A conversation with a new dad about his journey into fatherhood during lockdown.
June 18, 2021
Becoming a new father at any time is a life-changing experience that is full of excitement and joy, fear and anxiety, possibilities and potential, plans made and changed, and dreams and aspirations.
With COVID-19 and public health measures needed to keep people safe, families have been navigating complex, evolving uncertainties, while new dads have been “locked in” with their partners, often away from their friends, siblings, parents, in-laws, and fellow new and expectant dads. There are no reference books to consult on how to be a new or expectant dad during a global pandemic. Yet, many dads have been in that situation, adapting and adjusting, accommodating and flexing, planning and revising plans throughout COVID.
This unique journey into fatherhood shares many of the elements of a typical path to becoming a dad, and then some! I caught up with James, 36, who became a new dad in May 2020, just after the peak of the first wave of COVID-19 and the extension of the initial stay-at-home order. Since then, he has been working from home. This is his story behind the stats.
James, it’s been over a year since the beginning of COVID and your daughter’s birth. How did you and your family celebrate Stacey’s 1st birthday?
Similar to many situations and events throughout the pandemic, for Stacey’s birthday we tried to plan for a fun, safe way to celebrate with a small group of family and friends, but that quickly changed as we entered the most recent stay-at-home order. So, we had a small, distanced celebration out on our front lawn with my parents and some neighbours – and while not “ideal,” it was still special, as we couldn’t let the circumstances overshadow how important the day was.
We’re lucky to live on a little cul-de-sac with wonderful neighbours who in some ways have felt like part of an extended bubble. Everyone’s always out and about gardening, walking their dogs or playing in the street, so we’ve been able to find ways to socialize safely and in keeping with all the rules. The community on our street – and in our neighbourhood, more broadly – has been a lifesaver, to be very honest. It may sound bizarre, but since the onset of the pandemic I feel more connected with people in the area more than before and I feel a subconscious energy of solidarity and support in how folks interact.
At what point did COVID go from feeling like a news story to being something that would affect you and your family?
We had a baby shower at end of February 2020 and I think that was the last “normal” event before the COVID storm came across the pond. Even then, though, I remember that some folks couldn’t come, including Kelly’s family from Sault Ste. Marie, because of safety concerns about being on airplanes or going through airports. But the shower went on, with 40 or 50 people – a gathering unheard of now. That was definitely one of the first moments it impacted our lives, but it still didn’t necessarily feel tangibly real at that point, as we didn’t have a sense of the magnitude of the how all of our lives were about to change.
The first form of physical distancing we experienced was at a prenatal class we were taking in early March 2020. We went on a Saturday and everything was normal (no space required), and then without warning we showed up the following week and a bunch of safety measures were in place and everyone was spaced out.
Tell me about your experience of becoming a dad during COVID.
Pre-COVID, we had all these plans in place, and we were working with a doula who was amazing. She was very supportive and knowledgeable. Everything suddenly became in permanent flux; we no longer had that kind of support system. I was as supportive as I could be. I’m no professional – this is my first time around and, of course, I couldn’t provide the same level of insight and support as a trained doula. So that was nerve-racking for someone about to experience their first childbirth.
Our doula had been keeping us apprised of how hospitals and birthing centres were adapting their protocols relating to who and how many people could be on-site for deliveries. As a result, we had to adopt a “hope for the best and plan for the worst” attitude.
The uncertainty, speculation and rapid changes in protocols around the hospital experience and giving birth in the month leading up to Kelly’s due date were very, very challenging for us. We had to brace for the prospect that our doula wouldn’t be allowed to be in the delivery room, and that I may have been restricted as well. The idea of me not being allowed to be there to support my partner through delivery and be there to welcome Stacey into the world was heartbreaking and felt unacceptable. In the end, our doula wasn’t allowed to attend the delivery in person, and I was able to only once Kelly had gone into active labour.
Once Kelly’s water broke and she was going into labour, we still couldn’t go in until she was dilated significantly, due to COVID protocols. Fortunately, we are a stone’s throw from our local hospital, so when it was time, we called, and they said that if she was dilated enough, I should get her over there, drop her off and go home.
I came home and frantically made sure we were as prepared as possible, given the state of situation at that time. We were in the peak of the first wave, when we still didn’t know much about the disease.
We prepared for difficult scenarios, such as if she were to have a C-section, which would have essentially kept us locked in there for three days with no access to anyone or to outside food. We had to pack tons of food if we didn’t want to have to eat the hospital food.
