2020 a Year of Reorientation- The Impact of COVID-19 on Family Formation
“Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things.” Julian Baggini
The year 2020 seems to be a challenging and changing year full of uncertainty for all people in the world. Between December 2019 and early 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19), first diagnosed in Wuhan, China spreads rapidly across the world and has soon been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (Dubey et al, 2020, Qiu et al.,2020). Since then, the world has been in an exceptional pandemical state, which is the term used when a new influenza species spreads around the world and there is no immunity in the population (WHO, 2010). Attempts are being made to fight the virus with far reaching health measures and cross-national lockdowns (Prime et al., 2020). Along with combating the high level of infection of the coronavirus, other unattended psychosocial problems constantly arise. The fear of the infectious disease and the rapidly changing life conditions cause “[…] universal awareness, anxiety and distress […]” against which the whole world has to fight (Dubey et al., 2020 p. 780). A recent study found that those who are on the threshold of starting their own lives and families, the 18-30 years old’s, are the most psychologically affected by the current pandemic (Qiu et al., 2020). Since starting a family is one of the most natural aspects of humanity, the individual transition from partnership to marriage and parenthood should be facilitated as a seamless process (Girardin et al., 2016). A crisis like the corona pandemic, however, disrupts this natural development of family formation in various ways (Cohan et al., 2002). A study about family well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic states, that couples have to face “[…] challenges related to social disruption such as financial insecurity […] and confinement- related stress […].” (Prime et al., 2020 p. 631). Furthermore, they have to fear the mental or physical illness of a partner. This is a possible result of stress factors related to job loss or mental health difficulties which can furthermore lead to changes in couple’s marital satisfaction. Therefore, family formation can get into a crisis due to the pandemic also with regard to marriage and having children (Prime et al., 2020). This applies not only to the self-selected postponement of family formation but even to recommendations from the government. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine for example recommends couples to postpone fertility treatments in times of COVID-19 (Berg, 2020). These are only a few factors to mention and many more are to be considered. Therefore the “[…] COVID-19 pandemic poses an acute threat to [peoples] well-being.” (Prime et al., 2020 p. 631). Of course, the quarantine measures have not been decided arbitrarily and are necessary to save people’s lives, however pandemic planning is an important measure to ensure that people do not suffer from mental illnesses in the long term. Critical voices claim that even regions that have had to deal with natural disasters and terrorism in the past have made little progress in pandemic planning (Sprang & Silman, 2013). Although health organizations improve their knowledge and their actions after each disaster, gaps remain. Developing an understanding of what is physically and psychologically affecting people in the context of a crisis is an important step in developing interventions, planning and organizing assistance (Sprang & Silman, 2013). Furthermore, to understand the consequences that young people have to cope with in their family planning is of great importance for social researchers and all those who work with young adults and families (Prime et al., 2020).
The aim of this paper is to illustrate the current development of the effect of COVID-19 on couples intending to start a family. The problems they face regarding marriage and childbearing during the pandemic should be elaborated and outlined. For this purpose, comparative situations of pandemical states from the past will be used as a reference. Using the assessment of current problems, future consequences of the pandemic on family formation will be sketched out. This paper seeks to examine the effect of the current pandemic as an exceptional situation on the emergence and formation of a family, to answer the following research question:
To what extent are the effects of the corona pandemic affecting couples' family formation?
Overview of the structure
The second chapter of this paper is aimed to explain the methodology and to briefly introduce both the literature used and the approach which has been applied. In addition, it includes the geographical and historical scope. The third chapter introduces to the principles of family formation. It reviews how literature describes the pathway to parenthood to later apply it to the particular situation of the pandemic. Therefore, in chapter four the effects of COVID-19 on family formation are addressed. This includes a brief outline of psychological health and its impact on relationship stability, fertility intentions, financial hardship, and effects on the quality of a marriage and the consequences of divorce. Finally, an elaboration of the main findings and a recapitulation of the research aim is set out to answer the research question. In addition, this paper attempts to suggest directions for future studies.
The method of this paper focuses on a review of literature related to the effects of the current corona pandemic on couples intending to start a family. There is a growing body of research indicating that the current pandemic is having an impact on the well-being of the world population (Prime et al., 2020). However, social and economic impacts can only be predicted and are not yet evident in recent studies on the effects of COVID-19. Therefore, relevant literature which illustrates the difficulties of young people and families during the current pandemic from different perspectives will be discussed on a micro level perspective. Of course, this can only provide a rough estimate of the effects of the current pandemic and at best an insight into possible future social and psychological health consequences. A variety of literature has investigated the structure of family formation with elements such as cohabitation, marriage, and the decision to have a child (Rijken et al., 2009, Hiekel et al., 2014, Baizán et al., 2001). Another branch of literature proposes several views on the impact of a pandemic and quarantine on people's psychological well-being (Dubey et al., 2020, Cohan, 2010, Qiu et al.,2020). Furthermore, the meaning of psychological health and its impact on relationship stability have been investigated. Associated with that can also be literature on the relationship between financial hardship and the quality of a marriage, including the consequences of divorce (Dew et al., 2012, Huttunen, 2016). However, there have been many fewer attempts to investigate the effects of the case that the family formation is disturbed by external factors, like a pandemic which represent an exceptional situation.
