The writer, a consultant counsellor, analyses how families can live in harmony together now that the coronavirus has forced us to be home for extended periods of time in each other’s company

All of a sudden, we have been locked in our homes along with the rest of the family for almost 12 weeks. For our own good, of course. Just that sometimes togetherness can get overwhelming.

Some of us have three generations living at home. The seniors found that their designated time and space was usurped by their adult kids with their gadgets and conference calls hogging  good network zones, sometimes bang in the middle of the living room. Their children (the grandkids) who initially thought it was a great idea to have Mommy and Daddy at home all the time soon understood that the concept Work from Home (WFH) means just that. They are neither physically nor emotionally available even though they inhabit the same space. At the end of the day, everyone goes to bed wondering, this is us but we don’t really know how to be with each other. 

Time structuring, a concept of Transactional Analysis (TA), helps us unpack this situation in insightful ways. First, a glance at our core needs, or hungers. 

Sensation or stimulation is a prime hunger. Think babies being soothed by rocking, you being greeted with sloppy kisses from your pet…Just to imagine what deprivation of this even for a day would feel like can send shudders down your spine. 

Sandhya Rajayer

Then there is recognition hunger. Like when you wave to someone and they wave back, on social media. Or, they don’t wave back…that can create havoc in your heart. 

The third is structure hunger. In my opinion, this is the single biggest reason why we prefer to join organisations as opposed to hanging up our own shingle. 

Now let’s look at how we satisfy these hungers in our day-to-day living. We satisfy these hungers in six different ways: at one extreme, we make the choice of withdrawing for example while commuting in public transport. 

The other safe way to spend time could be in rituals, in very predictable culturally defined ways to engage in specific contexts such as church or temple visits. Or talking about the weather.

The third way we structure our time is activities; everything from knitting to coding falls in this category. 

The fourth type is pastiming, which, while not being predictable, is repetitive. For example, talking about acceptable subjects, in the present context it may be, ‘before the lockdown happened ….’

Pastiming can go on endlessly in a safe and predictable manner until someone chooses to make a comment that is guaranteed to rile up the other party engaging in the pastime with him/her. 

While they could do this just to get over boredom, the real reason is invariably their preferred emotional payoff which, in short, could be to hurt someone or be hurt. At this point in the interaction it is termed as a game. Games are learned behaviour patterns and sometimes unhealthy routes to false intimacy. 

Intimacy, emotional not just physical, by its very definition, is a free and forthright way to fulfil our hungers for sensation and recognition. It is free of games and could happen through shared activities and game-free conversations.

To back track to the beginning to our three-generation family, what could be a healthy way for them to live in a shared space for a prolonged period of time that is likely to continue even though the Lockdown is now partially lifted. 

When we draw a bar graph of our time consumption patterns, we can see where we invest our time on a daily basis. In a very general sense, for the elders it may be in pastiming, for the adult children, it may be in activities, and for the third generation, it may be a fair spread of activities and intimacy. 

Whether we like it or not, shared space is fertile ground for games as also for intimacy. It’s only when each individual in the family is able to articulate his or her need and is listened to without judgement that we can begin to look at healthier ways to restructure time individually and as a family. And, ‘this is us,’ may have a happy ring to it.

Some smart ways to restructure time:

Structure hunger: Hold a family meeting with the agenda to discuss individual schedules, including those of babies, home-schooling children, adults who work from home and seniors. 

Stimulus hunger: Make an art project of your family schedule, and hang it where it’s easily visible to family members. That way, you can keep referring to this as the day progresses. 

Activity: Play a board game together, for example. Or if you are a music-loving family, hold impromptu jam sessions.

Pastiming: Create after-dinner conversations around your elders’ reminiscences of challenging times. 

Ritual: Setting a regular time and process for house-keeping can create a ritual around this. 

Limit exposure to news. Share the highlights of the day at a fixed time every day with the elders to keep them in the loop. This works at multiple levels; not only does it satisfy their stimulus and recognition hunger, but it also creates a ritual. Plus, it can be hugely reassuring for seniors to know the younger members are on the ball and that they can take a step back. 

Contact and recognition: Those daily ‘he said…, and then she said…’ calls to their besties are important debrief sessions for our elders. Help them with headphones with a mike for privacy. 

Avoid games: Last, speak up if something bothers you. And be prepared to listen without judgement. This will nip every potential game in the bud.  

Sandhya Rajayer is a Mental Health Counsellor based in Bangalore. She believes the current pandemic is leading to a new normal. And this ‘new’ can become ‘normal’ only when we accept the anxieties it is bringing and work through them. She can be contacted at