In much of her scholarship, Mary Eberstadt establishes the natural family as an ideal structure for human flourishing. With penetrating insights that transcend normal partisan categories, she makes a compelling interdisciplinary case that the liquidation of the natural familial order contributes to a whole host of worrisome aspects of modern life, from identity politics, to religious decline in the West. In what Eberstadt labels the Great Scattering, one finds “unprecedented familial dispersion, . . . [with] Western men and women . . . more atomized and estranged from their own than ever before.”
Living the atomized and autonomous life, nurtured by Western societies and praised by popular culture, has unintended consequences that are still coming into view, all the more so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps this is an opportunity for what Eberstadt predicted in 2013: “One need not imagine a full-scale crisis to see how the pressures of a shrinking and aging Western population might force a new consideration of the family.” The compulsory homecoming of sorts that much of the country—and the world—are now experiencing could be Eberstadt’s catalyst for a reconsideration of the family and the home as a place of educational pursuits and economic productivity.
A Home-Centered Education: The Educational Benefits Can Be Substantial
As countless parents adjust to being at home with their kids during quarantine measures, “homeschooling” has taken on new meaning, with the term even being adopted by many who considered it taboo until recently. The flurry of how-to articles and the social media posts of flustered parents reveal the challenges of this transition. Shonda Rhimes, who is arguably at the top of Hollywood’s game, tweeted this on her first day of homeschooling: “Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Her Twitter thread went viral. Tens of thousands of responses poured in as people shared laughs, struggles, and successes, again showing how demanding it is to navigate the new roles thrust on us in our own homes.
There are many, though, for whom this experience is not new. Aside from historical examples of pre-industrial life where home-centered education was much more common, many modern-day families have been developing the art of the home school for years now. With great diligence and humility, these families plow ahead with their children, tilling up the tough soil of the human soul, softening and molding it towards virtue, truth, and beauty with well-planned curricula.
Admittedly, there are homeschooling flops, and substantial questions must be addressed if one is going to homeschool successfully. But, with proper planning, patience, and discipline, the outcomes of homeschooling can meet or surpass those of other methods of schooling. Homeschool curricula are numerous and can be tailored specifically to children (true individualized instruction), in accord with the educational and pedagogical approach a parent finds most compelling. When scheduled properly, the wasted time of the school day also disappears, freeing up time for deep dives into areas of interest, much-needed imaginative play, extracurricular activities, or simply enjoying being at home.
Another added benefit can be found in avoiding the whole game of schooling, and its associated dog-eat-dog mentality. By the time students reach high school, competition for class rank and GPA points is intense, contributing to increasing levels of cheating. Smaller homeschool and co-op environments may mitigate some of these extremes of peer pressure and teenage angst.
In this pandemic, parents are being forced to reckon with the educational system in new ways, and may be realizing that they have more skin in the game than they first thought. Experiencing quarantined learning may also fully expose parents to what their kids are actually being taught, and provides a chance to rethink the conventional content and methods of education. Whether one ends up homeschooling or not, the educational experience for families in quarantine could lead parents to reclaim their role as their children’s most influential and primary teachers.
A Home-Centered Economy: The Economic Trade-Offs Can Be Worth It
The COVID-19 crisis also offers families a moment to reassess work–life balance and the consequent trade-offs inherent in lives consumed by careers. In one sense, the quarantine provides a practice run with working from home and a taste of what home-centered economic productivity might be like. This concept of the home-centered economy is a two-sided coin. On one side, the home can be a place of revenue-generating economic production for the marketplace, as it was for many families in the pre-industrial world. But on the other side—the one perhaps more relevant to this essay—the home can also be a place of cost-reducing economic production for itself, as each family member adds value to the household through skills, trades, hobbies, and the like. This cost-reducing yet value-adding side of the coin especially comes through in the Greek etymology of the word economy itself, meaning household management (oikos = family/household and nomos = law/custom).
