Most of us dads want to think we are handling this pandemic with the ease and grace of an ocean liner shrinking into the horizon of an orange sunset on a beautiful blue ocean, but, in truth, the seas have been far rougher and the sunsets less brilliant. I wrote this piece two or three times; every time it was a funny and concise look at my wife and I with our 3-year-old son — a young family — struggling with the “new normal,” locked in our house together. It had all of the pratfalls and hijinks of a ’60s family sitcom: My wife toiling away at work in the other room — the gender-reversed workaholic — while I was playing the heroic stay-at-home dad and educator extraordinaire.
But that story possessed little of the truth of the situation and more of what I wanted to be the reality of family life under quarantine. I couldn’t write about how hard the pandemic has been on me as a father and husband, but how I have nonetheless risen to the occasion and met the day with a grin and said: “GIVE ME ALL YOU’VE GOT, WORLD.” I couldn’t commit to pixels that I’ve been the best teacher to my son and he will be better for it. I couldn’t present those things to the world because they aren’t true.
The truth is that no parent has gotten it perfect in the past three months, but, if anyone in our house has gotten close, it is my wife.
Our family is traditional is every regard but one glaringly obvious one: My wife is and likely always will be the primary earner of our family. You would be surprised how that dynamic changes the way a family can function; we struggled to figure out the balance of responsibilities. Eventually, we managed it, pre-pandemic. My wife took our son to nursery school and I picked him up; she worked her long hours at the office and I cooked and shopped and filled in most of the other gaps. Three and a half years into parenting, we were finally starting to stabilize our life, and the routine of school and jobs and chores was beginning to become second nature.
All that seems like it happened in an alternate reality now.
The second week of March, my wife started to work from home for precautionary reasons. The third week of March, our son’s school closed on a week-to-week basis, which became a month-to-month basis until the school year ended. The fourth week of March, I got my last job and rode the subway for the last time; I haven’t been to Manhattan since. I remember thinking that the people on the trains wearing masks seemed like some fringe group — alarmists even; it was so early in this. When things got worse, they transformed in my mind from irrational zealots to pioneers of innovation and rational thinking.
Then as days turned into months of pandemic lockdown, every day brought with it steady increases — new case numbers, new death numbers and new curve-flattening cream commercials — all of it humming and whirring in the background of our days.
And our son? Well, he just needs to know all about “J”: what “J” looks like big and what “j” looks like small, and what animals’ names start with that letter. He also needs to learn things to be a functioning human — a functioning human now expected to gain those socialization skills over a video-conferencing app.
In the meantime, I can’t seem to get this curve-flattening cream to absorb into my skin.
When the nursery school started sending lesson plans, for example, my wife organized a system to print them out at a nearby friend’s house, since they owned a printer, and patiently reminded me I needed to pick them up at the beginning of every week, in the morning before anyone in our house was up but our friends were awake, so our son could begin his lessons on time.
A month in, I bought a printer. It took me a month to realize I could just buy a printer and save her all that arranging.
Then, my wife started to notice I was less than engaged with Letter J (both big and small) and, after that, even less so with K. She started to take two hours off every day from her actual job to spend time with our son. She would often take parts of his lessons — the ones I was supposed to be supervising — outside. When they would return from their adventure, whether to the park or just around the block, my son would be thrilled to see me and tell me all about what they had learned. Rainbows are sun and water; rubber boots are great for jumping into puddles and his boots are yellow.
Some days, I would just find myself standing in the kitchen, listening to a podcast and ignoring my son’s daily lessons while YouTube videos about pajama-clad superheroes saved me from my responsibilities. Why? Because I’m tired of all of this and I don’t want to anymore. (Yes, I know how that sounds.)
In the other room, while I was slacking off, my wife would be Zooming with her coworkers who couldn’t decide on the appropriate response to an Instagram comment on her brand’s page, wishing above anything that she could be teaching our son about “J” (both big and small).
Most nights, long after my son and I are in bed, she logs back into work to make up for what she’s missed there while trying to give me time to refresh and find enthusiasm for being a more active parent during all of this.
I know that other people have had their lives destroyed by this virus and lost loved ones; we are very lucky that we still have our lives, our health and income. But some days it’s easier to know that I’m grateful than to feel it.
I have never really understood why Father’s Day exists. This year, I can’t think of a less relevant holiday, at least in my family. So in my house, I think we will just have to have another round of Mother’s Day. She deserves that more than ever right now.
Andrew Hamm is a cartoonist and illustrator living in New York City by way of Canada. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Wired Magazine and the Guardian. Follow him and his work on Instagram @ahammaday.