My unexpected upside of the COVID-19 pandemic: Thurston
Sometimes there really is a silver lining. For all the stress and suffering and disruption of COVID-19, there has been an unexpected happening that is both positive and heartwarming.
For many families, long work commutes, extended hours spent at the office or travel away from loved ones have all but evaporated.
And many dads, used to spending the best part of their days and weeks away from growing children, have come to know them just that little bit better.
Retired rugby league legend Johnathan Thurston, who regularly travelled away from his wife Samantha and their four young daughters for interstate television commentator commitments, has felt the full impact of pandemic travel restrictions.
While acknowledging the devastation the virus has wreaked, Thurston, 37, is also quietly grateful for the turn of events that has seen the world stop and slow.
Townsville-based Thurston, who would normally travel interstate every week, sometimes for up to 10 days at a time, has been enjoying more time at home with Samantha and daughters Frankie, 7, Charlie, 5, Lillie, 3, and Remie, 18 months. It has meant he was home to witness the milestone of Remie taking her precious first steps.
Lillie, who was at first insistent that "mummy do that", now "allows" Thurston to read her a bedtime story ("Hairy Maclary please"). He has his own favourite story to read and the one he suggests most often (sometimes met with a not-again eye roll from Frankie) is the Dr Seuss classic The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
He still remembers how heartbroken he felt after returning home after a two-month absence with the Australian Kangaroo Test tour in 2016.
It was the year after his daughter Charlie was born and, when he returned, she refused to let him put her to bed. And so now - immersed in the thick of his family's nightly "witching hour" routine of dinner, bath, bed; of doing school drop-offs and pick-ups; being home for birthday celebrations; and witnessing milestones - Thurston is grateful for every minute.
"Last year I spent way too much time away from home which wasn't great," Thurston, who retired from professional football with the North Queensland Cowboys in 2018, says.
"Not many of my commitments are in Townsville and I would be away just about every week during the footy season.
"I'd be away sometimes at the start of the week, then home for a day or so, then away for the weekend. There were times I was away for the whole week and sometimes I was away for 10 days in a row so it wasn't ideal when you have a young family.
"When I got back from the Kangaroo Test tour in 2016, after being away for eight weeks, Charlie wouldn't let me put her to bed because I'd been away for so long. That was heartbreaking and devastating.
"I know COVID hasn't been great for some people and businesses but spending more time at home has been great for our young family. It's 100 per cent been a positive.
"I'm normally away for a lot of the girls' milestones but I got to see Remie's first step and it was so good to see.
"It (the pandemic) has been a blessing in disguise. I'm cherishing those moments I don't normally get due to rugby league and other commitments."
Thurston is not alone in finding extra family time a welcome reprieve from pre-COVID busyness.
A recent report out of the US, that surveyed more than 1000 parents with a partner of a different sex on division of housework and childcare since COVID-19, found 45 per cent of fathers were spending more time taking care of young children than they did before the pandemic.
The study, compiled by researchers out of the University of Utah, Ball State University in Indiana, and University of Texas at Austin, prompted US Professor of Paediatrics at Northwestern University in Chicago, Dr Craig Garfield, to say the pandemic has "reshaped the way fathers are involved with their families and children''.
"Whether it's play, reading a book or getting down on the floor and spending time with their kids, this is an unprecedented opportunity for fathers to be really involved," he says.
But meaningful and lasting change to social norms will perhaps take more time yet.
A recent report released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found the division of childcare and household work has barely shifted, despite the proportion of people always working from home rising from seven per cent to 60 per cent during COVID-19.
The Life During COVID-19 report surveyed more than 7000 Australians during May and June to understand how the nation was adjusting to pandemic lockdown and social distancing restrictions.
It found COVID-19 had minimal impact on the way mothers and fathers shared childcare responsibilities with 54 per cent of respondents saying mothers "always or usually" looked after the children before COVID-19, compared to 52 per cent during.
The pandemic also had minimal impact on who did the housework with 43 per cent saying the female partner "always or usually" did the housework before COVID-19, compared to 41 per cent during.
AIFS director Anne Hollonds says the results proved certain social norms were "pandemic resistant".
"Even though we're all spending so much more time at home, entrenched gender patterns are still evident - with women still taking on more of the household duties than men," she says.
Dan Collins, 37, a civil engineer, of Bridge man Downs, in north Brisbane, feels he has upped the ante in sharing the care of his 10-month-old son Arnie.
Collins has spent the past few months working from home, instead of commuting into Brisbane's CBD and spending 12 hours a day away from home, five days a week.
He has enjoyed spending more time with his growing baby son and wife Katrina, 36, and taking on more child caring duties.
"Typically, I would be away from home 7am to 7pm Monday to Friday. It was always hard to try and leave the office at a reasonable hour to get home to be able to help with dinner, bath, bedtime. It was always a bit of a juggling act," Collins says.
"Even if I was to leave the office early at 5pm, I'd get stuck in peak-hour traffic and take up to an hour to drive home. That's two hours of help or two hours of bonding time I otherwise wouldn't get."
