family, they had also welcomed a guest into their home as part of a cultural exchange program. Janeth had arrived from Colombia to experience life in Washington, D.C., and, in the process, help teach their daughter Anais Spanish.
What was meant to be 6 weeks turned into 10 months when COVID-19 hit. Janeth, who had been planning on touring Europe before heading home to Colombia, found herself stranded in D.C. with Nicole and her family. Luckily, Janeth ended up being a huge practical help.
“It probably helped save my sanity, because through this process, I was pregnant with twins,” Nicole explains. “Super helpful to have another adult in the house simply because I was exhausted all the time.”
However, Janeth soon became more than just a pair of helping hands. She became another member of the family. Mohan helped her learn guitar, they bickered over which takeaway to get, and even went on a “COVID vacation” together.
At one point, Nicole’s daughter Anais asked her if her imaginary friend could stay over for a sleepover. Nicole said, “You have to call and ask her dad.” Anais replied, “I can ask her Janeth.”
Nicole’s fondest memories are of their road trips. While the family couldn’t see much of D.C. due to the pandemic, they did get into the habit of going on barundos.
“[Janeth is] from Cali, Colombia. It’s a word they use there for a road trip,” Nicole explains. “Almost every day we load up the three kids in the car and just go on an adventure.” After their traditional pitstop at Starbucks, the family sets off, sometimes driving for hours to visit national parks and famous U.S. landmarks.
Janeth returned to Colombia in October, but as far as Nicole is concerned, she’s still a part of the family.
“She bonded so much with my kids… she loves them so much now,” Nicole says. “We still text and talk and send pictures. She even took back a bag of their clothes to remember them by.”
Elizabeth Malson is the executive director of the U.S. Nanny Association. Elizabeth explains that COVID-19 has caused a huge amount of upheaval in the nanny industry.
For many families, it’s become necessary to have a either a live-in nanny or no nanny at all. In some cases, nannies have even moved into their employer’s homes with their own children.
In one case, an anonymous nanny moved into an employer’s home with her 2-year-old daughter. As the year passed, their relationship became much closer to that of a family than of an employer and an employee.
“She loves these kids equal to her own, these kids have played with her own,” says Elizabeth.
Her daughter even gained some surrogate siblings.
“As a single kid, she kind of got adopted, and the boy and the girl kind of helped the 2-year-old develop and have siblings,” she says.
Elizabeth notes that these kinds of nanny-family relationships can only occur alongside excellent communication. In less successful cases, live-in nannies have found themselves roped into family duties during their time off.
Then there’s Stephanie McGraw, a Houston-based lawyer and mother of two boys ages 4 and 5.
While the family has used au pairs since the birth of their first son, things changed this year. Their latest au pair, Lena, arrived from Germany in early February. Shortly after, Texas went into lockdown. Unlike their previous au pairs, Lena quickly became a fifth member of the family.
“It seemed less like the host-mom/host-daughter relationship and more like a kid-sister,” says Stephanie.
As for the boys, Lena became like a big sister.
“She’s become a favorite playmate because of the pandemic,” Stephanie says. “Our kids can just run outside the back door and up the stairs to see her.”
Of course, this may not be all fun and games for “big sister” Lena. Stephanie suspects she may have been accosted by the boys a little too early on a few Saturday mornings.
While Lena may have been hoping for a different experience during her year abroad, what she got was a second family. Unfortunately for Stephanie, Lena will be moving on when her year of au pairing comes to an end in February 2021.
“We really wanted her to extend her stay, but she’s ready to get on with her life back home,” says Stephanie.
One thing’s for sure: She’ll always be welcomed back as an honorary family member.
Sue Davies, founder of Travel for Life Now, never expected to mend her relationship with her mother. In 1980, when Sue was 19, she told her parents she was gay.
“They told me I was mentally ill and unwelcome in their home,” Sue says.
For the next 20 years, she didn’t speak to her parents at all.
After Sue’s father died in 1988, she slowly began to reconnect with her mother, taking her to doctor’s appointments and bonding over pastrami sandwiches, kasha knishes, and a mutual fascination with traveling the world.
Eventually, Sue settled down with Reggie, a woman from Singapore who had moved to the states in 1993.
Sue’s mother, however, still couldn’t accept her daughter’s sexual identity — or her partner.
When COVID-19 hit, everything changed. Throughout March, Sue watched with alarm as cases grew across the country. By the end of the month, she had decided to move her mother in with her and Reggie.
Sue shares that her mother and her partner had met before. They had even traveled to Mexico together. Nevertheless, she still refused to accept Reggie as her daughter’s partner.
“When we got married, my mother told me that she didn’t believe in gay marriage,” says Sue. “My mother would only introduce her as my friend.”
Living together under the same roof, things began to change. Sue, Reggie, and Sue’s mother grew closer.
They laughed together when Reggie and Sue taught Sue’s mom how to use a smartphone. They bonded over Reggie’s newfound interest in gardening and the ritual of watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” together.
As time went on, Sue’s mother began to understand her daughter’s relationship.
“Mom grew more appreciative and would tell us all the time that we were kind and lovely and that she was thankful for being in our home,” Sue says. “She got to see what our day to day lives looked like in a way that she never had.”
Sadly, Sue’s mother passed away in June.
Before she did, she told Sue something she’d been waiting decades to hear.
“Two weeks before she died, she told me that she accepted my being gay,” Sue says, “but still wished that it wasn’t so.”
For Sue’s mother, this was a big step that may have never happened if not for the pandemic.
The nontraditional family dynamics that have sprung up this year may have been a response to crisis, but they’re bringing people together in unexpected ways.
They may even be meeting a need for deeper connections that we didn’t know that we had.
In a time otherwise marked by isolation, it’s inspiring to see the creative solutions knitting families together.
Meg Walters is a writer and actor from London. She is interested in exploring topics such as fitness, meditation, and healthy lifestyles in her writing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, yoga, and the occasional glass of wine.