The Spring of our Reconditioning

Where does the return to the old ways leave me, the common house dad? I am the parent who played the stay-at-home role over the last 400+ days. After everyone returns to work, and I come home to a quiet, suddenly empty house, I wonder if I will miss any of it and what I will do.

Thoughtful young man in modern glasses and casual wear looking on laptop screen.
Photo by Вадим Пастух, used under license through Adobe Stock.

I noticed something about a month or two ago. People were constantly coming up, rubbing their upper arm, and letting me know they "just got that second shot." Strangers hollered at me from the store aisle, "Hey, you. Second shot!" Neighbors called out from their porches as I passed by, "Second shot!" Is this the 2021 alternative to Hello? Or did somehow I become the one keeping tabs on all this? Maybe there is something about my aura that people cannot help but scream at me, "Second shot!" rubbing their arm, eyes squinted in concentration.

The COVID-19-induced chaos is ebbing in the United States, mainly due to so many people getting vaccinated. Over 41% of the adult US population is fully vaccinated. And half of those from my county have reported as much to me.

Our collective "Before Times" routines are already returning. Extended families are gathering anew for dinners. The park pavilions are filling up with weekend cookouts. We will soon be riding on crowded buses, going to the big games, waiting in lines, rubbing elbows at parties, chatting, and smiling with people from outside of our households. We will probably even let runny-nosed children blow deep lung spittle all over birthday cakes before they are sliced and served to guests. People will crowd into elevators, nightclubs, and markets. We will shake hands, use public water fountains, and jam movie theaters on opening night, sharing popcorn, drinks, and collective laughs and gasps. We will sit in traffic, waiting, wondering if there isn't a better way. Eventually, I might even pass someone on the sidewalk without walking out onto the street to avoid entering the imaginary six-foot sphere.

This morning, I stepped over fading taped distance markers on the sidewalk as I entered a grocery store. Masking was no longer required inside. The carts were no longer getting a wipe down. Canned foods and toilet paper were in plentiful supply.

I am happy for the country. But I can't help but wonder, where does the return to the old ways leave me, the common house dad? I am the parent who played the stay-at-home role over the last 400+ days. After everyone returns to work, and I take the dog on her morning walk, send the kids off to school, and come home to a quiet, suddenly empty house, I wonder if I will miss any of it and what I will do. Will I nurture a sentimental pangs for the forced closeness my family experienced under quarantine? Will I feel empty after being no longer possessed by the chaotic purpose which compelled me to keep the family going? I fought for a daily gravity to help pull my family's spirits into a constant high tide, keep the kids educated and fed, and to conjure progressive momentum out of our common languishing inertia. "Bike rides!" "Sledding!" "Who wants to go to the park! Yes, again!"

The rest of the working world is heading back to commutes and travel coffee mugs and going somewhere important. While there were so many days I needed a break, I am not sure I am ready to retire from my role as keeper of the house. After all of the macaroni has been made, all the peanut butter crackers assembled, and cheese sandwiches have been eaten, after all the clothes and wet towels are picked up from the hallway, and books stacked again and glasses put back, and we have returned from all the day trips, and we stayed alive, do I just remove my mask and fade into the grocery aisles? As the shelter of the global pandemic lifts away, it will expose the reality that this house dad didn't lose his job due to the pandemic. I was merely a jobless person among working people who stayed home. So now what?

Thanks to the confinement of mandated homeschooling, my kids finally got to peer behind the curtain to answer the burning question many children have about dad: what does that guy do all day? They maybe thought I spent the day helping the elderly cross streets or did big, important things for the universities or the medical sciences. I can only imagine their disappointment in witnessing me spend my time perched over a lonely keyboard at the dining room table, trying to write an unsolicited novel.

