Why Big ‘Quirky’ Families Are Well Equipped To Handle Crisis

Quirky families have strengths that can benefit everyone in this time of crisis: resilience, creativity and community.

“Under the coronavirus lockdown,” wrote Rebecca Onion for Slate last week, “our ideal of the independent family unit is starting to crack.”

That’s true enough. Husbands and wives may be needling each other to bits. The absence of grandparents is keenly felt. Kids may find it hard to learn new concepts from a teacher who’s struggling to Skype with them via the overloaded Internet.

“They’re just making faces and strange noises at each other,” my brother groaned of his 5-year-old son’s class. “They can’t master the mute yourself concept.” My brother is working from home and doesn’t have time to step in very much, while our parents, wisely, are keeping well away from their grandkids. In her essay, Onion laments the absence of aunts, cousins…the whole Village. And for cloistered nuclear families, that’s certainly a concern.

Other voices have chimed in to this conversation, observing that nuclear, cis/hetero families certainly aren’t the default anymore, that LGBT couples and single parents get left out of the mix. All true. But the variations on “we have different gender mixes” doesn’t quite sum up the larger issue of families who’ve never had a “nucleus” because they’ve never had that nexus of one-to-two healthy, living-wage-earning, adult workers.

These are what I call my “quirky” families.

They might be a collection of artists sharing a house or live-in studio space.

They may be a few disabled people, relatives or not, pooling their benefits.

They may be people who’ve divorced but can’t afford to move on from spouses, grown up but can’t afford to leave their parents.

They may be folks who band together because they find tolerance from each other that they just can’t find from blood family or potential employers, due to reasons including queerness, religion or lack thereof, neurodiversity, or just plain oddness.

It sounds like I’ve just described a roster of incompetent adults, doesn’t it?

But in fact, my quirky families have strengths that can benefit everyone in this time of crisis: resilience, creativity and community.

We’ve always done that. In just one instance, my girlfriend is disabled and doesn’t drive. She and her mother live on a combined disability check of just over $1,000 a month. When Girlfriend needs something — a replacement for a broken faucet, let’s say — she hits up Facebook.

In a couple days, one member of the quirky family comes through with some groceries so Girlfriend can save her money to spend on the faucet. Another family member provides a ride to the hardware store. A third one drops by to install the faucet. That’s community.

In need of money, one disabled mother of two sells embroidered poppets and homemade bath products online. I do housecleaning gigs. Another acquaintance sells botanical wreaths. When we have a little money, we buy from our friends. Lacking money, we sell crafts or services. That’s resilience.

The shared cheap recipes. The crafty arts, the artful crafts. A friend smears out fierce, magical paintings and sells them online; for a pickup, the buyer meets up with the artist’s girlfriend, who has the paintings stashed in the back of a truck. A drug deal for the soul. That’s creativity.

Bored, we feed our imaginations. Hungry, we keep each other supplied.

So we entered the coronavirus challenge ahead of the game in many ways — but woefully vulnerable in others. One area of vulnerability is space.

For those of us with quirky families and not many resources, the Village often ends up shrinking into one house. That’s not great for social distancing.

We’ve always lived both light and thick, quirky families have—shoving as many as we can into whatever space we can afford, discarding books, clothes and battered mattresses at every new move. For instance, in 2019, at nearly 50 years old, I was feeling luxurious in a student-sized apartment because it was all mine.

Then my ex, a veteran of the Iraq war and a series of other combats as far back as Panama, found the challenges of his traumatic brain damage becoming especially difficult to manage. So I left my day job and moved in to take care of him and the kids.

Then the virus hit.

Now, I’m underemployed, living with my ex and two of my kids. Now Girlfriend, exposed to the virus, is self-isolating in her bedroom in the house she shares with her mom, who has dementia and doesn’t clearly understand what’s going on.

Meanwhile, my grown son, working as a security guard and dealing with the public daily, comes home every night to a small house with three roommates. One is his fiancée, who just got laid off work.

How do we support each other if one of us gets sick? We can’t just leave. Can’t afford to. Can’t leave the disabled or jobless behind. For all the quirky families, we have to stick together, without killing each other.

I don’t know how that happens. We have the skills, but when it comes to housing, many of us just don’t have the resources.

The other problem is health insurance — or lack of it. Even if COVID-19 tests and treatments end up costing little or nothing, will that promise only apply to insured people? Personally, I’m not eager to find out.

What I’m starting to see clearly, now, is that treating housing and healthcare as rights for every human is just the beginning. We, as a society, need to look at our quirky families and see what they have to offer that our more typical brothers and sisters — those “independent nuclear families” — truly lack. We have the power to create feasts out of canned beans, worlds out of a cluster of green-gold leaves seen through a dirty window. We constantly build communities, invent new ways of existing, and renew our resiliency.

If only our society cared enough to provide the support every household, every individual, needs to survive and thrive, our quirky families — so often seen as objects of charity or intervention rather than sources of competence and wisdom — would surprise us all with exactly the skills we need to get through these times.

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