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Puzzles, Family Ethics, and the Coronavirus

In addition to a run on toilet paper, there has been a run on puzzles.  Families, sheltering in place and tired of being on electronics all day due to school and work, have turned to puzzles as a way to relax at the end of the day and enjoy each other’s company. It is not a bad story, suggesting a silver lining to the quarantine.

What causes me to bristle a little is what is left out.  What kind of families are able to relax in the evening, bonding over games?  Clearly, the family is not worried about finances, so no one has lost their job.  They probably have two, maybe three, computers at home, high speed internet, and time to complete their school and work before dinner.  They are secure legally, not having to worry about an incarcerated family member or the immigration status of a parent or child.  They are probably not of Asian descent and so not experiencing the prejudice stemming from the pandemic.

They are a “typical” family in a way that hides the realities of family life.

In Sex, Love, and Families: Catholic Perspectives, Julie Rubio and I brought together many insightful thinkers in the field of moral theology to provide a theological perspective that counters this narrow understanding of families.  Now, in the midst of this pandemic, this social ethics approach to families is even more important because it helps to envision issues more clearly and develop better responses. Here are three examples to explain what I mean.

Families and Incarceration

People who are imprisoned are clearly at risk.  Given their close quarters, the coronavirus spreads rapidly in prisons.  Add to this the reality of mass incarceration in the United States and you find a population that is extremely vulnerable.  There have been moves to address this problem, ranging from greater isolation of prisoners to early releases.

Still, we think of the prison population as cut off from the rest of society when, in fact, they are members of families.  In Sex, Love, and Families, Katie Grimes notes in “Family Relationships and Incarceration” that we rarely think of the “relational networks of offenders” and so neglect the fact that over half of inmates have children under the age of 18 and 2.7 million minor children have an incarcerated parent. While some are better off without the parent, most aren’t, experiencing problems with mental health, behavior, and education. In other words, incarceration does not just impact the offender but also their family.

If we were to take this perspective into consideration during the pandemic, we might lean toward finding ways to release prisoners.  This approach is already being done for those nearing the end of their sentences as it reduces the number of people in jails and so makes both those released and not released safer.  The family perspective adds further strength to this release policy as it can ease some of the stress and anxiety on families by having a parent return home. It helps to see that a good solution has multiple positive effects, benefiting individuals, social institutions, and familial networks.

Families and Immigration

During the pandemic, undocumented immigrants have been hit particularly hard. Many work in essential industries (e.g., farming, meat packing, restaurants) and, because of a lack of benefits, avoid medical care, a situation that increases the spread of the coronavirus.  For immigrants who have been detained, the close quarters also exacerbate the spread. Undocumented immigrants who have lost their jobs don’t have access to the social safety net, like unemployment benefits or stimulus checks.

In “Mixed-Status Families, Solidarity, and Lo Cotidiano,” Victor Carmona noted how being undocumented or not having the correct documents creates problems for families.  When a parent lacks the correct paperwork, the worry spreads throughout the family.  Will the parent come home after work?  Should the parent show up at school functions?  Who should accompany children to parks or the doctor’s office?  These kinds of worries keep families from availing themselves of needed public resources.

Taking a social ethics approach through the lens of families helps to see more clearly the problems the coronavirus poses to immigrants in the United States.  The current federal administration’s policies toward immigrants, especially those without documentation, means they are going to avoid medical treatment. Going to health care facilities, especially the attention these places receive during this pandemic, exposes their legal vulnerability. The avoidance means that the disease will spread and have more lethal consequences because the risks of treatment are being weighed against costs to the family from job loss or deportation.

Families and Privilege

While not everyone’s experience, there are families that do have the time and resources for puzzles and activities like them. They have adequate health care, job security, and technological resources to support online education for their children.  These families are not bad.  In fact, more families should have these resources.

What a family ethics reveals, though, is that too often the resources of these privileged families go to advancing their children’s achievements.   In “Wanting ‘the Best’ for ‘Our’ Kids”, David Cloutier notes how our push for good schools drives up housing prices and so pushes middle and lower income families to less well funded schools.  Tim and Sue Muldoon note in “A Spirituality for Parenting in a Hurried Age” how the achievement orientation leads to a more and more harried existence.  A social ethic of the family reveals that families tend to secure their privilege rather than use it to help others.

The emptiness of this pursuit is exposed in the pandemic and the needed quarantine.  There are no springs sports, no academic awards.  SAT tests have been postponed.  Grades are pass/fail.  It forces us to ask, “what are we chasing?”  Puzzles, because they do not advance social standing, might remind families of the importance of spending time together, of caring for one another. Without a focus on achievement, families might find time to discuss what is going on, think about those who are more at risk, and what the family can do to help.  Maybe, it becomes a time where families can do something like what Mary Doyle Roche suggests in “Cultivating Resistance” and bring up children to be activists for the common good.

God’s Family

While this is only a glimpse of the scholars in Sex, Love, and Families, hopefully it indicates the value of understanding families from a social view, a view that better captures the diverse realities in the United States.  Seeing people as members of families, we are better able to grasp what is occurring and what needs to be done.  It is also a hope that, as we see people not as isolated individuals but as members of familial networks, we might come to see all human beings as members of God’s family.