The coronavirus has smothered New York City’s economy and sealed off its museums and concert halls like crime scenes. Many people have filled the void with something that has always been there, close at hand but often crowded out of reach: their families.
What is known as “quality time,” until recently carved out here and there, starts early now in the Milioto house in Brooklyn’s Bath Beach section, right after Mom and Dad have their coffee. In Park Slope, a quarantined actress becomes an audience member as her two young children perform plays on the big coffee table. A high school freshman in Rego Park, Queens, pauses during his workout — he wants to join the military someday — to change his niece’s diaper.
Mother-daughter days for the Cedeños of Queens are now any day, each one tending to the other: hair, makeup, nails. In Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn, the shriek of a kitchen smoke alarm is the new dinner bell. And all over the city, there is dancing, every night — for the Pincays in Maspeth, it’s Megan Thee Stallion; for the Ragusos in Bay Ridge, “Uptown Funk.”
Apartments are crowded, with cranky kindergartners, sullen teenagers who would normally be off at college, graduates stalled on the shoulder of the road to independence.
But alongside the annoyances, many families are finding time that wasn’t available in their two-career, two-commuter household, where parenting duties were picked up and handed off like batons in a race.
That race is over, for now. Families are seeing a rolling back of time, to a daily life that feels like something from a history book, or an old sitcom. Less nonstop, more Norman Rockwell.
Or, as 8-year-old Antoinette Church in Bronx Park put it: “Things you normally do when you’re celebrating.”
The feeling is both jarringly discordant and extremely welcome: real and bracing, a bright side to a dark chapter.
“In the absence of other children, my son and daughter have been forced to entertain each other,” Olivia Horton, 39, the actress in Park Slope, wrote in an email. “They’ve squabbled, but overall, they’ve bonded with a ferocity that only comes from extreme circumstances.”
Ms. Horton said that her children’s creativity surprised her.
“Just given lots of time, they can create wonder for themselves,” she said. “Before this hideous virus, I don’t know if we gave them that time, that breathing room.”
Family moments generally reserved for weekends or vacations now feel routine.
“We actually talk and eat dinner together, finally,” said Luigi Milioto, a plumber who lives in Bath Beach. He arrived in the United States from Sicily when he was 9, and his meals with his wife, Vanessa Issa, and sons, Stefano, 7, and Matteo, 6, remind him of his own boyhood.
“It was way more family-oriented over there,” Mr. Milioto said. “It’s good to get back to that — my boys, they’re happier.”
In Sunset Park, Aili Zhang, 40, who works at a nail salon in Midtown Manhattan, said the meals in her family’s home had improved since her husband, who works in a Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg, took over in the kitchen.
Before, the couple and their 14-year-old son would sit down once a week together for a family dinner. Now they share three meals a day, each one with multiple dishes.
“We have spats,” she said, speaking in Mandarin, “but we also have more open discussions. I think it’s a nice thing.”
Home cooks are stretching. In Windsor Terrace, Bill Shapiro, a former editor in chief of Life magazine who has been known to sometimes serve his family “a festival of leftovers,” recently pulled off an Indian dish, aloo gobi matar, that required all four of the stove’s burners.
Geoseline Cedeño, 33, works in a restaurant kitchen in Elmhurst, Queens. When the coronavirus forced her to stay home, she worked on improving her meals. She succeeded, perhaps too well.
“We’re getting fat!” her sister, Nahely Intriago, 17, said. “We eat all day!” To get more exercise, the family has started dancing more often.
“We want to be TikTokers,” Ms. Intriago said.
The new cuisine and dance moves play out uneasily against a backdrop of real loss: of lives and homes and stability, and of jobs that, for many parents, may never come back.
Ms. Horton’s Park Slope home is near NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “The constant stream of sirens is humbling,” she wrote. “Whenever tensions are high, I think of all the people lying in hospital beds wishing, wishing, wishing that their greatest stress was a screaming 3-year-old.”
Many families have been reshaped by the virus’s deadly toll. Brando Barajas, 15, lives in Rego Park and is a freshman at Forest Hills High School, where the outbreak sidelined his varsity soccer team. Since March, he has mostly been at home with his parents and a brother-in-law in their two-bedroom apartment.
Their number grew in late April, when the family took in an infant girl, Isabella, Brando’s niece, after her father died of Covid-19. Brando wants to join the military; he works out with a copy of the West Point fitness guide. But Isabella, and her feedings, her diapers and her walks outside are his new priority.
“Once the sun’s up, I’m up,” he said. “I do my schoolwork early in the morning so I can take care of the baby and stuff like that.”
American families were already feeling strained when the quarantine arrived, with working parents reporting ever-increasing feelings of stress and failure at trying to balance career and life. That balance was a popular topic in company newsletters, although few employers or employees seemed fully committed to making it work.
One 2015 survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that 56 percent of working parents said it was difficult to strike the right work-life balance, and that those who did were more likely to find parenting stressful and tiring and less likely to find it enjoyable and rewarding.
For some people, the lockdown brought on by the pandemic would seem to have set aside, at least for now, that anxiety and insecurity. The working father who chided himself for missing Family Friday gatherings at his child’s school is now teaching fractions and social studies.
Other families have been strengthened by trauma, overcoming harrowing ordeals in recent weeks. In Jamaica, Queens, Stephanie Nimmons, 31, was stricken with Covid-19 early on, and her bedroom at home became her isolation chamber.
“They sealed me out,” Ms. Nimmons, 31, said of her housemates — her older sister, two nieces, a cousin and her sister’s boyfriend. “They sealed everything. Everything.” Her father lives nearby, but she could not even manage to speak to him on the phone.
Eventually, she recovered, and on a recent afternoon, she was outside, standing near her father and twirling a key chain while he worked on his car. It felt so normal, so familiar, that she didn’t immediately realize what was missing.
“I should definitely have a mask on right now,” she said. “But I don’t.”
Moments like that have played out all over the city. The forgetting it all for a little while. The normal feeling.
For Fabricio Aguilar, 30, such a moment came while he was chasing his toddler son in Prospect Park last week. “It goes by quick, I hear,” he said, sounding like any young father, at any time.
For Brian Lindsay, 38, who was in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx last Tuesday with his 3-year-old daughter, Baileigh, the moments come when he steps away from his computer for deliberate stretches. At first he needed to write himself a note as a reminder, but now stepping away feels natural.
“I am happier that this happened,” he said. “I think I needed to break away from my habits of life, learn new stuff and spend time with family.”
And Ms. Zhang in Sunset Park, thinking of the meals that her husband prepares, and the family conversations that are no longer scheduled “quality time,” but simply dinnertime, said something about this crisis that made no sense whatsoever and all the sense in the world.
She said, “I’ll miss it.”
Sean Piccoli, Nate Schweber and Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting.