How America’s Smartest Parents Cope With Coronavirus Lockdown

Looking for guidance on weathering coronavirus as a family, we asked astronauts, doctors, psychologists, and some Hollywood heavy hitters how they're coping.

by Fatherly
Illustrations by Ivy Johnson for Fatherly

The novel coronavirus, now referred to by most Americans as Covid-19, represents the most significant public health problem of at least the last several decades. Privately, it represents other problems: psychological problems, logistical problems, time-management problems, emotional problems, education problems, financial problems, and relationship problems. Solving these problems is incredibly difficult so, searching for guidance, Fatherly reached out to the very smartest parents we know and asked what they’re doing to cope in a moment when coping feels like a full-time gig. Their answers were surprising, insightful, and, most of all, measured. Very smart, very accomplished people have one thing in common: They stay calm.

Here’s what they do after that….

ISS Commander Terry Virts

Colonel Terry Virts, Air Force pilot turned NASA astronaut, flew on four space missions — STS-130, Expedition 42, Expedition 43, Soyuz TMA-15M — and commanded the International Space Station, logging a total of 213 days, 10 hours, and 48 minutes in space. To put it lightly, the man knows how to live in a confined space and he’s one of the most accomplished social distancers on the planet. Now, mostly confined to his home, he’s doing what he does best: keeping busy.

When you encounter problems in space or in an aircraft, those are serious problems. How do you address issues hastily without panic?

There’s a rule of thumb they teach you as an air force pilot. I learned it when I was 21 years old and flying jets for the first time: Maintain aircraft control. Analyze the situation. Take appropriate action.

So you’re separating the immediate from the long-term. Solve the initial problem then assess, then move on to the next challenge?

Maintain aircraft control. This means to just keep on flying the plane. If a little warning light goes off in the corner and you start staring at it and you get the checklist out and no one is flying the airplane, it’ll crash. So, the first thing you have to do is maintain aircraft control. The second thing is to analyze the situation. Now that you’re flying the airplane and you’re safe, you look around to figure out what’s going on.

You seem calm. You have aircraft control. So, what are you doing now?

Right now, if you haven’t read books for a while, read your books. If you haven’t cleaned your place, clean your place. Hang out with your kids. Teach your kids. Play with your kids. I need to go through my daughter’s photo albums for her graduation. There’s always plenty to do.

Escape the Room CEO Victor Blake

Victor Blake, currently under Covid-19 lockdowns Manhattan apartment with his 7-year-old daughter, is a puzzle guy. The founder of Escape the Room, a rapidly growing experiential business prior to the pandemic, Blake has pivoted from engineering puzzles that make it hard for adults to break out to engineering puzzles that make it easier for a child to stay in.

Escape rooms don’t function like normal games. The mechanics need to be discovered and that’s a significant part of the point. How does that inform the way you play with your daughter?

Kids will spend something like 70 or 80 percent of the time on a playground making up the rules to whatever game they’re going to play. If they’re playing with a ball, it’s all about bouncing and points. This is worth that and this many bounces is worth this much more. So when you’re considering a game — specifically one that might go one for a while — you want to spend most of the time on directions and rules. Better put, you want to get the kid to spend most of their time thinking about directions and rules. It promotes logical thinking and enables creative solutions. It let’s them understand how systems work.

What does that look like in action?

I give my daughter a few key principles and make her create her own game. That’s why I love mazes. She can keep track of tape and one rule. So I ask her to make a maze on the floor with tape and the rule is that the person trying to solve the maze can only turn right. She takes a long time making it and then I tell her to decorate it and that takes a long time as well. Then solving it together takes time.

Fred Rogers Center Director Dana Winters

Dana Winters, the Director of the Fred Rogers Center at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, doesn’t just teach a class called “What Would Fred Rogers Do?”, she lives in the shadow of that question. As she’ll admit, this can make it hard to set reasonable expectations for herself as the parent. But Winter knows that the great is the enemy of the good and the unsaid is the enemy of all.

Fred Rogers remains a saint-like figure. I imagine that as a scholar who studies the man, it’s hard not to feel like you suffer in contrast to his benevolence. Is that hard?