It does seem to offend them that writing makes me present but not available to watch magic tricks or observe gymnastics routines or create epic, magical moments they can enshrine as that golden, best, most beautiful year at home with dad. After all, while preteens have determined that parents are not "cool" like some teachers or friends, having their constant attention is still paramount. The preteen motto seems to be: Pay attention but don't expect to get involved. Dad, look at me do a summersault. Dad, watch me eat this piece of cake. Dad, watch me while I wear a VR headset.

Dad! All you do is sit around "writing that book."

And, I must consider, kids still possess unfiltered honesty. They relay the truth for what it is without making excuses for you or anyone else. Dad, you are a terrible cook. Dad, you got fat this year. Dad, your book sounds boring.

When my ten-year-old daughter says, Dad, please get a job like everyone else, I know she wants the best for me. But, with my role as house dad dwindling, is it OK that I don't want to stop writing? Does writing even count as a job?

To my kids, no, it does not. A job is tangible. Kids view it as a trade of time for money. Adults go away for the day and return later, having been given cash in exchange for their time. Some returns in cash are more generous than others.

I am not doing any of that. No. I, like other writers, hover in front of a keyboard all day. Nothing super practical comes of it. There is not a daily return of cash. Instead, there is an endless mental ream of more stories yet to tell, more editing, more words to let spill out. Does anybody want to buy those stories, those countless words? Probably not, my kids tell me. Words are free, and there are already so many everywhere out there. A quick review of writing jobs on Upwork confirms this. No one wants to pay a writer.

What are you even doing? my daughter asks after watching me write for a few minutes. At least in the old days, there might be a cloud of smoke hanging over a clanging typewriter, a half-empty glass of watered-down whiskey, and piles of crumpled-up rejected pages overflowing a nearby wastebasket to indicate something was happening. Today, I have a silent touch keyboard. I have Select All > Delete. When I get nervous, I don't smoke. Instead of whiskey, there is an empty bottle of orange pop.

The dog is pacing. She has to pee again. In my big block of four hundred quarantine days, I wanted to learn Spanish, organize a home school, and write The Book. All that time has slipped away. I did not get any more bilingual or develop any new pedagogies or land a book deal. But I set the world record for most times a dog has been taken outside only to plop down on the grass and challenge you to move her.

My son just walked into the wall. He is wearing the VR headset. I am sure it is a magical experience for him. I believe he is entering his sixth hour of screen time today, but am I counting anymore? All I know is that he is either fighting space robots or riding a virtual roller coaster. My offer of Yahtzee can't compete. He long ago dismissed the idea of school-on-a-laptop to the waste bin of terrible no good adult notions. He understands how to show up as a performative student, but he never engages intellectually. But VR is something he is hungry to engage. And Fortnite? Forget about it.

In my youth, I envisioned fatherhood as being the time when I would teach my youngsters to set rabbit snares, fell timber, and hoe a garden patch. Be an ideal. Be a dad's dad. Instead, I spent most of the last year folding laundry and cleaning the cat litter. I am my wife's sous chef. I make the beds. There are very few implements of so-called manliness in the house. A couple cans of beer. Decanter of whiskey. My children cry if they even so much as see a cigar. Daddy's going to die! There is no heirloom muzzle rifle over the mantle or family saber. My tackle box contains a printed cheat sheet explaining how to attach a hook to the line. I listen to NPR. I cry during commercials while my wife rolls her eyes. Are you seriously crying?

What have I taught my children over this era of the pandemic, crammed in the house together these months? Have I shown them what it is to be a father? Have I been the ideal role model? Or did I scar them with memories of a man I tell them they were lucky enough to have at home with them, but honestly, he did not have anywhere else to be. A writer.

My boy takes another unsteady step forward into the wall.

I decide the children have had enough time on devices and, leading by example, close my laptop. When I remove the VR goggles, my son's eyes are as wide as saucers. My daughter is over on the couch at her computer. I tell her to shut it down. She says, But daddy, I am writing a book. So I have her read a few paragraphs aloud to me.

And you know, they were pretty good.

OK, kids. Let's take the dog for a walk. I grab a tissue on the way out the door to dry my eyes.