"There has been a lot of screaming." A discussion with a full-time pandemic dad

Pandemic parenting has become a women's narrative; to fix the broken conditions of care giving, we need stories and solidarity from men, too. #Laborday

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Let’s hope for his sake that this guy doesn’t really have three kids under the age of three, and assume the stock photo editor doesn’t understand spacing between children.

There has been a lot of excellent coverage on how the pandemic has impacted female parents. But as we go into yet another nail-biter/gut punch of a school year, and parents and children continue to get the butt end of the pandemic, I have been wondering: where are the dads?

As I noted in this piece that I wrote last spring, nearly every voice of anguish we’ve heard from pandemic parents has been the voice of a woman, it seems. This is perhaps most notable in the New York Times’ “Primal Scream” coverage that offered a call-in hotline for struggling parents, in which every voice in the reporting was an agonized woman. Every. Voice.

I appreciate the emphasis on how the pandemic has created a crisis for female parents, and led to overdue conversations about the long-standing lack of family support in this country. But history has shown that when something is cast as a “women’s problem” it tends to get less traction, if not just thrown under the bus. I’m reminded that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first landmark case as a lawyer rested on a strategy that she used several times — elevating issues that impact women by showing how they also impact men. 

So this week, we present the first of two illuminating interviews with dads who were the full-time or primary caregivers during the pandemic. The two have very different financial and geographic circumstances, and one has two children, while the other has eight(!). But both of them spoke to how the lack of family support like childcare and healthcare had impacted their lives, even before the pandemic.

This week I talk to Jason Wood in Rhode Island, father of five-year-old Connor and three-year-old Ben, about becoming the primary caregiver of his young children during the pandemic, what the pandemic has cost his career (quite a lot), the “parent penalty” for professionals, and also, just how freaking tiring it is to care for little kids all day. 

Talking to Jason made me think, again, about how modern parenting in the U.S. often requires one parent to “give,” as he puts it. Most often it’s the woman, due to factors like socialization and the pay gap (in Jason’s family as in many, the one who made the most money was the one who remained working and was supported by the other partner). As the parent who had to “give” during the pandemic, he expresses a lot of the same frustrations that women in his position have, and reveals how hard it often is, without support, for both parents to get what they want.

He also shares what kind of policies and solutions would make a difference for him and his family. Many thanks to Jason for generously sharing his story and his time with us.

One of my questions is whether you’ve had a primal scream. Have you heard the New York Times reporting on pandemic parenting? They had a hotline that parents could call into, and a lot of it was just women screaming into the phone.  

There was a lot of screaming here, but I didn't use that service particularly. 

I mean, have you felt at times like you could call a hotline and scream into the phone? 

I didn't know that was an option. And we don't have any family here or anything. It's just us, our family lives in faraway places. So we didn't have that support, either. We just screamed at each other (laughs). 

Take us back to March 2020 and tell us how it was decided that you would become the full-time caregiver for your two kids. 

My wife is an attorney for a healthcare company here, and they run the hospital system. I am non-tenured research track faculty at Brown. I study the biology of aging, so it's like genetics and molecular biology. I use fruit flies, and make genetic manipulations and see how it affects how long they live.

So my wife and I both work full time. But then when things went into lockdown and the daycare closed, it’s like what do you do? My wife makes more money than I do. And her working for a healthcare company, they had a lot of COVID-related work. She was super busy. I was the more flexible one, I guess, which is part of the reason I've stayed in my job for so long.

I think especially with little kids, it's very hard to have two people who both have inflexible, demanding jobs. Somebody has to give. So I'm always the one that takes off when they get sick or anything like that. So it was kind of natural that in the pandemic I stayed home, and I took care of the kids while she worked.

We see all these images of women who are in their closet with their laptop on their lap trying to work, and then there's a toddler hanging from the closet racks, and I imagine that you can probably relate to that. What has your work day looked like while you're trying to do full-time child care plus your job?

I mean, when it comes down to it, little kids are kind of annoying, right? I mean, they're very cute as well. But you get small stretches of time when you could do something, but it never lasts more than like, five or 10 minutes. So that's really incompatible with, you know, getting any real work done.

