Every few days on my Facebook feed—which I check more than ever now—I see an ad for the 2020 Census. Be counted, it says. Each time I see the ad—after I wonder how many fewer Americans there will be to count by the time counting ends—I think about the first Census I know anything about, the British Census of 1840. That census relied on the relatively new science of statistics and on the soon-to-be-powerful idea of the household. At a time when the nuclear family was taking hold as an ideal, the census found all sorts of people living together: married and unmarried couples, their married adult children, grandparents, apprentices, cousins, lodgers.
We have, of course, inherited the ideal of the nuclear family, and in a state of national emergency that ideal wields immense power. Media advice on surviving CV19 depends to some extent on that ideal: it imagines families of parents and young children homeschooling and working from home. Grandparents tend to occupy a separate space, having formed a household of their own, where they can receive, dropped safely at the door, deliveries from lower-risk family members. Parents think of projects for children to do; they hold meetings with colleagues and cocktail parties with friends over an always-reliable wifi system. Families do not fight; there might be quarrels, tensions, anxieties, even depression, but family members are rarely pictured running away, slamming the door on the household, and leaving it for the dangerous world outside.
Households today are complicated things, though, just as they were in 1840, and again in 1850, 1860 and every ten years until the present. Feminist economics has taught us that members of a household can have different, even competing interests, especially in times of scarcity. In Victorian times, fathers often got the lion’s share of any food there was to be had. What is happening now in homes across the country as money and stores run low? As someone who worked on domestic abuse hotline for many years, I think of violent households, of women and children trapped for the long duration in their homes with their abusers. I have friends who are in the process of divorcing who are caught, like flies in amber, in the weeks before they planned to leave to set up new households. The hashtag #BoomerRemover reminds us that, nationwide, a chasm is appearing between children and their older relatives, a fight for life, and freedom, and the economy we imagine reasserting itself after all this is over. Lorena Gauthereau reminds me to think about co-parenting during a pandemic; which household gets the child, and what goes into that decision? There are also provisional households formed as health-workers or other at-risk people have sent their children away to friends or relatives, or live in makeshift places on their own. And then there are households of one, cut off perhaps from care as other households lockdown and lock them out, and more porous households of consent in multiple households together, usually in the early days of the pandemic to safely share resources and labor, closing off multiple households from the rest of the world and sharing work and resources. Some think of these last as queer households that push at the boundaries of the nuclear family and of the economic and gendered relations it propagates.
Lockdowns, quarantines, “stay home” recommendations and proclamations freeze households in place at a particular moment in time. In my case, had the pandemic happened two months ago, my household would have looked very different: an empty nest, a house that felt enormous, two older dogs, one sick and one ancient cat—a place, statistics tell us, of the elderly. A triumphantly coordinated spring break when the outbreak was just slipping containment brought “home” our two adult children, one a college student, and one a high school teacher. They are still here, and we do not quite remember when break was. Our family has been recreated with a difference—and not just because two young dogs have been added to the mix. We fall back on old patterns, invent new ones. We fall more easily, I think, into gendered and generational roles than we would if it were just my husband and myself. The nuclear family does that; it reproduces itself. We do notice, however, that our children have changed in the world outside our household and they bring some of those changes back with them.
Fantasies about households are also fantasies about the home. How many times have we been told that if possible, sick people should have their own room? That we should store (although not hoard) food enough for two weeks? That we can rely on the internet for the delivery of groceries, information, exercise? How many homes have the space or money for food, have rooms to spare, have seamless internet connections? Although 1840, the year of that first census, was close to the beginning of the cult of (the always middle-class) home, never has the ideal of home been stronger. As Ian Bogost notes in his Atlantic article, “You Already Live in Quarantine,” those who can afford it do almost everything from home. Never, he says, has home been more “pleasant.” Never, I say, has the world been more divided between those who can stay at home and those who cannot. That idea of home, where we do not have to stir to get movies, learn yoga, or even eat restaurant food, is a dangerous one even for those whose homes are not literally dangerous, even for those who have reasonably amicable families, relatively clean water in their pipes, heating and air conditioning, internet, and food.
Stay at Home orders pull us further, deeper into fantasy images of household even as our own experience challenges those images. We can use moments of crisis to retreat into familiar comforts or to question them.