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Fights, naps, chaos, and cuddles: 4 dads on how the pandemic transformed their notion of fatherhood

“I think, without question, this is the most time I’ve spent with my kids, ever.”

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Like most of America’s 37 million families with children under 18, I’ve been at home with my child all day, every day since the start of widespread coronavirus lockdowns. There is no escape from parenting — no bar, no office, no work event I absolutely can’t miss. It’s a stereotype to say all fathers are absent to some degree, but for my part, I’ll say I never imagined spending months on end sitting on the couch playing with my baby.

Even before lockdown, American dads were putting in more time parenting and helping around the house than ever before. According to Pew Research data, the average dad today spends almost three times as much of his week on child care and housework as his predecessor did in 1965 — now 8 and 10 hours per week, respectively — though moms continue to contribute almost twice that. Dads are also more likely to stay home to look after their kids, though the numbers are still low. Only 7 percent of fathers are stay-at-home, accounting for just 17 percent of all stay-at-home parents, though it’s a dramatic upswing from the number who stayed home in 1989. But perhaps most importantly, more than half of American fathers now report thinking parenting is central to their identity.

So this if this was where fathers were before coronavirus, how has being suddenly and involuntarily confined with their families challenged them? Have they realized they are happy to be home and don’t actually need validation from work? Or are they going quietly off the walls, desperate to get back to a “normal” life?

Vox spoke with fathers in different walks of life, to see who we are now that we’re all stay-at-home dads.

“I felt really out of my strong suit”

Jason Kart, physical therapist, Chicago, Illinois

Three children: 4.5, 2.5, 8 months

Long story short, business pretty much collapsed. When the stay at home order was issued, downtown Chicago completely emptied out. In two weeks, I went from seeing 13 or 14 patients a day to sitting at lunch watching The Price Is Right. It has actually picked up a little, and I’ve been allowed to keep treating patients because I’m an essential worker.

My wife quit her job. She’s a physical therapist at a hospital, but she had her hours cut by 66 percent, which you never see happen with in-patient physical therapists. We were looking at it, and she didn’t have set hours, and I still had patients, and one of us had to be home with the kids. She was unhappy with the workplace anyway, but she decided that was the breaking point. I didn’t like the job, and I thought she could do better. It’s like, they weren’t doing anything for her, so why should she go in and increase her risk? The hospitals are where the sick people are. So that was really the final straw.

Before my wife quit her job, I was working set hours Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I was watching the kids Tuesdays and Thursdays. My wife’s aunt, who’s a schoolteacher, would also come up and watch them for a little bit.

I had to do a lot of adjusting. I didn’t typically have to do all-day care with the kids prior to this, although when my wife had to work a weekend or holiday I did, and that was always a big challenge for me. I’m not as naturally gifted in the child care department. I’m not as creative; I have less patience with them. I felt really out of my strong suit. There were a lot of things I had to learn in order to direct three little people and keep them alive from when my wife left to when she came home, and retain some sanity. So the actual full day, keep them entertained, get them fed, make sure snack time’s there, put them down for their naps — I really had to shift gears, in a time where I had almost no mental bandwidth.

I definitely grew a new appreciation for my wife and her ability to do this, because she’s been the one that’s keeping us all together, keeping the kids sane, keeping me sane. My work is my creativity, and once that started to peter out, I felt rudderless. So I threw more energy into trying to help around the house and up my dad skills.

Some days were phenomenal, if everyone was in a good mood. We got to play, no stress. But other days, we were potty training and we’d have an accident, or someone won’t go down for a nap, or someone is mad they can’t watch more TV because we’re trying to limit their screen time. It really depended on the day. The hard part for me was just maintaining mental bandwidth, because I’m getting stressed about what I’m doing here at the office versus what I need to do at home, and there’s things I need to do there I can’t do because I’m here, and a lot of stressful decisions to make.

It wasn’t easy, but it helped to develop a plan and get a little more creative. We ironed it out, and I’m finding I appreciate it more. Every morning, the kids come in the room and we get to snuggle for five or 10 minutes. Who gets to do that on a Tuesday? That’s the stuff I’m kind of clinging to, because that’s the stuff you don’t get back.

This is the most time I’ve spent with my kids, ever”

Zach Pollakoff, music producer, temporarily relocated to Vermont from Brooklyn

Two children: 3, 9 months

We don’t have garbage pickup here, and I started taking garbage to the dump in the first week, and that’s sort of my responsibility now. I put a big sign on the refrigerator that says “Hump day is dump day,” and I go every Wednesday.

I think, without question, this is the most time I’ve spent with my kids, ever. I’ve spoken to a lot of parents, and [being on lockdown] is significantly more challenging than we thought it would be. I now understand why we’ve as a culture arranged our days to get a break from our home life, and our work life. I think the physical act of being in another place sort of creates a mental container around those spaces. And I think that is really beneficial for your mental health.

What I had that I’m lacking now is just alone time. Today, my wife worked most of the morning, and I scheduled a chunk of meetings — a 3 o’clock, a 4 o’clock, and a 5 o’clock — so it would be an easy trade. That’s my alone time for today. Other days, I really relish my short drive to the dump and back, when I can roll down the windows and blast some music, just for a little period of time.

