Put Your Mother on the Ceiling During COVID-19

People need spaces just to be.

Posted May 29, 2020

Александр Раскольников/Unsplash
Source: Александр Раскольников/Unsplash

I often feel that the other shoe is about to drop. Perhaps it’s because of the early trauma of my father’s illness and death. The sword of Damocles always seemed to hover over my neck. Yet just a few months ago, I expressed relief to my friend, saying, “I’m in good health. My kids are grown and well. For once there’s no crisis or melodrama in my life.” Then COVID-19 hit. As I write, the whole world is in crisis.

Luckily for me, I’d just completed creating a "she shed" oasis inside my own home. I’d transformed my living/dining room into a space to help me de-stress, relax, and renew myself. To envision it, I’d looked back at a home oasis vision I’d previously devised:

MY IDEAL ROOM has many windows that welcome in bright light and fresh air. It is a calming, comfortable, nurturing, and inspiring oasis where I can enjoy life and love with my partner as we learn, grow, and thrive—not just survive.

Oh, but then my long-term boyfriend (who I thought I’d be with forever) and I broke up. (Damocles’ sword again?) Now a wise elder (or at least an elder) I’ve learned that we can move on from sudden, seemingly devastating loss.  

After my break-up, for example, I used Design Psychology to mark a new chapter and help me stare down all life’s swords. I removed the kimono on my dining room wall, a gift from my beloved father.  (‘Too bittersweet and time to stop looking backwards.) I replaced it with the World’s Most Beautiful ‘Azurite’ Wallpaper.1  Meditating on this Chinese landscape-like mural, I imagined myself walking higher and higher through grey clouds to green clearings. I climbed calmly, intensely on my journey upward into a positive future.

Do I offend you by talking about wallpaper when people are sick and dying? Science is what we cling to now to track The Spread. Yet besides glumming onto data, worldwide creativity amidst crisis has erupted and come pouring out of our heads.

From next door, I hear my neighbor (a soprano?) singing Chinese opera. Across the street an African drumbeat lasting hours adds oomph to the rhythm of my day. People are kneeling on lawns planting yellow pansies and lettuce, their homages to beauty and food, their silent prayer.

Time moves slowly. I sit on my new aqua couch and write and wave “Hola!” to my mailman. Soon outside in my hammock, I’ll read The Feminist Mystique 2, a book I somehow missed. In between, I Zoom-in to 10 family members waving. I give and take webinars and watch online funny ways kids are wagging their ears. I laugh and love that (you?) and I are listening to the sirens of community and creativity (not just blaring ambulances) so we’re able to transcend.

Roused from my idyllic fortress by the flood of news, I realize two states of being can be true.  Horrible things can have a lining. I feel gratitude. I’m the lucky one. I have a roof over my head, food on my table. My dear ones don’t have COVID-19. Then, too, this pandemic has forced me to pause and think about my life—more ways I can make meaning.

Yet for other women, relaxing in a she-shed retreat is a distant dream. Jahdziah St. Julien makes this point in her podcast, “The Coronavirus Pandemic is Forcing Us to Rethink How We Value Women’s Time and Invisible Labor at Home.” 3

St. Julien notes that women in the U.S. spend 37% more time doing housework than men. Now in this crisis with homeschooling, more meal preparation and the need for many to work remotely, the demands on women can be mind-boggling. Instead of carrying this “invisible cognitive load,”  women no longer need to bear the sole burden of making "warm hearth = happy home." Instead, with men isolated inside, too, equity begins at home.

St. Julien recommends communication as key to fairly dividing up home tasks:

The coronavirus, with all the fear and anxiety it conjures, presents people with a unique opportunity to see their private spheres—their homes—with new eyes. Rather than maintaining the status quo, we can all choose to notice the invisible labor that so many women around the country (and world) have done and continue to do. By acknowledging it, we render it visible. When we recognize how much time and energy is invested in performing unpaid work, we can also begin to have critical conversations about what fairness in the home actually looks like and what we should do to promote it. Now is a good time to hit reset, challenge the status quo, and promote gender equality. 5

Besides re-configuring the household responsibilities, women and men can reconfigure their space so all householders have an equal voice—equal power expressed through "Emancipatory Design."  During this time of isolation, the spotlight has been on establishing one’s home office in situ — a practical necessity. Yet the pandemic also offers people the unique opportunity to examine the often “hidden dimension” of the social/psychological dynamic inherent in home space.

The wow factor of fancy furniture, for example, gives way to human factors as crisis hones priorities: Besides spaces to work, people need spaces just to be—to gather, to hug, to cry, to escape, to be alone. Pretend, for example, you’re playing Musical Chairs. Does everyone have a place to comfortably sit—not feel left out when the music stops?

Seize the moment. All householders (including kids) can participate in decision-making about positive changes to your four walls. Start by simply playing an imagination game where kids via guided visualization Put Their Mothers on the Ceiling 7 to release their cooped-up stress. That gives mom celestial space if only in kids’ heads! Move on more seriously and have all imagine their oasis She/He/Kid-Shed. Then channel such creativity-in-crisis by re-arranging furniture, painting rooms soothing colors, hanging up artsy photo-reminders of family or placing plants around to make the statement: Life will begin again.

In this crisis or any life-crisis you can use Design Psychology to create spaces that help you to feel:

In Control –Where appropriate, include everyone in envisioning and arranging your space layout and furniture so as to be functional yet also provide a balance between public space to gather and private space to be alone. Encourage all household members to keep things organized by providing sufficient storage space.

Surrounded by Love and Support – Besides using digital devices to connect, prominently display photos of loved ones and special objects from friends/family that remind you you’re cared for and loved. Cozy furniture and rocking chairs enable you to cuddle or rock others or yourself.

Engaged in Creation and Renewal – Gardening, arranging flowers or just watering plants can be uplifting reminders of life’s cycles. Use natural elements in your home that appeal to the five senses including colors, textures, aromas, and sounds that mirror the process of renewal, equilibrium, and harmony inherent in nature.8

Focus on a Positive, Meaningful Future — Ensure that everyone has an opportunity to individualize their space including via design elements that act as catalysts — paintings (or wallpaper!), for example, displaying visual metaphors that remind you of life’s meaning and your journey upwards so you can feel empowered.

Copyright Toby Israel 2020


1. See Toby Israel “Metaphoria by Design,” Psychology Today, Design on My Mind blog, (November 15, 2017).

2. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963).

3. Jahdziah St. Julien, “The Coronavirus Pandemic is Forcing Us to Rethink How We Value Women’s Time and Invisible Labor at Home,” (Podcast April 8, 2020). https://www.newamerica.org/better-life-lab/podcasts/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-forcing-us-to-rethink-how-we-value-womens-time-and-invisible-labor-at-home/

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension, (New York: Anchor Books, 1969).

7. Richard De Mille, Put Your Mother on the Ceiling: Children’s Imagination Games. (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).

8. Based on comments from Kevin Sink, photographer with a master’s degree in physiology and cell biology, Healthcare Design 09 Conference, Orlando, November 2, 2009.