Perhaps it’s the strange effect of being forced to slow down, to spend all of one’s time outside work 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 mom with a garden, a shelf full of Dr. Seuss stories, and sudden access to Disney’s entire streaming 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 California, a global epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic, trying to juggle my day job with looking after a one year old and a seven month 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 doggy play-acting and feeding times. It also means there is almost no time alone. One couple I know told me how much they missed there 10-minute wait at the bus stop, 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 or where should we travel for the holidays, but family barbecues and outdoor hikes. 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 movie theater. My life today is like one long bed time 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, and constant cartoons like Bubble Guppies and Super Wings. 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 parents and I have been drawing up lists of old films to relive through his eyes: Aristocats, Spirit, The Land Before Time, The Rescuers, Jungle Book (the original, of course), The Brave Little Toaster, Meet the Robinson's, Cheaper by the Dozen, A Goofy Movie, and The Rookie have already been crossed 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.
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 book I ordered on Amazon, let alone write one. Having boys also gives my parents 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 mom and I bickering more, cooped up with no obvious time or space to just be alone.
Each morning now, I take my boys for a walk around the neighborhood for our daily exercise. We have developed something of a routine—we walk to the nearest store and get a snack. One morning, I realized that—at least in that moment—my life was nicer in lockdown than out of it. Without the lockdown I would likely be nose-to-armpit going grocery shopping, en route to a job-site meeting or city briefing. Instead, I now play with cars and can say yes when my oldest asks if its "outside" day. Every day is cartoon and playground 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, from grandparents or the coach we are currently unable to use. My son has just been given a place on a soccer team, 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 bar. Above all, I wish I could see my husband. 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.