Quarantine Diary Day 95: The Perils of Working From Home

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I thought I would hate working from home. I did hate it when I tried it for a few months last year, and that was back when my husband and daughter actually left the house for significant portions of the workday. I hated sitting at the kitchen table, I hated working on a tiny laptop, I hated the lack of demarcation between work and home, I hated how infrequently I moved throughout the day, I hated my unstable internet connection, and I hated having to hide upstairs or downstairs when my family came home.

This time around, I don’t mind it at all. I like curling up on the futon with a blanket around my shoulders. I like the freedom of not relying on any office supplies or technology other than my laptop and my phone. I like working in proximity to the kitchen, with its endless supply of coffee and assorted delicious snacks. I like going for a walk whenever I please, not just during the lunch hour or when I have someplace to be. I don’t mind hearing my daughter cry during a conference call because I know I’ll hear her laugh later. I don’t mind when the internet drops out. Okay, that last one is a lie. I mind it very much, but I can work around it and I know it will be back.

I like the spiders that live on the ceiling in the spare room where I work. I like them so much one dropped onto my wrist yesterday and I didn’t murder it. Instead I brushed it off and when it showed up later on my desk I gave up and said, I guess we’re friends.

I like the sound of the wind chimes on my back patio. I like them so much that every day I think of taking my laptop and working outside, though I haven’t done it yet. I guess it’s enough to know I can.

The last few months have been busy, workwise. I know I’m lucky in this regard. I know I’m lucky to still be working, and to be able to do my job from home. I know privileged is a better word than lucky. I’ve been so busy and gotten so much done that I’d convinced myself that I am just as productive at home as I am in the office. I’ve been thinking maybe I should give up my office altogether. Save my employer the rent, save myself the commute, give myself over to this new way of being in the world.

This week was my first time back in the office since March. I’m delivering a client presentation tomorrow and need a stable internet connection and to be nowhere near even the possibility of a crying child. I dropped by today to make sure I could still get in the building and confirm that my office hadn’t been overtaken by, I dunno, raccoons over the last three months. I sat down at 2:30 and worked until 5:00 and damn if I didn’t get more done in 2.5 hours than I usually do in a day.

I guess the snacks and spiders and children and chimes and walks and general mushiness of my workspace and day were more distracting than I thought.

Quarantine Diary Day 88: Law Mom

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At my old job, I had a reputation for being a thorough researcher, a strong writer, a careful Bluebooker, and a promising speaker. I also had a reputation for being “a mom.” I was not the only mom at my firm, or even the only parent of young children, but mom was nonetheless a larger part of my identity at work than it was for my colleagues. I bear some of the blame for this predicament. I went and got myself knocked up after only three months at the firm! Three! I hate to make a big deal out of that timeline because doing so reinforces two wildly sexist notions: (1) that a woman needs the approval of her employer to make highly personal, life-changing decisions; and (2) a woman needs to prove her worth to a company before she’s allowed to use benefits to which she is legally entitled and which, in fact, exist to benefit the company. Though I reject both of these premises, I do recognize that three months is not a lot of time. I barely gave my colleagues a chance to know anything about me before I announced my pregnancy! It’s no wonder they thought of me as mom.

After a certain point, though, surely my colleagues should take some of the blame. I mean, one senior partner expressed surprise to see me back from maternity leave when my kid was eighteen months old. Sheesh, what could I even say to that? My leave was decent by U.S. standards, but not that long. Indeed, my coworkers were always asking me about my kid. One especially demanding senior partner stopped in my office a few times a week, and I’d always sit up at attention, even though inside I might be eager or shrinking, depending on how busy I already was. Neither my worry nor my anticipation were warranted though. For the last few years I worked at the firm, 95% of his drop-ins began and ended with him asking about my daughter and then sharing an anecdote about his grandson, who was close in age. I never knew what to make to make of this. On one hand, how nice that we we able to connect about something than other than work. On the other hand, we weren’t talking about work at all. Notably, the partners I could count on for a steady stream of work rarely asked about my personal life in the office.