When Fred talked about the process of parenting, he said there were no perfect parents (he was including himself) and the best we can do is keep trying. Right now, I have two bodies solely reliant on me and no idea what’s coming next. My husband is working all the time. My goal is to make sure that this doesn’t become a traumatic experience for my daughters. So I focus on moments. They don’t have to be perfect, I just need to string them together.

Kids are surprisingly resilient. They know we’re trying. There’s grace when kids see that. In truth, the expectations we hold for ourselves are often higher than the expectations our kids hold for us. Grace can be external, sure, but it needs to be internal as well. Parents need to forgive themselves.

So this isn’t just about getting it right? It’s about getting it wrong and moving forward regardless?

Look, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Fred knew that. He wasn’t all Feelings McFeely. He was strong. Knowing that feelings are not an excuse for behavior is strength beyond words. I try to borrow that and be honest with my kids. Sometimes I behave badly and say, ‘That wasn’t a good mom moment.’ Sometimes they behave badly and say, ‘That wasn’t a good kid moment.’ It’s fine. We’re in it together.

Hollywood Activist Justin Baldoni

It’s no surprise that Justin Baldoni is using his time stuck at home to look inward. The actor, who made his name on Jane the Virgin, is the driving force behind “Man Enough,” a video series that aims to interrogate traditional masculine norms and ‘My Last Days,’ a series about terminal illness. Even his personal Instagram ditches the celebrity selfie for psychoanalysis and philosophizing. What’s he thinking about now? Spirituality and insight. He repeats a Bahái affirmation: “My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.”

He’s trying to be thoughtful — to put it mildly.

You’re a sensitive guy. You’re honest about that. How do you think about the present moment without succumbing to the temptation to look away?

This is terrible and devastating and tens hundreds of thousands are going to pass away. It’s a disaster. But collectively we’re finding it’s so easy to dive in and distract ourselves with work or social media or alcohol or other addictions. There is an underlying root, the trauma, pain, and anxiety, that is so easy for us to put a bandaid on when we work more. There’s always something that’s pulling to distract us from what’s really going on.

This is an opportunity to heal the wound — to heal the actual underlying issue. And there’s a beautiful opportunity in being forced to stay with our kids. When we look back, we’ll say, ‘What an opportunity we had.’ So… why is it so hard to be still and to be with our family? Look at the why. Ask yourselves why more than once.

What are your strategies for achieving stillness? It’s a great idea, but incredibly difficult in practice.

Stillness is hard for me. As a creative, who is always bouncing back and forth, cold exposure is my outlet.I find that in a 30-second cold shower I force myself to be still, to bring everything to my breath, which becomes all my awareness. I make it a challenge. I breathe and I focus and at the end of it, I just accomplished something that’s very hard. Men are so task-oriented and driven and we need to accomplish something. Cold showers are an accomplishment. They’re helpful for sleep too, which is really important right now.

Time Management Expert Julie Morgenstern

Julie Morgenstern is the person you talk to when you’re having a hard time getting anything done. The author of the bestselling book Organizing From the Inside Out, Morgenstern is a leading expert on how to structure both work and personal days. She’s also a parent, who knows that lowering expectations is pretty critical right about now.

What’s the best tool to make the new schedules and agendas clear?

I think a visual tool is the most helpful. If you have a wipe board, put the whole schedule for the day on it. The more complete the better. Wakeup time, meals, activities, snacks, entertainment, downtime, exercise. Everything. You want to make a visual reminder for everyone.

Think of it like a camp activity board. This way, families know what they’re supposed to do at what time of the day. And when someone gets antsy it’s easy to point to the schedule and say “oh just another twenty minutes. At 3 o’clock we’re going to have a break.

Many parents are working from home and caring for kids at the same time. What’s the best way to handle that arrangement?

I wholeheartedly recommend that the parents oversee the kids in shifts, two-hours on, two hours off. The parent who is “on” with the kids is in the room with them, overseeing their activities or schoolwork, while working on their own interruptible work — answering emails, filling out forms, whatever. This is important because if the kids need help or start squabbling, you can step in. The parent who is “off” has two hours of doing work on their own. During that time, they should prioritize deep thinking work: conference calls, proposal writing — things that demand your full attention.

