What has this meant for families? And how can we keep it going?

A father spending time with his daughter by looking at a tablet together Share on Pinterest
Design by Yunuen Bonaparte; Photography by MoMo Productions/Getty Images

“I didn’t realize what I was missing,” Jonathan Morel said.

Morel, a 50-year-old father of three teenagers in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, loves his job: training Marine pilots to fly the new CH-53K King Stallion, a heavy-lift transport helicopter.

In terms of family life, though, there was always a tradeoff. Before the pandemic, Morel’s job was “50 percent working from home and 50 percent traveling.”

All the travel wasn’t easy, but he tried to be present when he was home, helping his 49-year-old wife, Alissa, a stay-at-home mom. He got the kids ready for school and was there for family dinners. And he considered the situation a vast improvement over when he was on active duty with the Marines.

“I’d be in an operational unit and gone for weeks at a time,” he said. “When the children were 3, 4, and 5, I was deployed to Afghanistan, and I was gone for 7 months.”

Then the pandemic hit. Working from home — editing test reports and training materials — was the only option.

“It was hard with three kids in an open floor plan house. I fell in love with noise-canceling headphones,” he said, with a laugh.

The good part was that he was able to help more with housework — “I’ve become really good at multitasking” — and he enjoyed being near his children all day.

“There was just a lot more direct engagement, which I love. We had lunch together, which was crazy, plus all the little bits of time. Five or 10 minutes here and there, and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve connected and bonded more. That was the most rewarding thing.”

Morel was like a lot of dads in wanting to see more of his children. According to a Pew Research study conducted in 2017, most U.S. fathers — 63 percent — said that they didn’t spend enough time with their kids. Then in March 2020, when the pandemic hit and millions lost their jobs or shifted to working from home, they had to.

What has this meant for families? And assuming it’s in everybody’s best interest, how can we keep it going?

Dr. Kyle Pruett is a child psychiatrist and clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who has been studying the effects of fatherhood — both on children and parents — for decades.

“When dads are more involved, it’s a good thing,” he said. “The question has been answered over and over again that it is a good thing.”

With more paternal engagement, children tend to be better problem-solvers and avoid substance misuse.

It’s good for the dads, too. Pruett pointed to the research of his Yale colleague Dr. James Leckman, who found that involved fathers tend to be more empathetic and less prone to violence. Many live longer and even have fewer auto accidents.

“Five or 10 minutes here and there, and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve connected and bonded more. That was the most rewarding thing.” — Jonathan Morel

Pruett sees the uptick in parental engagement as a positive trend, but he doesn’t discount that the pandemic has been hard on families.

“COVID has put enormous pressure on families. The concerns that mental health professionals have is close to unprecedented,” he said.

In fact, in October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement declaring a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.

I’d add that, although we’re talking about fathers in this piece, women have been much more likely to lose their jobs than men during the pandemic. And while men’s share of child care increased, the burden on women has increased dramatically.

Pruett pointed out that it’s been hard for all parents to manage their own anxiety, as well as the “anxiety and sadness of their children, who are missing school and other children.”

I spoke to five fathers across the United States and Canada to get a sense of their situation as the pandemic eases. All expressed, to varying degrees, similar emotions — gratitude for the unanticipated time with their children, along with some lingering anxiety.

I can relate. In March of 2020, my then-9-year-old son was in a New York City public school. When the schools shifted to online learning, my wife and I were grateful for the efforts of teachers, but we now needed to divide our own workdays to ensure that our bright but distractible son was keeping up with his meetings and homework and not playing Roblox all day long.

“The pandemic has (hopefully) allowed my son to see his father as a daily source of support and comfort.”

Juggling our schedules, especially in those pre-vaccine months, was stressful. The bright side is that I’m now more intimately involved in my son’s life than I might have been otherwise. He’s used to having his dad around: preparing meals, helping with homework, taking him for walks and doctor appointments.

The pandemic has (hopefully) allowed my son to see his father as a daily source of support and comfort.

Carlos Castaneda spoke of a similar kind of gratitude. Castaneda, 44, whose children are 12, 10, and 6, lives with his wife Yesenia, 40, in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

When the pandemic hit and school went remote, Castaneda was already working from home, helping influencers monetize their followings. His wife worked full-time in a medical office.

“I was the one making them breakfast, picking them up, helping with assignments,” he said. “My youngest called me ‘Mommydaddy.’”

Their family situation is complicated: Their oldest has ADHD and anxiety, and the two youngest have seizure disorders. But Castaneda was accustomed to making himself available for his children, so the first year of Zoom school was manageable.

