I Missed My Son’s Birthday This Year. A Lot of Us Will.

Visitation and joint custody take on new meaning in a time like this

Shane Paul Neil
LEVEL
Published in
6 min readApr 6, 2020

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Photo courtesy of the author

Update 6/7/22: Level has a new home. You can read this article and other new articles by visiting LEVELMAN.com.

TTomorrow will be my son’s seventh birthday. I once wondered what it would take for me to not be there by his side on such an occasion; the answer, as it turns out, is a global pandemic.

I’m writing this on the desktop I grabbed from my office, now propped up on the windowsill of my apartment — a makeshift workspace in a big, quiet world. My window faces New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, where the traffic grows lighter and lighter every day. Beyond the highway lies the Watchung Mountains. What was once a peaceful vista now feels desolate rather than beautiful, a reflection of the new normal.

In the large apartment complex I live in, most of the tenants either work in New York City or Newark, both of which have become hot spots for Covid-19. It was inevitable that at least one of my neighbors would either be exposed to the virus or become a confirmed case. That happened two weeks ago; now, I work in isolation with the woman I love. Both of our children are staying with their other parents, in situations we’re hoping are safer than our own.

Before this, I was renting a room in an unfinished basement affectionately referred to as “The Dungeon.” It was dark and ant-filled with a decaying drop-ceiling. As much as I wanted my son with me, and as much as he wanted the same, my ramshackle room just wasn’t appropriate. But a few months later, when I moved into a space with vaulted ceilings and huge windows, there was space for my son — and he happily commuted between Mom and Dad.

This new scenario is the culmination of a years-long battle with poverty and mental health issues. (The latter still needs a lot of work, but I’m getting there.) I’m finally becoming the father I envisioned myself being since before my son was born.

The last time I saw my son in person, we were stealthily moving down the hallway of my building pretending to shoot monsters with Nerf guns. Later, we built a fort and watched cartoons. He made his first grilled cheese sandwich. It is a montage…

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Shane Paul Neil
LEVEL
Writer for

Writer (duh) and photographer. Bylines @levelmag @complex @ebony @huffpo shanepaulneil.com