Perhaps taking into account both sides of the home economy could remove the roadblock that so frequently stands in the way of families that are considering a home-centered life and education: becoming a family with one primary income. My wife and I had to face this reality when we began homeschooling a decade ago, but we have found the reasonable trade-offs absolutely worth it. The habit-forming sacrifices happily weaned us from consumerism and media-driven entertainment, which are at odds with the version of the good life that we are trying to instill in our children anyway. The process also kindles a desire to learn new skills and trades that provide not only cost savings, but the satisfaction of making something and forming family traditions. Well-known minimalist author Joshua Becker suggests that, for many families, going to one income is a “completely achievable path.”
A fair and honest economic reckoning of one-income versus two-income families is challenging, not least because of the ideological and familial implications that such evaluations might carry. Thus, much ink has been spilled on this topic, to varying conclusions. Consider for example, Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book, The Two Income Trap: Why Middle Class Parents Are Going Broke, where she argued that two-income families don’t end up with more disposable income, and are at higher risk for bankruptcy than one-income families. Unsurprisingly, her thesis sparked lively debate on the left and the right, with arguments of all sorts emerging, some saying that her financial comparisons were miscalculated, others that her thesis was insulting to working women.
I have no desire here to “turn back the clock” to the 1950s or any other so-called golden era. Neither is it my intent to criticize two-income families, or to turn the economic question into an ideological one. My point is simply that quality of life includes more than just financial calculations. Families must consider the substantial additional expenses of quality day-care, commuting, and increased spending for food and the like when both parents work outside the home. Bearing in mind the possible cost savings that single-income families can accumulate by more closely managing their home and food preparation, calling such a family “single-income” becomes a misnomer. The significant economic value of these at-home tasks makes the home economy look pretty attractive—especially considering the possibilities of reduced stress, increased stability, and the creative ways in which income can be supplemented from home in the gig economy.
Many snapshots of both sides of the productive and entrepreneurial home economy are appearing in the midst of the pandemic. The hashtags #stressbaking and #quarantinebaking have multiplied faster than the yeast in the bread that has been baked, as people are rediscovering the satisfaction of baking and the pleasures of eating together as a family. Google searches for how to do your own car repairs have exploded during the quarantine, and global sales for the popular knitting brand We Are Knitters have been increasing 75 percent weekly, providing a glimpse of the productive possibilities of the home economy. Do-It-Yourself Coronavirus masks and shields, designed and churned out from home, show unending family ingenuity in times of need; and creative educational solutions from parents reveal that they are indeed able to educate their own kids. Every bit of this springs from the old well of family capital, long neglected but still rich with clean water and waiting to be tapped.
Conclusion: It All Runs in(to) the Family
Coronavirus safety measures across the country remind us that the basic unit of society is not the individual, but the family. As so many of us are required to shelter in our homes, we confront this reality, which may be uncomfortable, awkward, even painful. It also makes us acutely aware of those with no family to shelter in place with, and the unintended consequences of replacing the family with the individual as civilization’s building block.
Stay-at-home orders also reveal another major consequence of the Great Scattering in modern times: loneliness. This is evident on the front end of family life as single millennials cope with the COVID-19 crisis by moving back home to regain a sense of the familiar. As a single, female consultant in the nation’s capital put it, “I would rather use this time to go home and be with my parents instead of being alone in DC, quarantined in my apartment.” The pandemic also reveals the consequences of autonomous individualism on the back-end of family life, with the looming crisis of elderly isolation. In the years that used to be the joyous beginnings of family life (today’s millennials) or the satisfying conclusions of family life (today’s senior citizens), we see both groups longing for the families that could have been.
A powerful antidote to such atomistic existence, loneliness, and alienation, is found in the family: productive, resilient, and together. A family-centered life, with the home as the engine of education and economics, orders one’s vocations and roles in ways that build lasting familial bonds and provide stability amid a changing world. COVID-19 quarantining provides an opportunity for this reality to sink in, and for what Eberstadt might call lessons in “how to navigate the Great Scattering successfully.” The elemental human desire for belonging is strong, as human beings are “intensely communal creatures,” with expectations that, Eberstadt contends, “remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community.” Now, ready or not—thanks to coronavirus—we’ve all come home. The question is, will we stay?