This pandemic has exposed the myth of the nuclear family. Here's to the messy reality

Zoe Williams
Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images

There were a couple of hours, between Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement and the publication of the document giving more detail, when it was not at all clear whether the children of separated parents would be able to move between them. I did not freak out. I could walk them over with the dog, and the right of a dog to a walk is respected all over the world. Once it was established by the World Health Organization that they couldn’t transmit the virus, quarantine became a moot point for the species, which was a crazy upside-down world, since previously I had never seen the word “quarantine”, except attached to the word “dog”. Yes, that’s right, WHO let the dogs out.

My ex doesn’t have a dog, but figured he could borrow one. “It’s quite grumpy,” I said, “do you think it would walk 1.4 miles?” He had another idea. We would both drive to an equidistant supermarket and exchange the kids in the car park. Then I had an idea that was substantially more fun, which was to go into the supermarket, passing each other in an aisle and instructing the children to just change direction, like two spies. While we were arguing about whether that was, in fact, fun, or so extravagantly odd that it would form a mental scar they would remember better than the actual pandemic, new information materialised: children could, in fact, move between their parents’ houses.

There was a bit of jiggery-pokery, of course. Michael Gove contradicted this on the telly the next morning, then contra-contradicted himself on the radio half an hour later. The man sounded wild, as if he had been waterboarded by reality.

In the meantime, a tsunami of panic had been unleashed among unconventional families. I spoke to a guy who shared the parenting with his son’s two mums. His flatmate had decided that kids were super-spreaders (which, incidentally, they are not; Greg Fell, the head of public health in Sheffield, made this explicit point 10 days ago. Kids are flu super-spreaders; Covid-19, they seem to carry in the regular way) and did not want the child in the house. This, when you are not allowed out of the house, is some particular kind of headache. Conditions are not ideal for finding a new flatmate, either. Another couple were trialling a separation, but had to get back together to self-isolate.

Having swapped the children in the regular fashion, I went home to phone interview a psychoanalyst, Lili Tarkow-Reinisch, who said that she described all familial love as a kind of Stockholm syndrome; you are kidnapped into this family by accident of birth and you have to love them, otherwise you are screwed. “What we might be asking of everyone during these times,” she said, “is to engage in some form of Stockholm syndrome with everyone they live with because really, whatever you felt, you have to put in a box for another time.”

I thought of the separated couple self-isolating together. It would be a great romcom for them to fall back in love by accident. But I can more or less guarantee that is not what will happen. Tarkow-Reinisch said I had gone quiet and asked my situation. I told her my children were with their dad, and my husband, stepdaughter and dog had got stranded on the other side of the Solent, self-isolating, and I was on my own with a rabbit.

As soon as the lockdown relaxed in Wuhan, there was word of a spike in divorce rates, a detail so intuitively believable that it went around the world before anyone could say: “Wait, that’s just a backlog because municipal offices were closed.” The peculiar, quite endearing quality of this crisis is that we have gone back to the ground zero notion of the family – a nuclear two kids, mum and dad, plus possibly elderly parents, who live together and do what they are told – and then patiently work through all the possible outcomes. What if they fight? What if they run out of jigsaws? Very occasionally, someone will remember that some couples live separately and then issue the hasty instruction that they should move in together. Single people get a hell of a ride in this, as suggestions pour in from far and wide – “Here’s what I’d do if I couldn’t have sex for six months” – from happily married people who themselves probably haven’t had sex since the 90s. The suddenness of it all has bleached out those little textural details that previously made up what we might have called “reality”. The greatest myth of all, of course, is the elderly parent who will do what they are told.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist