What Quarantine Is Revealing to Women About Men

On Man Up, Aymann Ismail talks to a woman trying to wrangle her husband and young child in Seattle and another quarantining in her New York City studio apartment with her boyfriend.

Man and woman, both wearing surgical masks, face each other
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by cyano66/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail asked six women across the country how the men in their lives are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this excerpt, he talks to Hannah, a mom who’s sheltered with her husband and toddler in Seattle, and Shasha, who’s letting her boyfriend quarantine at her small studio apartment in New York. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: What’s changed for you and your family since having to self-quarantine?

Hannah: We don’t have day care anymore, so we’re all home here every day. We’re on a week and a half of that. Last week we did some play dates, but now it feels like that is not an OK thing to do anymore, so we’re not doing that. And then also last week we did do some going out to get meals, but that’s not a thing you can do in Seattle anymore. So yeah, we’re just home. We go on walks, we try to get some work done. That’s about it.

Aymann: What has this whole pandemic done to him? How would you describe that it’s affected him personally?

Hannah: During lots of stressful times, he gets very focused on what is just in front of him, and that is definitely happening. There’s not a lot of discussion of how he’s feeling. He seems, I think, a little taken aback by it and how quickly things are happening. It’s definitely not something that he expected. We expect schools to be closed through the end of April already, so that’s another six weeks. It’s hard for me to see how we can make it like this that long. And I don’t know what not making it looks like—whether it just means we’re not happy, or whether it means we have to do something really different or somebody has to drop hours, what that means going forward. We have worked to have an equal household, trying to put equal emphasis on each other’s careers and things like that. So if we had to make that kind of choice, I don’t know what happens after that.

Aymann: Yeah. I’m wondering if your husband’s role in your life has changed at all throughout this whole pandemic.

Hannah: Well, he just goes through the steps of his day. Without any pauses to go down a Twitter rabbit hole about, like, COVID testing rates. He wakes up, he gets dressed right away, takes the dog out, gets breakfast ready. If he’s on baby duty but he needs to do work and our son is upset—it’s not like he ignores him, but it doesn’t make him stop. He takes care of him. I’m not saying he doesn’t. But he’s in a mode, and he’s going to continue in that mode, and he’ll just sort of switch. That’s how he deals with it: to get done what he needs to get done and not think about it really.

Aymann: Have you guys had any conversations about how to take care of your mental health?

Hannah: We did start some conversations about how I thought I needed more of a pattern so that I could have some equilibrium. I was like, “Oh, we should do it like this. We do this in the morning, and then we do that, and then … ” But we didn’t get very far with it, I think because he doesn’t find it useful for him to set that kind of structure up or to think through those kinds of details. For me, I need to work these things out. I need to discuss what are the pros and cons of doing this this way? And will that be OK? Is that consequence all right? And to not have somebody who wants to do that, or is able to do that or willing to do that, is really hard for me. It’s not like there’s anybody else we can involve in these discussions right now. We’re in our little bunker. We run our little society by the rules we make. So it’s hard to not have someone to talk through those in the amount of detail that I need to discuss them.

Aymann: It’s strange when two people have different coping mechanisms.

Hannah: Yeah. Our son is 2, so he’s learning about himself, that he exists as a person. So his new phrase is “I will do it.” And that’s how I feel when [my husband and I] have these discussions about how should we arrange how we manage to get this thing done. Or who’s going to take the baby during this time when we both have meetings? And I always want to go through the pros and cons, but his response is “I will do it.” “I’ll just do it.” “We’ll go, and then it’ll be fine.” And it is. But that’s not what I want, right?

Aymann: Yeah. I’m trying to find the silver lining in all of this, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s the fact that we’re going to have a lot more time to think about these things, now that we’re forced to spend time with each other in a way that we’ve never had to before.

Hannah: The only other time we spent six weeks together—like, together together—was when our child was born. So it’s definitely an experiment in how much can we be together and still keep it together. And hopefully we can find joy in it, at least some of the time.

Aymann: So this is obviously a time where long-term problems are coming to a head, but I’ve also been hearing about relationships that are still pretty fresh. They’re suddenly getting more serious, more intimate—maybe before their time. Are you supposed to isolate with someone you don’t even live with yet?

Shasha: I live in a studio apartment. It’s great for one person, and I have a bird. My boyfriend is quarantining with me. He lost his job when all the bars closed this week. So he’s here most of the time like I am, unless he goes on a run. I don’t run, so I don’t go out.

Aymann: I wonder if you’ve noticed anything about how you are handling this crisis and how he’s handling the crisis?

Shasha: Yes. I’m a homebody of sorts. I love going out, but it was kind of nice to have an excuse to cancel my plans and do more me time. He for the most part agrees, but I think he’s realizing, now that we’re forced to stay in and not socialize, that he actually loves to go out a lot more. Not even just to socialize, but he likes to walk around. He can’t sit still for very long, and I’m a very much focused person, and I’m realizing in our studio apartment, when I’m just sitting still, he’s kind of buzzing around, if he’s not reading a book.

I think he also would like to get out of the city, which to me seems a little scary because I don’t have any family in the U.S., so this is my home. My studio is my home. I can’t go back to France, where my mother lives, because if I did, I don’t know when I’d be able to come back. And I’m fortunate enough to still have a job that I can do remotely, so I want to hang on to the things that I know as best as possible. He has much more of a family safety net than I do. He has family in Seattle, his brother is in Montréal, and he has another brother in L.A., and there’s a cabin that he really wants to go to in Canada. But I think as of today, they’re closing the borders for anything nonessential.

I also feel like I’m maybe impeding decisions that he’d be making, were we not together. I know that we don’t want to separate. At the same time, I asked him today, “What would you do if we weren’t dating? If we weren’t together, where would you be right now?” And his answer was either in Canada at that cabin or with his family in Seattle.

Aymann: Yeah, I know exactly what that’s like. My wife initially really wanted to get on the first flight to Kentucky to go stay with her mom and her siblings. And I feel a little like I’m trapping her here with me.

Shasha: That’s exactly how I feel too. This is my space. It’s my apartment. We’ve made a few changes—he has his own chair to sit in and a place to put his books. But for the most part, it’s my stuff. And the idea of him being stuck here, if he could be doing something else that he would rather do, makes me feel like not a great partner. At the same time, I don’t want to be away from him, and he doesn’t want to be away from me either. Separating I don’t think is a good idea, we’ve agreed. But we both have very different ideas of what quarantining would look like right now.

Aymann: Something happens with couples: Once you share a trauma, everything becomes a little bit simpler afterward. I think you’re a little bit more empathetic to each other. Do you see your relationship with your partner as being pre- and post-, being distinctly different?

Shasha: Well, I feel like a big part of being in a relationship, a trusting relationship, is that you can share your fears. We’ve both shared our fears about what will happen next and what we as a people, not just we as a couple, look like in a year from now, for example. Because I don’t think there’s really any light at the end of the tunnel at this moment. That doesn’t really freak me out for my relationship because we’re the one stable thing in my life besides my job. For the moment, my relationship is one of those pillars in my life right now. I can support him while he doesn’t have a job. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of changes, but I think we’re going to deal with it just fine.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “What Women Are Learning About Men During Self-Quarantine.”