Quarantine Diaries Day 211: Controlled Burn

For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:

If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.

*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.

It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.

I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.

Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.

In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.

The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.

The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.

I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:

Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.

It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.

Quarantine Diary Day 192: For All That Falls

Yesterday was the autumn equinox, one day of perfect balance before the Northern Hemisphere starts sliding into the dark. Missing the rhythm of the calendars that once ran my family, the school calendar, the church calendar, the court calendar, I wanted to mark the day. Heretofore, this former Mormon mommy blogger exclusively used Pinterest to catalogue tattoos and short sassy hair, but yesterday it occurred to me I might use it for what I can only assume is its intended purpose: tablescapes and kids crafts! I was looking for ways to celebrate Mabon, the lesser sabbat that corresponds to the autumn equinox on the wheel of the year. I took a few notes, saved a recipe, copied down a blessing to read over whatever my husband made us for dinner. I didn’t have to ask to know it would be a feast fit for a Pagan harvest festival. He always feed us well. I only planned to mull a little cider.

Though I am a cyclical being–moods not wholly separate from the phases of the moon, outlook informed by the seasons–I am not always as in tune with the earth as I might like. Yesterday, for example, I was not especially balanced. I was not especially inclined to look forward into the mystery or back with gratitude for all I have. Much of yesterday I was, in a word, pissed. Much of yesterday I was, if I had another word, and I do, because I’m the writer, scared.

I’m in meetings from 8:30 to 1:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come up for five minute breaks to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, grab a snack. I mostly have no idea what’s going on with my daughter’s e-learning during that time except that my husband (and, ugh, fine, the school) are doing the Lord’s work making it all happen. Yesterday, when I came upstairs at 10:35 my husband and daughter were watching Puppy Dog Pals. What. The. Fuck.

I tried to hold my fire, I really tried. I know I don’t know what kind of break they were on from video calls, what work she might have finished early, what kind of day they’d had, what kind of judgment calls my husband was making, what meltdowns might have preceded or been prevented by a few minutes in front of the cartoon equivalent of boxed mac and cheese, my daughter’s favorite meal.

None of that stopped me from going off in my mind, though. Why isn’t doing school work? If they’re on a break, why isn’t she outside? If there’s not time to go outside, why isn’t she jumping on the mini trampoline, that eyesore we brought into our house in April when we realized we’d be stuck inside for the rest of the school year? If she doesn’t want to move around, why isn’t she playing with LEGO or drawing? If everybody needed an easy break, why weren’t they reading a book? My questions were like hypercritical flies buzzing around an elephant they really didn’t like, a distraction from the questions that keep me up at night. Why the fuck isn’t my daughter in school? When is she going to go back? How is a lost year of the kind of movement and play and meaningful interaction with kids that she has always gotten outside our house going to affect her. How is any of this going to work if I don’t micromanage it?

Mabon is about balance, and it’s also a time for gathering up what we need to survive the winter and letting go the rest. Goodbye to long sun drenched days and hitting every art festival and sprinting up and down the beach. It’s time to tuck in, start saving energy. Do I have any relationships that need to end? Unhealthy habits? Self-destructive beliefs?

Of course the things I want to kick to the curb are not the ones that really need to go and vice versa. I’d like to give hyper-responsibility the old heave ho, not just the hyper part, but the responsibility part, too. I’m tired of holding my world up on my shoulders! I’m tired of working and and cleaning and negotiating and, oh god, so much caring and trying. I want a break from all that! But as a parent and a partner and an employee and a citizen suiting up and showing up is my only option.

What I really need to get over is trying to control other people and blaming them when behave the way I’d like them to. But power, even just the illusion of it, is hard to give up in the best of circumstances, and just about impossible when it feels like the world is spinning out around you. They call it a coping mechanism for a reason! Putting a lid on the pot and turning the stove up to boil when my husband does something differently than I would is easier than admitting that we have no guarantees that anyone will come out of all of this okay.

After stewing all afternoon, I went on a run to burn off my rage. When I came back, a neighbor was knocking on our door, wanting to play with our daughter. My husband answered and sent our daughter outside with a mask and a water bottle. When I finished with work for the day, I called my daughter in to help me measure cloves for the cider and round up the pinecones she’s collected over the last year to arrange into a centerpiece. We set out citrine and carnelian and a tiny jasper dog. We lit candles. We sat down to freshly baked challah and a broccoli tomato salad and sausage with apples. I read a prayer for the ones who light the way and the ones who take care. We sang a song about blackbirds. We talked about what it means for the emperor to have no clothes. After dinner we rolled toilet paper rolls in peanut butter and fruit and nuts and hung them in trees for the birds. We decided to take the leftover seeds to scatter in the park and walked over sipping cider from steaming ceramic mugs. My daughter pointed at the moon, a waxing crescent. Before bed we ate candy corn and read Harry Potter.