I thought about raising my concern that I was being pigeonholed, but didn’t because I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to change. Certainly, I didn’t want to be treated like the men. One male associate became a dad just a few weeks shy of his one-year anniversary at the firm, which is when his parental leave benefit would have kicked in. He had to come to work one week after his first daughter was born. Another male associate tried to take paternity leave when his second kid was born and the demanding senior partner with the adorable grandson leaned on him to come back to the office less than a week later and then travel out-of-state for a multi-week client audit.

I like talking about my kids at work. I appreciate not having to hide the existence of my family. I want to be seen as a multi-faceted human being. I suspect I’m far from alone. But what do we do about people who can’t hold the idea that that a woman can be a talented lawyer and a loving mom in their heads at the same time? I don’t want to go back into the mommy closet. I don’t want to pretend I don’t want to eat dinner with my family and that I’ve never been to a parent-teacher conference in my life. How do we save work/life balance for everyone?

The answer, I think, has been revealed in the pandemic. Since all of my clients and contacts and co-workers started working from home, the men won’t shut up about their kids. I exchanged emails with a lawyer I’d never met before, and at the end asked how he was doing. He said that he was counting down the days for homeschooling to end. Every conference call starts with a round robin of updates about what’s going on with everyone’s families. Even the older guys want to talk about how their college kids and grown children are faring in virus times. I call an old friend in the middle of the day and he has to go because he’s on toddler duty. I call another friend and he is driving his mom to the store. All the two-income families I know have implemented complicated schedules in which both partners trade-off childcare so they both have time to work. I’m not saying that coronavirus has been the great equalizer. Women are still bearing the brunt of homeschooling, housework, and childcare and are at risk of serious career setbacks as a result. But that problem, too, highlights the path forward.

The goal is not, as we used to think, for women to act more like men. The answer is for men to act more like women.

Quarantine Diary Day 56

A Day In The Life Working From Home

8:30-11:00 – WebEx call with team at work. My home WiFi doesn’t support WebEx calls, so I have to make this call on the desktop computer. The monitor is set up above a standing desk, which means that I spent two and a half hours on my feet. I take selfies with my headset and notice that my short hair has grown out into a pompadour.

11:00-11:45 – Prep for management escalation meeting. I’m working on my own, so I move to the futon with my laptop. I have a laptop table–I had to order it during the first week of quarantine and it arrived late, and damaged–but I prefer to sit cross-legged and pull the computer onto my lap. I think I need to start being more mindful about my posture, though. The last couple of days my arms have been tingly and numb. I suspect carpal tunnel.

11:45-12:00 – Lunch. I heat up a frozen Moroccan empanada from Whole Foods, slice and salt an avocado, and finish off the rest of a head of raw cauliflower. I eat quickly at the kitchen table, where my husband is homeschooling our daughter. I distract her from her work and they both get annoyed at me.

12:00-12:50 – Therapy. I started seeing a counselor in January of this year because I was depressed. Anxious has been my default state for so long that I never even think about seeking outside help for it, though I have in the past, and have a lot of good tools for managing it. Depression is different for me. Depression is scary. I’m so grateful that I found a therapist who was in-network for my insurance, accepting new patients, and who I clicked with before we all found ourselves shut up inside our homes for months on end. I’m so grateful that HHS decided to suspend enforcement of parts of HIPAA to allow mental health providers to provide services over apps that may be less than perfectly secure, like Zoom. Is my lawyer showing? Anyway, I care more about getting the help I need than about privacy, but I guess if you’ve read this paragraph then you already know that. For the first month of quarantine, I did my sessions over the phone while I walked around outside, but now I’m using a video app because I’m more honest when I can see the person I’m talking to. I do these calls on the futon. The home office is cold today so I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and drink a cup of tea.

12:50-1:00 – More meeting prep. Ten minutes is not enough time to shift from COVID-19 nightmares to evaluating risk under FDA regulatory requirements.

