THE WASHINGTON POST – I was in the living room, sitting next to my 11-year-old daughter, Norah, answering emails while also helping her search a textbook for answers to a worksheet on the water cycle. Across from me at the kitchen table was my wife, Mel, working with a handful of fifth-graders learning math via Zoom. My 13-year-old son was sitting with his laptop, across from his mother, on his own online class. Upstairs, our six-year-old was using a tablet to attend first grade, and from the sounds of it, she was learning to order numbers from least to greatest.
Mel and I bounced between our three children as we managed our work obligations.
To say it was all an overwhelming collision of work and family is an understatement. But most of 2020 had been like this, so I suppose with it being December, we’d gotten pretty used to it.
Yet I must admit as I looked at my family, living and learning and working, all of us together, in one place all day, every day, I couldn’t help but realise that this was the most time I’d ever spent with my children.
When I graduated from college in 2012, we had two kids and I worked three jobs.
In the mornings, between 5.30 and 8.30, I was a freelance writer. During the day, I worked full time at a university as an academic counsellor in a programme for low-income and first-generation students. Then, three evenings a week, I taught composition and introduction to literature online. All the while Mel was finishing her degree. It was around this time that I published my first article with the New York Times. The article was about how sometimes, on those long workdays, getting up in the night with my kids was the only chance I had to feel like a father.
Naturally, things got better. We added another child, and I work two jobs now. Mel finished her degree, and she teaches gardening classes and works as a teaching assistant at a charter school. But still, it feels like I’m a father on the evenings and weekends – the in-between spaces. Or at least that’s how it was until March.
Suddenly my children were learning from home, and Mel was teaching from home, and we were all scrambling to adjust. It was a stressful mess, and yet I was left with this overwhelming sense of gratitude each time a wave of layoffs was announced and my position was spared. Our kids missed their friends and their teachers. We grappled with anxiety, trying to figure out how to live a safe and active life while avoiding COVID-19.
In November, my wife spent three weeks in the hospital when pneumonia turned into septic shock. She had three negative coronavirus tests, which was a blessing because it meant I could still visit her. But then I was left in a terrible position where I needed help to care for my children so I could be with my very sick wife, but I was afraid to accept help because I didn’t want to risk bringing the coronavirus into my home, and possibly to my wife.
It has been a hard, stressful year.
But even with all the anxiety around safety and stability, and that dreadful close call with my wife, this is the closest I’ve ever been with my children, and I’m grateful. I’ve never spent time with them like this. Even during the few months I spent as a stay-at-home dad back in 2013, we still had social, religious and education obligations that took me away from my children.
With sports, church and youth groups cancelled, we don’t rush from one place to another anymore. I don’t commute for 90 minutes each day, and my wife and I are not setting sail in different directions on weekends like we used to, her taking a child to gymnastics while I take the other two to soccer. So in the evenings, we sit together and play games, or watch a movie, or maybe go for a drive around the lake because we have nothing better to do.
I’ve never seen my children from sunup to sundown every day for months, like I do now. I’ve never so intimately understood their fears, frustrations and needs.
The other day, I was in our office working, and my youngest was behind me, sitting at a desk attending class. The children in the class were unmuted and counting together. I stopped what I was doing and watched my little girl wiggle in her chair, a pencil in one hand, feet not quite reaching the floor.
She was so focussed, so in tune with what was going on, and I realised I’d never seen this side of her. I’d never seen her sit and learn like that, and I experienced a soft, peaceful, loving feeling that I’d never quite felt as a father. I’ve had similar moments with my other children during the pandemic, and it’s one of the most wonderful feelings I’ve ever experienced.
Listen, I’m like most of you. There is a part of me, a huge part, that is eager to get the world spinning the way it used to. Along with all this family time, there is a deep suffocating feeling, where I would do almost anything to just be alone for a few hours. I want to be back in the office, and I want my children to be back at school with their friends and their teachers. I want to feel safe leaving my home, and I’d love to feel comfortable spending time in the presence of our extended family and friends.
But despite all the hardship, anxiety and fear I’ve experienced this year, I’ve gained a new, deeper relationship with my children. People talk a lot about work-life balance, but I don’t know if I realised how much my pendulum had swung away from my family. Not until 2020 pushed it so far to the other side, that I had to attend work with a child in my lap.
I grew closer than ever to my wife and children, and frankly it has been a wonderful silver lining that I can’t help but be grateful for.