How families can self-quarantine without going insane

Practical tips for surviving being holed up with family for weeks on end

A family.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Being at home with our families for two weeks sounds like hell.

Of course, I'm panicking about coronavirus. I know that as someone with a functioning immune system and not too many years on the clock I'll probably be okay if and when I do get it. The same goes for my spritely husband and robust kids. But I'm terrified for the older, sicker herd members, who seem to be much more susceptible to COVID-19. Protecting them by any means necessary feels just as urgent as vaccinating our kids. And because of this, I hope everyone will do their best to follow the rules, and let science, kindness, and common sense dictate how they go about their lives in the coming months.

Like a lot of people, I've already started not going to enclosed public places unless it's absolutely necessary. I figure I still need to pick my kids up from school and run them in wide-open spaces, but other than that, I'm more or less on self-imposed lockdown. Naturally, performing my public duty includes but isn't limited to: glaring at people who have the nerve to sneeze unless it's into both elbows, and buying the expensive bottle of Chilean red I accidentally coughed on when stocking up on essentials.

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It's hard to keep calm in the face of the bubbling hysteria, and now, for parents, that hysteria is sprouting little baby micro-panics pertaining to the logistics of the thing we're all really afraid of: quarantine with our kids.

As schools begin to shut in my city and workplaces enforce telecommuting, my family and millions of others will be forced into spending way more time together than we're used to. I've no doubt that being holed up for weeks with my husband and kids will be awful.

When I read the news that the divorce rate soared in the Chinese city of Xi'an after a weeks-long lockdown was lifted, it made complete sense. That'll be us soon, I thought. I'm not sure my relationship can take the strain of both of us working from the dining room table while our 7- and 4-year-olds thunder about demanding to be purged of their boredom.

We all complain about our busy lives and not having enough time to spend with our partners and kids, but now a pandemic is upon us, and presented with this unique silver lining, a lot of us are freaking out. How the hell are we supposed to survive being around the people we love most in the world?

I have some ideas, but I should mention now that these things largely won't work if your offspring is under three. To those parents, I offer a virtual salute and my best wishes. I got nothing.

So, the first part of my plan sounds complicated, but is actually pretty straightforward: zoning. Divide your home — however small it is, and I live in a two-bedroom apartment so I understand small — into zones. There's a quiet zone, a work zone, a jumping on your sister's head zone. Whatever the things are you and your cohabiters need to get done in a given day, there should be a designated place. And no one, under any circumstances, is allowed to bring their chaos into the nap or work zones. Make signs. Enforce penalties. In a pinch, lock yourself in the bathroom to take a meeting if the only other option is having your colleagues see your kids beat each other around the head with your his-and-hers bug out bags.

Noise is clearly the weak link here, because sound travels, especially between imaginary zones in tiny apartments. And unwanted racket is pure torture when you're on a deadline, or need to respond pithily to a comment on Twitter.

So for this to work properly, you'll need headphones. Everyone in your household is going to need a pair, preferably of the noise-canceling variety. And please dispel now any notions you idealist parents out there have about your kids not watching screens for at least five hours a day when they're not in school and you're working from home. Take it from a home-based freelancer whose kids are sick a lot: Screens are your friend. In the coming weeks and months, they might just save your remote working, homeschooling, boredom-quelling butt. And I recommend keeping iPads and phones charged at all times, and deploying them whenever you need to, guilt-free. There will be plenty of time to worry about everyone detoxing from devices when we're done dealing with the plague.

Next, stock up on age-appropriate art projects, puzzles, books, and magazines. Because even kids get bored of screens eventually. If your children sneer at the idea of reading, you can incentivize them with an at-home read-a-thon. Essentially, you pay them $1 an hour, or whatever you deem appropriate, to stick their head in a book.

Finally, scheduling. If you're a two-adult household, make sure one of you is assigned to the kids at all times. This is not to say you have to participate in their activities; just that you're on deck should someone need an extra helping of Cheddar Bunnies, or feels the need to tell a grownup that their butt itches and their finger hurts.

Alas, there's no perfect plan for surviving quarantine with your loved ones, but it is preferable to the guilt of wondering if you passed the virus to someone less well equipped to deal with it.

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Ruth Margolis
Ruth ​Margolis is a British ​journalist living in the U.S. Her work has appeared in ​The Guardian, ​The ​Daily Telegraph and