Domesticity: The COVID-19 Crisis

Roy Herndon Smith

The COVID-19 crisis exposes the truth that domesticity, defined as “home or family life” (Apple Dictionary 2.2.2 2005-2017), is as fundamental to human existence as body and mind.

Home and family name two defining aspects of reality as an interdependent co-creative community. Home names our existence as embedded in the particular and concrete manifestations of reality in which we are born, which shelter us, which we participate in making as they make us, and in which we die. Family names the web of particular beings that conceive and give birth to us, nurture us, hold us, and participate in making us who and what we are, as we conceive and give birth to them, hold them, and participate in making them who and what they are.

In early 21st century America, dominant ideologies define domesticity as a limited, “narrow,” “mundane,” “menial,” and “selfish” sphere of existence that supports and is an escape from “the real world” of purposeful private, public, and solitary work, growth, development, autonomy, meaning, and devotion to “higher,” “bigger,” and “transcendent” causes and powers. According to these ideologies, even when we are in our homes and with our families, relations, friends and loved ones, we are of this other world, from which, as if we were outside of, domesticity, we look down on, or back at, it as, at best, the ground from which we reach for the stars, and, at worst, the prison to which we are relegated. According to these ideologies, a good home, marriage, family, friendship, or love relationship supports our higher individual fulfillment and collective commitments; a bad one is the mud in which we are stuck.

The coronavirus pandemic exposes just how false these ideologies are. It is the quintessential domestic threat that requires an equally quintessential domestic response. While the corona virus kills us as individuals, it attacks us through, as it weakens and breaks, the interdependent bonds that constitute the families and homes through and in which we live. It constructs tragic paradoxes. It renders incapacitated and kills others on whom we depend and who depend on us in order to live. We catch it from and give it to these others. In order to protect ourselves and each other, we must both distance ourselves from each other and, at the same time, strengthen the domestic bonds through which we form, sustain, hold, and heal each other and make our homes together in and with the rest of the beings in the world.

Inherent in our responses to the virus is thus a risk and a gift. The risk is that the temporary necessity of social distancing, in order to contain the virus and slow, or even end, its threat to us, will increase long-term isolation in a social world in which the ideological valorization of autonomy has already resulted in us alienating ourselves from each other and the world and our demeaning of the domestic necessities of home-making and familial and relational intimacy and interdependence. The gift is the realization and valuing of home-making and family and relational intimacy and interdependence—of domesticity—as the breath and beating heart of living reality.