Since the topic of this paper was to fit within the discussion topics of the seminar "Comparative Perspectives on Family Demography" the search for appropriate literature began with a selection of texts discussed in the course. A more precise focus of the areas of interest was developed which allowed the definition of the first search terms. In a next step, the platform of the university library, ScienceDirect, JSTOR and Google scholar were reviewed for the search terms: "COVID-19”, “family formation during crisis”, “psychological effects of a pandemic”. This review of keywords revealed a wide range of relevant research from different scientific backgrounds, such as sociology, psychology, and social sciences, which required further selection. To select the appropriate literature, indicators such as relevance and recency were used to find the most relevant publications to answer the research question. Additionally, the so-called snowball technique was used to find further suitable literature in the respective references. In the course of the writing process more keywords were considered to be important, some of which were included in the present paper, while others were recognized as possibly interesting for future research as this term paper is unable to encompass the entire body of research. Due to the actuality of the topic, the amount of literature is limited, and it was difficult to find literature which is geographically focused on one country or area. Therefore, the geographical scope is mainly focused on studies from Europe and the United States of America. Since the pandemic exists since the beginning of 2020 and an end is not apparent, the historical scope of this paper is limited primarily to the present day. Furthermore, studies on past pandemics that have caused comparable social situations during the 2000s are also consulted here.
Pathways to parenthood
Nowadays the family formation process in democratic relationships is usually guided by decision-making and planning to meet an individual decision about if and when to have a child (Rijken et al., 2009). Family formation as a planned intention means the prevention of unwanted pregnancies as well as the realization of intended pregnancies in a deliberation within cohabitations. In their paper, Hiekel and Castro-Martín (2014) who draw attention to the meanings and association of cohabitation, put two important terms in relation to each other, cohabitation and fertility intentions. The term cohabiters means “[…] a living arrangement within which childbearing intentions are commonly formed and at times carried out.” (Hiekel et al., 2014 p. 489). Cohabiters who view their cohabitation as a preliminary to marriage, usually also intend to have the first child thereafter. On the one hand, childbearing seems to be an important initiator for the transition from cohabitation to marriage. However, cohabiters who remain unmarried but yet plan to have a child are increasing in number in Europe as well as the United States (Hiekel et al., 2014). Therefore, literature suggests on the other hand, that for many couples’ cohabitation offers an alternative option to marriage, for some however, only until the first child is on the way. An alternative option to marriage includes the understanding of cohabitation as equivalent to that of marriage and not as a step on the way to marriage. Although cohabiters attribute different meanings to their cohabitation, one clear goal of this union is to form a family and thus pave the pathway to parenthood (Hiekel et al., 2014). Fertility intentions are most likely to be expected from cohabiters who plan to marry in the course of their family formation process. This is because it brings stability and they are more willing to make investments specific to the relationship to strengthen it further (Hiekel et al., 2014, Baizán et al., 2001).
There are geographical differences of family formation across different nations and so is the magnitude of the pandemic (Baizán et al., 2001). Different cultural factors and institutional regulations like value orientations or social influences cause family formation to be different for each country and thus should be investigated differently (Hiekel et al., 2014). It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine these differences but should be made explicit as a very important aspect.
Effects of COVID-19 on family formation
Psychological health and its impact on relationship stability
The emergence of COVID-19 as a threatening disease has caused social implications such as lockdowns, rules and restrictions. According to the World Health Organization, feelings of awareness, anxiety, and stress are natural reactions to such an unaffectable change in life (Kluge, 2020). Although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on relationships stability is not fully known yet, research suggests that cohabiting or marital relationships are exposed to an increased level of stress (Pietromonaco et al., 2020). As relationship quality is highly correlated with life satisfaction, stress can decrease both (Randall & Bodenmann, 2008). During the pandemic, people face external stressors which can, especially for couples, disrupt how they would interact with each other under common daily circumstances (Pietromonaco et al., 2020). This depends on the one hand, on their general preexisting vulnerabilities including emotional health, personality, social status, or their life stage. On the other hand, COVID-19 related stressors which can be employment concerns as well as mental health problems such as depression, insecurities, and anxiety, contribute to that. In addition, cross-national lockdowns have been implemented in most countries of the world, which serve as a tool to control the disease (Dubey et al., 2020). Quarantining can be a huge psychological burden as the feeling of isolation and loss of control can promote anxiety, distress, frustration, anger, loneliness, mass hysteria etc. Moreover, couples are forced to spend much more time at home than usually, which can negatively affect cohabiter’s interaction (Pietromonaco et al., 2020, Prime et al., 2020). A phenomenon called stress spillover, causes external problems, such as stress caused by COVID-19, to be transferred to the relationship (Buck and Neff., 2012). Critical or argumentative behavior, poorer support or fatigued feelings can lead to increased hostility. Pietromonaco et al. (2020) therefore state that the higher those stressors and the less adaptive couples are to the unknown situation, the more likely they have to face the risk of a decline in relationship quality and satisfaction and as a more drastic result, divorce.
As suggested by literature, the decision to start a family and have a child is guided by decision-making and planning among couples (Rijken et al., 2009). However, family formation and especially the decision to have a first child is not only dependent on the joined decision or whish within the cohabitation or marriage. The experience of infertility is a widespread problem which is becoming even bigger due to COVID-19 (Reilly, 2020). The American Society for Reproductive Medicine for example recommends couples to postpone fertility treatments in times of COVID-19 (Berg, 2020). As it is not considered an ‘essential care’, couples are urged to wait until after the pandemic to start treatment. Since the hurdles to having a child through fertility treatment are already very high and associated with immense costs, the pandemic presents couples with an even greater challenge (Reilly, 2020). No matter a woman is an able-bodied, restricted by preexisting conditions, managing a high-risk pregnancy or in need for fertility treatment, a pandemic like COVID-19 certainly makes the circumstances of starting a family even more difficult.