Homes with No Social Distancing: Danish Families in Times of Corona

The corona crisis has changed our lives. Social life. Working life. And, definitely, family life. I’m Deivida Vandzinskaite and I teach in the Sociology Program at DIS Copenhagen.

In Denmark, the lockdown started on March 11. On that day 1.3 million children were sent home from daycare institutions and schools. For two months, parents have had to work from home while taking care of their kids or combining it with homeschooling. All of a sudden, family members were stuck and trapped (to use media language) at home. Home, which people tend to refer to as their safe haven, is now referred to as a space where they experience a forced togetherness and a lack of privacy. As a mom, I can understand what they are referring to. As a sociologist, I am curious about how family routines and spaces are being transformed due to the pandemic.

Family life as we did not know it

Right before the pandemic was announced, my maternity leave was coming to an end. In Denmark, we have this privilege to take care of our children for about a year. The family policies based on gender equality and work-life balance allow both parents to share the responsibility. Then, the daycare institutions take on that role while parents return to work. 90% of all children in Denmark aged one to five years are usually in nurseries or kindergartens, indicating that being a stay-at-home parent is not an option for many Danes. Therefore, the lockdown has brought a completely new daily life into our homes.

Moreover, if we look at the families in Copenhagen, most of them (around 80%) live in apartment buildings. Can you imagine a family of four or five members stuck in an apartment for an unknown period of time? I can. My family also falls under this statistic. Two parents with small children in a three-bedroom apartment.  

Home or a playhouse?

Our home has undergone a transformation. Not because our walls needed a paint job or because famous interior design experts decided to throw a little magic dust our way. No, the reason is far more serious: We had to create spaces for us to be together for 24/7 and to make sure that kids are entertained while adults have to work.

The bedroom now functions as a workspace – fully packed with PCs, headsets, printers, and stacks of academic articles – ready for parents who now need to conduct online teaching and meetings on Zoom.

The kids now officially “own” our living room. The freshly decorated flowers on the kitchen table have been replaced with boxes of paint, crayons, glitter and colorful papers. Some of our neutrally colored furniture is stacked in the basement – while colorful boxes with LEGO, cars and “whatever stuff” now take on the prominent position. Shops, a train station, an ice-cream stand, or a beauty salon can appear and disappear in any spot of the apartment. Our bookshelves also indicate new times: Jonathan Frazen, Elena Ferrante, and Siri Hustvedt have been replaced with Charlotte’s Web, Pippi Longstocking, and The Cat in the Hat. Thick matrasses on top of each other work as a mini-trampoline for kids full of energy. Are the kids allowed to paint on windows? Sure! One more month and I am sure we will start street art on the walls. You get the picture.

It is tight, busy, sometimes way too noisy, but we have never had so much time for bonding and creativity!

Balconies connect people

And the bonding extends to the apartment complex where we live. The natural bonding across generations was not an option for a long time due to the risk. But we did see a new type of bonding, namely between neighbors. New activities and routines have begun. Every morning people sing together on the balconies and in the evening put on some loud music for 10 minutes inviting everybody for a dance. We even have backyard concerts to support the musicians, who are out of work.

A mom, living on the ground floor with two kids tries to participate in all of the activities:

“These are the precious moments, when kids are entertained and I can enjoy a cup of coffee and my neighbors keep me company. I wish we could keep the balcony parties when the pandemic is over.”

It’s not only rock and roll

Unfortunately, today we can find lots of statistics on how this unusual situation raises the level of stress in families, how couples break up – because they’re just not used to being together all the time. Also, domestic violence has increased due to anxiety and economic uncertainty among others. It must be an especially hard time for single parents or parents raising children with disabilities and lacking the professional help. Not to forget families, who end up with unemployment, sickness, or loss of their loved ones.

Therefore, I was not surprised when one of my neighbors raising a 5-year-old daughter told me that the lockdown was too straining on their personal space:

“After two weeks we could not take it anymore. When daycare institutions reopened, we were the first ones to register our daughter for a free spot. Now we can at least get some stuff done during the day and be less stressed parents for our daughter.”

To keep a work-life balance we also see many companies in Denmark trying to accommodate the needs of stressed families who are trying to multitask care giving, work, and all other practical duties. I have chatted with some parents, who have been relieved of some of their tasks at work – in order to not become yet another number in the stress statistics.

Back to nature

Others are trying to avoid going down with stress by escaping their homes. Lots of parents with strollers, cargo bikes, or running next to a kid on the scooter, take every chance they get to engage in outdoor activities. Luckily, Copenhagen is a child-friendly city. Plenty of space and green areas, as well as 125 public playgrounds in the city, make social distancing possible.

A dad, pushing his 1-year-old daughter on a swing next to my son, feels that their family has found a routine that works pretty well:

“I am on the morning shift, while my wife is working at home. When I am back, my wife will take over and I will work ‘til 9 PM. I usually take our girl out to a playground or a park and then run along the harbor while she falls asleep in a stroller. I never knew how many playgrounds there are close to where we live!”

Enough work for both parents and sociologists

Looking at the situation from my personal perspective as a mom and sociologist is twofold: As a mom, I am somewhat exhausted with having to come up with new activities for the kids, the never-ending multitasking, the constant interruptions, the non-existant alone time, the lack of social contact with my colleagues and students. At the same time, I cherish the opportunity to spend more time with the little ones, to see how fast they develop new vocabulary, to see their interaction with each other – and how beneficial that is in the long run. 

As a sociologist, I am intrigued by the changes in family lives in Denmark and across the globe. There are lots of questions running through my head:  What will the future research on families in corona times reveal? How much are family lives affected by the economic and political decisions made by government?  Why were some families able to keep the balance between stress and bonding and others not? What are the new family routines? And, to what extent have families used all the ideas for activating kids which we see in the media (tv, Facebook, Instagram)? Will families reevaluate their work-life balance? Will there be a shift in gender and/or parental roles at home? Will we see more cases of homeschooling? Sociologists will explore these and many more questions, and I cannot wait to discuss them in my Sociology of the Family elective course. 

Deivida Vandzinskaite is a DIS Copenhagen faculty member. She teaches courses in sociology and sustainability. Deivida has a PhD in Education from Siauliai University, Lithuania, with a focus on the cross-cultural use of Service Learning in higher education. She was a Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar at Siauliai University and a Visiting scholar at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University. She has been with DIS since 2013.

Explore Deivida’s Courses

>> Cultural Diversity and Integration

>> Anthropology of Food

>> Sociology of the Family

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