We really aim to have an equitable relationship in regard to parenting. It’s a lot of fucking work. I don’t think that our roles have changed. Sort of different than [before the pandemic]: We’re also looking out for each other. A lot of the time we’re parenting [under normal circumstances], we’re together. One parent can watch one kid while the other watches the other kid. Now we’re mostly parenting alone, with the exception maybe of dinner, bath, and bed, where we can kind of tag-team a little bit. One thing I’m really grateful for is my wife just being aware. She keeps doing this thing where she sees me losing my patience and says, “Hey, let’s switch. You take the other kid, and I’ll take who you’ve got.” That is a tiny gift that she can give every once in a while.

Once I got in the flow, my mental health got better than it’s been in 10 years”

Juan Comas, art fabricator, Tallahassee, Florida

Two children: 10, 8

The two weeks before we went into quarantine, I’d just moved from full time to two days a week [at my job]. My wife’s job is really intense and has a lot of travel. She makes three times as much money as me, so her job is far more important than mine. I was ready to be home and get some stuff done.

It was when school started that it got intense. You have an 8- and a 10-year-old getting their full course load sent home every day. My wife has to work nonstop; she’s on Zoom all day, so I was helping with school.

The first two weeks were infuriating. I tried to not get too pissed at the schools and the teachers, because it’s not like this is something they were prepared for. But they send out the work and there’s, like, 10 different websites and Google Pages links and places to upload work, and everything has to go to its separate place.

The websites weren’t made to handle the traffic they were getting; they were all super buggy. We had thought one kid could use the computer and the other could use the iPad, but we found out real quick that, no, none of this stuff works on the iPad. Then it became, okay, my son has to do this work from this time to this time on the computer, and my daughter has to do this stuff, and that changes from day to day.

After two weeks, I was like, I’m getting serious. We’re going to do a full schedule, and we’re going to do everything by alarms, and without that, I would not have survived.

My kids hated each other at the beginning. They wanted to murder each other, constantly fighting.

[Before quarantine,] we saw each other for half an hour a day, which is basically how families are. Two parents that work and two kids that stay at school as long as they can doing stuff, you get home from all of the shit, you’re racing to make dinner, and then it’s time to go to sleep. You feel like you’re at another job where everyone’s racing around, and you’re shouting, “Go there! Go there! Now shut up and go to sleep, and I’ll see you tomorrow!”

And now it’s like Little House on the Prairie. It’s a complete turnaround, but I’ll tell you I kind of love it.

If I can make a meal and fix an appliance and teach the kids something, I’ve always gotten way more out of that than being at work. So I’ve always kind of wanted this — I just didn’t know that I did this much, or how it would be when it happened.

At first, it was crazy and I was like, I don’t know if I can handle this. But once I got in the flow, my mental health got better than it’s been in 10 years. You’re getting a taste of something more fulfilling, which is something we’ve kind of ditched as a society. For many people, it’s like, “Now I have kids, and now I need a nanny, and I’ll see them in a week.” I’ve gotten a lot out of it.

At its worst, I still feel like it’s better than it was when everyone had a bad day separately and then came home and were all angry. I’ve learned to defuse any situation before it happens. I can see all these little clues I didn’t have time to see before.

“After a while, it was really clear that we needed to find some other approach”

Erik Botsford, New York government worker temporarily in Florida

Two children: twins, 12

We’re here with my mother, in my mother’s house.

One of my sons loves this and said he never wants to go back to the old way. Today, he told me he had a nightmare where he was back in school. That was it; that was the entire nightmare. My other son is doing fine, but I think he’s really missing the in-person social aspect of school and is really feeling it. It’s a tough thing to get them connected with their friends. We’re working at it.

I’ve been reading a lot of parenting advice online. A lot of it said, let things slide, this is extraordinary for everybody, it’s really a pick-your-battles moment, and this isn’t one you want to pick. So we did that for a while: Whatever, you’re on the computer from 9 am to 6 pm basically nonstop, you know, no biggie. But after a while, it was really clear that we needed to find some other approach.

I mean, we haven’t hit on it yet. That goes for me and my husband, too. We’re both working full time from home, on video calls all day, and it’s exhausting. It’s way different than in-person working. Having to kind of do that full time while also, in the back of my mind, at 2 in the afternoon when I usually wouldn’t have to worry about too much because my kids are in school and their day is planned out, I’d be like, now I gotta go figure out if they’re gonna do their exercise today. That creates an added layer of complexity and stress and all this.

I have a lot of colleagues who have young children, and having been there and been a stay-at-home parent, that’s the real struggle. I’m not in a bad boat. When I was at home with twins, there were big stretches where it was just me, at home, in the apartment, in the middle of winter. This is nothing compared to that. That was way harder.

When it came time to decide who would stay at home, it was a financial decision.

But I really wanted to do the primary caregiving. It was something I’d been looking forward to, and I wanted that level of control over the care of my children. I was excited to be able to take them around the city and do activities with them. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard sometimes, and exhausting and isolating.

Now, not to say it’s not stressful because of everything happening in the world that causes so much stress for everyone, but we’re all here together. My husband is here, my mother is here, we’re all in the same house together, so labor is spread across a whole bunch of additional people.

It has been a really good thing to be able to spend so much time together with my husband and my kids, and my mother. But it’s hard to talk about things like this in a pandemic, and the pandemic is the reason for it. Because it’s not something you’d want to prolong in any way. But there are aspects of it that are so … unique. You have to find in it things that are positive for you and your family.

Chris Chafin covers the business of culture for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC. He also hosts a movie podcast.

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