Welcome to Homebodies. This series of newsletters began on March 17, just as the first wave of COVID-19 was spreading through New York City, where Fatherly’s offices are located. Our intention with the ensuing newsletters — which came out every weekday for the next two months — was to provide parents with consistently up-to-date medical perspectives, activity ideas, and a wide variety of coping strategies.
We knew it was a remarkably difficult time to be a parent. It still is. But throughout this time, men and women across the country have risen to the challenge. That’s why every day we put together a collection of expert advice and voices from an unprecedented time for people everywhere. Looking back, Homebodies is something of a time capsule, a window into the start of time whose only defining feature was cognitive dissonance. Homebodies can be seen in this light as a project that is both absurd and overly serious; monotonous and occasionally profound; often hopeless and yet, ultimately, inspiring.
Welcome to the first edition of Homebodies.
Every crisis serves to remind us that there is a blessed community and a hateful society. The former is larger, consisting of those willing to put their neighbors, friends and family first, but the latter, a collection of profiteers, naysayers, and posturing tough guys, is not inconsiderable. We all face a choice and make that choice clear through our actions. If times like these try men’s souls, they also lay them bare. It can be a thrilling exposure for those determined to do good.
The attention economy has been upended this week. Kids were handed iPads and parents’ computers as normalcy crumbled and the internet strained under the weight of every Netflix subscriber on the planet looking for something comforting to watch. Facetime is the new hug and Zoom is the new meet-up. Still, attention is something we possess and control. This weekend, parents (and working parents especially) finally have an opportunity to really focus on their kids — to register how they’re feeling. With all those devices buzzing, it’s never been harder to be attentive to children and it has also never been more important.
Parents are essential personnel. Anyone who doubted that going into last week doesn’t any longer. Finding ways to provide comfort during periods of change is big work — pressing work. It is also time-consuming work, a fact millions of American fathers and mothers now working from home are staring down going into what is, for many if not most, the second week of working at home. The goal for many this week will be to create robust systems that limit the degree to which the work of work interferes with the work of caregiving and vice versa. All of these systems will fail to one degree or another because this is an impossible situation. Here’s hoping parents will be forgiving of themselves in the face of the untenable — and that their managers will as well.
Sometimes a disease is little more than a symptom. Take “Cabin Fever.” The phrase originally referred to typhus, which kept pioneers bed-bound, but mutated over time, becoming a descriptor of the anxious energy produced by captive humans. There’s no cure other than release. With coronavirus shutdowns for non-essential personnel proliferating (and rightly so), that kind of freedom doesn’t seem to be looming. So what’s a parent to do? Hell, what’s a kid to do? We’d recommend push-ups and sit-ups. Exercise isn’t an antidote, but it’s a start.
Fred Rogers had a pre-existing condition — what we might, in the COVID-19 era, call a co-morbidity. He was profoundly asthmatic. This often left him homebound, stuck inside during the summer months when the kids in Latrobe, Pennsylvania were out splashing in the Loyalhanna Creek. What did Fred do? He sat alone. And the thing about sitting alone is that it’s a skill. You can get very, very good at it if you practice. Fred practiced and got so good at being still that his personal stillness provided generations of children with a sense of calm.
What can we do when we can’t do anything else? Nothing. We can sit alone. We can show our kids how.
On this day 10 years ago, President Barack Obama announced that astronauts would orbit Mars by the year 2035. The president was at Kennedy Space Center announcing some $6 billion in funding for space projects. Whether or not that’s plausible now is unclear. President Trump has since created the Space Force, which is basically Starfleet for the chronically insecure, and reshuffled priorities. What is clear is that it’s nice to think ahead and to imagine a future full of marvels. Right now, our imaginations have been kneecapped by circumstance and it is reasonable to grieve for the shared project of world-building. Still, the age of grand projects isn’t over. We just need to recolonize Earth before we make it to Mars.
