If Satan himself wanted to micromanage a combination of factors most likely to screw up the average dad, then he’d cook up something like this. Whisked together with masterful savagery, Covid-19 is the perfect mix of ingredients to mess with your head. Here’s how it works:
1. Inflict serious financial pain / career uncertainty to provoke a mounting sense of visceral dread.
2. Undermine daily morale by cutting off support networks in the form of physical access to family and friends.
3. Remove all sport from the equation (no, the Belarus Premier League doesn’t count), thereby depriving you of the mental-health panacea it turns out we all relied upon for much-needed escapism.
4. Throw in the impossibility of working from home with the childcare / home-schooling shit-storm.
5. Sprinkle with relationship tension from overly close confinement.
6. Marinade in way too much booze.
7. Simmer in steady-state anxiety for an indefinite period.
Right now, in other words, fatherhood is tougher than ever. Yet amid the panic and gloom, I have found an unexpected silver lining – coronavirus has made me reconnect with my mates. Let me explain…
Every night, my wife inevitably ends up chattering away on the phone. Sometimes she’s talking to her mum or her sister. Sometimes it’s old mates or former colleagues. But whoever is on the other end of the line, she rabbits away with gusto and ease. She laughs over shared intimacies and empathises over nagging concerns. There is hushed gossip and the odd disconcertingly filthy cackle (seriously, I don’t want to know).
The upshot of these daily bulletins is that she knows what’s really happening to her favourite people. From minor parenting problems to the odd marital apocalypse, she positions herself on the frontline of her loved ones’ lives.
Unfortunately, I don’t use the phone like this at all.
For me, speaking on the phone is a humdrum administrative business. I basically use it to handle logistics, organise meetings and deal with work. Since early in my 20s, the phone somehow became functional rather than fun. My use of text and WhatsApp is less po-faced but not a whole lot more meaningful. When it comes to my friends, the reality is that our remote communication largely revolves around football and half-arsed banter.
None of this really mattered when I actually had a social life. Sure, I might not have chatted to my friends much over the phone. But that wasn’t important when I was regularly catching up with them in person.
But as your work commitments begin to ratchet up, those meet-ups became more fitful for most guys. Male social networks are proven to fall off sharply after the age of 30 and frankly, this isn’t that surprising. Your 30s are a time when a lot of men are shinning up the career ladder, settling down and firing out offspring. In other words, you’re pretty bloody busy. Staggering between deadlines and domestic duties, you can’t always spare the time to catch up with mates for a surf or a schooner. We still managed the odd night out here and there. Until fatherhood happened, more or less, en masse.
Having kids decimated my social circle as it does to many dads. Suddenly, everyone is more time-poor than ever, trying to contend with work pressures, scary mortgages, small kids and not enough sleep. Nights out become a rarity that had to be negotiated far in advance. That weekly beer with old mates is something that now only happens every few months (if that).
Motherhood had an even greater disruptive impact on my wife’s life. Except that socially she handled it much better. She continued to chat away to her friends on the phone – snickering and yakking away. And the result of that is she’s done a far better job at preserving those vital connections.
A couple of times, I tried to copy her example and just call a mate for a chat. But we weren’t really match-fit in this regard – it’s just not the way our friendship was built. While it felt good to touch base, conversation was stilted – I sensed my friend was waiting for me to get to the point. Except this time, there wasn’t really a point as such (“Just ringing for a quick chat,” I explained a little too breezily.) In retrospect, I now realise that, for whatever muddle-headed reason, I still believed that I needed a tangible reason to call.
But now we’re all suddenly marooned in lockdown. Once evening rolls in and the kids are finally asleep (thank fuck), no one has anything much to do except watch Netflix and drink too much wine. Backed into a corner, I’ve got back in touch with old mates. I’ve had FaceTime drinks with people from all sorts of nooks and crannies from my past. Childhood friends, former neighbours, a couple we met in a playground after our sons connected on a giant jumping bean…
And FaceTime drinks has become that fantasy local pub that I never had. It’s filled with my dearest friends, stocked with my favourite beer and, better still, it doesn’t require me to shell out for a babysitter.
Part of me wishes that I’d stumbled upon this idea back when I first became a dad. Back when life narrowed into that slightly oppressive duality of work and family for months and months on end. Truth be told, I neglected my mates back then. But I also missed them, too.
Covid-19 is, of course, a worldwide disaster that’s provoking human tragedy and financial doom on a mind-boggling scale. But every crisis brings opportunity. Your pub is now your living room – ring your mates and crack open a beer.