Raising children during the pandemic, you don’t always feel like a real, live parent. My wife and I have become the gatekeepers to our kids’ entire world, now online. For months, I’ve been a password manager. It’s my job to log in so my 10-year-old can watch videos.
I’m not exactly a five-star app. Jonah can sense me tensing up when I fail to get the password right. He’ll slide his skinny frame up next to me and, with his stale breath hot in my ear, offer a word of encouragement. Sometimes, he’ll even pat my shoulder to steady me. Jonah just wants to watch some Animaniacs and maybe to feel a little less powerless, a little less connected to us, a little more connected to the world outside.
My son has the emotional intelligence of a grown-up while also, during the pandemic, insisting on wearing a Pokémon onesie every day. He lobbied us hard in late September to get him a therapist; when we found him one, he could not have been more excited if he’d gotten a new bike. His emotions can sometimes get too big, and he wanted control over them. He rejoiced in telling his classmates all about this feeling he could name: anxiety. I could hear him in his Zoom class. I was right there.
Nothing is effortless between us. I try to bond with him over music, but Jonah doesn’t stop talking, not even during the Beastie Boys’ “Shake Your Rump.” His musical taste peaked when he was 3: He could identify Dylan’s voice and believably claim to appreciate Mingus and Miles; then he discovered KIDZ BOP. Finally, after one too many dinners enduring tweens chirping “Uptown Funk” on repeat, I unplugged Alexa and stuffed her in the closet. Sometimes, Jonah knows he can seize on my desperation, and he will troll me: Midway through “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he asked if Nirvana was hair metal.
But there are moments of true connection, usually in the car when it’s just us and the stereo. It’s hard to beat the feeling of hearing him holler from the back seat, “Play it again.” It could be a Chance the Rapper single or the Runaways’ “Thunder.” We roll the windows down. I drive a little too fast. I knew we were going to be OK when he memorized the words to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and he asked me about skag and Spiro Agnew.
As the vaccines started to roll out, Jonah was getting really good on the drums. I cleaned up my old electric guitar; if I beg hard enough, he’ll jam with me in the basement. He knows I can’t play more than a few chords, but he humors me. Our identities slowly emerge from the clamor: me lumbering and loud and out of tune, my son quiet and searching and then pounding the toms, crashing hard on the cymbals. For a few seconds we are father and son, together in time, nothing between us, just notes in the air.
Jason Cherkis is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.