Parenting Across Pandemic Borders

What do you do when your family is split between three jurisdictions in two nations, and a pandemic hits?

My mantra — my answer to this question — has long been informed by years of watching my own father shuttle regularly between cities, for no reason other than to continue seeing his young children, uninterrupted.

‘You show up.’

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But ‘showing up’ has become incredibly complex in recent months, since we went into hiding and closed the borders. It has been severely impacted by the legal frameworks of each sovereign territory to and from which I keep traveling. These are laws that have transformed not just the conversations we are now forced to have with family and colleagues related to travel, but more importantly, the outcomes that emerge from them. The short of it is, I have spent much of the past five months in a continual quarantine and an equally continuous negotiation between multiple parties, in order to maintain a sense of ‘normalcy’ not just for my marriage, but also for the three children I parent across international borders. Everyone’s fears are justified. People continue to die in the places we live and visit, and the world has given in to a pandemic panic that has it retreating into ever-shrinking spheres — from nations, to states, to cities, to neighborhoods, to buildings, to apartments — of influence, and control.

We are the lucky ones: healthy, employed, safe. Little else truly matters, right now. The only missing adjective, not just for me, but for anyone separated by distance, is the word together. Being together, today, is extremely difficult for any split family, when you consider all of the influences over our ability to move freely.

There are many dimensions and complexities related to my ability to ‘be dad’, in person. One is ensuring the personal safety of those impacted by my travel — and of course my own, as well. Another is navigating the chaos of travel itself, which has become a very different animal. A third is bridging multiple jurisdictions that have largely shut their doors to one another. A fourth is mediating the conflicting priorities of the key parental decision-makers, post-divorce and across two-and-a-half families whose children represent a 12-year spread. A fifth is balancing the needs of multiple mothers in this climate, which is tough enough in normal times. And a sixth, while not about parenting, per se, but certainly impacting my hours and movements, is co-managing three offices, 200 employees and an ebbing flow of clients and work, from a laptop screen. The only non-negotiable — the one variable I still won’t even entertain — is not seeing my family. Not ‘until this is over’. Not ‘until the numbers are better’. Not ‘until quarantines are lifted’. Not even for a month. Those are not acceptable premises.

It deeply offends my deepest-held values: being family.

These are, to say the least, ‘interesting times.’

Safety

I was in Miami with my wife, on March 14, the very night before the entire city shut down to ward off a mounting virus. We were out at dinner, and heard news that New York City’s infection rate was exploding. They had multiplied fifty-fold in a three-week period, from 200 to 10,000 new cases, each day. At dinner, we looked at one another, realizing that a significant decision had to be made, immediately. That’s because while we lived in Toronto together with her — now our — two children, I had a daughter from my first marriage, in the commuting suburbs outside of the city, in Connecticut. For three years, I’d been shuttling weekly or bi-weekly between ‘my two cities’, maintaining our home in Brooklyn because it was easiest for our daughter that way; I could shoulder the planes, trains and automobiles, to maintain the rhythm of weekend visits with dad; while all she had to do was take a train from and to one parent at each end of the ride. So here we were, at dinner, having just heard that the international border between Canada and the United States was about to close in a couple of days, without stipulation or explanation — indefinitely. I was scheduled to head back to Toronto with Deb and the kids the next day. She saw the pained look in my eyes. I’d done everything possible to show up, without asterisks, in the ten years since my first marriage ended, and was now faced with choosing which side of the border I wished to be on when the doors closed. “You know you have to go,” Deb said, clearly sad. Without any idea of how long we would be separated, we were forced into making a “Sophie’s choice”: Which family? Which country?

As long as any of us has been alive, the “world’s longest undefended border” has never closed. And yet here we were, defending against an unseen, largely-unknown enemy, back in March.

I bought a ticket for New York, bid a heartbreaking goodbye to my wife and the kids, and headed onto one more flight, to see my baby girl.

Safety, since that day, has taken the continual form an open, moment-by-moment negotiation with my wife and my ex-wife, both of whose lives are impacted every time I travel — not the least of which is their ability to move freely following every time Mia and/or I get together. With each upcoming trip, the news, case counts and the shifting sands of laws and travel advisories often force my ex-wife and me into emotionally charged discussions about what each of us finds tolerable or reasonable, in terms of safety, for both our daughter and our households. At the same time, when faced with leaving Toronto for New York, my wife invariably supports my ‘need’ to see Mia. She knows how I feel about parenting; and her comfort level with my movements is informed by the fact that she runs a large hospital and understands transmission better than most, while having the additional benefit of having grown up in a house where her mother spent a career as a well-regarded virologist.