1:00-1:30 – Management escalation meeting. This is my first management presentation for this client, and I have been working hard to prepare for it. I have also been very nervous! This meeting takes place over Skype, which does work on my laptop, so I am still on the futon. Surprisingly, I am able to speak intelligently about complicated issues from a futon. The hard work pays off. The presentation was well-received, and my team received positive feedback.

1:30-1:45 – Team debrief via Skype. Hooray! That went well! Congratulations! Lots more to do, but good work everyone! It occurs to me that I really like working with a team.

1:45-2:45 – Walk around the neighborhood. I am thrilled to be done with the escalation meeting, and decide to reward myself with a mid-day break. I walk south and west, trying to go down streets I haven’t seen before. I stop to take pictures of churches. There are a lot of churches in my neighborhood, every one of them empty. Thinking too long about all the people who are not getting together inside the churches breaks my heart so I focus on the buildings themselves. I’m listening to Eat, Pray, Love as an audiobook. I have never read it before because I thought I was above it (I am a snob) but it is absolutely delightful. I resolve to get my daughter’s passport application submitted before quarantine ends. I don’t know when we’ll get to travel again, but I want to be ready for it.

2:45-3:45 – Work. It’s interesting to me but boring to write about so I won’t.

3:45 – 4:30 – Game day with my family. For some reason, I’m not totally clear why, my daughter is supposed to play a game for school today. My husband mentions that I should join them if I have time, and I do, so I do. Husband tells daughter to pick a short game but she picks Ramen Fury, which is long, but I don’t mind. Daughter sits on the mini-trampoline that has been sitting in the middle of our living room since her birthday two weeks ago and bounces up and down. She loves this game, though she spends more time and energy trying to screw things up for the other players than she does trying to win. I do poorly.

4:30-5:00 – Back to work. I have to send some emails.

5:00-5:15 – Write. Usually I spend this time walking around the neighborhood and talking to a family member on the phone, but I’m tired from my long walk this afternoon and eager to finish yesterday’s essay about rest.

Quarantine Diary Day 53

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In January 2019, I walked away from an offer of partnership at the law firm where I’d worked for seven years.

I traded the tenure-like job security of equity partnership at an established firm to become an at-will employee, and the most junior attorney at a six-person firm.

I downsized from a fancy office in downtown Chicago to a shared workspace in an industrial part of town where I had a month-to-month lease and logged in to connect with my new coworkers, who were mostly all remote.

I gave up the prestige of a traditional firm with a storied history to join a progressive, woman-owned boutique with an alternative compensation structure and a niche practice area.

I gave up 40% of my salary. 

Partnership at a law firm was not the plan when I went to law school or when I graduated or when I accepted my first job offer or even when I started working at the firm that would become my home. I stuck it out through the grueling associate years, paying my dues, because I liked the people and I liked the work and I was good at it. When it became apparent that I was on the partner-track, and that I had what it took to be successful (i.e., manage cases and bring in business), I figured I’d be there for the rest of my career. That was the model. Most of the partners I worked for had been there for ten, twenty, thirty years.

The prospect of partnership was, on one hand, a relief. I graduated from law school at the height of the recession. Former classmates of mine are still underemployed, a decade later. I was lucky to get a job in private practice, one that paid well, but being an associate is like an eight-year job interview. I spent most of it anxious and afraid.

As much as I craved security, the notion that I’d spend the next 35 years working at the firm was, on the other hand, panic-inducing. I couldn’t put together an image of it in my mind that wasn’t bleak. The trouble was, I knew that law firms didn’t get much better than the one I was at. Like I said, the people were good, and so was the work. I was well-paid. My work-life balance was miles better than my peers at other firms. I knew I could stay as long as I wanted and be pretty happy. 

When I left the law firm I shocked myself. The reasons I left are manifold and beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that I discussed them ad nauseum with almost every person I know and, in the course of those discussions, one point kept rising to the surface: the new job might not work out over the long-term. As much as I wanted it to, and as much evidence as I had that it probably would, I had to admit and accept that I might not be at the new job in five years, or even one. I had to give up the dream of security.   

