Perhaps it’s the strange effect of being forced to slow down, to spend all of one’s time outside work pootling and pottering rather than actually doing things and seeing people. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere, the eerie streets, the cordoned-off playgrounds and lines of masked shoppers. Perhaps it’s just being a dad with a garden, a shelf full of Dr. Seuss stories, and sudden access to Disney’s entire back catalog. Whatever it is, something in the air is making a time that should be anxious, monotonous, and frustrating somehow pleasant, and even meaningful.
One might assume my life to be an unrelenting grind right now—I’m locked down in London, a global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic, trying to juggle my day job with looking after a 3-year-old. Yet that hasn’t been my experience. Having children does add pressure to lockdown life, no doubt, and those without children are always very gracious to say how much harder it must be than what they’re experiencing. I am conscious that this pressure is doubled for single parents, parents without a steady income, or parents whose jobs require them to risk their health in the service of everyone else’s. But for the privileged professional middle classes, I am beginning to think that parents have it better than nonparents.
Yes, child care means that the days are longer, working hours broken up and scattered between intervals of dinosaur play-acting. It also means there is almost no time alone. One dad I know told me how much he missed his 10-minute wait at the train station, and I immediately understood what he meant. But—and I say this hesitantly—I suspect the lockdown might be proving harder for lots of people without children: for those whose working hours can stretch and blur into their free time, which is all too free, formless and defenseless to the tyranny of Zoom.
We are living through a collective international crisis that is taking people’s lives and livelihoods daily. But the costs are not falling on everyone equally, and for some—like me—there have even been unexpected upsides. The mandatory and universal nature of our confinement has stripped away the one thing that defines our modern, privileged life: choice. But in losing that most basic element of freedom, we have also lost the pressure that comes with it—the pressure to make the most of what you choose. Should I go out or stay in? Is this the best use of my time? Will I offend so-and-so by choosing this rather than that? Confined in my home, I’m not yearning for the best restaurants in London or overseas holidays, but family barbecues and nights in the pub with best friends. The crisis has prompted many to ask big existential questions about their life's purpose. The irony for me is that it has taken losing choice to clarify what I want to choose.
This paradoxical freedom of choicelessness is even stronger for parents. There’s a clean singularity of purpose for a parent in lockdown: Your priorities are clarified. In normal times, weekdays are a blur, and weekends are packed with chores, errands, and social events scheduled long ago. Many days I’ve felt that the only moment of undistracted time with my son is story time before bed, an immovable, unavoidable, simple routine during which distractions are removed, lights dimmed, calm restored—like going to the cinema. My life today is like one long bedtime story.
For me, and I suspect millions of other parents with toddlers, the space that has opened up in our enforced confinement has been filled with the wistful idealism and gentle humor of Pixar, Judith Kerr, Julia Donaldson, and A. A. Milne. I have found myself searching for classic children’s books to share with my son, rediscovering some I’ve read and unearthing others I haven’t. My wife and I have been drawing up lists of old films to relive through his eyes: The Land Before Time, The Rescuers, Lady and the Tramp (the original, of course). Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks have already been ticked off. The guilt that usually accompanies TV has somehow been reduced because we are watching it together, rather than dumping him in front of it while I read through emails, run a bath, and prepare dinner at the end of the day.
A high-achieving parent friend recently offered inadvertent reassurance that our newly lowered bar is pretty standard. “We are 10 percent constructive parenting, 20 percent threats, 30 percent bribery and 50 percent TV,” he said in a text, half-jokingly. This friend, far from researching a new book or reading Shakespeare of an evening, was watching Netflix’s latest bit of supertrash, Love Is Blind, when he texted.
In a lockdown, it turns out, children are a valve. They are very good at increasing the tension, by refusing to sleep or eat or do as you say. But they can also relieve pressure. Perhaps I am just too willing to use my child as an excuse, but I don’t feel like I have to pretend I’m going to read that novel I ordered on Amazon, let alone write one. Having a son also gives my wife and I a daily task that is more than enough on its own, a collective endeavor, a source of fun and amusement—and meaning. Without him, I imagine my wife and I bickering more, cooped up with no obvious time or space to just be alone.
Each morning now, I take my little one to some nearby woods for our daily exercise. We have developed something of a routine—we rest on some logs 10 minutes into our walk and have a snack. Sitting there one morning, I realized that—at least in that moment—my life was nicer in lockdown than out of it. I was doing nothing with my son, birds were tweeting, sun was streaming through the trees, I had a flask of coffee and some chocolate. Without the lockdown I would likely be nose-to-armpit on the train to Charing Cross, en route to a meeting or government briefing. Instead, I now play dinosaurs and can say yes when my son asks if it’s a “mummy and daddy day.” Every day is mummy and daddy day now.
Of course, none of this means I want the lockdown to continue. I will, no doubt, take up the first offer of child care, whether from grandparents or the child minder we are currently unable to use. My son has just been given a nursery-school place for September, and I am excited to see how he will make new friends and learn new things. I constantly tell people we should meet up once this is all over. I’d love a long, child-free lunch with friends or an evening in the pub. Above all, I wish I could see my parents. But I have been surprised by how much I enjoy some of lockdown life. Part of me will miss this sad, strange interlude when it’s gone—not the death and destruction, but the quiet reflection and new routines. For many of us, it might serve to reveal what we really care about. I will try not to be quick to forget it.
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