We talk ‘facts’, in our home, not ‘fears’.

In the end, I have continued to travel on my usual schedule for the past five months, even while New York was the global epicenter of viral transmission, living in what is essentially a continual quarantine. And as soon as one period is over and I can travel again, I usually do, the very next day. Each time, I take a deep (masked) breath, board a plane armed with Clorox Wipes and travel-friendly bottles of sanitizer, and try not to think too hard about what could go wrong.

The New York Times’ COVID-19 Case Count interface has become my first read of the day, and I am forever plugging numbers into an Excel spreadsheet I created for the purpose of informing where the risks stand, and guiding the travel plan.

That is, when I can find a flight.

Travel

One by one, the airlines I use stopped flying, from where I was to where I needed to go. First it was Porter. Then it was Air Canada. Then it was WestJet — the final Canadian flyer. Then a host of American carriers. They all abandoned the routes they once flew to connect the two nations’ biggest metropolises. Often, an email would inform me that my flight had been canceled, the refund made, and apologies — but no explanation — given. I always found and booked another, like water finding the crack. In the end, there was just one flight on one commercial airline that kept the two cities connected, once a day. My newly found gratitude for Delta emerged from the fact that they allowed me to continue being a father, during the pandemic.

I have witnessed some strange things, since March. First is the fact that one can fly for as little as $50, and cancel at any time, in a bid to lure the rare customer willing to risk it. Then, there are the times I have walked through large international airports without seeing a single person anywhere — just like the film Omega Man: not at curbside; not at check-in; not at security; not at pre-clearance; not on ‘airside’. Not one person is to be found, apart from those whose job it is to be there, essentially. That means no retail, either. At the gate, no more than four people would board a flight that typically transports 150, for which an agent would call you by name, individually, to invite you on board, leaving the gangway to you — and you alone — for your final steps. On board, smiling flight attendants would await you, happy to see anyone. And then there are the early departures, since there’s no point in waiting at the gate when all four of us are on board, which process takes 1/10th the time it usually does. And finally, because there are no planes queueing on the taxiway, taking off or landing, really, we would arrive, pretty consistently, one full hour earlier than scheduled, then breeze through the arrivals process before heading out onto an empty curbside, and empty streets.

On one trip, I remember noting that I saw just seven cars entering the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan during rush hour, where on a normal day there were no fewer than several hundred. I arrived at my Brooklyn apartment before my flight was to land, in New Jersey.

It has been incredibly eerie; and at the same time, thoroughly pain-free. The usual gauntlet to which travelers must now submit themselves, absent COVID-19, have been impossibly absent — again, as long as you can find a flight. The last time I flew out of JFK on Delta, I counted no more than six flights between four large flight information displays that usually list a combined 100 of them. I have taken pictures of all of these void experiences — proof for later, that these things really happened.

Jurisdictions

Canada and the US have always enjoyed an easy relationship, even with the chasm between leadership styles and personalities. So when the borders closed, to all but those considered ‘essential workers’, it became an issue of legality to gain permission to travel. Fortunately, each country continues to believe its citizens should be brought ‘home’; and here, my dual citizenship has been the godsend that has allowed me — as I justify to the immigration officers, each time I stand in front of one — to “go home”. But these are the same logistics that have created the quarantines, for good reason, that keep me sequestered upon arrival.

Here’s an example of judisdictional complexity. Last month, I was committed to continuing my daughter’s and my tradition of an end-of-summer travel adventure. Usually, we pick a country and go. That wasn’t possible this year; so after consulting an excellent resource by Fodors, called What’s Open and What’s Closed?, scouring COVID-19 rates, quarantine rules and regulations, and the status of hotels and restaurants of all fifty US states (Canada was a non-starter for my ex-wife, though Toronto had recovered better than any US territory), we settled on a trip to Northern California, which had lower rates of infection than nearly anywhere else, newly re-opened hotels, outdoor dining, emptiness and exquisite nature. We’d go see the Redwoods! The day before we left, however, after booking and paying for everything, my daughter’s mother called me to say that in spite of her reluctant endorsement of our trip just three days earlier, “everything changed” because that morning, Connecticut, where she lives, determined that California was high-risk based on skyrocketing infections, and that a quarantine would be necessary for returning residents. She was concerned for the safety of their 60-year old nanny, a woman who is there daily for her 2-year old toddler. So in an attempt to preserve our trip, I agreed to scrap and change my flight home, in order to keep our daughter in New York for the stipulated period, agreed to get tested upon our return, for both antibodies and active infection, and also agreed to keep her until we received an ‘all clear’ from our tests, and were allowed to resume our socially distanced lives. For the record, California’s explosion was entirely in the South, which I’d known; and where we were headed, not a single person had died from the virus, since the outset. But jurisdictions are funny. They follow lazy convenience, not logic.

