Isolation and togetherness: The COVID-19 impact on family life

By Antonia Sheel and Amanda Hurley
Edited by Stephanie Schorow and Anne D’Urso Rose

Long-time Malden resident Karen Yates, a mother of two, makes it a point to wake up early and start the day with a cup of coffee, a little news, and quiet reflection. This helps her maintain a routine and sense of normalcy at a time when so many things are not normal.

“Everything requires so much more energy,” she says. Her family has moved from the “auto-pilot” pace of everyday life to a new slower, ever-changing version. “It’s like moving through molasses.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting quarantines have had a profound impact on all of American society, not least of which is the American family. Children are out of school, parents working at home, or laid off from jobs, and extended families have either grouped together or stayed separate under social distancing guidelines.

Closed playground in Malden. Photo by Antonia Sheel

The citizen journalists of Neighborhood View reached out to several Malden families to chronicle their lives during the pandemic quarantine. While the families talked about uncertainty and fear, they also spoke of togetherness and joy.

“We spend more time with each other,” says Najla Fiaturi, a Malden mother of three. She is happy every one in her family is able to have meals together.

“It is nice having all the time with kids that you wouldn’t normally have,” Yates says.

Strangely enough, these unprecedented times were not unfamiliar for Yates.  “For the last ten years, life has been non-stop stress and so it might sound odd to say, but I felt prepared,” says Yates, a former scientist who worked with cell cultures, where maintaining a sterile environment was part of the job. “Everything we need to do [masks, gloves, hand washing], I had already learned.”

Still, it has been difficult dealing with the uncertainty of what’s to come and “seeing the people around you impacted,” said Malden resident Antonia Sheel, mother of two. Her family has been coping through positive thinking, and prayer.

Antonia Sheel and her husband, Jarritt are embracing this extra time together as a family. They have two young children, 3½-year-old Judah, who now Zooms with his classmates and family, and 6-month-old Aden, who is now sitting up and enjoying some of his first foods: sweet potatos and spinach. Jarritt is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, and an assistant professor of Music Education at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Antonia holds a doctorate in Higher Education and Policy Studies, and is a professor and higher education consultant and coach at a local  community college. They have both been able to work from home, in keeping with their regular class schedules, which has helped them maintain a routine. 

Their backgrounds in education well prepared them to create lesson plans and structure for their kids. Judah’s preschool also sends them resources through Google Classroom, which Antonia highly recommends. They plan out their days a week in advance, and are always sure to include at least one physical activity and one art activity per day. 

But Antonia has had to walk away from the constant news updates when it became overwhelming. She chooses to focus on remaining prayerful, and connecting with family and friends. “Positive words and thoughts are very important,” she says. Her family also believes in looking out for those less fortunate. 

Like many parents across the country, Karen is also working from home full-time, while her boys Chris, 14 and Blaine,11, attend school online. The boys go to a special school that provides specialized instruction. Blaine stays on campus and Chris is a day student, but now they are both at home. They have managed to work out a schedule where they swap their time spent in the “comfortable room” in order to get work done.

Chris, in particular, spends four hours a day on the computer attending class sessions and reading groups.

“The school changed its approach multiple times. The hardest part has been adjusting to this new schedule. It has been a learning curve,” Yates said. 

Karen Yates and her son Chris

Najla Fiaturi says her family members have adapted to working and studying from home. Without the morning commutes, Najla, who works as an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and her husband, Mohamed Saleh, a freelancer, are able to ease into the day. 

Likewise, their three boys, 13-year-old twins Zakaria and Hamza, and 9-year-old Elias, who all attend the Beebe School, don’t start their online “Google Meet” classes until 11 a.m. They are allowed to stay up a little later and sleep in. 

“It’s a hard time. Everybody is watching the news and there is a lot of this uncertainty,” Najla said. In the first weeks after Malden residents were told to shelter in place, Najla’s sons saw that the death rates were rising, making them nervous. They were encouraged to ask questions and keep an open dialogue. Najla explained the virus would mostly affect elderly and not necessarily children, though she says we now know kids can get sick too. They were reassured that they would be fine as long as they followed safety measures, such as washing their hands, wiping down surfaces and staying home to avoid infection.

Boating on the Mystic River is one of the activities Najla and her active boys miss during this time.

 “The biggest challenge has been managing everyone’s stress and staying on top of everyone’s emotional well-being,” says Yates. “There has been a lot of role-modeling self-care.”

Finding an outlet for physical activity has been a big challenge for the Fiaturi family. Most of the parks and playgrounds have been closed and the boys aren’t that enticed with the prospect of just walking up and down the street. They have found one way to keep the whole family active. Mohammed, who once taught professionally, now runs a family aerobics class that they all enjoy.

Judah misses playing with other kids but his family keeps it light and fun. They explain to Judah that though the playground is closed, they can find a spot to fly a kite instead, which he loves! Aden has adapted as well, and enjoys all the extra cuddle time as much as his parents do. 

Flying a kite as a family. Photo by Antonia Sheel

Young Zakaria, Hamza, and Elias, do get a bit bored sometimes. They miss their extracurricular activities, like basketball and kung fu. However they are able to play with their friends every day online, through multiplayer games like Minecraft or Roblox on their PlayStation. Najla tolerates the little extra video game time. “I don’t want to really make it hard for them because they are already not doing the activity that they like, so I don’t want to make more rules and be the policeman too.  So I want to take it easy a little bit,” she says. 

Observing Ramadan this year was special. “We have more time to pray at night because we don’t have school tomorrow and they can wake up late so we can spend more time praying and talking at night,” Najla says. She and her husband have been teaching the kids Arabic, which they did not have a chance to do before. “Over the period of two months there was really a big improvement for them with pronunciation. So that’s a good thing,” she says. 

The Yates family traded their evenings at the local YMCA for games of basketball, baking cookies, time in the garden and even dedicated weekly Zoom calls for games and craft activities with family and friends.

“I’ve been gardening a lot,” Yates says with a chuckle. Time in the garden has also provided a teachable moment as her boys learn to weed and mulch. “At the end of all this I will have a pretty great garden.” 

It’s has been a time to evaluate what really matters, Yates says. “Maybe the projects you didn’t get to and still aren’t getting to is because you didn’t want to get them done. Maybe the project isn’t as important as you thought it was.” She encourages parents in particular to not be hard on themselves about lapses in schedules and expectations that aren’t being met.

“It’s OK to say no. Maintain boundaries, you won’t feel as ragged,” she says.

And there’s a silver lining to all this: Being home together as a young family offers “extra cuddles, baking at home, and reconnecting with family and friends,” Antonia says.

“There will be good days, there will be great days, there will be some bad days,” says Antonia. If she could give one piece of advice it would be to “be gentle with yourself” during this time.

Resources for Families with Young Children

From Antonia Sheel:  

From Karen Yates: 

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  1. A defining moment for a generation: Malden's younger residents confront the pandemic: Part One - Neighborhood View

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