What I learned in a year of COVID lockdown as a brand-new dad: The joy of responsibility

Our daughter, Winnie, was born on March 22, 2020. As she learned to open her eyes, the world went into lockdown. 

In the year since, I’ve learned so much I needed to know, including how to properly wash my hands — and a baby’s hands. And I’ve learned a lot I wish I didn’t know. Like how our country could get used to thousands of people needlessly dying every day. And the horrors of the fourth-month sleep regression, the eighth-month sleep regression, the 12:15 a.m. sleep regression, the 3:23 a.m. sleep regression and the 4:49 a.m. sleep regression. 

Nothing prepared me to become a new dad. It’s like a pandemic in that way. 

The things you assume you’ll really need — like toilet paper — are minuscule compared with the things you really need — like superhuman reserves of patience, resolve and generosity. But like the lockdown itself, we’re not just doing it for ourselves. That’s what makes it so important, and so hard.

We’re not in this together

In the sleep-starved glow of my daughter’s birth, I fantasized that the pandemic was the great uniter — a spiritual shock that would teach us the virtue of looking out for each other, or at least not spitting at each other. Now, I’m still sleep starved but awake enough to know I was just as wrong as in 2016, when I expected that Donald Trump would end up with more sexual abuse allegations than electoral votes.

My wife and I are both closer to 50 than 40 — the age nature assumed we’d become grandparents, not parents. For a long time, I had assumed we’d spend the rest of our 40s enduring a series of increasingly expensive and painful miscarriages. But 2020 taught me one lesson over and over: Luck is real, and it’s mostly just another word for privilege.

Coronavirus miracle: Our last-chance baby was due just as the COVID-19 wave began to hit hospitals

A year later, our luck is intact. We weren’t among the more than 540,000 dead from COVID-19 or their grieving loved ones. We weren’t among the tens of millions who’ve lost their jobs. We weren’t single parents locked in an apartment with several kids. All the inequalities that existed before the pandemic have only gotten worse.

 “We’re all in this together” still defines my political philosophy. But it’s an aspiration, not a reality. Sometimes, my sleep-starved wife and I aren’t even in this together.

Forcing gratitude can be miserable

No matter who you are or what you have, caregiving will test you and your relationships. 

Parents of twins, triplets and more should be given medals or their own reality shows. Like most new parents in a pandemic, we had no help at home, extended family were on lockdown, and babysitters were literally a dream. A baby’s inconsolable scream in the middle of the night cuts through a lot of privilege. Fortunately for us, Winnie is generally consolable, even when we’re not. 

Jason Sattler and daughter Winnie (Photo: Family photo)

Still, I’m burning my gratitude journal. 

I’ve learned that the drive to be grateful by comparison and diminish my struggles, what Harvard psychologist Susan David refers to as “the tyranny of positivity,” can make me an awful mess of a dad. Without some compassion for myself, I’m a wreck, just another burden on my wife.

Everything is political

Even before I changed one too-full diaper, I knew that there was no decent argument for why a hedge fund manager should earn at least six times what the average child care worker makes. Now, I wonder why every new parent in America hasn’t become radicalized. 

Why does child care cost so damn much here while child care providers make so damn little?

The simple answer is politics. The United States, the richest country in the world, ranks 30th out of the 33 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development when it comes to public spending on families and children. But the real answer is misogyny. 

Women paying the price: COVID could be the wakeup call businesses need to fix a broken child care system

Too many Americans consider caring for young ones “women’s work,” which is basically another way to say “indentured servitude.” This self-fulfilling prophecy has proved true during the pandemic. In order to care for their families, women have been forced to make sacrifices that will likely set their careers back years. 

Hopefully, the forced family time of the pandemic has smashed the archaic worldview that child care duties belong to one sex or gender.

We have to make it better

Fatherhood in lockdown is endless responsibilities with little to no freedom. Yet compared with my wife (aka Winnie’s primary food source), I’m practically vacationing in Aruba.

I’ll never know how different first-time parenthood would be without a killer virus circling the world. I do know that, like parenthood, no one has handled the pandemic perfectly. But few rich countries have handled it worse than we have — and no country has let more people die of this virus. America has met the consequences of a twisted belief that freedom is a privilege with no responsibilities.

Winnie Sattler (Photo: Family photo)

Parenthood has taught me the joy of responsibility. Perhaps my favorite job is playing audience to a baby comedian who can put on a two-hour show at 4 a.m. Laughter is inevitable when a tiny human hands you book after book rather than listen to you read one. And then the tears come from nowhere, just as quickly. All the time, I’m sure I could be doing better. I’ve never been so necessary yet fallen so short on such a consistent basis. 

A year ago, I got to watch my daughter learn to open her eyes. Since then, I’ve been working on opening mine.

Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of “The GOTMFV Show” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP

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