COVID-19 Quarantine Diaries

Quarantine Diaries, Part 7: Confessions of a First-Time Stay-At-Home Dad: Treading Water

The author at liberty.
Luxury Living Tampa Bay

Editor’s Note: Joe Bardi — writer, editor, musician, husband, father — has always been a busy man. But until recently it had been up to his wife, freelance writer/photographer and frequent dRTB contributor Heidi Kurpiela, to handle the bulk of weekday parenting chores, because she could work from home and he had an office job. Then the pandemic hit. The following post is the seventh installment in “Quarantine Diaries,” a series about the double whammy of suddenly being both unemployed and a 24-hour stay-at-home dad. Read the first six installments starting here.

I have long been a creature of habit, but this extended quarantine has put my slavish devotion to routine to the test. Pre-corona, my days were carefully scripted affairs — wake, shower, get the kids to school, head to the office, work all day, come home, watch Pardon The Interruption while avoiding dealing with dinner, deal with dinner to avoid dealing with the kids, pray for tub time to arrive, put the kids to bed, chill on the back porch with iPhone games, hang with the wife, head to bed. Rinse, repeat. 

Mondays I took Henry to his drum lessons; Thursday was my own band’s practice day. The weeks easily rolled into months.

Now it’s all gone, and I’m torn between my own struggle with an uncertain future and the newfound freedom it has afforded me. On the one hand, I miss the stability. The knowing what comes next. On the other, I worry now that I was sleepwalking through life, collecting a check and waiting for my small kids to turn into average-sized adults so that I could be free of the “burden.” 

If I was acting like an asshole, it wouldn’t be the first time.

I really used to A-hole it up back in my late teens and early 20s. (Don’t we all? Please tell me yes.) That was in the late 1990s. It’s taken years of self-reflection, but I think the combination of a sheltered upbringing (Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade!), a complete inability to talk to the opposite sex (that high school I mentioned was boys-only!), and self-hatred of my own creative impulses (“You’ll never get a job that way!”) all informed the total jerkface I could put on then. 

I was pent up in every way a person can be. Today, I think I would have been labeled an Incel — a term you may be familiar with. If you’ve seen Knives Out, I was kind of like Michael Shannon’s kid, the preppy who overheard an argument while masturbating in the bathroom. Today, Incels are presented in the media as creepy young men spreading hateful memes and saying god-awful things about women on 4 Chan. I was mostly using the Internet of the late 1990s to source better copies of Led Zeppelin bootlegs, so perhaps my extreme nerdiness coupled with the immature technology of the day (dial-up!) saved me from engaging in the worst of this.

What happened? In short, I went out into the world and failed miserably. By 2004 I had run through two careers and one five-year relationship with a real live woman, and moved back into my parents’ house. Not a great scene for me, and I regret much of how I acted during that run. (Sorry Mom and Dad! I owe you.) But things were percolating. In struggling to figure out who I was and why I was here, I landed a great job with an amazing group of people — CL peeps, I miss you! — and in the process miraculously matured into an adult. My mother always said I was a late bloomer.

In 2005 I moved out again — this time for good. I got married in 2009, and Heidi and I had Henry in 2011. I spun my beloved newspaper job into a TV job into a marketing job for a tech company, doubling my annual income between 2010 and 2020. I did all the things my middle-class suburban upbringing taught me were the “right things” to do. The results: A mixed bag, but mostly positive. Having a wife and kids is still awesome, and when it’s all said and done my decision to have a family will be the best one I ever made. I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been before. I guess everything but the job is still pretty terrific.

On that front, the truth is I was already stuck in a professional rut before COVID-19 rendered me unemployed. That was my fault, not my employer’s. I now find myself trying to figure out whether that nice little marketing career I was building is gone for good — and did I really even want it in the first place? I have steadily applied for jobs since I was laid off, but have yet to receive a call. I assume this has more to do with the state of the world than it does my resume, and I’m OK with it for the moment. Yes, my income needs to be replaced, but I also don’t want to feel like I have to “take anything” just to have a job. Right now I don’t feel that way, and I’m coming around to the idea that whatever I end up doing may not be what came before, and that’s a good thing. 

One of the real gifts of being isolated for the last seven weeks is perspective — the ability to see the person I was in January as something of a warehoused asset. My role was to sit at my little desk all day, obsessively planning and re-planning, writing reports to justify my existence, and occasionally doing some worthwhile and stimulating things — podcasts, videos, and two killer trade show trips. In the end it felt more than a little like being on a hamster wheel, and I was tired of being someone else’s metaphorical pet.

I have no doubt that without COVID-19 I would still be in that same office, but I’m not sure that would have been a good thing. I miss the people, but do I miss the work? Maybe that’s the rationalization of someone staring down the barrel of what could be a prolonged unemployment. But it feels real to me.

I can sit here and woulda/coulda/shoulda the last year of my life all day, but there’s no point to it. (And you’d stop reading!) Now is a time for looking forward, not back. So the question becomes, how do I move on with my professional life in a healthy way once the pandemic subsides? Which it will eventually. This too shall pass. How do I find work that’s fulfilling in addition to being lucrative? And how do I separate the life lessons that will carry me forward from the ones that hold me back?

Or, in the immortal words of Trey and Tom:
But who can unlearn all the facts that I’ve learned
As I sat in their chairs and my synapses burned
And the torture of chalk dust collects on my tongue
Thoughts follow my vision and dance in the sun
All my vasoconstrictors they come slowly undone
Can’t I live while I’m young?

Read Quarantine Diaries, Part 8: My Wife Is a Superhero (and I’m Making Music)

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