Sonoma County families feel the strain of shelter orders as pandemic alters daily life

Shelter orders are keeping people indoors and together in ways they have never experienced. Working and schooling from home means little time apart, and that can be tough on relationships.|

Resources that can offer help

The Redwood Empire Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapist is offering 3-5 free sessions of counseling, including phone and video meetings, for eligible people affected by COVID-19. For more information, go to


For more stories about the coronavirus, go


Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world


So you say you loved your kids before this all started? And you pined for a little alone time with your partner? Remember when we all ached to magically clear our calendars of obligations and outings just to have an afternoon at home with nothing to do?

Those notions of togetherness and blissful boredom seem quaint these days.

The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shelter-at-home order, now in its second month in Sonoma County, has turned the world on its head and with it shaken up our most familiar relationships. Health authorities have dictated what we can and cannot do, where we can and cannot go and who we can and cannot see.

Many of us are working from home. Children are learning from home. This has thrown us together in ways many of us are not used to. And local health care experts say the cracks are starting to show.

“Because everyone has an elevated baseline of stress and angst and anger at what is happening, I think our patience for each other as spouses or parents or sons or daughters is much less,” said Peter McClure, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Healdsburg. “Think of it as a cup, a cup that has to hold all our anxiety in it, and that cup is almost always full all of the time and it doesn’t take a lot to make it spill and make a mess.”

Mental health professionals are fielding an increasing number of calls and questions about the top issues: Health concerns, marital stress and financial anxiety, but also the small irritations and pressure points that can’t help but emerge as families that once had breathing room are now spending an inordinate amount of time together under one roof.

It’s one of the unexpected side effects of a global pandemic: Too much togetherness.

“I recommended to a family that have three boys that are trying to kill each other, an hour of alone time - for everybody, not just the kids - to de-stress,” said Gail Van Buuren, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sebastopol.

But alone time can be tricky these days. A small house or apartment, a neighborhood not conducive to walking, or even small children that can’t be left alone - there are impediments to carving out personal space.

Space, both physical and mental, is suddenly a precious commodity.

Law enforcement and domestic violence prevention advocates report an uptick in calls for help in the North Bay, a fallout from what experts call a pressure cooker of worry related to economic anxiety, health concerns and an uncertain future.

Even households that have dodged the major pitfalls are still struggling with the day-to-day friction stemming from everyone navigating a new landscape in their daily lives.

“The one thing for people to remember is that it’s important to keep talking to each other in your family and to talk to each other about what is going on,” said Erica Thomas, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Rohnert Park. “You need a whole new level of skills in terms of saying what you need.”

And that’s not as simple as it seems. The “Hi honey, I’m home” conversation or “How was your day?” openers no longer make sense when everyone has spent the day together.

“I think a lot of time arguments start because we are not always used to that level of communication with our family members,” Thomas said.

Many relationships have been established with the benefit of time apart, McClure said.

“Our normal routine and way of interacting with each other at home has to be adjusted a little bit,” he said. “We all used to leave the house and most of us wouldn’t see each other for hours at a time.”

Now, partners who used to spend the day at separate workplaces find themselves side by side for hours on end, each trying to carve out a bit of personal and professional space. Parents used to 8 a.m. curbside school drop-off, are now with their kids around the clock.

And in those households, that means another job for the adults: help with distance learning - introducing a whole new set of trials and tribulations into relationships.

So, experts almost universally recommend something we’ve heard preached over and over in recent weeks: Self-care.

“It’s overstated but not overrated,” said Jennifer Castro Ballard, owner of Sonoma Family Therapy in Santa Rosa. “Making sure the parents have self-care. Parenting in shifts, taking shifts with their own work, then (shifts) with managing the children’s work.

“And making sure that at some time each day everyone is off, that everyone gets a little bit of alone time.”

And that alone time is best done without screens. Working from home, schooling from home in an online format and communicating with the outside world - it all demands screen time. Because of that, parents, by and large, are easing up on previously established rules on screen time. And for good reason: Their sanity.

But that screen time does take a toll that can go unseen at first, Castro Ballard said. So pay attention to it, she urged.

“When it’s time to shut the game down or turn the TV off or put the phone away, there is a level of irritability,” she said. “Our eyes get tired, our brains get tired being on a screen. Even though it can be fun, we have pretty much doubled our screen time, so the level of irritability is up. It’s distraction but it’s not a full body distraction, it’s not really feeding us as a walk around the block might.”

Therapists said that for those who exercised before the pandemic, it’s crucial to keep those routines in place. And for those who didn’t but always wanted to? Now is the time. A walk around the block, a dance lesson on YouTube, a game of driveway basketball - there are a million tiny miracles happening when a person works up a sweat, according to Van Buuren.

“It gets you out of your emotional system,” she said. “Going out for a walk is bilateral stimulation, you exercise alternate sides of your brain when you walk and it gets you into rest and digest mode, instead of fight or flight. It’s healthy for you and for your mental state. It’s one of the best things you can do.”

Something you should not do? Swamp yourself with news updates that are depressing or scary. Equally damaging is spending too much time on social media and immersing oneself in images of other parents happily playing board games with their kids or successfully teaching them that mathematic principle while your house is filled with squabble and strife. Same goes for watching couples whipping up magical, candle-lit meals in quarantine while you desperately seek a sliver of solitude. Not helpful.

It’s also not real, therapists said. Nobody’s life is quite how they present it online, but the damage can be real if the comparison game kicks in, Thomas said.

“When I go on social media, no, I’m not telling everyone ‘Hey, we can’t even make it through a meal,’?” she confessed.

And to all of the people urging us all to emerge from this as our best selves - the fittest, craftiest, most interesting version of us? Local experts say our best selves are the ones who are whole and healthy. That’s it.

“What I’m encouraging people to do is to manage their expectations about what they should be experiencing and what they should be accomplishing right now,” McClure said. “It’s ‘I have all this time at home. I can write that novel I really wanted to write,’ or ‘Now I’m going to do all these crafts with the kids that I always wanted to do,’ and I think the reality is, our job is to just stay as sane and healthy and take care of ourselves as well as we can. If we are not driving ourselves bonkers or driving our families bonkers, that is probably good.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

Resources that can offer help

The Redwood Empire Chapter of California Association of Marriage and Family Therapist is offering 3-5 free sessions of counseling, including phone and video meetings, for eligible people affected by COVID-19. For more information, go to


For more stories about the coronavirus, go


Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world


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