To wit: Canada is on the American CDC’s list of “high risk” nations as of this morning, leading the US to keep it on ‘high alert’, one outcome of which is the border closure, in spite of the fact that 104 other nations have higher COVID-19 rates than Canada; that Toronto, specifically, has fewer than half the infections of Connecticut, per capita, and one quarter of those in New York — both the lowest in the US, apart from Vermont and Maine — and that the CDC’s website also lists every single country on Earth, apart from North Korea, Tajikstan and Cambodia, as high risk.

It’s nonsensical! But logic doesn’t matter when you’re not allowed on a plane, or when the feds call — or visit — as they do whenever I return home to Toronto, to ensure I am, in fact, at home.

Priorities

To say that my daughter’s two parents see the world very differently is to understand that one’s appetite for measured risk is an individual calculation, and that we each calculate only some things, to the exclusion of others. To me, as I said, not seeing my daughter is a no-go zone. To my ex-wife, whether or not she agrees depends primarily on the risk doing so would entail. I get it; the risk that harm would befall our family takes precedence over spending quality time together of a certain flavor. My wife, ever the pragmatist, usually sees things similarly to how I do. But that’s where what we calculate comes in. If flying is allowed, and we have access to a safe place, we can always modify our behaviors to mitigate risk. No touching things; masks, always; pathological hand- and food-washing… I have done all of these things. It’s strange to wipe down one’s groceries with a chemical. It’s stranger still to unbox food products like Cheerios or granola bars, and lay them out on a wiped-down counter, disposing of their erstwhile containers. I don’t want to think of the chemicals we may have ingested over the past many months. It’s strange to fear door handles, elevator buttons, credit card pads and everyone with whom we don’t cohabitate. My ex-wife’s husband, upon dropping our daughter off in NYC the first few times, was hesitant even to get out of his car, lest the air infect him. Forget the fact that just three confirmed cases out of millions were contracted outdoors, or that one has a 1 in 500,000 chance today of dying from COVID-19 anywhere in the city, and that the risk out of doors is likely one in millions. None of us knew that, at the time.

And as I said, fear is not logical.

So when we negotiate custody every two weeks (it used to be done once a year), it invariably turns to a discussion of our priorities: for our daughter, certainly, but also for our respective families outside of our shared creation. Competing interests cause stresses that no ‘integrated’ family typically faces, because in ‘normal’ times, it doesn’t matter what happens on one another’s watch; but with quarantines still mandated, it changes everything, because it prejudices one family’s or the other’s movements for the ensuing two weeks.

But as difficult as it has been to maintain ‘normalcy’, the worst is about to hit us.

As the school year starts again, I have three children in three schools in two countries, whose policies were finally announced this week, and who will no longer be able to attend school for two weeks after coming into contact with someone who had traveled outside of the country… me.

So for the first time in my life, I don’t know what to do. I’ve scratched my head over this repeatedly. The kids can’t miss school; it’s clear. That, too, is a no-go zone. But if I faced a Sophie’s Choice before, I now have the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head — one we know will remain there for at least a year, if not two, unless quarantines are lifted. Where do I go? Do I spend the fall and the first half of winter without hugging my daughter, until she has a two-week break over the New Year? Do I relocate to New York after just a year of marriage, pulling my new family apart just as it was beginning to integrate? Do I do this every three months? Six? A year? Two?

There is no calculation, without changes to quarantine regulations, that pencils out in a winning formula. Things are about to become existentially painful in a way I’ve never had to consider since becoming a father, and that anyone in my situation — divorced, with a minor child, remarried, with two more, and co-parenting all three across national borders — would be crestfallen to face.

And given the way that US states are treating one another these days, split families everywhere who find themselves divided over state borders and sharing custody will also face similar issues, even if these are located within a commuting corridor.

And yet, we are still safe; still employed; and still healthy. My pain is purely emotional.

