Commentary: What the pandemic taught me about being a better father
The pandemic has provided a window into my kids’ previously opaque lives and I am all the better father for it, says the Financial Times' Joshua Chaffin.
LONDON: I don’t know why but I once told my young son that I had won the Father of the Year award for the London neighbourhood where we were then living.
He actually believed me and so was disappointed years later when he brought it up and I was obliged to correct the record.
If there were such an award, this year I would surely be in contention. Over the past 12 months or so I have turned in the best fathering performance of my 11-year career.
I have been present for virtually every meal, many of which I have cooked. I have run baths, effected tuck-ins and shuttled our two kids to their bevy of after-school enrichments, including chess, fencing, basketball, taekwondo and skateboarding lessons.
I have even managed my son’s travel soccer team, causing us to forfeit only one match due to my administrative shortcomings.
I am fathering so well I am nearly mothering. That is, I am now approaching the contributions my wife has made over the years without hope of any sort of a medal.
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THE MAGIC OF THE PANDEMIC
All this is due to the pandemic, of course. It has magically restored hours to my day that were once devoted to a desultory commute.
Some of that recovered time has been squandered on the rescue dog we adopted. (He requires about 14 hours of walks each day.) Still, there is plenty left over for the kids.
It is not just time. The pandemic has also provided a window into my kids’ previously opaque lives. In the Before Times, I would inquire about their school day, often just as I was kissing them good night. “Fine,” they would report.
Now, in real time, I overhear my eight-year-old daughter singing with her classmates over Zoom and repeating Mandarin phrases. The house rumbles when my son has a remote gym class.
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Fathers of my acquaintance are spending more time than ever with their children, though still not shouldering as much of the household burden as women, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that 68 per cent of the fathers it surveyed have felt closer to their children since lockdown.
Many reported more meaningful conversations with their kids, who had taken a greater interest in their lives in turn.
DON’T LET THIS GOLDEN PERIOD SLIP AWAY
As the pandemic eases and companies begin to usher staff back to work, I wonder whether this will have been but a brief golden period before we revert to past routines or whether some of the changes in how families work and live will last.
Fatherhood has never been a static role. My own was of the Mad Men era. As a child, I understood his duty as going away — for work, for meetings, for squash, for business trips or to chop wood. He would come home to be swarmed by hugs.
Later, when my mother went back to work, he would take us to a local tavern for dinner, still wearing his suit and tie. It is to him I owe my enduring love of eating at a bar.
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Times have changed. By 2016, fathers were performing three times as much childcare as their 1965 counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center, and were as likely as mothers to describe parenting as central to their identity.
Looking back on my pre-COVID parenting, I would describe myself as a showboat dad: The smug variety who seeks adoration for turning up at public events such as sports day or taking the kids for an ice cream on Saturday. What an amazing dad! Behind the scenes, my wife handled much of the parental dirty work.
That has shifted, somewhat, these past months. As a psychologist, her schedule is less flexible than mine. Now, when the kids intrude in the middle of the workday due to an emergency — like wanting a snack — it usually falls on me to react.
ENJOYING THE EXTRA FATHERING
Other dads I’ve polled have suggested it would be best for them and their kids to have some separation. But I’m (mostly) grateful for the extra time.
One of my favourite memories of this anxious year will have been lunch, when, like a ship’s crew, we each abandon the discrete compartments we’ve been working or studying (or online shopping) in and congregate in the galley for a shared meal.
(There were also days when I felt trapped with my family in a submarine stranded at the bottom of the ocean.)
I think the kids have enjoyed the extra fathering and the opportunity to know their dad better. My daughter punches me in the groin when I least expect it, which is her way of expressing love.
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Her older brother, meanwhile, recently volunteered that he did not feel he really knew me before the pandemic, when I was frequently running to and from the train in a suit.
“I thought you were some kind of corrupt business guy,” he told me. I’m not sure what would have given him that impression. But, after a year of high-level fathering, he now knows better. I think.