My husband has been gone all week on a work trip out of town (lucky duck). But even though we have been together 24/7 for three months and everyone in our house, including our geriatric guinea pig, would covet some privacy by now, my children began moping about their dad’s absence almost immediately after he left.
“Where is Dad?!” they asked in confusion.
It was a fair question after months of knowing exactly where he was at all times. But before the pandemic, I am not sure if my kids would have noticed he was gone for a few days. He spends time with each of them as much as he can, but he is usually at work until dinner time. With my kids’ individual school and activity schedules, they wouldn’t expect to see him that much.
My kids really feel their father’s absence now
Now, his absence is felt in even the smallest ways. “Dad would have known to order me a mango lassi with the Indian food tonight,” my 16-year-old said. “We split one last time.” “Dad lets me look at dogs on his TikTok feed,” my 8-year-old said reproachfully at bedtime. “Everyone in your TikTok feed is a mom who curses.” (She’s not wrong.)
Though this global pandemic has been horrifying and scary and the resulting quarantine has been sad and challenging, there’s no denying that it has led to my husband spending more time with our children than he has ever been afforded in their lives, and they have clearly noticed.
What we’re seeing here is that fathers, many of whom had previously been consumed by their work or absent from their households, have developed a new sense of closeness to their children during the pandemic.
— RICK WEISSBOURD, CO-AUTHOR
Fathers are feeling closer to their kids since the pandemic
Apparently, we’re not alone. According to a national online survey of 1,319 adults –– including 284 fathers –– by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project, 68% of fathers feel closer or much closer to their children since the pandemic, and only 1.4% feel less close.
That is both comforting and striking, considering that the stress of crisis learning, forced togetherness, financial worries, and general anxiety the pandemic has wrought on most families. The survey showed fathers reported feeling closer to their children across race, class, educational levels, and political affiliation.
That interior life of families during the pandemic is initially what the Making Caring Common Project was hoping to learn more about when they began their surveys. But they found that despite all of the angst surrounding the sudden shutdown of daily life, dads have found themselves having deeper conversations with their kids, sharing more about themselves with them, and trying new activities with their kids that they might not have in “normal life.”
“It’s just very encouraging,” said Harvard psychologist and Making Caring Common faculty director Richard Weissbourd. “This is the time for families to develop some rituals and routines that might endure and carry forward after this is over,” he said, if they want this closeness to grow.
“It’s valuable for kids and fathers seem to be enjoying it a lot –– it’s valuable for them too,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, Baltimore, Maryland, dad Chris Handwerk’s 16-year-old daughter was so busy with school, sports, extracurricular activities, and her social life (“She is VERY social,” he noted with a smile) that other than the times when they had to be her appointed chauffeurs, he and his wife Ashley rarely saw her.
Over the past few months, he said, he and his daughter bonded in ways he would not have imagined before the quarantine. After watching ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” together by chance and enjoying it, Handwerk introduced his daughter to the documentary “Lance” too.
“I am a BIG cycling fan, and I had read and watched a lot on the topic, so I was very excited to share this with her,” he said. He broke up their viewings into 20 to 30-minute sections, and then they talked about what they watched.
Parents and kids are engaging in daily rituals
“Looking back, I think I did that to make it last, rather than watch it all in one sitting,” he admitted. “It was such a special experience to connect with her like that –– to exchange ideas with her as a young, independent thinking adult but to still play the role of guide, as we are all called to do as parents, helping her navigate the history of what had come before her.”
Handwerk and his daughter also began a daily ritual of afternoon tea together to break up the daily monotony before he headed into his afternoon of “endless video calls” for work, he said.
“Sometimes we wouldn’t see each other at all during the day between her schoolwork and my work, but this was the one ritual we developed to connect during the day,” he said.
“COVID is terrible, but it resulted in one of my most favorite times of being a dad with my son,” said Longwood, Florida, attorney Jim Washburn.
Washburn and his son Jack, a sophomore at the University of Florida, started a vegetable garden and set up a home gym in their garage and started working out together during the pandemic.
“We had coffee and good conversation on the front porch in the mornings and cooked elaborate dinners together,” Washburn said. Jack has moved back to Gainesville now, but his unexpected months at home “allowed us to connect more as friends than when he was in high school,” said Washburn.
Mark Ashcroft’s three sons are used to a crazy busy schedule playing both competitive ice hockey and baseball in their hometown of Toronto, Canada. “We usually have a minimum of two kids out at a sporting event each night, six days a week,” he said.
But this summer, baseball is canceled, so once school ended, he and wife Kristi took the boys to their rustic lake house for the summer instead.
“People were complaining early on about being stuck at home with their family, but one of my friends reminded me that no one lies on their deathbed and wishes they had spent more time at the office,” Ashcroft said. “I decided I was going to embrace that philosophy and hope my kids would too,” he said with a laugh.
At the lake, he said, he has been giving the boys what he calls a “COVEducation,” teaching them how to change the oil and filter in their ATV and how to handle tools like hatchets, rakes, and clippers. The boys have been clearing the roadways and excess brush on the property together instead of going to baseball practices.
They are enjoying this calmer lifestyle the pandemic has offered –– so much so that the boys went to their parents and told them, “We love this life more than baseball.” Going forward, they will continue to play hockey, but their summers will be spent at the lake instead of playing competitive baseball in town.
“Up here, they get old school training and conditioning,” he said. “They run, they ride bikes, they move firewood.” And they have dinner together as a family every night.
“That is the most fulfilling and resounding impact of this lockdown,” said Ashcroft. “They want to spend time with us.”
When the pandemic is over, Handwerk said, he will appreciate the special memories of the time his family spent together, a “silver lining” during one of the worst possible times in our country’s history.
“I stole time from the universe by having very present and focused time with my kids that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” he said. “The pandemic and all of the social unrest that the country has experienced has helped me reflect on what is important.”
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