The only way I was able leave behind the kind of security the law firm gave me is because having the rest of your life mapped is its own kind of death. Certainty in a future you didn’t choose is another, as is certainty in a future you know you don’t want. Walking away from that kind of security was like setting myself free. 

I left the law firm terrified and excited for the future. I thought everything would change. Imagine my surprise then, when the first thing I noticed about my new job was how easy the transition was. The nature of my clients and my work, the fact that I was good at it, all of that stayed the same.

What did shift dramatically were my feelings about my job. I was happier, less anxious about the future. Stepping into uncharted territory was not, it turned out, like stepping off a cliff. True, I did not know what would happen in a year, but I knew what I would be doing for the next few weeks and I was excited about it. Embracing the uncertainty freed me from my fears about the future so that I could enjoy the present. 

The security of the law firm was, of course, an illusion. The law firm I left ceased to exist the same day I started my new job, which is when it merged with, folded up into, another firm. If I’d stayed, I would have joined the new, larger entity as a non-equity partner, not so different from an at-will employee. The big salary was only guaranteed for one year. It turned out that what I was leaving behind wasn’t so different from what I was walking into. 

I have been at the new job for a year and a quarter now. There have been some shake-ups, some twists and turns, in that time but I’m still here. Every time something like that happens, my boss checks in with me. “How are you doing? I know this isn’t what you signed up for.” My response is always the same: “I knew what I was getting into. This is exactly what I signed up for.” 

Now, with the all the upheaval from the global pandemic, the future is hazier than ever. Will we have a vaccine? Will my daughter go back to school for second grade? Will my elderly relatives survive? Will I see my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews this year? What will happen with my job? Will our clients still need us? Will my firm still need me? At one point, all this uncertainty would have been too much to bear, would have made me a veritable flight risk from my own life. At the moment, though? I’m doing okay. I might not know what I’m doing next year or even next month, but I know what I’m doing today, and I’m excited about it. I’m okay in the harder moments, too, because I know that the future never was clear, not even before COVID-19 came along and fogged up all our windows. Today was all we ever had. 

Hello Goodbye

Today was a travel day, a quick trip down to North Carolina for work. I thought for sure I was going to miss my flight, but I didn’t. I like to be at the airport a full two hours early because I am an anxious traveler (fine, and anxious person) and also a typical Taurus in that I live for creature comforts so if I can get to the airport with enough time to buy a coffee and a snack and settle in with a book or do some window shopping, I am generally much more amenable to the idea of being forced to spend hours of my time between places that I want to be. So, ideally, I would have been in a cab by 3:15 pm to make my 6:00 pm flight (because Chicago traffic is a miserable nightmare always), but I wanted to see D for a few minutes before I left, so I offered to do school pick-up, which is at 3:35 pm, and then we walked home and talked about books and rocks and the fun night she has planned with her dad, and we got home at 3:45, and it took me another 15 minutes to book a cab because I had a last-minute freak-out about which shoes to pack and kept swapping my Cole Haan oxford heels for tall black riding boots boots (I could give a shit about fashion for the most part but I appreciate clothes with an autumn sensibility) and then realized I needed to change my socks and pack extra socks (I get sweaty feet, yo), and I kissed my family goodbye several times because I kept thinking I was ready to go and then redoing my bags and having to say goodbye again, and then no Lyft drivers were close to my house, and I didn’t get in the car until 4:15, by which time traffic was already rush hour-y and my driver kept making confusing and confused-seeming turns, but I not going to complain because he got me to O’Hare right at 5 and the security line was semi-light and I had time to use the bathroom and refill my water bottle before strolling up to my gate as they were boarding my group– group 4 to be exact, because I am not fancy!