Once she was in active labour, I ripped over to the hospital, parking illegally (even after all the dry runs)! My adrenaline was running very high. The staff, of course, was so professional, so wonderful. There was a private delivery room and a private space where Kelly was able to recover. We were in and out within 24 hours – it was actually a pretty quick birth.
Unfortunately, due to protocols, my parents didn’t get to hold Stacey until she was two months old, which was heartbreaking for everyone. Kelly’s parents have had to adapt from further away – they live in the north, which has felt like a world away!
How did you plan transitions from work?
I didn’t take formal parental leave. I took a month of vacation instead, which, in large part, was another side effect of the pandemic. On one hand, I felt that I was so fortunate to be working from home, spending much more time with the family. But it got to the point that’s like, is it worth actually taking up to two months off? We had been planning on it the entire time, with hopes to go travel together in a camper and hit the road, which would have been August or September of this year, because Kelly is on extended maternity leave. But, we felt it didn’t make much financial sense to take such a big hit to essentially stay put, when, really, we’ve been able to make the most of working from home and have a healthy work–life balance. It’s so bizarre because I was looking forward to parental leave from the day that she was pregnant. Once we knew Stacey was coming, we both couldn’t wait to go on some big road trip, because we felt it would be the ideal time to travel with a toddler. That was one of many ways things got turned upside down and we just had to roll with it.
What kinds of things have you and your family done to support your well-being?
Personally, I go for long walks with Stacey and our dog, along with a neighbour and their dog. For our family well-being, we get out into the country to trails every weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. One of the highlights of the pandemic has been getting out to explore our own backyard, so to speak, and learning all the greenbelt trails in the region. It’s really a peaceful time to reflect and catch my breath – one of the few times I never wear earphones, as I usually do. This has been important.
The sense of community is very strong and binding around here, helping you all the same. Spending time at the splash pad, where we see other families and kids, has given us a chance to socialize with people and their kids. Stacey has been able to socialize with other kids, since there are many on our street who we’re connected with. There are always kids at the park to play with, which is important for her, so she develops her social skills and gets out for activities.
We’ve definitely felt a huge amount of relief and security after getting our vaccines. It feels so nice to share a collective sense of people feeling better about things.
Tell me about what kinds of hopes and/or anxieties you have as you look forward.
Generally speaking, I don’t know if I’ve just become kind of comfortably numb with how things have been over the last year and a half. While I am starting to feel a sense of cautious optimism, with vaccines rolling out and getting ours, and case numbers going down and so on, I try not to get my hopes up too much. I think it’s going to take a long time to get to any kind of “normal.”
This latest lockdown that we’re just exiting has definitely been the hardest stretch for me personally, and really left me feeling defeated and deflated. I think this is in part because the trajectory had been feeling different for a time. For a while, we were able to do in-person swimming lessons, which was so fun for Stacey and me, but the most recent lockdown brought this to an immediate full stop. That was hard, for all of us, but we just try to keep the bigger picture in mind: we have been very fortunate.
What are some lessons you’ve learned and, looking forward, are there any changes that have happened that you would like to keep?
Regarding work, we are so fortunate that we even have the means to work from home and that the transition was pretty seamless. As a new dad, I would be supportive of a hybrid model of work and kind of adamant about not accepting anything less than three or four days per week from home. I feel that, in some ways, COVID has sped up the inevitable regarding work, and I’m glad this shift is happening within the lifespan of our career. I have good balance and can’t imagine not being here spending time with and helping my family.
I feel that it’s also taught me about the importance of trying to focus on what you can control in your life, because there’s so much you can’t control – particularly with how things may evolve with the virus.
I like that we’ve become so close to our community. While we’ve been here about three years, I’ve felt much more connected since the last year and a half. As of recently, I feel I know everyone around here now, including families with young kids and dogs, and a lot of folks in between.
If you could talk to pre-father James and/or pre-COVID James, what would you say to yourself?
To pre-father me, I would say, “Prepare for the most rewarding experience of your life. It will be very challenging, but the rewards outweigh the challenges exponentially.” I would say to “harness the power of patience and live in the moment” and to “start working on that now.” I was not a patient person before the pandemic. The experience has taught me to manage my expectations. In the before-times, I would get upset if I couldn’t do or be involved with this or that. I was a very busy, active, social person, and all that has changed in every way, but it has taught me the importance of being patient and to only set reasonable expectations.
Nathan Battams, Knowledge Translation and Mobilization, Vanier Institute of the Family
Note: This interview with a new dad has been edited for space, clarity and protection of privacy.