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More present, more grateful: How the COVID pandemic changed me as a father

There’s no reason to rush through bedtime. There’s no reason to rush through anything or to anywhere. Because what we’re rushing from is our children.

Ryan Holiday
Opinion contributor

In September, as I traveled for the first time in almost exactly 18 months to spend the first night away from what had been 535 consecutive bedtimes with my boys, it struck me how much I had changed as a parent.

I entered the pandemic as a driven young writer and entrepreneur, who happened to be the parent of two kids under 4. If you had asked if it was possible, in March of 2020, to go even a few months with no travel, no ability to speak to groups, to consult with clients or organizations? I would have told you absolutely not, financially or professionally. And if we’re being honest, I suspect my wife would have said it wasn’t possible maritally either.

Like so many people, but especially parents, I have been profoundly changed by the events of the last year and half. The biggest reason was precisely the passage of all that time ... together.

Largest-ever lifestyle experiment

There is no such thing as parental leave in my line of work. And, like a lot of driven people who work for themselves, I’m not sure if I could have taken time off, that I would have let myself. Instead, I worked constantly for the first years and months of my young children’s lives, accepting and chasing opportunities – even though that meant many nights in hotel rooms and on airport benches. This, in addition to those ordinary work from home days that all writers know, where you are technically home but are, in fact, very far away.

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Suddenly, every single day, rain or shine, I was able to take my boys for a long walk in the morning. Most days, we also did their nap in the running stroller or a bike trailer. In the evening we walked again – picking wild blackberries in the spring, splashing in puddles in the winter and summer showers. As I do the math, I’d estimate we covered somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 miles together.

Never before and perhaps never again will we get to spend that amount of uninterrupted time together. Certainly, never at this age.

It was on those many walks that something slowly began to seep in. Namely, that this was what I wanted my life to look like. Not just being outside, but not being rushed, not having so many things in the calendar, no meetings, no waking up in hotel rooms or eating food from airport kiosks.

From my many conversations with other parents and the daily email I send out each morning, amid the complaints and frustrations about COVID policy and failures, I have heard many similar awakenings.

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I suspect this is why many people have decided to move during the pandemic or change careers. Forced to actually slow down for a minute, they got a better sense of what they actually wanted their lives to look like.

Because we almost always have a career and a life before we have children, we usually try to find a way to make the latter fit in with the former. I have come to see the pandemic as the largest lifestyle experiment in human history. It stripped everything down, broke it all apart and left so many of us, especially in the early months of the first and second surges, clinging tightly to our children and thinking about how we would restructure our lives around them.

Kids COVID cases

Putting someone else first

Surely, there is some privilege in being able to do this. But this luxury is also insidious, because you know what choosing family over work will cost you, in real dollars.

In one of his Father’s Day messages as president, Barack Obama pointed out that the ability to have a kid isn’t what makes you a parent. It’s actually raising a child that makes someone a father – or a mother. This was something that came back to me at countless vexing decisions we had to make as parents during the pandemic. 

Can we see people? Are we comfortable sending the kids to school? What activities are essential? Should we find child care or a nanny-share? Should we lift the mask mandate in the bookstore my family runs now that all the other businesses on the street have?

An ordinary person has to think only of themselves; a parent has to put somebody else first.

I still find myself shuddering every time I hear someone point out that the chances of a child dying of COVID are very low. What kind of standard is that? And yet it is shocking and painful to me in retrospect to consider how often I must have brought home bugs and viruses from the road – including mono in 2018 – without much of a thought.

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At the top of my list of changes in my parenting style is a clearer understanding of both risk as well as responsibility. No longer can I be “too busy” to think about this or that. Certainly, I can never go back to trusting that someone else – politicians or school boards or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is on top of it for us.

It was the highly transmissible delta variant that obliterated the one of the only silver linings for parents – that there seemed to be few cases in children. Now as hospitals and ICU beds nearly fill up in Texas, I find myself thinking not just of that wonderful streak of consecutive bedtimes but its relation to an exercise practiced by Stoic parents in the ancient world, which involved privately meditating on your child’s mortality as you tucked them into bed at night.

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Ryan Holiday

While this was something I understood intellectually, it was not until there was a deadly virus that the weight and power of this practice truly hit me. The purpose of this memento mori is not detachment but the exact opposite. It’s about connection. It’s about presence. It’s about gratitude.

There’s no reason to rush through bedtime. There’s no reason to rush through anything or to anywhere. Because what we’re rushing from is our children and the limited time we get with them – the amount of which is never guaranteed.

It was another reminder to slow down, to take a few more minutes with them, another book with them, another night where they fell asleep on my chest or next to me, unknowingly turning this difficult, painful pandemic into what a POW survivor, Admiral James Stockdale, would describe as a “defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

I know my kids wouldn’t either.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of several books on business, culture and Stoic philosophy, including “Courage is Calling” (Portfolio/Penguin Random House). His bookstore, The Painted Porch, sits on historic Main Street in Bastrop, Texas.