Collins says he has enjoyed taking on jobs such as feeding Arnie his breakfast and getting him dressed in the morning, building daily bonds and familiarity with his son. Pre-pandemic he could only do these things on the weekends because of his long work days. "While COVID is pretty damaging in terms of jobs and business, there is a shining light in my situation in that I have a very young boy who is growing up right in front of me while I'm still able to work," he says.
"Just being there and doing things with him every day, I've felt I've contributed more as a husband and a dad. And I haven't been able to drop any of my work ability to be able to do that."
Collins also has an 11-year-old daughter named Isabella who lives in Canberra with his previous partner.
He normally sees Isabella on school holidays but COVID-19 travel restrictions meant she was unable to visit between Christmas and July.
"I haven't had a lot of time with Isabella recently. We had her here for a week when Queensland reopened its borders in July but now the borders are shut again," Collins says.
"Her mother and I have been separated since she was two so I've seen her every three or four months since then. Every time I see her she is bigger and different in some way. There's definitely moments of, 'What am I missing?'"
And so while the sounds of a baby crying in the next room can be distracting, Collins says it's all been worth it to witness milestones such as Arnie crawling for the first time and standing up beside his desk.
"They are really cool moments you get to experience while working at the same time.
"It's definitely been rewarding and I feel that I have a strong relationship with my son as a result.''
Brisbane father Murray Davis believes COVID-19 will result in permanent workplace changes. Davis, 40, of Hamilton, in Brisbane's inner north east, is head of treasury and investments for Medibank.
Pre-pandemic, he did his job from Melbourne, flying to the Victorian capital each week, leaving Tuesday morning and returning Thursday night.
With his wife Jane, 40, a lawyer, they have children Albert, 9, Josephine, 6, and Eddie, 4.
Since late February, Davis hasn't commuted to Melbourne, instead working from home, and he has enjoyed spending more time with his children, walking them to and from school, talking to them on the way about their friends, teachers, picking up on the subtleties of their moods.
His two youngest children have learnt to ride their bikes without training wheels. He has been able to go out for more kicks of the football, more bike rides, more scoots, more sport drop-offs. He has even joined the school parents and citizens association.
Davis says he also has a "deeper appreciation of how full-on the kids can be through the night'' with his wife's sleep regularly interrupted. He now gets the day started with the kids' breakfast, allowing Jane to get up half an hour later.
"Everyone's mindset has changed," Davis says. "Most people now see they don't need to be in the office five days a week.
"Between a laptop and a mobile phone you can pretty much do everything. Working flexibly and remotely, we are still getting our job done and I don't think I'll go back to commuting like I was.
"I don't think I need to and I don't think the broader society will. I think we've all changed."
Davis says, for his family, the workplace changes in the wake of COVID-19 have been overwhelmingly positive. It has also been good for his health, getting back into a regular routine of cycling and even committing to a week-long 1200km charity ride from Brisbane to Longreach in October called RideWest, that raises funds and awareness of mental health issues in regional Australia.
"Maybe I didn't realise how much I was giving up to do the travel in the past," Davis says.
"It's been a positive, for sure, in terms of family time and health benefits.
"I've just turned 40 and you do a bit of reflecting as you come up to milestone birthdays. Part of the pandemic is an opportunity to think a bit more broadly about what is really important and it's spending more time with the family, being more engaged with the school and the sporting community, my health and engaging in the community.
"You miss out on a lot when you are travelling or even just working really long hours and there's nothing more important than my wife and my kids."
Underneath it all, family is at the heart of the matter for Thurston too.
He is well known for his swag of awards for his football ability - including being a four-time Dally M Medal winner - as well as recognition for his work as a role model and mentor to young and Indigenous Australians.
In 2017, he was the first sportsman to win the Australian Human Rights Commission Human Rights medal. In 2018 he was named Queensland Australian of the Year and became a member of the Order of Australia in 2019. He is a mentor and ambassador for the North Queensland Cowboys and his JT Academy, launched in February 2018, runs workshops and community programs aimed at "employment, education and well being".
Thurston is also a co-owner of Cairns-based airline Skytrans, which he says has had to lay off 50 per cent of staff due to the pandemic.
Most recently, he has shown his colours as an environmentalist, signing as the first official brand ambassador for solar energy company Instyle Solar. As a growing family of six with multiple home airconditioning units and a pool, Thurston and his wife want to teach their children awareness of their carbon footprint.
They had solar panels installed on their home in November 2019 and say, so far, they have saved "an incredible amount of money".
"We wanted to be environmentally friendly as a family; we're passionate about that," Thurston says.
"Our power bill used to be through the roof, especially during summer. Frankie and Charlie are very inquisitive about the planet and they know that plastic usage can end up in the ocean and that turtles and marine life can choke on it. They are becoming aware of what's going on around them."
But while Thurston is proud of his successes on and off the football field, his most worthwhile accomplishment, he says, is closer to home. "My greatest achievement in life is definitely my family," he says.
"That's what I live for and I strive to be the best husband and father.
"It's easy to get swept up with what's going on in your life and forget about what's really important. But this is the time to take a deep breath and spend time with those you love.
"And it will be nice to be home for Father's Day this year. I'm sure the girls will have the traditional jocks and socks for me that I get every year.
"It's so great to see the smiles on their faces … and this year it might be hankies and face masks."
Originally published as My unexpected upside of the COVID-19 pandemic: Thurston