Then his younger children’s school shifted to a model with much less teacher involvement, and Castaneda had to be more hands-on with their schooling. “Suddenly I was the teacher and the dad,” he said.

Still, Castaneda remains “grateful for the luxury of being able to spend the last year and a half teaching [his] kids.”

“The best part of it [has been] seeing them grow and learn, seeing the differences in their personality as they get older,” he said. “I want to continue to spend a lot of time with my kids.”

Castaneda feels that the pandemic has strengthened his relationship with his wife, too. He has a better understanding of the housework and child care that he missed when he worked full-time. They’ve gotten better at budgeting and making sure that the family is eating right.

“It’s brought us together,” he said.

“The best part of it [has been] seeing them grow and learn, seeing the differences in their personality as they get older. I want to continue to spend a lot of time with my kids.” — Carlos Castaneda

These feelings of gratitude, (along with some measure of exhaustion), were evinced by fathers quite literally across the continent.

One Canadian father of two, who wishes to remain unnamed, said that while he wouldn’t discount the stresses of the past 2 years, “I definitely wanted to spend more time with the kids, and the pandemic has given me that.”

He added that he’s learned how to create better boundaries for himself between work time and family time so that he can be fully present for his family.

“Kids need your undivided attention,” he said, “and because suddenly we were all home all the time, I had to develop a new skill set.”

Eric Horvath, 37, lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Lyssa, a preschool teacher, and their 2-year-old. Horvath’s job as director of communications for the College of Engineering at Temple University went fully remote at the start of the pandemic and remained so until January of this year.

“Before the pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of time at home together,” he said. “I’m grateful for it. In the moment, a lot of it was stressful. But I’m going to take away mostly positives.”

Like many of us, Horvath is concerned about the current confusion around mask mandates and potential new variants. But things are humming along at home.

“We’re a team,” Horvath said. “Lyssa keeps our son in one piece, while I do most of the cooking.”

Stephen Sosnowski, 40, works in advertising and lives in South Orange, New Jersey, with his 4-year-old twins and his husband, who also prefers to remain unnamed. Sosnowski’s job went remote at the beginning of the pandemic, but now he’s back at the office just a few days a week. Although he missed adult company, he too is grateful for the time with his family.

“When I was commuting to work every day, I didn’t see my kids enough, and I was really conscious of that,” he said. “Now I think I will be connected to these children in a much stronger way. I have a deeper relationship with these guys. My husband and I are the closest people in the world to these kids.”

“Before the pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of time at home together. I’m grateful for it.” — Eric Horvath

It seems likely that Americans have been changed forever by the pandemic, both due to the lingering stress and the changes to our work lives. And yet, despite the exhaustion and uncertainty, every dad I interviewed is grateful for the formative time with their children.

The question is: How we can keep up the increased engagement as we return to “normal”?

Justin Lioi is a licensed clinical social worker whose work focuses on fathers. He shared some tips on how dads can continue connecting with their kids.

Be direct in asking for flexibility with your employer

Lioi believes that men can now be more forthright about wanting more flexibility from their employers.

“Dads have more leverage in the workplace [than before],” he said. While men might once have felt some reluctance, or even shame, around asking for flexibility, now it’s not “crazy or off the table to say, ‘I’d like to work from home,’ or, ‘I need to pick up my child.’”

Technology is a great way to reinforce boundaries

Lioi suggested another way to prioritize fatherhood: with technology.

If you’re putting Zoom meetings or other work obligations on your calendar, put family obligations on there as well to ensure they remain a priority — even if they’re a regular occurrence, like family dinners.

(It may sound obsessive, but it works: I set a reminder to ensure I’m on time to pick up my son from school.)

Keep the communication open

Finally, Lioi recommended checking in regularly with your partner, if you have one.

Couples need to talk about how they feel they’re doing as parents, whether there are ways they might do better, and how they might better support each other. Being clear about your own needs as well as your children’s will help to alleviate stress for everyone.

Pruett suggested that we not underestimate the value of praise, especially with different-sex couples, where, according to his research, paternal engagement is solidified by encouragement from the mother. (Other research suggests that same-sex couples tend to be better at dividing up parenting duties.)

“If she makes it clear that she values the contribution, it’s more likely to survive the pandemic,” Pruett said about a father’s involvement. “If he feels criticized or undermined, his increased contributions are going to be short-lived.”

The pandemic has revealed a number of cracks in American society — child care is only one of many issues.

But there has been at least one happier outcome: Many dads have taken the opportunity to become better fathers and spend more time with their children.

Nobody wants to go through 2020 again. But many fathers do feel like Sosnowski, proclaiming that, “At the end of the day, I do feel lucky.”