Families must "dance" their way through major disruptions

Marketing managers and academics have been studying how families plan ahead and make decisions about family care and family consumption for a long time. But what happens when planning ahead is not possible? The findings from a study I recently published with my colleagues Flavia Cardoso (Adolfo Ibanez University - Chile), and Pilar Rojas-Gaviria (University of Birmingham - UK), suggests that when consumers can’t plan ahead...they dance.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash 

Although there has been a lot of talk about how COVID-19 has “slowed down” family life, this is not the case for every family. It is tempting to think of lockdowns as ‘pauses’ or ‘interruptions’. At first, it may seem that, because activities such as travelling, sports, playdates, and cultural events are not happening during lockdowns, life should unfold at a slower pace. 

However, for many families, a lockdown means a period of intensified activity – the home is fuller, meals need to be provided frequently, and some family members may be learning or working from home, For these families, balanced participation in work, play, rest, and sleep may not seem any more likely during a lockdown than before.

We studied families facing unplanned disruptions to family life, such as the diagnosis of a chronic health condition to one of their children. Lockdowns due to COVID-19 are major disruptions as well. Upon facing such disruptions, some families may enjoy more free time and develop more balanced routines. However, other families face unprecedented situations, such as interrupted careers, loss of income, and the need to offer additional care for others without the support of market-based services. 

Routines of care often include the support of friends, members of the extended family or market-based services such as childcare providers. Institutions such as schools also regulate family life and structure care routines to a large extent. When families are unable to count on such support (because they’re not allowed to socialize out of the household or have lost income to hire services), all care needs must be provided within the immediate family circle. This can be very taxing. As one of our participants put it: "it is enslaving".

Photo by Preillumination SeTh on Unsplash

We found that families who deal with more intensive care needs – such as those who have a family member with a chronic health condition - must ‘dance’ their way through unplanned disruptions  – striking a balance between day-to-day routines – resorting to what we call ‘grounding’ activities -and other more creative, emotionally-laden and inspirational activities that go well beyond their day-to-day schedules in order to counter massive disruption to their daily life.

In our study of families living with diabetic children, we discovered how, in the midst of chaos, each family finds its own style to ‘dance’ through their life constraints by alternating ‘grounding’ and ‘aerial’ activities. We also found that that this process often occurs instinctively and invisibly, and is usually lead by one family member who “orchestrates” resources and talents at hand to help their family develop its ‘dance’. 

We see caregiving under disruptive conditions as dance.
Families need to keep the ‘dance’ going, otherwise they lose balance.

 Orchestrating this dance means families need to balance repetitive ‘grounding movements’ that stabilize and reassure, with creative ‘aerial movements’ that soothe, inspire and motivate family members. With this framework in mind we can see how, during COVID-19 lockdowns, both ‘grounding’ activities (e.g. home cleaning, baking, gardening) and ‘aerial’ activities (e.g. becoming a helping hand in the community, placing rainbows in the family home’s windows, supporting local shops and restaurants, or engaging in fundraising campaigns) comfort families and help them to connect to each other, even from a distance.

We see an untapped need for public policies and support programs that can be flexible and adaptable to different moments and different life circumstances and that aim at enhancing the creative competencies of the families. 

No single source, be it the government, community, or market, can offer a one-fits-all solution to family care needs. 

But in combination, the care solutions offered by these actors should be adapted and extended to support families whose caregiving needs have been exacerbated by COVID-19 lockdowns.

‘Restoring balance: How consumers orchestrate family care following unplanned disruption’ - Flavia Cardoso, Pilar Rojas-Gaviria and Daiane Scaraboto is published in the Journal of Marketing Management (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0267257X.2020.1780297)