Living together as a big family during COVID-19

Annabel Boon shares her experience living with 13 family members during a pandemic and how the difficult changes brought them closer.

Sarah Chan

Likes museum trips and is sometimes artsy. Can be found in pattern prints.

Published: 29 October 2020, 5:25 PM

Amid the chatter, baby cries and the rattling of toys outside, 19-year-old Annabel Boon is happiest painting in her bedroom while listening to a podcast, free from babysitting duties or work.

While living together with 13 other family members in their five-room HDB flat during COVID-19, this moment of peace brings much joy to the final year Singapore Polytechnic student.

The household consists of her parents, a set of triplets including herself, two older brothers and their partners, three baby nephews and two domestic helpers, or aunts as she affectionately calls them.

“There’s always people in and out of my room, so I never have a quiet moment and I don’t think I’ve ever had a quiet day since 19 years ago,” she says almost matter-of-factly.

As she shares a bedroom with her sister, one of the aunts and nephews, uninterrupted moments are few and far between, apart from her meetings while working from home.

The constant buzz of activity surrounds her almost 24/7. While it may be surprising to some, to Annabel, it is the everyday life for her living with a big family, who are choosing to live together by choice and has nothing to do with financial issues.

Adapting to the changes of working from home

Before the circuit breaker, Annabel would usually remain in school until the evenings to work on her assignments as it was less distracting outside.

Back at home, she would live like a night owl at times just to have a few quiet hours to work when others are asleep.

However, this was impossible when the circuit breaker was implemented – everyone had to be home and there was not enough space for everyone.

“It is not a huge house but it is a huge family,” said Annabel.

The family had to come to terms that they are occupying the same space and everyone had to work around the situation instead, she explained.


Annabel was able to reclaim her desk space that she once shared with her sister when she began her online classes from home. PHOTO CREDIT: ANNABEL BOON


One of the changes Annabel had to make was keeping to more regular hours of work. Since the school hours were different when it shifted online, she had to be awake at the same time as others when group projects happened.

“Everyone’s online schedule became so aligned during the circuit breaker and I have to see family members that I would not see regularly,” she said.

But this change brought about at least one positive outcome: It helped to know her younger sister better.

Working from home gave her more opportunities to talk to her sister about the day’s events, something that she was previously unable to do as she often returned home after her sister was asleep.

The challenge of being together all the time

“The more people around, the more chances of pet peeves occurring,” said Annabel, “It’s like living in a dormitory. Everyone is doing their own things and sharing a communal space but not everyone is pulling their own weight.”

These pet peeves include not refilling the ice trays or not replacing the toothpaste and toilet paper when it runs out.

Thankfully, family members soon took notice of each other’s preferences and would remember to check in if the person wanted an item when they were outside.

Grocery shopping is also a big affair for the household, with bills usually amounting to above a hundred dollars, she added.

“Whoever goes to the grocery stores, their phones would keep ringing,” she noted, referring to the many reminders and requests pouring in from back at home.


Cooking is a “nightmare” because of the various food allergies and preferences to take note of, said Annabel. PHOTO CREDIT: ANNABEL BOON


When asked about her experience starting an internship from home, Annabel likened her experience to working in an open concept office.

There is a general “open door policy” at home, which meant that anyone could drop in for a chat even if she was busy.

Interchangeable placards on Annabel’s door have mostly been ineffective in stopping her family members from entering. PHOTO CREDIT: ANNABEL BOON


Although this made it hard to focus on her work, she appreciates the company as she gets bored easily and likes that she can turn to someone conveniently at home.

“If I want to talk to someone, I can just walk over to next door. I don’t have to find my friends and I have the luxury to find different options,” Annabel said.

There is never silence in the household

In a household always buzzing with activity, Annabel vouched that the household is almost always noisy.

Such was the case that on one weekend night, the unexpected silence at home was weird enough to raise suspicions between her aunt and herself to check on the others.

No one was opening the doors or playing games and the babies were not crying as they usually would, she recalled.

Although it was just “a fluke of a day”, silence is unlike the household, where normal weekend nights are “really crazy” she said.

“It is never quiet in this household. Lively? I guess. But I would say that there is never [any moment with] no activity in this household. Never. Even at 3am, my brother or I am up.” she said.

Leaning onto the support of family

When asked about her take on the future, Annabel shared that she is both “held back and liberated by having so many people at home”.

Everyone plays a different role in each other’s life, she shared.


Being able to turn to her siblings for advice as they grew older helped to improve their relationship in recent years. PHOTO CREDIT: RÉMI WALLE VIA UNSPLASH


Making a decision to study overseas, for example, are life choices that would not only be stressful for others but also a cause for a “definite shift in dynamics” among the siblings, especially because she is the eldest among the triplets.

Despite the fact that any decisions she made would have an impact on others, she remains assured and grateful that she can still count on her family to support her parents in her stead.

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