It’s Friday. What do you have planned this weekend? Let me guess…. More of the same? Maybe a bit of yard work? Maybe a phone call with some college friends? Maybe not. It’s hard to even remember. The days, spent on the same pieces of furniture and in passage between the same rooms run into each other. Friday becomes Tuesday becomes Fruesday becomes Thurturday becomes meaningless as sleep gets harder to come by. The only way to fix the problem? Make a plan. What are you doing this weekend? Maybe you’re going to climb a tree on Sunday. It’s something to do.
Ursula K. Le Guin got it right in The Left Hand of Darkness: “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.” The thing is, not searching for answers doesn’t come naturally. When will it end? Will it be normal ever again? Is there a way out? We demand to know, but don’t. Epidemiologists don’t know. Policymakers don’t know (and, in some cases, don’t seem to care). Healthcare workers don’t know. More to the point, these questions can distract from other, bigger questions that need to be answered before we can figure out what to do next. Here’s one: What are you grateful for? Answer that one and you’re starting to have clear priorities.
When all the big things are wrong, the little things can save us. Take family dinner. Studies have shown that kids that sit down at the table more with their family have higher self-esteem, lower rates of obesity, lower risk of depression and substance abuse, and perform better academically. We’re all stuck at home and still it’s easy to not find the time to sit down and talk, to turn off the television and ask how their day went, to look up from your plate and see the person. It’s the best you can do, and it’s pretty damn good.
Denial can be a useful defense mechanism. It gets us through crises, helps us push past limits, and delay the hard reflection that comes with ignoring the full gravity of a reality. But after weeks and months, denial stops being useful and becomes a cancer on our truth. We must take care of ourselves but also plan for the kids, we have to acknowledge those in more need than us and give to them, and to see our own suffering and accept it. It’s there, and it’s ok.
Monotony can be soothing. Athletes know this. What is the hallowed “flow state” but an embrace of monotonous motions, turning off your brain and letting your body just do the thing — back and forth on the court, round and round on the track, up and down on the weight rack? So how do you turn dread and discomfort into monotony into gains? Polar explorer Eric Larsen, a man who knows monotony better than any other living person, puts it this way: “The best way to be successful is to not have another choice.” Of course, there are always choices. Right now, for many of us, they might be summed up as “keep going,” or “despair.” There’s comfort in knowing which is the right choice and taking the steps, one after another, to get to the end of that goal.
You can sing to bond, to cope, to express sorrow and hope, to celebrate and to mourn, or simply to pass the time. Singing is a universal expression of emotion, and the many songs we sing capture the range of human existence. As we sit locked in ourselves, in our home with worries and fears, a simple song can help us break free. We sing to children at night to calm them, but in doing so we also calm ourselves. We could all use that right now.
Let’s be honest, this Mother’s Day is set up for failure. There’s nowhere to go. Nothing to do. Even getting flowers is a great big pain in the ass. Also, what parent wants to spend more time with their families right now? That’s impossible. So, yes, this Mother’s Day might suck. But it definitely doesn’t have to — and probably won’t, in hindsight. After all, this is a Mother’s Day you’ll without question remember forever. “Remember that Mother’s Day in the pandemic? We were all in the house, sharing a simple meal, with nowhere to go and nothing to do but be together.” If we’re being honest, that is a pretty damn good way to celebrate the mother of your children. Appreciation can still be expressed. So forget the festivities, reminisce about the good times, laugh, and give thanks for mom.
In 1967, Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, put together a grassroots campaign to pressure NASA to show us a photo of Earth from space. They acquiesced, and the blue-green marble printed on the first issue of Brand’s now-infamous magazine has been credited with launching everything from the modern environmental movement to the race to the moon. It wasn’t the image that changed the world, but the shift in perspective it caused. We might be separated by walls in quarantine, but we’re all here floating in space. The pandemic has reminded us that we’re all in this together, that life is fragile and the future unknown. It’s full of dangers, sure, but also possibilities. Locked in our homes, it’s time to look out and up to the stars to seek out a different point of view.