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For Your Marriage

Josh and Stacey Noem have been married for almost 20 years and have three children in middle school and high school. They blog about parenting and their adventures as a family.

Family Life in a Pandemic

Now there’s a headline I couldn’t have imagined writing three months ago. But here we are.

Like many, we are navigating uncharted waters: e-learning and working remotely from home; social distancing taking away everything from in-person Eucharistic worship to gym memberships; daily news ramping up fear and uncertainty.

How are we supposed to raise a family in all of this?

If you think about it, we’ve seen worse. We have it within us to rise to this challenge — we’re parents, for goodness sake! We’ve already seen our social lives decimated after having kids. We’ve weathered sleep deprivation and blown-out diapers. We’ve endured public humiliation with tantrums in grocery stores. What’s a little social distancing?

I’m telling you, there’s a gift in all of this. Our evenings and weekends are cleared. I can’t tell you how many times Stacey and I have looked at each other at the end of a week and asked, “Can you imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have all this stuff to do?” Practices and games and lessons and meetings and parties and on and on. Well, it’s all gone — it’s a time to refocus, rest, and relocate the center of our lives at home.

Intentionality is key, and we’re good at that as parents. Kids force you to have a plan. There’s no other way to survive parenting toddlers — they’d rip us to shreds otherwise. That’s all this is — we just have to make a plan.

Here are some fundamentals we’re building our days around here in the Noem home. Our kids are older — one’s home from college (his university has moved to distance learning for the rest of the semester), and two are in middle school.

Rhythm: Just because we’re working and studying remotely doesn’t mean that we treat every day like a Saturday. We rise at a decent hour together and all go about engaging a work period together until lunch. We check in at lunch time, then set a course for the afternoon. The evening is for thoughtful recreation together and reading.

Meals: We sit down for meals together. It used to be a struggle to find time for family dinner all together more than a couple times a week, but now it’s no stretch to share three meals a day together. That’s a blessing. And eating at home more often allows us to eat more healthy food. In fact, I’ve challenged our kids to each come up with one full dinner that they prepare for the family (with my help). They get to plan the menu and prepare and cook the food entirely — whatever they want.

Screen-time: The temptation would be to chalk up this period to extraordinary circumstances and lean heavily on screens to buy some peace and quiet around the house. I don’t care if you are a holy family like Louis and Zelie Martin raising St. Therese of Lisieux — living in such close proximity for such a long time is not going to be easy. But we’ve decided to retain our regular screen-time limits (one hour per day only on weekends for computer games). We just don’t want to surrender all that time and attention — when you think about it, that’s what family life is.

Information control: We’ve learned to be careful what we discuss together. There is a torrent of information and news around this pandemic swirling around right now. We haven’t had much success in bringing those items of concern into our conversation. We make note of changes to our lifestyle and where they’re coming from, but are now learning to be careful about what we focus our attention on. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s what drives news stories — people can’t get enough information to fill the hole of anxiety they are feeling. Well, we don’t have to dig that hole in the first place. We’re learning to attend to what we can control, and let go of things outside of our responsibility.

Recreation: We’re building in routines to have fun together. We invested in a ping-pong table this winter, and boy was that a good call. Stacey has structured a double-elimination tournament with a round-robin seeding schedule. That’s carrying us through the first week, and has spawned some off-the-record games here and there. We’ve had to sit down and referee some matches because of the bickering, but we’re having fun. We’ll have to figure something else out for next week.

Movies: Over the past year, we’ve had informal film festivals around certain themes. First it was movies from the 1980s because the kids got invested in the aesthetic from Stranger Things. Then it was heist movies, which was a lot of fun. Now that Tom Hanks was one of the first American celebrities to get sick with the coronavirus, we’ve decided to make our way chronologically through his films.

Creativity: If schoolwork and chores run out in a day, we are asking kids to spend at least an hour being creative in some way — write something, draw something, make a music playlist, etc. And if your local library is still open, make sure you stock up before it closes — reading together is a restful to way spend time together.

Fresh air: Just because we’re practicing social distance doesn’t mean we can’t get outside. We’ve committed to going outside for a walk together every day. Sometimes, that means a stroll through the neighborhood. Sometimes it’s a visit to a local state park. The fresh air — even if it’s cold — does wonders to clear the head. And it puts us in a space to connect and converse with one another.

Prayer: We’ve been more intentional about prayer during Lent anyway, but this pandemic is giving us an opportunity to redouble our efforts. We close each day with 10-15 minutes of silent prayer before coming together for our evening prayer routine. That has been a centering practice for each of us.

Outreach: We know that we are blessed with good health and with each other — blessings not everyone shares. So we’re talking about how to bolster the spirits of those who are feeling vulnerable — writing letters to grandparents, checking in on neighbors, donating to local nonprofits serving those on the margins. We want the kids to meet this moment with generosity and confidence — there is a lot they can’t control right now, but there’s a lot we can control. We can work together to make our community better.

Being together is a huge advantage we have as families right now, but we might be too close to it to see it as a gift. So many people are isolated in this crisis and feeling alone. It is a real blessing to have each other in this. Yes, we’ll likely want to tear each other’s heads off several times a week for the next two months, but there’s no reason why we can’t march into summer transformed and strengthened as a family from this experience.