On Words: Even as Walls Close In, COVID-19 May Expand Our Understanding of ‘Home’

On Words: Even as Walls Close In, COVID-19 May Expand Our Understanding of ‘Home’

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Editor’s note: Welcome to “On Words,” an occasional series in which UVA Today draws from the expertise of faculty and staff to share provocative reflections on words and phrases. Susan Fraiman, a professor of English and expert in feminism, considers the work “home” and how its meaning has become fluid during COVID-19.

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Home, sweet home. To be at home. My hometown. There’s no place like home. The word “home” is a resonant one, bound up with feelings of comfort, familiarity and stability. It describes the place we are from, and to which we belong.

Coinciding with these rich emotional associations, home is the site of conventional ideas about family, privacy and propriety. We may think the old sayings are obsolete – surely home is no longer a man’s castle and a woman’s place. Yet men are still assumed to be “head of household”; women are still tasked with unpaid and underpaid domestic labor; and the exemplary family is still, by and large, strait-laced.

Just as it organizes gender and sexuality, home is also a measure of status. The American dream home – white picket fence and curated lawn – confers legitimacy, while homes falling short of this ideal can be a source of shame. As for the half-million Americans currently without secure housing, they are outsiders with no status at all.

However primal and unshakeable it may feel, “home” is a shifting social construct, highly dependent on time and place. The concept of home as a sanctified private sphere, symbol of middle-class prosperity and rectitude, presided over by a selfless maternal figure, is both a relatively modern and specifically Western one. Dating back to the Victorian period and surviving several waves of feminist critique, its continuing role in upholding hierarchies of class, race and nation, as well as gender/sexuality, cannot be denied. In a recent book, “Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins,” I begin by acknowledging all such pernicious aspects of the domestic ideal. But I then go on to urge recognition for the far more diverse and complicated homes we actually live in: domestic arrangements that are variously stable and precarious, protective and confining, oppressive and creative, heteronormative and queer. To ponder “home” in the context of COVID-19 is to extend this project of appreciating the multiple, often contradictory things a home can be and represent.

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As the current pandemic has put stress on our home lives, so it has put pressure on our sense of “home,” inviting us to grapple with new and occasionally incongruous meanings. Here are just a few examples. Some of us have been hunkered down at home, protecting ourselves from exposure to infection. Compared to those deemed “essential,” to those without a place to go, and to those hospitalized with the virus, we are the lucky ones. Home is our refuge. At the same time, needless to say, being stuck at home may be terribly isolating – all the more so for people living alone. For workers who have lost jobs, being at home means loss of purpose as well as paycheck. For those suffering from mental illness, or even just garden-variety boredom and loneliness, four walls may begin to feel like a cage. For some, overcrowded quarters may only heighten the risk of infection. And for others, being locked down means confinement in a space of conflict and possible violence. Home may be rife with danger. Looked at through the lens of the current health crisis, home appears, more than ever, as both refuge and jail.

Other elements of home are revealed and reinvented under pressure from the pandemic. The challenges of child care and housekeeping, jobs often relegated to others for little or no pay, suddenly loom large for those once exempt and now under quarantine. When a man’s place is suddenly, perforce, in the home; when the female executive has to pick up a mop; then perhaps entrenched gender/class inequities are shaken (or at least exposed) just a little. As with racial disparities in health care, COVID-19 has made other social patterns harder to ignore. The typical residence houses a small number of people, often bi-generational and biologically tied. The virus, however, prefers a different kind of residence: one housing large numbers of people, unrelated by blood, of a similar age, and none of them children. It has turned the spotlight (though surely not searchingly enough) on two kinds of collective residences and their peculiarly vulnerable inmates: nursing homes and prisons. However different, both of these are versions of home – yet because they are similarly out of sight, we are prone to overlook them as such. Home is sometimes an institution. 

Though racist xenophobia did not originate with what our president calls “the China virus,” some have taken advantage of the virus to inflame it. When increasing numbers of people are assaulted by demands to “go back where they came from,” and when ICE endeavors to deport international students, “home” threatens to devolve into a racialized notion of “homeland.” Invoked in this manner, “home” can actually be the driver of hate speech.

I would like to believe, however, that COVID-19 has also stretched and broadened our ideas and feelings about home in more positive ways. For one thing, it has deepened appreciation for various domestic arts (cooking, gardening, home repair). For another, by getting us out and about in our Charlottesville neighborhoods (walking, offering help, going to protests), it has fostered a sense of home not as isolated dwelling, but as broader community; if nothing else, the pandemic has proved how interconnected we are.

As our country tackles this crisis and looks to the future, the task facing us all will be to think beyond neighborhoods and national borders to a notion of home that encompasses the planet.

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