Coronavirus: What Was It Like Being Stuck With Family After Living Alone For Years?

Psychologists said that since democracy and respect for personal space is not a strong point of Indian family structures, conflicts were unavoidable.

MUMBAI — When an ongoing shoot was stalled on March 18 due to the escalating COVID-19 situation, Benazir, 26, saw it as an opportunity to take a short break. “We were told the shoot will resume by end of March so I took a flight home to Bengaluru, happy that I would get to spend 15-20 days with my mom and dad,” she recounts. It’s been three months since and Benazir wonders every single day if she made a mistake.

When she landed in Bengaluru, her parents were readying to fly back from Rourkee, where her father is posted. But the lockdown was imposed before they could return home. Suddenly, Benazir found herself in charge of the house as well as her younger brother, with a heap of chores she had to manage alone. “I don’t like to cook, and am awful at it. To make matters worse, my brother, in his early 20s and still a student, wasn’t helping around the house. Things soon soured between us and the vibe at home turned toxic. Every day I would hope for the lockdown to end.”

Late last month, Benazir’s mother returned to Bengaluru. And while she is glad for her presence, the last few weeks have been wrought with a different set of issues. The family members find themselves in close quarters all the time and Benazir, who has lived away from home ever since she finished school eight years ago, finds her mother’s micromanagement of her life exhausting. “It’s the small things that bother the most. Like her insistence that I appear presentable by her standards at all times. It isn’t enough for her that I am showered and combed.” While Benazir is thankful for the safety and security that home provides during the pandemic, she rues the lack of privacy.

Small Issues Snowball

Benazir’s dilemma is shared by many youngsters who chose to return home during the pandemic. Their reasons, though, may be myriad. Some, like Vishwas, did so in order to support their ageing parents. The 36-year-old, however, feels his trip from Delhi to Mumbai has been “a waste” since his father refuses to stay indoors. “I am not an early riser and he uses this as an excuse to fetch supplies like milk and bread early every other morning. My parents are also stubborn about switching from fresh milk to tetra packs,” rues the marketing consultant. Vishwas is making an attempt to change his schedule to intercept his father’s “morning walks”.

“Shantanu’s mother keeps making him desserts and deep fried pooris, which he has to refuse to eat. That is usually a big disappointment for his mother.”

Shantanu’s decision, on the other hand, stemmed from his concern for his own mental health. He didn’t want to be cooped up in his tiny apartment, alone for the duration of the lockdown. The actor literally took the last flight out of Mumbai. “My parents and I have otherwise worked out a wonderful balance where they allow me my space and I help with home chores. It’s their obsession with what I eat that drives me up the wall. As an actor, in the absence of a gym, I have to stay lean but my mother doesn’t understand that.”

Shantanu’s mother keeps making him desserts and deep fried pooris, which he has to refuse to eat. That is usually a big disappointment for his mother. “I know it sounds petty but these tiny issues build up over time, especially when you have lived on your own for 13 years,” points out the 28-year-old, adding that often, parents do not understand the compulsions of their children’s professions.

Parents struggle too

So common is this phenomenon that there is a term coined especially for those who returned to live with their parents during the COVID crisis. “We call them ‘Pandemic Nesters’,” says psychotherapist Alaokika Bharwani, who feels such a move isn’t difficult for the children alone.

“There are parents who have moved on to a new life, believing that their children are now independent. For them, readjusting to the role of a parent can be a challenge. An increase in expenses and workload at home, and lack of privacy are some of the issues they face. Then there are those that would like the child to stay longer but fear that the child will move soon,” she points out.

What irks Devaki Sharma, a resident of Ujjain, most about her 33-year-old son Mohit is the ambiguity of the chores. “I am too old to manage everything without a house help. My husband aids with the cleaning and grocery shopping and my son is supposed to wash the utensils accumulated from breakfast and lunch. But what hour between 3pm and 7pm he will choose to complete the chore is anybody’s guess,” Devaki told HuffPost India. The 62-year-old, who is used to following a sort of routine in her day’s work finds it difficult to work her way around her son’s schedule. “The mess in the kitchen holds me up with other small work, such as roasting and grinding the masalas. Asking him his schedule every day makes him feel like I am nagging.