Will this system always work? No. Sometimes you’ll have a can’t-miss conference call during your shift. But it’s a great starting point.

Daily Show Correspondent Roy Wood Jr.

Roy Wood Jr. is the man for this moment. The Daily Show correspondent and stand-up comedian is at his best when he’s reminding people that their feelings are bizarre, illogical, irrelevant, insane, and, for the most part, shared by millions. Stuck in his Harlem apartment struggling to find a punch line in his 3-year-old son’s bathwater, Roy Wood Jr. feels like we do — crazy. But he’s working to make sense of it all, to find the humor in the humorless and insights in the chaos. A joke can make us feel just a little bit better. That’s something.

You’re still performing. You’re still doing a job and lighting up Twitter. But you’re also under lockdown. Where are you at right now both in a physical sense and psychologically?

We’re at home in Harlem. Everything’s comfortable, man. I’m just trying to keep my sanity. You know, coronavirus has a way of making you realize, Oh, it’s important to be away from your family every now and then. As humans, we need alone time. It’s cool to be around the kid, but it’s tough balancing my work with his play because the schedules don’t line up. Still, you want to engage so he doesn’t regress intellectually. But I don’t think my kid comprehends it yet. Kids just don’t live in our spacetime. I don’t think there’s anything bad about spending all this time with your child. My job is to prepare him for the world. This is spring training. The game is outside.

You’re playing that game right now. How’s it going on the work front? Are these hard times to find a joke?

Work is tough. A lot of this boils down to the fact that I just need stillness as a comedian and writer. I need a different set of psychological circumstances to create satire. The Daily Show has the office. You don’t find solace in here, but I’ve found jokes that work in that space and place. But not in this. When it comes to writing material and stand-up, there’s no other way than a quiet, still home. Everyone has to be asleep. I cannot write. I can’t do it and I’ve tried. It’s the way I’ve always written.

I liken quarantine to a great date that’s just lasted too long. But humor breaks tension. It’s the thing that breaks the ice and gets things back on track. As terrible as these times are, it’s 100 percent important. And if you’re not a funny person, put on a funny movie. When all else fails, people talk about themselves and I think that you’ll find some common ground.

Ski Base Jumper Matthias Giraud

Matthias Giraud is one of the world’s leading experts on personal risk. As a professional BASE jumper, ski mountaineer, and ski-BASE jumper who has jumped the renowned Alps trilogy — Eiger, Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc — his job is primarily staying alive. He does so by managing risk — aggressively.

Considering life and death is nothing new for you. You throw yourself off cliffs for a living. How is your calculus changing right now?

The difference in the risk of this moment is the meaning of it. What is the meaning of the risk we take? The reason I jump off a cliff is that it is meaningful for me. It’s something to dedicate my life to. A disease, however, is not fulfilling or meaningful. Right now I’m not taking risks. I’m not ski-BASE jumping because if I crash it’s a huge hindrance for the medical establishment.

You’re so practical when it comes to these things. It’s interesting to hear someone talk about existential threats in practical terms.

I had this conversation with a friend yesterday. We’re talking about his parents, who are near the age of my parents, 81 and 74. And he said, ‘You know I don’t want to lose my parents, but they’ve had a good life and they’re fulfilled. I would be able to accept it because death is coming for all of us.’ It’s foolish to not think about our expiration date. We have to think that this shit is going to end. How do we live intentionally in the meantime? The more you live intentionally the more you discover aspects of this existence.

This is an incredible time of awareness and immersion. The more fucked-up something is, the more clarity you get out of it. It’s a necessary moment. The clarity is so hard to achieve. There’s a reason I jump off cliffs. It’s force-fed clarity. Half the work is done for us. It’s a huge opportunity. It’s exposing the cracks in everything — our lives, our economy, our leaders. While it’s a terrible situation, it’s an opportunity to expose all the cracks so we can move on and build a stronger foundation.

