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I am the first Armstrong in at least four generations to swing a hammer with intent to build. I am a journalist, son of a librarian, grandson of a stockbroker, great-grandson of a doctor. We are a soft-handed, professional, wordy line. On Father’s Day, my son presented me with a card bearing a cartoon he’d drawn of me emerging, tentatively, from a hole in the centre of a book.
This was slightly unfair given that, in a revolutionary break with family tradition, he and I had recently built a treehouse. The structure, in my mother-in-law’s yard, is 10ft off the ground, suspended between four locust trees. It boasts a roomy four square yards of floor space and waist-high walls. This not only had my son and I bashing five-inch nails, but purchasing and using a circular saw, a power drill, wood clamps, a tape measure, a level and safety goggles. I have made enough trips to the hardware store that I have parsed the mysterious and universal hardware store smell (it is equal parts paint and sawdust with a strong metallic overtone left by freshly cut keys). I have learned how to connect two-by-fours at right angles using a nail driven at a diagonal – a process, I am now able to report, known as toenailing.
All of this made me absurdly proud of myself, as I strutted around the yard in heavy boots and a denim work jacket, drill in hand. That the work jacket was made by a Japanese fashion designer and purchased in a London menswear boutique detracted only modestly from the general aura of manly authenticity.
It wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic, of course. I turned to light construction out of heavy desperation: my boy needed something to get him outside, and the treehouse was my only successful pitch to him (it was a non-starter with my daughter, but, being sportier than her brother, she was less of a challenge to get outside).
Fathers all over the world have been with their families 24 hours a day for weeks on end, many of them for the first time. One can only assume the experience will have an effect on them too. Certainly my circle of male friends has discovered not merely the do-it-yourself project but various other previously unfamiliar activities, from bread-baking to teaching algebra. It will be a while before the sociologists can tell us definitively how much of this sort of thing men actually did during the pandemic, or if my gender has, in its standard way, kicked most of the new domestic work to their female partners while rattling on about their own incremental contributions. But there is survey evidence to suggest that, if men are not doing their share, they are at least doing more of it.
Might the pandemic, then, bring us a new sort of man, brimming with retro self-reliance yet tempered by deeper connections with family? Or, to put it in more prosaic terms: will my son and I pick up those tools again when the lockdown has been lifted?
I expect my adventure with handiness to prove short-lived. Generations of bourgeois softness are not stripped away so easily. Other men, I suspect, will quickly conclude that baking your own bread, and similar activities, are a big pain in the ass.
The very fact that the treehouse was a success makes it unlikely that I will learn much from it. I’m not sure this is a particularly male trait, but I learn mostly from failure. But there have been failures too. Big ones.
One morning in early April, after an idiotic fight over dinner the night before, my wife told me that it was fine for me to be moody, and it was fine for me to be drunk, but if I were going to be both at the same time I could find someone else to live with. Her matter-of-fact tone communicated, more powerfully than anger, the danger I was in.
A few weeks later, in the course of my thousandth homework dispute with my daughter, I yelled at her with such violence that my son, who wasn’t even in the room, burst into tears. When I went to talk to him half an hour later, tears were still falling on his social-studies assignment. “That was terrible,” he said. “You should feel awful.” Then he sent me from the room.
In lockdown my family has become a mirror, and as often as not an ugly face has looked back. Work gives us all day long to think about something other than ourselves, and if you are good at your job that papers over personal failures. At home, it is not possible to absent yourself in the same way. Those who always worked at home will have confronted this already. Men like me are only learning it now.
Lockdown has brought something else into view too: death. I asked, over text, a group of my middle-aged male friends how lockdown would change them. After a little chatter, one friend made the point that men are significantly more likely than women to die of Covid-19, a difference that left them feeling vulnerable. “I stared mortality in the face for the first time in March. It was scary,” one friend said.
“No enemy, few opportunities for heroic action, and alone at home,” summed up another. This, I believe, is called growing up. It is a process that men, under normal conditions, have only a modest appetite for.
If Covid-19 does men any good at all it will be because it made vivid, for a short while, two truths that should have held our attention all along: that we can be no better than the man our families see us as, and that we will soon be dead. These realisations seem likely to have a bigger impact than learning how to swing a hammer.
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