“The 62-year-old, who is used to following a sort of routine in her day’s work finds it difficult to work her way around her son’s schedule.”

It’s not just chores or eating habits that have set families on a warpath during the lockdown. Staying apart from years have allowed parents and their children to have different and often opposing political values. However, staying together during a time when every small political decision has had a direct effect on the lives of the middle class, have led to conflicts and arguments over political allegiances.

Krishan Karmakar feels his 30-year-old daughter Avani nags him. At 58, he is set in his belief system, and does not see why his advertising professional daughter contradicts and questions him on his views.

“On her previous visits, mostly week-long holidays, we would avoid discussing politics. But now, every other day we get into a heated argument about my support for the government, views on their policies and the Indo-China issue. My faith is perceived as proof of my support for BJP, which I feel undermines my intelligence,” complains Pune-based Karmakar.

Communication is key

Clinical psychologist Deepti Khemchandani however, believes these issues can crop up also in families where the children live with their parents. “Once the novelty wears off, the struggles are similar. But where children are used to their ‘space’, the adjustment can take longer,” she says. Respecting each other’s space is the first step; the gap can further be bridged with inclusion. “But communication is key. If there is a clear division in chores and clear boundaries have been demarcated, it can ease up the situation a fair bit.”

Bharwani, however, admits that is easier said than done since democracy is not a strong point of Indian families. “We live in an emotionally phobic society where families have rigid power structures. Parents tend to talk down to children, who have not developed the language of communicating with parents.” She says it would help if timelines (How long will you stay?) and financials (Will you be contributing to the expenses and work load?) are discussed upfront.

Patience and empathy

In her mid-20s, Aishwarya insists that these struggles should not be mistaken for ungratefulness. “But this trip back home to Coimbatore has made me realise that ‘home’ is where you can be yourself without filters.” She recounts an instance a few weeks ago when she was stepping out late in the evening and got irked when her parents asked her where she was off to and why. “In Mumbai, I travel at all hours and at my will. After that brief moment of resentment, I reminded myself that I am in their house and here, I will have to live by their rules. It’s a difficult realisation but helps in the longer run,” she says.

Shoaib, 28, has returned home mindful of this fact. Prepared to spend until August with his family in Rourkee, he has readjusted his schedules to suit theirs and doesn’t sleep in till late. The Mumbai-based writer has also communicated to them that he will be spending a large part of the day working from home. “Neither of us should take the other for granted,” he says.

Unresolved issues resurface

Close proximity for a longer duration also leaves little space to evade unresolved issues. For Benazir, it is the weight of her mother’s expectations that she finds difficult to bear. “With my father away and my mother’s social life curtailed, she expects me to fill that gap and spend time with her. But we do not share that kind of bond. I am also not ready to discuss touchy topics, like her disapproval of my career choice, or her desire for me to marry soon. Having been a financially independent adult for a while now makes me feel that I should be allowed to make these decisions. But she believes she has a stake in my life and does little to hide her disappointment in me.” says Benazir.

“But she believes she has a stake in my life and does little to hide her disappointment in me.”

Khemchandani says it can be difficult to not take things personally. But it is crucial that one prioritise self care and remind oneself that the other person’s issue isn’t their responsibility. “Their acceptance will come only when they are willing and open to it,” says Khemchandani.

With the COVID numbers rising in Mumbai, Benazir faces the dilemma of choosing between her freedom and her safety. “Shoots are about to resume but I am unsure if a film set will be a safe workplace during the pandemic. I am considering giving up my job and staying back to find opportunities in Bengaluru. In such case, we have to find ways to live with each other without breeding negativity. I am making small efforts to communicate with her, but also nurture myself with things that interest me, such as yoga or working on my writing.”