Somebody’s Sick In The World: Fatherhood During COVID-19

My daughter fell in love with sticks and rocks during shelter-in-place. This one might've been her favorite (Pendarvis Harshaw)

The seemingly astronomical task of protecting a three year-old girl from germs is actually kind of easy. Protecting her from the rest of the world—that’s a little more difficult. And because the rest of the world has influenced me, the hardest part of all might just be protecting her from me.

As sheltering in place comes to an end, so will this life of home schooling during a pandemic. I couldn’t fit all of the lessons learned during this time period onto a single syllabus. But I can tell you that the overarching theme of this semester was the fact that I’m the one who was in school. Not my three-year-old daughter.

It didn’t start that way.

I tried being a good teacher. I had structure and everything. Breakfast and Sesame Street while I send emails. 10:30am recess meant a walk to a nearby patch of grass to play soccer or Frisbee, or even a jog while she sat in the stroller, periodically yelling for me to pause so she could pick flowers. 2:30pm is nap time, or “just go to your room and close your eyes and be quiet for an hour—please” time. And then a book before bedtime, ideally around 8pm.

Problem was, my structure wasn’t made of steel—more like bamboo.

Between Zoom video meetings one day, we built a whole tent. We’ve become regulars at the dance parties that happen in club “living room.” And those events last way past bedtime.

The other day, I laid my daughter down for her 2:30pm break, and went to my closet to interview Sydney Nycole and Gary Reeves for a Rightnowish podcast episode about father-daughter relationships. I walked away from the Zoom call to realize my daughter had gone number two in the potty, properly wiped, washed her hands and was jumping on my bed. I mean, she didn’t flush the toilet, but I was impressed nonetheless.

She’s taught me that she’s capable of learning fast.

On a run for take-out, we paused for a photo opp
On a run for take-out, we paused for a photo op. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

I told her we couldn’t go on our library trips anymore because there’s a virus out there making people in the world sick. She took it as “somebody is sick in the world,” and that’s what she’s been saying for three months.

And it’s that simple for her. For me it’s much more complex. But I’ve been trying to take notes and process it all.

I can now confirm Doc McStuffins is not a doctor but an engineer—she fixes inanimate objects. Grumpy Bear, of the Care Bear family, once said he likes his “clowns to look like clowns,” and it hit home as I thought about a certain elected official. (That same elected official came to mind when Pocahontas’ father said, “These white men are dangerous.”)

The main character in the cartoon Pinkalicious talks about what she wants to be when she grows up, and it changes every episode. As I sit across the living room writing essays about combating oppression, I whisper, don’t grow up, it’s a trap. You’ll end up like me: with an immovable belly and a beard that brings out more grey hair every time I shave. I feel like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause.

Even with the dad bod and old-man face, I’m learning lessons I should’ve gathered as a child—oftentimes, from a child. Or children’s shows. Or other adults who are also learning from their children.

In listening to the first few episodes of Alicia Garza’s podcast, Lady Don’t Take No, I learned that even high-profile people, like BART Board Director Lateefah Simon and political comedian W. Kamau Bell are also having unique experiences as parents during this time—on top of all the other hats they’re wearing. Glad I’m not alone.

Joe Eskenazi interrupted by son Leo on live television.
Joe Eskenazi interrupted by son Leo on live television. (ABC)

Mission Local reporter Joe Eskenazi taught me how to maintain your cool—even when your child busts through a locked door while you’re on camera doing a live interview. Again, glad I’m not alone.

The greatest parent-to-parent lesson has come from my sister, who recently married a man who has kids of his own. His youngest is a six-year-old with special needs. My sister realized quickly that she couldn’t recreate the classroom setting, and the take-home assignments weren’t working. But she found guidance in simply teaching what she knows: arts, gardening, language and all the other skills she’s gathered through living.

Let your strongpoints be the areas of focus, and through that, other aspects of education will follow.

So that’s what I’ve done. During trips for groceries, my daughter and I spell out the items we put in the grocery cart. I'm not good at math, but I can cook my ass off—so we practice numbers in the kitchen. Not good at doing hair ... so, bless her amazing mother, Tanara, for teaching me the importance of head wraps and hair-bows. Actually, I’m not good at a lot of things, so bless her amazing mother in general.

I’ve failed a lot as a father, ya'll.

I mean, during this shelter in place, there have been some comical failures. Like, that time I thought I could put a fitted sheet on a suspended pull-up bar and create a swing in the doorway of my closet. It worked until the kid’s momentum went askew, causing her head to meet the closet’s doorframe. She laughed it off and wanted to swing again. I immediately disassembled it.

And there have been some not so comical failures, things that haunt me to this day.

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Back when I found out I was having a child, I was bad human. There’s no other way to put it.

It was an unexpected pregnancy. We weren’t “in a relationship,” I didn’t have a stable job and I was living in a room in my homeboy’s house.

So the news of a child moved me to have child-like fits. I argued with Tanara. I became depressed, and fell into a real dark space.

I’ve since worked on myself. Tanara and I have a much better relationship, and I’m proud to say it’s growing everyday. I have not just a job but a career. And I have an apartment; my daughter even has her own room.

But I still struggle with what I’d like to call “heavy gravity” situations around what it means to be a father. Only now, it’s in a different context.

A Mother’s Day call to my 85-year-old grandmother, the woman who raised my father, put in perspective what it means for me to be a dad. A real dad.

My pops never knew his real father. My mother’s father passed before she was a teen. My sister and I grew up without our father in the household, as did my niece and nephew. But we all had stepfathers.

Nonetheless, after talking to granny, that depressive bullshit hit again.

It wasn’t the same way I was feeling before my daughter was born. This was a more rational understanding of a certain weight to the situation at hand.

My family history. Combined with fears, concerns and the around-the-clock reporting on COVID. Coupled with example after example of how racist and misogynistic this country is. I felt low.

The time I’ve spent these past three months with my daughter have been the most intimate time I’ve had with another human in my adult life. The highs of this period outweigh the lows by a ton. But during that low period, that’s when it got real.

The thoughts about the number of fathers not being in the lives of their children—not just in my family, but historically in the African American community. And how my generation of men is doing wonders at breaking that cycle, but still struggling in relationships with our co-parents.

And directly tied into that is the misogynistic ideology that this country was built on. And being that I’m from this country, and specifically Oakland, California—that mindset is in me. And I’m trying to exorcise it. I have to. How can I raise a Black woman in this sick world when I’m not fully healthy myself?

I promise y’all, I’m trying to learn, grow and be malleable. I figure it’s all a part of the structure of fatherhood: don’t be steel, be bamboo.

There’s somebody sick in the world. And I’m trying to cure myself.

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