Since COVID-19 sent us all into lockdown, more than a dozen neighbors, friends, colleagues, and cousins have offered help as I remain carefully secluded. And I do what I can for them.
Missing from that picture is a spouse, along with children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. Some I never had; the rest are deceased. Far from feeling lonely, I thrive on multiple social connections rather than depending on a designated individual in a particular family role.
It’s a rising trend. Since 1970, the number of solo dwellers in the U.S. has risen from 10.8 million to 36.5 million, many of whom prefer to live alone. During the same years, the proportion of U.S. family households with their own children declined from 56% to 40%, while households made up of family groups of any kind have dropped from 81% to 65%.
And yet, politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Mike Pence continue to use “family” as a magic word, as if those of us without families don’t exist, or don’t matter.
Consider, for instance, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted on March 18. It’s meant to ease people’s lives during this crisis — for instance, by suspending work requirements for adults enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Since these provisions apply to everyone, calling the law “Families First” implies that “family” means “all people.” Words like “man” and “mankind” were once used that way, back when it didn’t seem necessary to acknowledge women.
Despite its unpromising title, the bill takes a giant step toward inclusiveness by providing paid sick leave not only for employees confined by COVID-19 but also for those “caring for an individual who is subject to governmental or self-quarantine.”
The word “individual” is groundbreaking because this is the first federal legislation that provides time off to care for people who are not close relatives. By contrast, earlier federal law regarding sick leave, predictably entitled the Family Medical Leave Act, benefits only those who are caring for a spouse, child, or parent — and that limitation still applies to anything other than COVID-19.
A few years ago, I had a life-threatening operation that lasted six hours. In preparation, I signed an official hospital form designating two cousins and a friend to receive information about how I was doing. But the clerk on duty in the surgical waiting room refused to provide any updates, insisting that only immediate family could be informed.
I don’t know whether that clerk acted on her own, or whether hospital policy limited information to immediate family. Either way, the refusal to recognize any other source of support forced me into the stereotyped image of the socially isolated single patient, as I was deliberately walled off from loved ones who cared enough to show up at dawn and hang around the hospital until nightfall. Like politicians who name legislation “family” this and “family” that, whoever decided that only immediate family could be told whether I was in surgery or out, alive or dead, effectively nullified any other form of human connectedness.
Unfortunately, the resemblance between that experience and federal law does not end with mere naming. By exclusively privileging spouses, parents, and children, the Family Medical Leave Act separates people like me from our loved ones as effectively as that hospital clerk did. For any injury or illness other than COVID-19, federal law still does not entitle anyone to take time off to care for us, nor are we entitled to time off to care for another living soul, no matter how dearly loved or how much in need.
Psychologist Bella DePaulo, who pioneered the scientific study of unmarried adults, has written extensively about laws that discriminate against those who live solo. As she and others have demonstrated, this discrimination extends beyond sick leave to include, for instance, taxes, insurance, Social Security, and housing. As she recently observed, “To become a more connected, caring society, it would help to have laws that recognize the people in our life that matter to us beyond just a spouse, or our own biological or adopted children.”