As the lockdown began I was overwhelmed by two emotional responses. The first, as a full-time working single mother of a five-year-old and a fairly recent migrant to the UK, was a sense of complete isolation and betrayal. The second, an overwhelming and desperate rage, watching reports and responses to domestic and family violence in the lockdown. I have been puzzling over the connection between these two parallel but apparently unrelated aspects of lockdown. At the heart of both I sensed that the idea of the ‘household’ required further critical inquiry. How, on the one hand, could it be the automatic ‘go to’—a foundational place of return when our society and world was in disarray—and on the other, a significant contributor to making life harder or even unliveable for a sizeable proportion of the population? With the echoes of so many generations of feminists in my ears, I felt like I really needed to think this through.
The problem with a crisis is that it doesn’t allow you to think. Alongside the inevitable lack of time and space to think when managing a small child in a small space, a crisis demands that you suspend some critical thinking in the name of acting. It is too urgent, too serious a moment, we are told, to indulge in the luxury of reflection. And indeed in those early weeks of lockdown I did chastise myself. Sure, I felt betrayed and resentful that the nice nuclear family around the corner with whom I had been sharing childcare and with whom I had organised a shared homeschooling schedule suddenly withdrew and were no longer willing to welcome my child and I into their fold. But what did I expect them to do? I spent hours and days pondering what the reasonable options were in this situation, as I wandered aimlessly with my child across the grassy common, both needing that space and suspiciously and judgmentally monitoring others’ use of it (did they really need to be out? Were they really a household?).
And yet the common sense on which we base our actions in a crisis does require reflection. It is hidden in this common sense that we discover the traces of what is ultimately considered acceptable, normal, desirable underneath all the renegotiated, creatively constructed lives we erect for ourselves in ‘normal’ times. What follows are my stumbled, insufficiently formed attempts at thinking through and against the common sense as I juggle life in lockdown, greatly enriched by conversations with the other contributors to this blog series (reflected in the introduction to the series).
The heteronormative boundaries of the household
In the early days of COVID-19, as the threat seemed to grow, my main concern was the protection of my elderly grandmother. While I felt terrible, I decided not to go for the monthly weekend visit in early March. Instead I asked family friends living close by to explain that we needed to keep the virus at a distance from her and the elderly community within which she lives. I was conscious of avoiding other at-risk groups but I did not feel fear myself. Of course, I had no desire to get sick—the construction of NHS Nightingale sent shivers down my spine, imagining how terrible I would feel ending up there. But I didn’t feel terror.
Yet that is precisely what set in when the lockdown occurred. Suddenly my getting ill was no longer an unpleasant possibility but a potentially devastating occurrence to be avoided at all cost. What happened if I got sick and had to be hospitalised? Who would take in my child, who would of course also have been exposed and therefore considered a threat herself? With no family to rely on, and the few friends I had all taking seriously the restricting of contact only to those in their household, who would I turn to? Even if I wasn’t hospitalised but simply laid up in bed for a week or two, who would feed us? Who would care for a five-year-old? Who would do the basic necessities of shopping, cleaning, washing? I have never felt so vulnerable and alone. Perhaps this was an important lesson in humility. A reminder of my own fallibility and a crushing of my own investment in the mythical, neo-liberal, individual subject capable and responsible of creating and controlling her own destiny. But it also felt like a punitive reminder of my own ‘exceptionalism’.
I am a woman who has strayed. Having not maintained a heteronormative nuclear family structure (and I would stress heteronormative rather than heterosexual here—the point is not who you are having sex with but the norms of sexual organisation that you follow), I have no one to blame but myself for the isolation, increased burden and increased vulnerability I now face. If I am unwilling or unable to sustain a live-in relationship with another adult then I have to be prepared to go it alone if normal life is disrupted. With lockdown announced and enacted within a day there was no time to negotiate and establish an alternative living structure. Nor was any other relationship or bond assumed to hold the status or legitimacy necessary to be considered. Instead, we reverted to the presumed ‘natural’ unit of the household, which by and large was understood to be the nuclear family.
The myth of safety
But what is this foundational unit of protection and support that I have negligently opted out of? While I grappled with the vulnerability of isolation and loneliness, I watched the nightly reports, first hypothesising and then substantiating the violence facing many (predominantly) women and children locked in with abusers. Desperate community workers interviewed about the support services no longer available or at capacity, harrowing personal accounts and harsh statistics circulated on repeat, while the government launched a social media campaign. Meanwhile, I raged alone in my living room.
My anger at the domestic violence discourse was not about the lack of services, the decades of funding cuts, the deprioritising of support structures. Of course, it is necessary and important to critique and resist these. But my anger went deeper, and in fact was fuelled by the constant laments about how we needed more shelters. As if the problem was just what to do with these exceptional, pathetic aberrations, while the rest of us sat in familial bliss. The individuals involved became pathologised, victimised objects, while the fundamental imaginary of the household as safe and sacred space (for whom? Under what circumstances?) was never questioned.
I have grappled with this problem in my work on human rights: the ways in which the family is simultaneously empirically documented as a site of profound injustice and violence, and normatively proclaimed as a fundamental good to be protected at all cost (Grewal 2016, Chapter 5). At a time like this when we are forced to return to this unit, what work are we as a society willing to do to revisit our investment in the face of this harsh reality? Not much, it would seem: the few articles I have seen that have sought to raise some of these questions have met with shockingly angry backlash. In one piece, the writer proposed both the abolition of the family and the prison. In the comments that followed, it was her attack on the family that unleashed waves of ranted curses and threats of violence. And so we see the list of individualised exceptions to the imagined ideal multiple with every news broadcast, while we all stay stubbornly, blindly wedded to the myth.
Crisis thinking as resistance
So here is my proposition. In this time where we are being told to obey orders, stay busy at home—doing PE, baking, crafting, and homeschooling—perhaps an act of rebellion is not breaching social distancing. It is thinking—deeply, critically—about all that we have accepted, tolerated, negotiated in ‘normal life’: the imaginaries sedimented into common sense that form the basis for how we act in a time of crisis. And rather than rejecting reflection in the name of the need to act, using this time to ferociously question and dismantle every myth and fantasy that in the course of ordinary life we try to work with and around, exhausted by the struggle of just surviving.
Rather than seeing this ‘crisis’ as making thought impossible, I would urge us to see it as the ideal moment to lay bare the sharpest contradictions with which we live. From here we might then ask if this common sense is really what we want our society to be based on: not just now in this moment of crisis, but beyond, when ‘normalcy’ returns, and in preparation for the next unforeseen crisis that will force us back to fundamentals again.
Kiran Grewal is a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her research interests include decolonial and postcolonial feminist theory and non-institutional human rights politics and practice. She is the author of two books: The Socio-Political Practice of Human Rights: Between the Universal and the Particular (Routledge 2016) and Gang Rape and the Reinforcement of Dominant Order: Discourses of Gender, Race and Nation (Routledge 2017). Kiran’s current research is focused on subaltern engagements with discourses of reconciliation, justice and rights in post-war Sri Lanka.