Mothers (Fathers, too)

Mothers — at least the two to whom I’ve been married — deserve all the credit they receive for the incredible selflessness they exhibit in raising their children. And yet, each is very different; and their personalities have led them to feel decidedly differently about the value and nature of daddy-and-daughter time in the context of COVID-19. My inability to accept not seeing my daughter blinds me to considering ‘waiting things out’. To lose months with her is to lose time that will never be recovered, emotionally, connectively, and qualitatively. As a fourteen-year old, she is changing, quickly; and either I will be part of her trials and tribulations as a teenager, or I will not. It’s simple. Right now, she is opening up to me about her feelings and friendships in a beautiful way. These are critical times in the formation of our relationship, now that she’s aware of the complexities and my interest in helping her navigate them, on her own terms.

So how and when the mothers in my life will resolve to support or resist my parental duties (alongside my marital ones), and how our children’s school calendars and governmentally mandated policies will develop, over the coming months, or years, remain — for now — unknown. The options are all terrible.

But fathering — in my view — is of equal importance to mothering. I don’t do as much work, it’s true. I didn’t bear any of the brunt of labor and birthing, and little of the early hardships rearing our babies. In my own house today, my wife does the majority of things for our children. So when it comes to acts, we are not equal — not by a long shot. But perspective, love, attention and support from both parents does matter, equally. It matters far more now than it will when they are adults. In fact, it will partially set the tone for the people they grow to be, and in the case of my influences, the beliefs they will hold about the men in their lives, and how to measure them.

And so I must somehow find, advocate and act on ‘the best terrible option’.

Work

Work, blissfully, has moved from the office to the device. While the hardships of leading a creative practice used to huddling around tracing paper and white boards, while we hash out and visualize ideas at the speed of a pen, the fact that this is no longer an option has afforded all of us time we never had. Those newly found minutes start with the commute none of us makes any longer; continue to the time we sometimes spent staring at a screen at our desks, needing a break but not daring to take one; and advance to the lost time we wasted looking for one another in an ad hoc fashion, waiting until serendipity found us all in the same place, so we could share our flashes of inspiration, or thoughts.

Instead, now, everything is scheduled, because it has to be. This means that if something isn’t in the calendar, it’s free time to spend getting other work done. And critically, with regard to travel, it means that the days I spend in transit can now, finally, be as useful as those spent sitting at a desk or in a chair at home. Just this morning, I took a Microsoft Teams call with a client and our design team, while wearing a mask, and sitting in a fairly empty terminal in New York City, where I was doing my usual: flying to see family.

COVID-19 has — in this very narrow regard — been a boon. It’s made us all more efficient and more effective; and while what we do as architects is creative — a dimension of our work that remains challenging, with still-middling digital tools — it also requires serious rigor, for which scheduling and focused agendas both help, significantly, and rendering my travel a total non-issue.

Conclusions

My mother’s boyfriend of 20 years, Murray, used to frequently say, “Just remember: keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down,” using a chuckle-worthy metaphor for driving, in order to urge safe conduct. For five months, I’ve been extremely careful. If I washed my hands 15 times a day before (I am pathological that way), I now do it 25, and ensure I wash for a full count. When I cannot, I use sanitizer liberally in between. I hold my masked breath whenever and as long as I can, in hallways or elevators, or while passing someone who entered my six-foot ‘safe zone’. I breathe through my nose, to improve particulate filtration, humidification and nitrous oxide-enabled vasodilation, which we now know confers anti-microbial benefits. I avoid crowds, find my way upwind of everyone, reach for the parts of long, commercial door handles that no one touches, and use my elbow anywhere and everywhere I need to touch anything. I sanitize credit cards after use; my phone, regularly, and touch fewer and fewer things, if not necessary. The only time I partially threw caution to the winds was when I protested in New York City amid thousands, bringing my daughter to one of them with me, so that she, too, could both witness and lend her body and voice to a noble cause. We were masked, of course. I share all of these admittedly hyper-vigilant ideas with my children. My wife needs no reminders.

So within this context, yes — I travel. A lot. Because the alternative is to abdicate my responsibilities — and my joy — as a father. We are given choice with everything: act, or duck. I have always sided with action. That’s not necessarily a shared value or priority, with everyone affected by this story. But once the decision to act has been made on sound principles, what remains is to minimize the risk that the decision imparts on others.

I think it’s a calculation that pencils out well. And five months in, the kids — and the adults — are alright.

Architect | Photographer | Writer | Polyglot | Windmill Jouster | Nomade Civilisée.

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