My 11-year-old and his dad walk arm in arm, discussing the intricacies of Minecraft. Ore and redstone and zombies and villagers — stuff that normally makes my eyes glaze over. I hang back, content to observe them in their dude bubble.
From the outside, it looks like the most ordinary conversation, though it is anything but: for once, I am not micromanaging their interaction. I am not cheerleading this father-son exchange. Not being involved in this particular intimacy comes as a surprise and a great relief.
It’s my silver linings playbook, COVID-19 edition. This virus is a curse, no question. The pandemic has wreaked havoc in so many cruel and lasting ways. And yet for all that it has stolen from us, social distancing has given my own family an unexpected gift.
From the outside, it’s impossible to tell what this past year has been like for us. My autistic son experienced frequent destructive and aggressive outbursts. Sometimes he broke things and lashed out at us. Sometimes my husband lost his cool and shouted back. Each time their short fuses sparked, I told myself, “They’re too similar, that’s all.”
We were all trying. We were all worn out. With every meltdown, though, I imagined bits of their bond being irreparably chiselled away, and felt helpless to fix it.
“Before this virus came along, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my husband, like so many parents, was missing out.”
From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I had high hopes for their relationship. I never knew my biological father, and had grown up with a step-father who was cold and stern. I wanted so much more for my son than what I’d known. I’d often wonder if my son and his dad would ever be as close as I dreamed they could be when I first held my only child in my arms.
After last year, that possibility seemed unlikely.
I didn’t know that it would take a pandemic to ignite change in our home. While some children have regressed during the lockdown, we have been lucky. Without the pressures and routines of school, my son is thriving. With my husband forced to work from home, he has more face time with his kid. He’s not the only one — most Canadian fathers feel closer to their children during the pandemic.
While brewing a cup of tea, my husband might help with a math problem that left his hapless wife stymied. (Yes, I readily admit to being stymied by some elements of Grade 6 math.) They might chit chat over breakfast before my husband disappears to “the office” for his first meeting of the day. With no commute to and from work, there is less racing around to be someplace on time.
Although he still works hard and keeps long hours, my hubby seems decidedly more energized, more patient and more present than in pre-COVID days. At the end of a long workday, he simply has to walk downstairs to be with us. This is not the case for all families, with many parents continuing to work outside the home. I recognize the magnitude of our privilege and do not take it lightly.
Still, before this virus came along, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my husband, like so many parents, was missing out. We treat being busy as a badge of honour, but our overscheduled lifestyle comes at a cost. Kids grow up so fast, they say. Blink, and childhood is gone. Now that my son is on the cusp of 12, I can get behind that adage. I couldn’t shake the feeling that his brief boyhood was bypassing my husband, through no fault of his own.
“We will never get this time back. It is a cursed time, yes, but it is also deeply precious.”
These past months, a weight on my shoulders has suddenly lifted. Before the pandemic, I was always “the one.” I was the one who picked up and dropped off my son from school and weekend activities. I was the one who took him to visit the doctor, and the dentist, and any brand of therapist. The one who coached him through French and social studies assignments. The one who cuddled on the couch and listened to him read comics after school. The one who readily laughed at his corny jokes and ruffled his soft curls at every passing opportunity.
I was always there. There is no feminist angle to quibble here — working part-time from home means I have more flexibility. I happen to be the more involved, hands-on parent simply because it makes sense for our family.
Seeing my husband and son walk arm in arm talking about Minecraft gives me hope. I wonder how many parents were passing ships to their children before lockdown? How many dads out there are getting to know their kids for the first time, right now?
We will never get this time back. It is a cursed time, yes, but it is also deeply precious. I pray that we will not squander it. I pray that my son and his dad will hold the memory of these days tight in their fists and hearts, and continue to carry it with them when this is all over.
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