My grandchildren were playing school recently, with the older one teaching the younger a lesson from Ethics of Our Fathers. In a burst of creativity and a quest for authenticity, she had shaped our magna-tiles into what we assumed was a blackboard. “Turn to your sister while you teach her,” suggested my son-in-law. “I don’t need to,” she replied. “I’m doing it over zoom.” And so our children adapt and adjust and create their own new normals.

I’m not going to wade into the whole debate on today’s home schooling situation – whether it should exist, whether there should be homework, whether the teachers who also have their children at home have the time or energy to prepare zoom classes or record classes or whatever the situation is…(although I’m in favor of the more relaxed alternatives that seem to be the preferences of my daughters and their children!). Rather I want to focus on our ability to adjust, for good and perhaps for less good.

For my grandchildren, it’s just a cute story, but are all of our adaptive abilities leading us in positive directions? My husband once read of story about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l. In recognition that the Almighty’s presence hovers over a home with shalom bayis, with peace in it, he would stop at his door every day and straighten his tie before entering – in order to greet both his wife and the Almighty with appropriate honor. My husband was very moved by this story and would do the same. In response I would make similar sartorial adjustments and put down the phone and attempt to place a smile on my face (with varying degrees of success). The point is that we were both conscious that this end-of-the-day reunion should be special, should be attended with thoughtfulness and consideration for the other.

This principle is true whether both parties work outside the home or only one does. But what if both parties work inside the home? What if, as in today’s situation, we are both with each other quite literally 24/7? Where’s that moment of adjustment, of applying our game face, of lifting up to greet our spouse and the Shechinah (the Divine Presence)? Without that discrete break, that specific moment, we are left in a quandary. How do we make our relationship and our connection special when we are constantly in each other’s presence? Do we still “straighten our ties” or in our quest to adapt, have we adopted a too-casual attitude?

I’ve already written about the type of clothing we should wear while working at home, especially in the presence of our partners (it includes wearing something other than pajama bottoms!); now I’m talking about an attitude, a behavior. If we think just making the effort to get dressed is difficult (Don’t think I don’t understand; by the time I finished cooking for Shabbos and exercising on Friday, I took my shower and got dressed for the day at 2:30 p.m.! TMI?!), how much more so is lifting up not just for one moment when we are reunited after a long day but for every moment all day?

Okay, it’s true that if we are working we are actually not together every moment. We have separate meetings, separate phone conversations, separate writing assignments and separate learning times. And we’re actually very fortunate that we have separate space (albeit not quite converted bedrooms) to do so. But what if you don’t? And even if you do, even if there is a break, we are all with each other A LOT more. How do we keep our relationship special? And if that’s too high a bar (!), how do we at least treat each other with appropriate respect and dignity – and even pleasure – when we actually see each other non-stop?

It's an additional burden in a world of so many new challenges but I think it’s something we must face if we want to emerge from this situation (are we ever emerging?) with our marriages intact, and perhaps even although this may be a stretch, enhanced. As over-programmed and stretched as we are, this is the one relationship that we don’t want to be a casualty of the virus. And so it means that we have to add another responsibility to our list.

Better to let the house be a little less clean (I know that’s happening already!), a little less organized (I know that’s happening too!) and use that energy to be kind and attentive to our spouses. We want to continue to focus on making their days brighter, on being interested in their unique challenges and endeavors and coping skills and on fueling the relationship with enjoyable time together carved out from this overwhelming sea of responsibilities. I can hear you, I can hear the voice of my children, “We can’t; there’s nothing left of us at the end of the day.” And I understand. But what about in the middle? Plunk the kids in front of a video (Yes don’t pretend you’re not doing it anyway!) and have lunch with your husband. And even at the end, I’m not suggesting you put on music and dance around the house, but a few quiet moments devoted to each other…

We may think we have a choice, that we just have to get through this and then when things back to normal, so will our marriages. But life doesn’t work like that. As mentioned, we adapt and adjust to new situations, but not always for the better. If our expectations of our relationship are diminished, they may, God forbid, stay that way. And additionally, we can’t put our relationships on hold. We don’t know how long this will last, when our “normal” lives will resume, if ever. Relationships can’t be put on hold. Like our personal growth, they are either on an upward trajectory or a downward one; there is no such thing as neutral.

My husband I are trying to eat lunch together every day. Even though we are not alone in the house, this time is usually ours. It takes us back to the first few months of our marriage (although I’m not longer making the fresh rolls I made then…) And we’re trying to take walks. And we’re trying to read and learn and find new areas of conversation besides COVID-19. Some days we’re able to enjoy those stolen moments and others…well, not so much. Some days we’re able to break way from our obligations, others…well, not so much. We’re all works in progress.

The main things is that we’re conscious of it (at least that’s what I keep telling myself!), that we’re working on it, that we certainly don’t want our marriage to suffer under these conditions and that ideally we’d like it to thrive. We’re trying, we’re praying and we’re falling into bed at night even more exhausted because of this additional effort – but more gratified and more grateful.