Nina Stibbe: Lockdown isn’t changing our family dynamics, it’s amplifying them WhatsApp

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

Last night I dreamt I was on the family WhatsApp again.

I’d posted something interesting, amusing, and slightly mischievous. The LOL responses were rolling in thick and fast. Laughing emojis, my mother’s rather alarming giraffe’s head. There was a thumbs up from one sibling, a shocked monkey face from another. Even the outnumbered Tory of the group who, in real life, has stated that they don’t bother looking at the thread anymore because it’s "gone all political" responded with a heart-eyes face. Still deep in the dream, I went to read my clever funny post because inexplicably, I’d forgotten what it was that had made everyone so happy.

Of course, just as I was about to scroll up, I woke up. 

I knew lockdown was going to be difficult. My mother (80) and stepfather (81) are active, healthy, and intelligent, and though they’re lovers of culture, neither is keen on too much television, baking, sketching, and crafting. They only really like being at home if it is at the end of a long, busy day at the allotment/cinema/theatre/gym, or choir practice, or just mooching around town. They entered with nothing but the Times crossword and some bird feeders – and worrying about how to safely pay the newsagent – to occupy them. With this in mind, my four siblings and I formed a family WhatsApp group. 

It was my brother’s idea. I’m not a big WhatsApp-er and would never, as a rule, WhatsApp my mother. There’s no need; I speak to her almost daily on the phone. She speaks to all her offspring as she does with me, but this WhatsApp group thing promised more than just chat. It would mimic the family gatherings my parents would now miss. It would be just the job to keep the old ’uns cheerful, we thought. 

After the first tentative greetings (waving hand emojis) the thread soon got going in earnest, and honest to God it was pure doom and gloom. Sibling 1 went first with a series of photographs showing empty supermarket shelves from different angles, the kind of pictures used to illustrate the failure of Communism. This provoked a photograph of a lone fennel bulb in Waitrose from sibling 3, then someone posted a short film of a long, angry queue, and on it went, on and on, until between us we’d conjured a world with no Loyd Grossman sauces nor quilted toilet paper, but imminent looting, and civil unrest. We really got into it: “Online ordering is a catastrophe. Morrisons is a warzone. Ocado is a disaster ­– I’ve been sent a pork pie but no cheese. No rice, no milk, no veg in Sainsbo’s. Tesco website down.”

You couldn’t call our mother a technophobe but, as a former anorexic, begging for food, even digitally, must be demoralising and probably triggering for her. And so when she responded to the scaremongering “Oh, dear, well I’m sure we shan’t starve”, I think we realised collectively we’d gone off in the wrong direction. A rush of jolly GIFs appeared, images of smiling children with clean hair and banana bread. One of us posted a photograph of a lot of stock cubes on top of each other, captioned ‘stockpiling lol’. Another went whole hog with an uplifting grocery story: “The cereal they gave us instead of Fruit & Fibre was actually very nice.” Someone posted Michael Spicer in the room next door. All seemed well.

Now, sibling rivalry has reared its head. I can see the others trying to outclass me, even our mother. I post a photograph of some seedlings in an eggbox, and by return there’s sibling 1’s homegrown asparagus. Not to be outdone, sibling 4 posts a row of tiny cabbages, and sibling 3 posts his children in a wheelbarrow. Finally, our mother comes on saying what a shame it is that they can’t go to their allotment. Sibling 1 replies with a newspaper article saying they absolutely can go to the allotment. And everyone responds “Hurrah,” seed emoji, thumbs up, giant giraffe head.

My mother rings me to say they know they can, legally, go to the allotment, it’s just that they don’t feel they should, but she doesn’t want to say so on the thread. She just wishes I hadn’t brought up gardening. I feel annoyed and yet honoured to have been singled out to hear the truth. I’m winning.

We settle into routines: sibling 2 posts a music video at dawn each day. One morning you might get Pan’s People dancing to ‘Popcorn’ by Hot Butter, and another you’re faced with the young Scott Walker in a night club, in black and white, which is as profound and affecting as a vivid dream, but however much you admire the man and his music it isn’t necessarily helpful at 7 a.m. on a lockdown Wednesday when it seems like the world might be ending. Ditto Laura Mvula rising up from a pool of molten gold in ‘Overcome’ – undeniably fantastic, but it alters your head in a way you might not need first thing. 

Sibling 1’s regular animal updates come with a slight pass-agg vibe. Take, for example, the sheep videos; wobbly, new-born almost-cute baby lambs, followed by lingering shots of bloody straw and the dreadful-looking postpartum ewe (“Well done Muriel!”). Or the lovely, gambolling lambs; cute, but oh no, one’s got a pronounced limp (“Twins! Poor Mungo,” sad face emoji).

My video post of cycling in the sunlit lanes elicits no comments at all, nor thumbs-up emojis; nothing. But if my ‘cycling in the lanes’ seems too smug for right now, I begin to wonder, what about all those cakes with fresh fruit and whipped cream? I mean, where are they getting the ingredients? I thought there was a national flour shortage and not an egg to be found. And who’s cooking them? And what about sibling 4’s stills from their unilateral Skype session with our parents? How is that allowed?

Not to worry though, husband of sibling 2 quickly arranges a Zoom gathering for ALL OF US (caps lock). Siblings 3 and 5 look forward to it “v much”. Sibling 1 seems equally excited (“Yay, can’t wait!”) but rings me immediately to groan and say they really can’t face it. 

On WhatsApp as in real life, our mother is desperate to appear unbiased in her response and praise, which means she comments favourably (via the giant crying/laughing giraffe head) to every single post (except for my cycling video, of course). This also means she has to check the WhatsApp thread continuously, and watch three-minute long videos of lambs and children and Gladys Knight & the Pips from the moment she wakes until she finally falls into bed. The WhatsApp has taken over her life. 

“Was that thing I posted last night okay?” she asked me last week on the phone. “Only no one has responded”.

“It was lovely” I told her, “everyone likes Toscanini, only you posted it so late and now it’s lost underneath all that Little Richard”.

At the start of this, I thought WhatsApp might cramp our family style; we’d behave unnaturally, or become more grown up, or less attention-seeking. But I needn’t have worried. We’re behaving naturally, no more grown up nor less attention-seeking than before. It’s comforting: we’re the same as ever, if a little more so.

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