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Amanda Northrop/Vox

The Lost Year: A dad, his son, and the bittersweet realization of life’s true priorities

“In America, we say everything we do is for our child, but we spend a lot of time working and accumulating money and stuff that we don’t need.”

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Parents feeling overwhelmed and burnt out by the burden of child care during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a consistent theme of 2020, and with good reason. When you’re trying to work a full-time job and be a full-time parent, it can often feel impossible to do either to the best of your abilities.

But when I talked to Robert, who lives in Manhattan and works as a data scientist, I was struck by how he reframed this idea. In the past, he spent so much of his time commuting that he missed out on many of the mundane but lovely moments that make up his 3.5-year-old’s life. But since quarantine began, he’s been able to be there for every breakfast and playground visit, building a stronger relationship with his kid.

This ability to positively reframe an incredibly difficult situation is one I found in lots of my conversations with people who’ve faced significant obstacles this year. I loved Robert’s take on what it means to suddenly realize just how out of whack your priorities have become in a system that prioritizes money over family, even when it insists it’s doing the opposite.

Here’s the story of his 2020, as told to me.


I learned that I had a kid, for starters.

It’s kind of sad, but I think the situation is very common, especially in New York, San Francisco, and DC. You have a lot of people that have long commutes. You leave early, you get home late, and you often don’t get to spend much quality time with your kid. Maybe you leave really early, so you can leave earlier from work and get dinner. Or maybe you get breakfast but you don’t get dinner. But it’s rare that you get both.

Yeah, there’s a lot of stress in quarantine, but at the same time, you’re able to engage with your kids in a way you were never able to do before. To give you an example, my kid is 3 and a half. I’m teaching him how to read. We’re 20, 30 lessons into it, and he’s doing great. Would I have been able to do that if I was working crazy hours and commuting? The answer is no. There wouldn’t have been the energy on my part or my kid’s part.

And I’ve noticed changes, even — being able to speak properly, physical development, that kind of thing. The playgrounds were closed for a little while, and everybody was inside. You could notice how that was impacting the young children, especially at that age. When the playground closed down, he would cry because he couldn’t go. We’d have to say there are germs. He didn’t understand why this was happening. Then the playgrounds opened up, and you could notice within two weeks of the playgrounds opening up that being able to run up the ladders and go down the slides and get sunlight really matters for the physical as well as the emotional well-being.

There are so many little things. Being able to see them in the morning when they wake up. Breakfast with them. Being able to have lunch with them. Being able to take breaks throughout the day. Being able to walk them to the playground. These things are all small things, but you don’t actually get a chance to do a lot of them [when you’re leaving for work every day]. I’m able to bond with my child on a deeper level. I’m not an outside observer.

A situation like this strengthens the initial feelings you have when you have a kid. When you have a kid, your world changes. You’re like, “I would burn everyone in this room to protect this child.” That gets accentuated by this kind of thing. The drive to want to protect them is already heightened. The other aspect is thinking about how I can prepare my child emotionally or physically for things like this in the future. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can prepare him in the best way I can so that he is strong enough to deal with the uncertainty that the world throws at you.

Both my spouse and my mother-in-law are helping with child care, and that’s huge. But, for sure, you feel overwhelmed. One of my good friends says that three versus one is almost a fair fight. If you have three adults and one child, you’re almost making it, and that’s not even in a pandemic. That’s in normal times. Put the pandemic on top of that and it’s brutal.

I feel deeply for my colleagues who are single parents. When a child is young, there’s no way for one person to manage their job and keep a 3-year-old entertained. It’s just not physically possible. We need to give single parents as much help as we can.

In America, we say everything we do is for our child, but we spend a lot of time working and accumulating money and stuff that we don’t really need. At the end of the day, if you really care about your kids, you should be prioritizing them. That’s both at the individual level and the societal level. Deep down inside, you always say, “My kids are the most important thing,” but when you get down to it, are you really prioritizing them?

I do miss going into the office and seeing my peers and being able to work out problems. You do develop a deeper relationship when you’re in the office. But if the vaccine becomes a reality and I had the choice, would I go back to commuting to work every day and not seeing my child grow up? I don’t think I would. I might make some compromises in terms of my career so that I could spend more time with my kid.

I think about my friends in Europe, and I’m wondering if they got it right. A lot of them don’t get to work until 9 or 10, and they take lunch from noon to 2. Their kids come home for lunch, and they have lunch together. Then they work a few more hours before their kids come home. There’s something really beautiful about that. I don’t know if it would ever work in America, prioritizing family relationships above all else. We haven’t really solved that in America. It took something like this pandemic to really show that we have a lot to learn in terms of how we prioritize families.

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