I love working from home. I have a nice view of the trees outside my picture window, I can make my own lunch in my own kitchen. I can brew my coffee and sip it from my favorite mug. I don’t have to get up early, shower, dress, nag my 13-year-old to get dressed and brush her hair, get my son, Aidan, on the bus, pack my work bag/lunch/water bottle, navigate the carpool lane at school and finally get into the office. These days, I’m in the office as soon as I get out of bed. What could be better?
Turns out, a lot.
If I “had it all” before, I certainly have it all now. Here’s what it looks like for this working mom in the wake of COVID-19.
Week one …
My email is a constant ding. I think, “This is a little crazy, but next week will be better.” I marvel at how sticky my kitchen counters seem to be, the way drinking glasses seem to multiply and how many hours my 16-year-old son, Aidan, can play video games and watch YouTube videos (Yes, I know all about screen time, but it’s week one and I’m not here for guilt.). I pride myself on having a bidet, a phone bath and an adequate supply of paper products — and wine. Such foresight! Or, rather, serendipity. I learn Zoom, I work on a puzzle when I find it hard to concentrate on work, and I look forward to happy hour with new zeal. A friend invites me for a social distance walk and I’m overjoyed.
Week two …
Rain. Calm. Quiet. Stillness. Waiting. A false peace. Still so much stickiness on every surface. And so many crumbs. Aidan, who has autism, is starting to melt down. I worry for my Boomer parents who won’t stay home. The same friend comes over for a social distance happy hour on the deck, and I gulp more-than-my-fair-share of wine and feel next-to-normal.
Three weeks …
Groundhog Day. What fresh new hell awaits? I’ve been used to asking this question the last three years as I check democracy’s pulse on Twitter. These days, I’m still checking (It’s not great, by the way.), while also looking for how many new cases of the virus there are, where it’s spreading, how many have died.
Also, I’m sick of the word COVID and am totally OK if I never see or hear it again.
After I put aside thoughts of the sky falling, I return emails, check into Zoom for hours on end and try to keep all of the balls in the air, even as new ones are thrown into the mix. I chuck laundry in the machine, wipe down the latest sticky surface (Let’s face it, they’re all sticky these days.), make dinner, keep a watchful eye on the toilet paper supply, and remind the kids to clean something (anything!) and to pick up a book and put down the tablet and video game controls. I negotiate and strategize and think of ways to keep everyone entertained, educated, safe, busy or at least not having a meltdown. I meditate — and yes, I drink wine.
The problem is that in my mind, I’m “working from home,” when in fact, I’m not. We’re not! We just think we are, when what we’re doing is hunkering down during a pandemic, serving as master communicators, teachers, parents and therapists in maintaining family health and well-being, and also trying to “work.” Work being everything that was expected before the pandemic – and more. Never have the expectations been greater nor the consequences higher.
I also began to read Ada Calhoun’s timely “Why we can’t sleep,” a book on why GenX women like myself wake up in the early hours of the morning filled with anxiety and existential dread. Granted, it’s perhaps not the best choice these days, when a mid-life crisis collides with a pandemic. It’s fascinating learning how our generation is shaping us as GenX middle-agers – how the messages and norms of our youth play out for us as adults. There are many themes I could explore, but in the interest of being concise I won’t. I strongly recommend the book if you’re interested.
There are two messages the author says our generation has received over and over: “You can do anything” and also “You’re on your own.” Both are true for me, and both have added new layers of stress, including a mantra of more, more, more, more running in refrain through my brain. (The old song lyrics “Insane in the membrane” comes to mind – not to diminish the very real mental health struggles of many folks.) My point is that not only is there more to do, but the pressure of doing more is also greater. We can’t rely on others to help: teachers, caregivers, public services and even parks aren’t open or available except perhaps on a screen.
The wheels are starting to come loose. Things that used to be merely annoying now make me rage. We’re not only a bit bored and confined, we’re also mourning. This is especially evident in Aidan. After some agonizingly rough patches early in his education, he’s now blossoming and loves school. He thrives around his teachers and friends and sports and the relishes the feeling of belonging, which is never easy and exceedingly rare for someone on the spectrum. We’re frustrated and sad and anxious and under each other’s feet with nowhere to escape and no one to save us but ourselves.
Yet there are also moments of inspiration, creativity and levity, such as when the person whose phone always rings during a meeting – literally always – is the same person who can’t work the mute on Zoom. And there are moments of innovation, when I watch colleagues come together to unravel a particularly challenging problem. There’s sweet solitude: losing myself in a book or the puzzle I never thought I had time to put together. There’s also a lot of love in my house, despite getting on each other’s nerves. I’m getting to know my kids better because I’m talking – and listening – to them more. Hugs from my husband are extra appreciated.
As we move into week four and five and six and beyond, my goal will be to extend a hug to myself – to practice self-compassion, to extend grace and love to myself and others, to let go of the guilt when I can’t be more or do more, to continue being resourceful, to remind myself I am resilient and that life goes on. And these days, that’s a very good thing and something to be especially grateful for.
Now go wash your hands.