You can do quick tasks or something. But if you need to sit down and concentrate on something for an hour, it's just not feasible. So, as far as my work, I pretty much just stopped. I couldn't really get anything done. I did some data analysis usually, like in the evenings right after the kids were in bed.

But to be honest, I didn't have a lot of energy for it, because taking care of kids all day long is pretty exhausting. Not intellectually exhausting, but just like physically exhausting.

I think a lot of women would feel validated to hear another male parent acknowledge how physically exhausting it is to care for young children all day, when it’s often treated like something that’s just fun and easy and not “real work,” and maternity leave is treated like a “vacation.” 

My partner and I were in a similar situation, both of us working full time with a two-year old at home. To be honest, I feel like we never really adjusted to it. Our daycare reopened and we felt safe enough to go back--but we just kind of struggled until daycare reopened. 

Yes, that’s fair. That's pretty much how I felt too. It just kind of became more normal, I guess.

And what were the costs for you, when you had to stop working to care for your kids? 

What happened for me was I got a tenure-track job interview in March of 2020, which I've been trying to get for years. So I finally got a final round interview. I had been invited to talk at an international meeting over the summer in Austria, which I was super excited about. And I felt like I started to get some traction finally with my career and some opportunities, and then it just killed all that. The job search got cancelled. The conference got cancelled. So it really killed any momentum I was building for years. So yeah, professionally, it was definitely a downer.

And then the fact that I couldn't really get any research work done due to a combination of lack of childcare and COVID lab closures, for a whole year. That took the wind out of my sails, and pretty much killed my hopes for getting the job I’ve worked toward for years and years. So that was the cost for me.

That’s really a tough one, I’m sorry to hear that. I know that tenure-track positions are very hard to come by and it sounds like this is the end of the road for you in terms of an academic career. That’s a really big disappointment. 

It was. And I have to say, I was still very lucky because I continued to get paid because I’m paid on a research grant [that was secured before COVID]. That’s incredibly fortunate. But it’s hard when you're trying to manage grant cycles and you give up a year without any progress to show for it. It’s not like the grant gets put on pause; I have to send a report in every quarter. So when there’s nothing to show you just tell them COVID, and everyone kind of understands. But it doesn't extend the time of the grant, that opportunity is gone, and it’s not a good look for securing the next one.

So now that your daycare has also reopened, do you feel like you’re able to catch up, professionally, after losing a year or more? 

So, let me say one thing that’s on my mind. A lot of scientists have used the time, during lockdown, to write papers. Scientists without children at home were like “Oh, I’ve had all this teaching and lab stuff I’ve had to do, but now I have this time. So I'm going to churn out a bunch of papers and analyze all this data now.” I've talked to a lot of my scientist friends with kids, and we've all noticed this. 

The pandemic ended up, again, being kind of a penalty for people with children. We had to watch our kids, and didn’t have that opportunity. People who did not have child care obligations, whether because their kids are older like senior faculty, or they don’t have kids, they were able to still be fairly productive. They haven’t fallen behind in the same way that a lot of us with kids did. 

That's an interesting point about the “pandemic parents penalty.” A lot of us have those friends who have done renovation projects during the pandemic, applied for new jobs, trained for marathons, and some have produced more work than they ever have. Not to say that the pandemic hasn’t been hard on everyone, but in terms of productivity, it's like we had two different COVID lives. 

Yeah, some people [in my field] actually started working on COVID research. And then you could churn out a whole bunch of papers quickly, because people weren't being too picky about what was published. So it was a boon for some people in my field, in a way.

Some women have expressed frustration that their spouses also had different COVID experiences, too. Did you feel that, while your wife got to lock herself into a quiet room and work? 

She and I were mostly fine. Sometimes I wished I could have a break, but she pitched in a lot with cooking and helping. She wished the house was cleaner. But it was just like, a lot of yelling at the kids. Kind of taking out frustrations on them, because they were kind of the source of it, I guess. 

I mean, that's part of the thing about kids is it's also relentless, right? They're always there. They always need--it never ends. There are just constant tantrums about stupid stuff. And no one will ever clean anything up. So the house is a total mess, you're constantly trying to pick stuff up. It’s just kind of exhausting. 