The flight was fine. I was nauseated from the cab ride that was all detours and hungry because it was dinner time, so I ate a giant blueberry muffin from Whole Foods that my husband thoughtfully sent me off with. I used to eat these muffins almost every day on my maternity leave and haven’t had one in years and I forgot how good they are, all crumbly on top and gooey, almost undercooked, in the middle. Toward the end of the flight, when the plane started to descend and my sinuses were blowing up with pressure the way they always do, a toddler in the row behind me started in with the shrieking. It was piercing and terrible but the poor girl looked so exhausted and so sad with fat tears rolling down her round cheeks that reminded me of D’s when she was that age. D is an awesome flyer now, but she always threw at least one screaming fit per flight until she was about three. Watching the wailing kid and her inexplicably mellow mom made me miss D. Traveling alone is easy, but lonely.

The hotel was just a short drive from the airport. Like, less than 10 minutes. Cities where things are close and easy to get to are weird. The main entrance at the hotel opened right up into the restaurant, which had an unexpected party vibe. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was definitely a business party vibe, with lots of bros and shiny-haired women in suits drinking beers, but it was a lot more activity than I usually see at a Marriott on a Monday night. It was like a really late, really fun happy hour. I had planned to eat at the restaurant but all those people and all those beers felt just a little triggering so I ordered a caprese salad at bar and grabbed a bag of chips from the sundry store and took it all back to my room. I am eating and writing this now. I watched four videos of D and her dad eating ice cream sundaes and playing board games. He planned a special “sleepover” for her to make things fun while I am away, which means he has to sleep on the bottom bunk in her room. That is the price of being a fun dad. I am going to read and eat candy and starfish on this clean white king-sized bed. That is the beauty of being a working mom.

Three Years and a New Day One

This past Wednesday, January 29, 2019 marked three years since my last drank. I celebrated quietly, at home, not even making it to a meeting, on account of the Polar vortex that shut most of Chicago down for two days.

Today, February 1, 2019 marked a new day one. Not of sobriety, thank God. I joked darkly with my husband about warming up with some whiskey when our heater started to fail and it was nearing negative thirty degrees outside, but I didn’t actually take a drink. (If you’re wondering, he did not laugh at that joke, because husbands of alcoholics don’t laugh at jokes like that, and also because it was less of a joke than a testing of the waters, which, if we’re being honest, is just a symptom of an alcoholic mind.) Rather, after seven years at my last firm, today was my first day at a new job.

As far as day ones go, this one was not too different from early sobriety, insofar as it was both underwhelming and anxiety-producing and consisted almost entirely of waiting. The plan was for me to set up my new office and get oriented on my new computer in the morning and then spend the afternoon in training sessions. As it happened, when I arrived at my office, I discovered that all of my office equipment, including my computer, and the majority of my office furniture, were still in transit, again, on account of the Polar vortex. I unpacked a few office supplies, set up a desktop lamp and speakers, looked for an AA meeting, because I’ve learned that’s what you do when you don’t know what else to do, and then killed time twirling in my desk chair until I could leave for the meeting without being too early (because I’m a good AA member, but not that good). As it happened, when I arrived at the meeting at 11:50, I discovered that the meeting didn’t start until 12:30, so I planted my butt in a metal chair and waited forty minutes for the meeting to start. Back at the office, I took care of the logistical items I could, and then decided to head out for the day at 3:00, on account of there was nothing else for me to do. I planned to squeeze in a workout before getting home at 5:00. As it happened, the red and purple lines were significantly delayed due to mechanical failures, I’m guessing on account of the Polar vortex, and I ended up waiting over an hour at two different train stations before making it home at 5:00 with no workout at all. When I arrived at home, I discovered I’d missed the UPS delivery of my new computer by three minutes and I wouldn’t be able to pick it up until Monday afternoon (after all my rescheduled training sessions).

It is hard for me not to revert to old patterns of thinking and construe everything that happened today as a sign that this new job is going to be, if not a disaster, at least an unpleasant, anxiety-producing detour. I don’t subscribe to that kind of magical thinking anymore, though. Instead, I’m going to hope that this day one, like my last one, turns out to be the start of a journey, along a path varied with enough exhilarating highs to justify all the disappointing lows and a good deal of boring middle ground to keep me sane, but above all else takes me somewhere new.