Social distancing, Melancholymanbag style

My wife and her sister, keeping their distance

When I was younger, I had a recurring fantasy scenario where I would end up trapped in a room with a girl or woman that I had a crush on. The reason didn’t matter (locked in by villains, emergency outside, earthquake, etc), what mattered is that I was with her. I guess necessities were magically taken care of. Since we were trapped together we would be forced to get to know each other, and invariably she would fall for me and we’d be unable to resist each other and have hot locked-up sex. Anyways, embarrassing reveal aside, after falling for me, we would be together and we’d be able to go back out into the normal world and live happily ever after. Eight weeks into our COVID-19 shelter-in-place, I look back at that fantasy scenario and laugh a bit, not in a mean-spirited way, but at the naivety and inexperience of that younger, hormone wracked version of me.
When we first started the shelter-in-place, I wasn’t too worried. I had my wife to go through this process with, that is I wasn’t alone, and I figured the kids would make do with whatever the schools ended up doing. Granted, at that point the schools were arguing for staying open. I would be working from home, but that would mean all kinds of free time for hobbies, cooking, etc. I also don’t think I had comprehended that this would be going on for months. Another silly fantasy, but at age 45!

I told my wife a few weeks in, and it’s still true, that I couldn’t ask for a better person to be stuck at home with. We’ve traveled a lot together, spending time on planes, cramped buses, and trains. Stayed in small hotel rooms, basically been in each other’s faces for weeks on end. Of course we’d get annoyed with each other at some point, but in the end, we did well together, we appreciated each other’s company and felt more connected after those trips. So I didn’t my worries about being with my wife for long periods of time.

The wrinkle for sheltering-in-place has been the kids. Were it just my wife and I, I can imagine a scenario where we’d both work, find an excuse to take a break, talk, have sex, whatever, just enjoy each other. However, since the kids are home with us all day every day, things are much more complicated. Besides the obvious consequence of having absolutely no time alone, neither of us can do as much work as we’d like. Without our intervention (my wife is doing a much better job than me with this) the kids wouldn’t do much more than watch TV (younger one) or spend time on her phone (older one). To be fair, I would love the opportunity to read all the books I’ve been meaning to get to, and catch on up movies and tv shows, so I get it. However, school is still in session, and we are trying to get the kids to participate in their “distance learning”.

As my wife told me, times of duress exacerbate underlying issues. For the kids this has meant that their learning disabilities have come roaring back in full force. My younger daughter is more willing to participate in the classes and meetings, probably because there is more structure thanks to her teacher, but she still has regressed in some behaviors, and is resistant to going outside at all. My older daughter’s ADHD, and possibly other issues, seemed to be under more control before school was shifted to online but has made trying to get any school work done from home nearly impossible. For me, despite not feeling like I am experiencing my typical depression, a lot of the symptoms have surfaced. The lack of alone time, and dealing with the behaviors from my kids has made me question my competence as a father. On some level I know the girls have been thrown off by the change in schedule and their lack of social interactions that normally occur through school or sports. I also assume they are probably scared, although they don’t show it. I look at some of my single friends, and the idea of being stuck at home without kids sounds wonderful. Does that make me a bad father? I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to have to argue with kids to go outside, or to read instead of watching Youtube videos. I want to be able to lose myself with work, then read, or watch a TV show, or share some intimacy with my wife rather than be yelled at for asking my daughter to do a single lousy math worksheet. My wife and I didn’t have much alone time before, but by the time evenings come around we are both so wiped that it seems like we have no energy for any time for connection or intimacy, so there is even less than before. I think we’ve had sex maybe once in the past 8 weeks.

Another theme that has been brought into relief is my age old issue of feeling that that I lack connection to people, or a sort of social isolation. I rarely see people outside of work and family to begin with, so it was a bummer to realize that socially, not a hell of a lot has changed. I can’t go to my weekly self-defense class, and I can’t go into my dad and sister’s house, (I still seem them about once a week in their back yard) but otherwise there hasn’t been a big shift in my social routine. And that bugs the fuck out of me. I try to stay in contact with friends via text, and I’ve had a couple of video meetings with a friend from grad school (who lives on the East coast), but that’s been it. Once again, I find myself in this unpleasant yet familiar place of realizing that I have a huge hole where the social aspect of my life should be. My wife often complained about having to go because she was tired, but she has a group of friends who regularly met up in person for dinners, or other events. They’ve migrated online (and she still complains), but I envy her having a friend group that can feel comfortable talking to each other even on the computer.

The final theme that has resurfaced are my feelings of inadequacy regarding my income and inability to provide enough to support my family enough so that we can buy a house. My older daughter loves to tell me how I have a shitty job, mostly because I don’t earn enough for us to buy a house. I used to try to explain why having a job with health benefits, flexibility and, thank goodness given the situation, incredible stability and safety of employment is not “shitty”, but now I try to not react and get to the underlying issues. I know she’s a teen, and for some reason spends hours on Zillow looking at houses, but it’s hard. My wife is resentful because she is constantly reminded that out of her siblings and most of her high school and college friends, she the only one who doesn’t own a house. On top of that she earns more than I do, and hates having to work so much AND still not be able to buy a house. We are so incredibly fortunate to have more or less stable jobs and live in a large space that despite its many faults offers us room to spread out. However, I often wonder where I went “wrong”? Was there some juncture where I could have made a different decision or decisions that would have led me to a place where I would “earn enough”? When did having a job that allows you to buy a million dollar house become the only measure of success?

But I can’t fight the situation. I’ve actually had an incredibly hard time fully understanding the situation or writing about what has been going on because I feel like I can’t fully process it. In the NY Times, I read a letter to the deceased Gabriel García Márquez from his son and he described exactly what I have been feeling

“A few weeks ago, during our first few days sequestered at home, my head was straining to explain to myself what it could all mean, or at least what could come out of it. I failed. The fog was too heavy. Now that things have become more quotidian, as things do eventually even in the most frightening wars, I am still unable to frame it all in any satisfying way”

However, it is what it is and I’m trying to adapt. Doing a shitty job of it, but trying. In regards to the kids, rather than be that crotchety old man yelling at the kids to get off his damn lawn, I’m trying to slow down in my reactions and see if I can feel compassion for them. On the mornings where I haven’t stayed up ridiculously late and naturally wake up early, I try to meditate. I regularly join my wife for her online Pilates class three times a week, and I get out at least once a day, even if it is only to walk around the block. I think it’s giving me a little bit more bandwidth, but not sure. As for the social issues and feelings of inadequacy, don’t know how to deal with those, but I’m thinking about them, and trying to cut myself a little slack at least. I also try to remind myself that we incredibly fortunate, billions of other people in the world right now are in terrible conditions. We aren’t suffering for lack of housing and food and medicine and we have our health.

So, as we continue into this pandemic I can say two things with certainty:

  1. My wife and I are going to have to spend some time without the kids once it becomes safe to travel and to drop off the kids somewhere. We need to re-establish our intimacy and have some fun together.
  2. I’m really glad that I was never stuck in a small room for a long period with someone I was attracted to, even more so had kids been in that room.