I’m making this sound like I hate my children, which is not at all true. 

No, absolutely not. Actually the way you're speaking about this sounds much more mild than most women. You don't need to hold back. It’s actually kind of reassuring to know that there’s also “dad guilt” amidst the ocean of mom guilt that’s happening right now. 

A lot of women have expressed that during COVID, they've come to realize that the government and American society really don’t care about parents and kids, who have taken the brunt of this in many ways. They feel frustration and heartbreak about that. Do you feel that way? What would help you, as a parent? 

Daycare is very expensive. It’s our largest expense--it’s more than the mortgage. And at the same time the people who do it get paid very poorly. If there were more government or societal support for subsidizing child care for young kids, that would make it way easier for people to have productive jobs and not have to deal with a lot of stresses that were exacerbated by COVID. 

Time flexibility. If my kid is sick and I can’t arrange alternate care, I have to stay home for two weeks. I’d like a de-emphasis on face time and being in an office, and more on the work getting done and done well. 

Finally is the cost of housing. I have taken a new job now that I’m starting soon at a pharmaceutical company, so I’m leaving academia. It’s a higher-paying job, but it also means that I will be less flexible and have a long commute, which has consequences for our family life. But housing is through the roof, and we live in an area with bad schools, and we would like to have more than one bathroom as a family of four, so the higher-paying job helps pay for housing. 

I do think those kinds of trade-offs make us more aware of the cost of the decision to have kids in this country. Somebody has to make sacrifices somewhere, unless you are very, very wealthy.  

Yes, and we have been very lucky, and have it better than many families I know. And still it feels hard to pull off sometimes, and I wonder how other families do it.

And COVID meant even more sacrifice. It’s been difficult in the pandemic. But in the end, I was grateful for the time we had together. 

See, now, that’s interesting, because a lot of dads say that they “enjoyed the time together,” and mom’s don’t. At least in the reporting they don’t. Do you have any idea why that might be? 

Huh, really? It was miserable, it was horrible, but it was together time, which is hard to come by. We had a lot of fun together once we were able to start getting outside more. 

And it led to an overdue career shift for me. Without kids, I would have made this shift five years ago, at least. 

And this is interesting because what you’re describing is what a lot of women feel: they’ve had career setbacks, made compromises over the years, they would have been five years further ahead with childcare or without kids. Not just with COVID, but with parenting in general. You don’t sound that frustrated. You sound like, “that was a choice I made, and I feel okay with that choice.” 

I’m not overly resentful about it. Things have not gone the way I would have anticipated when I was 20. But I have a lot of great things about my life. I love my kids. The work thing has been difficult, but it’s worked out. 

I wonder if women feel more pressure to have it all, like they are always failing in some way. You seem more at peace, and maybe it’s gender or personality but it’s interesting for me to note that. 

I have felt like my career has “failed” in a lot of ways, and it definitely hasn’t worked out the way I want. Not just because of kids, but because academia is a broken system and it takes a lot of us a long time to realize that. You end up shifting a lot of blame internally and asking what did I do wrong, and a lot of that is just the system.

I think that’s exactly how a lot of women feel about motherhood--they were told it would be one way, and it’s not, and when it’s not working out as planned they feel like it’s their fault. And this is exacerbated by pressure to be a perfect mom, and judgment if they are not. 

Yeah, Absolutely there’s a total double standard. I show up at the park and I’m father of the year. That’s a real thing.

I wonder if it allows you to enjoy it more? Like hey, I’m doing a great job. I'm pretty good at this. Where women feel like, I’m not doing this well enough. As you said, your wife felt more uptight about keeping the house clean and being a certain way and you feel less anxiety about that. 

And again, this is the system that’s the problem. I think women do feel a lot more pressure about that stuff than men do. 

Do you think that allows you to enjoy being a dad, or even the person who takes care of the household, or at least feel less pressure about it?

I think I do feel less pressure about it. I don’t know if that’s because I'm a man or because I'm messier in general. 

But I tend to not worry about that stuff as much, and make sure everyone is surviving and having a good time.

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