by Tabitha Carver
"There are no weekly phone calls, no reassurance. There was one email, but I couldn’t reply to it and I worried about death. There was no temporary reversion to childhood, no responsibility shirked by the virtual embrace of a parent."
On the 21st of March 2020, Boris Johnson claimed that it was “everyone’s strongest instinct” to visit their mother on Mother's Day. During lockdown, Britons have been forced to undergo what has been touted by many media outlets as the greatest possible sacrifice by opting not to celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Birthdays and religious holidays with their families.
What do these largely unchallenged media narratives tell us? They underline the widely accepted opinion that family is inalienable, unbreakable and supremely precious above all other relationships. But they also represent a general ignorance towards the thousands of individuals who are routinely forced to opt out of family gatherings to protect themselves.
Around 1 in 5 families in the UK are touched by family estrangement. These figures cannot be trusted to be accurate due to the stigma in sharing such information, as well as the difficulty in collecting data. They do, however, offer some insight into how important the subject of family estrangement is, considering that the prevailing conservative notions of family seem only to have strengthened as a result of the global crisis. Research conducted by leading estrangement charity Stand Alone and Cambridge University suggests that lockdown has compounded the stigma, often laying bare the fractured support networks of estranged individuals.
The reasons for estrangement are manifold, ranging from emotional and physical abuse, neglect and differences of opinion on ways of life that fall outside of the societal norm. Individuals left behind face stigma, shame and isolation. Dealing with estrangement is a trauma not often acknowledged in popular discourse, making it even harder for individuals to connect with others in similar circumstances. If it is addressed, there is an unspoken expectation that reunion is imminent, that no wedge large enough could force a family apart for good.
"Tight friendship groups, as well as religious, activist and community networks show us how we can form new ‘families’"
Coming to terms with the trauma and lack of understanding is a continuous process that an estranged individual must learn to adapt to throughout their life. What is unique about the isolation felt by these individuals during lockdown is the pain of an emboldened attitude towards the importance of family, and the added pressure to reconcile in these times of crisis. Many estranged individuals will have considered potential illness or death in the future, and must now for the first time decide how to act beyond a hypothetical. This pressure to reconcile has the capacity to actively retrigger the trauma that many feel they must gently subdue in every-day life.
Importantly, we must remember that the needs of estranged individuals are affected by greater societal issues. In this vein, we must continue to be mindful of how estrangement intersects with race, religion, migrant and economic status, gender identity and sexuality.
Tight friendship groups, as well as religious, activist and community networks show us how we can form new ‘families’. Ones which exist beyond the normative family model, rooted in collective consciousness. These support structures will be the most valuable asset for estranged individuals during COVID-19. The lived experiences of estranged individuals during the pandemic and beyond can help us shift focus from and become more active in unpicking often damaging values attached to the notion of family and what reinforces them. This is important not only for those that are estranged, but those with strained familial relationships, and those forced to confront these head on as a result of COVID-19.
The more restrictions ease, the more estranged people will be inundated with imagery of family reunions they are likely never to experience. It is our job to remain critical of a one-sided presentation of family life, which excludes so many who continue to suffer in isolation.
Tabitha Carver is an artist who you can follow at @tabitharevrac
Stand Alone are an organisation helping to support people in the UK dealing with estrangement. You can find out more about them at their website.