Parenting In The Pandemic | How I Look After My Family, and Myself
What can I say about fatherhood in the pandemic? As all parents took a collective sigh of relief on Monday 8th March when the schools reopened, it felt like a massive weight being lifted off our shoulders. That might sound heartless and a bit like I don’t love my child. I do. Honest. It’s just I don’t want to spend all day every day with them, especially while I am attempting to hold down a fulltime job, keep my side hustle alive and trying to maintain my health and wellbeing in the 3 and a half minutes of the day that is left over. This time last year I felt like I needed more quality time with my daughter, as most parents probably did, little did I know that in the 12 months to come we would be cooped up at home together for days on end. I certainly got my wish of my time; it is the quality bit that did not quite deliver.
For fatherhood, there has been some positive progress on the collective role of dads in the UK. Dads took on a 58% increase in childcare during the first lockdown and while women still do the large majority of childcare, the gender care gap narrowed. In 2015, the ONS found that men were spending 39% of the time that women spent on childcare, compared to 64% during lockdown. More men are now thinking about flexible working and how they can take some of this new way of living into ‘the new normal’ as lockdown eases this Spring and Summer. For many dads, the pandemic has been a real eye-opener and they have formed bonds with their children that didn’t exist before. We have had the opportunity to work differently and it is the hope that employers will embrace more flexible working to allow more dads to be active parents. There are endless benefits to dads being involved and sharing caring responsibilities, including outcomes for children’s wellbeing, narrowing the gender pay gap, relationships, retaining talent and both parent’s mental health. As we have seen, women have largely dealt the brunt of caring responsibilities in the pandemic and we need a mix of Government policies, shifts in working norms, cultural changes and individual families making some different choices to change this.
For me, fatherhood during the pandemic has been a real test of patience. In our house, we have always split the caring duties equally and that didn’t change during the pandemic. So, mindfulness and breathing exercises have become my daily norm, as well locking myself in the bathroom to sneak an extra 5 minutes of peace. All this in aid of saving one’s sanity. That might sound heartless and a bit like I don’t love my child. I do. Honest. It is just that, when the kids are at home 24/7 there is something uniquely draining about having to deal with consecutive days of near constant requests for snacks, child tantrums due to their own cabin fever, hearing that same episode of Paw Patrol on repeat for the 10th time that day and scrubbing the floor after yet another accident involving paint and slime. I have learnt that I have even more patience than I thought I did which will hopefully serve me well for the next national crisis in which we are locked up in our homes, whenever that may be.
The concept of working from home is marvellous. Roll out of bed 10 minutes before starting work, take a long walk at lunchtime and sneak in a bit of ‘PE with Joe’ in your mid-afternoon break before cooking a gourmet dinner accompanied with a glass of wine in the evening. I am sure this was the reality for some. But for most dads and parents, that could not have been further from the truth. For us, homeworking has largely been working from the tiny space on the dining room table that does not look like a bomb has just exploded on it, taking important calls in the garden so we are not interrupted and repeatedly saying ‘yeh she’s 5, yeh she looks just like her mum’ as our children invade Zoom calls and enthusiastically introduce themselves to our colleagues and clients.
Working from home while being responsible for keeping another human being alive, fed, watered, entertained and educated literally deserves a medal. Like a big fat shiny gold one. It is hard work.
Home schooling will be fun, they said. Now it is important to distinguish between the traditional concept of home-schooling, where one would build that into their core daily activities and be trained in such activity, and the ‘home-schooling’ that most of us have been doing, which is a completely different beast. Hands up, who learnt phonics at school? It is very unlikely that you put your hand up, unless you are about 10 years old – in which case well done for reading this (you will go far in life)! Phonics is just one example of things that children are taught now that just did not exist when we were younger.
So, a lot of parents found themselves having to do their own homework before even attempting to teach their children. And when you add the unique circumstances of all the things that come with living through a global pandemic, home-schooling is really just a term that describes the attempt we made each day to at least try and get our children to do some activity that vaguely looked something like school work, mostly just to relieve our own guilt. But really and truly, the priority for most parents has been ensuring their children’s, and their own, mental health and wellbeing remained intact. In what has been the most difficult of years, we have done well just to survive.
I am fully aware that this piece may sound like I don’t love my child. I do. Honest. No seriously, I really do. And I truly appreciate the time we have spent together over the past year. I won’t say it’s brought us closer, as we were very close already, but it has been nice to see her grow and develop and be able to see this all in real time. But I also love ‘me’ time, I also love being able to focus my mind and do a good job at work, I love taking a lunch break and actually being able to sit and eat my lunch without being interrupted with yet another request for a biscuit and I love knowing that my child is enjoying herself and furthering her social and academic skills with her friends and under the watch of properly educated educators for 6 hours a day at school. All this makes me a better dad and her a happier child.
Parenting during the pandemic has made us acutely aware of what we need and what we don’t need. As a collective we need to do more work to challenge gendered parenting roles. We need to make sure workplaces are inclusive and parents have the option to live and work in a way that best suits their families. We need to move away from the concept that caring is for women and being the breadwinner is for men – those outdated stereotypes are damaging for everyone: men, women and children. We need to make equal parenting the norm by challenging the messaging around fathers in the media and demand better from our workplaces and Government in regards to parental leave and flexible working policies. It’s important time for defining the role of the dad for many years to come and we need to all collectively assess our own decisions to see whether we are part of the problem or solution. Personally, my family has realised that we do not need the soft play centres or the big expensive activities but what we do need is decent enough weather to be able to spend a few hours walking the dog in the park together. We need time and space to reflect and rest and recuperate on our own, good fulfilling time together and we need the days to have variety. All these things have come in limited measures over the last year, but I am sure if you listen hard enough you can still hear that collective sigh of relief as we hope for better days ahead.