Film Director John Chu

John Chu has one of the best stories in Hollywood. The son of restaurant-owners from Northern California, Chu saw his career explode after his film Crazy Rich Asians became an unexpected blockbuster. Now in the process of finishing the Lin Manuel Miranda joint In the Heights, Chu is locked down in Los Angeles, enjoying some time with his two young kids.

Your family has operated Chef Chu’s, a Chinese restaurant south of San Francisco, for 50 years so you were born in California and raised here. Do you feel that you’re being treated differently now, with all this talk of a “Chinese virus?”

It’s definitely an issue in Los Angeles and in New York. I feel so disappointed that we’re in a time when we should be coming together and we have a language that puts anyone in danger. It’s disappointing. I know friends who have been harassed. I feel sad that instead of being united, it affects real human beings. Our community is strong and tough. We’ve been dealing with this for many years. There’s so much fear and yet we should fear this virus. I mean, it’s killing people.

You’ve had a crazy few years. You’ve been out of the house a lot and busy. Being home and seeing your wife do her thing, what have you learned about her and her day-to-day specifically?

I admire my wife’s consistency. I knew she had all that love in her but witnessing that and knowing how hard that is, is on a whole different level. A couple of months ago, I wanted her to read the trades and understand the entertainment business and the gossip so we could talk about it at night. She told me, ‘When would I do that, Jon?’ Now, I fully understand. Who has the time?

Rolling Stone Editor-in-Chief Jason Fine

Jason Fine isn’t just another music guy. He’s the king of the music guys. As the Editor-in-Chief of Rolling Stone, he’s one of the most influential men in the music industry — one of America’s preeminent listeners. He’s also a dad and the creator of “In My Room,” the Instagram video series RS debuted after the lockdown, which has already featured Brian Wilson, Marcus King, Steve Earle, John Fogerty, and Angelique Kidjo. For Fine, music represents a path to normalcy and joy. No wonder he’s turned to his record player for support.

You’re stuck at home. I assume you’re listening to a lot of music. What’s been on repeat of late?

I’ve been listening to music a lot. I’ve been playing vinyl records at home, which has been fun. When I was in the city and this was all sort of settling in, I found I was listening to a lot of dystopic New York City music — Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem, Velvet Underground. Now I’m gravitating a lot to records that have openness and spaciousness that feel wide open. There are these John Coltrane recordings — an extension of Impressions — that have this incredible expansiveness. Then there’s Tame Impala, Yo La Tengo, Spoon, Sonic Youth.

Beyond music, you’re obviously a very, very serious reader. What are you reading to your kid? Are you re-reading kid’s books or trying to get him interested in the stuff that inspires you?

We’re reading The Snow Leopard by the brilliant writer and Buddhist philosopher Peter Matthiessen. The other day we got to this part where Matthiessen is on the journey to see the snow leopards and they’re around him and he’s aware of their presence — and he realizes it’s enough. He doesn’t need the snow leopards because they’ve seen him. He was really into it. He got into the meditative quality of the thing. It was really cool.

Stress and Family Expert Dr. Susan Mecca

Dr. Susan Mecca’s son was diagnosed with cancer at the same time her husband was paralyzed by a neurological condition. How did the career psychiatrist respond? By getting honest and leaning into her sense of loss, which deepened after her husband passed away. The author of The Gift of Crisis: Finding Your Best Self in the Worst of Times is now an expert on coping with the mourning and anticipatory grief in real-time. (And the mother of a healthy teenager.)

The thing about crisis is that it’s hard not to get lost in the details of the thing. How do you keep your head on a swivel when literally everything is becoming an emotional trigger?

If you’re someone who can look at numerous news stories and data and put it into an appropriate place and not let it impact your mood, then you don’t need to limit it. If, on the other hand, you find yourself, after reading it, more stressed out, more panicky, more irritable, more whatever — which I’m guessing is the large majority — then you need to limit it.

A lot of parents are likely doing that, but maintaining that strategy — really committing to it over time — is really tricky. How do you recommend staying on course?

Planes don’t fly in a straight line. They’re always changing course. So as a parent you’re always going to be readjusting. But if you don’t know your course, you don’t know what you’re readjusting to.

Think about how can you get across that we as a family can do this? Well, we can think about our community. We can think about our friends. We can think about our grandparents. One of the big things you learn in adulthood is that you have responsibility for your mood and you can choose how you’re going to show up regardless of how everyone else shows up.

Endurance Rower Bryce Carlson

Bryce Carlson knows a thing or two about being locked up and alone without a life raft. For 38 days in 2018, the adventurer (and biology teacher) rowed his 20-foot dinghy (named “Lucille”) across the Atlantic Ocean. He fought through storms, broken desalinators, and sea life, but it’s anxiety that wore on him most. Here’s how he’s coping with the coronavirus moment.

You’ve been alone — really, really alone — before. What should people who feel isolated do to cope?

We can endure a lot when we feel safe, happy, and in control. So, I think it’s important to … put together a plan for yourself. Focus on your plan and on what you can control. Once you’ve gained control, I think it’s valuable to surround yourself by the sights, sounds, and people that inspire you and make you happy.

It’s interesting that you conflate practical considerations with emotional considerations. Do you see those things as entwined?

I had a plan and schedule for each day of my North Atlantic row. From time to time, weather conditions would necessitate a change to that plan, but I would quickly evaluate the new conditions or limitations, put together a new plan and then focus on the plan, not on the variables I couldn’t control. Once I had a plan in place, I listened to a lot of happy music — golden oldies from the 1950s and 1960s, hits from the 1980s, Disney movie soundtracks, and electronic dance music. I also stayed connected with some friends and family throughout the trip. My satellite phone allowed unlimited text messages, and I would routinely reach out when I wanted to talk.

Pediatric Psychologist Dr. Daniel Lewin

Pediatric psychologist Dr. Daniel Lewin, who serves as the Associate Director of Pediatric Sleep Medicine at Children’s National Hospital, an expert on getting children to chill the hell out. He’s a practical guy replies to existential inquiries in simple terms — a product of his practice and being a practiced parent.

There’s been a sort of bank run on “comfort items” like teddy bears during the coronavirus crisis. Do you see value in that.

Children have less capacity in some cases to express their fears than adults. Transitional objects are wonderful ways for children to express them.

How can parents help kids use those objects productively. They want to give the kid a bear, but what should they say when they do so?

‘Here’s something for you to take care of just like I take care of you.’

So the parent is asking for empathy in the form of action? Makes sense. Any way to ensure that works?

Say, ‘We’re going through a difficult time right now. How do you want to help your bear understand what to do?’

Talkspace CMO Neil Leibowitz

The virtual therapy company Talkspace is one of a handful of start-ups that has been growing rapidly as other businesses consolidate in a tough market. Neil Leibowitz, the psychologist who serves as the company’s Chief Medical Officer, sees the moment as an opportunity to be an evangelist for therapy. People could use a bit of help right now and he wants to present people with easy ways to find it.

Talkspace is uniquely positioned to grow during this crisis and you’re offering specific programs to ensure that happens. What’s the program that you’re recommending to first-time users coming to your platform because of the coronavirus pandemic?

Therapists can do what is a brief two-to-three-week program to help people deal with the anxiety related to the virus. It’s a structured treatment that has its roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which may not be common to most people but which is really helpful for dealing with a lot of the stress. It incorporates a lot of techniques such as deep breathing and stress reduction that are more concrete and can help them adjust to the anxiety. The benefit is that can work pretty quickly and decrease someone’s stress to a level where they can focus on other problems that might have arisen and makes the much more manageable.

Lots of folks want to try therapy. Fewer do. How can people overcome the barrier to entry?

Go in with an open mind. A lot of people are seeking treatment for the first time. That can be intimidating. They’re wondering What do I say? What do I do? How do I communicate? What do I tell someone? There is no wrong answer. It’s more about being willing to open up. Especially for men, this is a place where they can be vulnerable. The value of seeking therapy is that it allows you to let your guard down in a space that’s safe confidential, and comfortable.