At the end of the night, I sat on the couch with my husband. I thought we’d might have it out over Puppy Dog Pals but instead I waxed poetic about Mabon and then let him update me about school. He’d spent the evening at curriculum night on Zoom. Last year I did curriculum night because I wanted to have a sense of how my daughter was spending her time while I was at work all day. I wanted to be the kind of working mom who also knows her way around her kid’s school. This year we thought it would be a better use of resources for the parent managing e-learning to try to figure out what the school is up to. When it was over, he said he felt better about our daughter’s teacher, and when he said that I felt better about everything. I don’t have to volunteer in her classroom or sit in on e-learning or get to know her teachers to know that she’s going to be okay. Her real education was never going to happen at school anyway.

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 46

I commuted over an hour a day for the first nine years of my career. For the last half of that, I was in transit over two hours a day. For many years, my route to work included a long walk, a train, and a water taxi. When I changed jobs a few years ago and moved into an office a few miles north of downtown and closer to my home in the suburbs, I thought the trip would get better. Instead, I had to take two trains each away, and almost every day included multiple 20+ minute waits on the platform. I defended my commute to people balked at how much time I spent getting to and from work. Sitting on the train with a book, walking on the riverwalk with a podcast, cruising down the Chicago river with music in my ears, that was my me time, the only time in my long days that I wasn’t busy with work, or childcare, or chores. Still, more often than not I arrived at work already exhausted, and by the time I made it home for the night, I was done. It’s no wonder that I spent so many of those train rides home, especially after I got sober, thirsty and resentful, envious of the men in suits drinking Daisy Cutter from a can with another in a paper bag. I wondered if it was the beer or the suits or the fact that they weren’t going home to a second shift that made them able to cope with a life that was grinding me into the ground. 

Last summer, my employer allowed me to rent an office in my town. After that, I walked to work, about twenty minutes each way. It was still a commute, but it didn’t feel that way, except on the coldest days, and the rainy ones. I marveled at the pleasure of watching the seasons unfold in my own community, up close. More than the walking, I embraced the gift of time. Moving my office gave me 1.5 hours back on my clock every day. Before I got that time, I assumed I would use it to work. I’m an attorney; there are always more hours to bill. I thought I might spend the rest of it with my daughter. I’m a working mom; there is always more to do at home. So for the first few weeks, I rushed off to work early on days that I had client calls and walked my daughter to school on days that I didn’t. I raced home for family dinners. As the weeks wore on, and I adjusted to not having a train to catch, I started to wonder why I was rushing. I also started to wonder if I wasn’t still entitled to a little me time that didn’t consist solely of listening to podcasts while hauling my ass to and from my job. I decided to reclaim the time that I’d been so eager to return to my family and my job. I let my morning runs go longer, up to seven, eight, and nine miles from five or six. I let my husband get our daughter ready for school while I played the guitar before work. I did daily tarot pulls.   

When I realized that I’d be working from home last month, I knew it would be a challenge. Our home is small, with no dedicated home office, and I’d be sharing the space with my husband and newly homeschooled daughter. But I was excited about the prospect of another gift of time. My forty-minute walk commute was going down to zero! Imagine all the quality family time, all the productive work hours! Imagine all the writing! I could barely contain myself.

Of course, you know what happened next. The first few weeks of self-isolation were more about surviving than thriving. I stopped waking up at 5:00 a.m. to work out because what was the point. I stopped making my kid get dressed for the same reason. I woke up late, walked downstairs, and arrived at the futon that is now my office already exhausted. I spent the day trying to maintain a veneer of business as usual with my coworkers and clients and by the time I made it upstairs for the night, I was done. I powered through dinner and bedtime and then collapsed on the couch to eat ice cream and watch comfort TV.   

It was my therapist who suggested that I bring back the commute, on the theory that our pre-pandemic routines can offer much-needed stability in a time of crisis. So I started walking, first around the park, and then around the block, and then around the neighborhood. Sometimes I call a family member on the phone. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. Sometimes I do nothing but walk. After years of wishing my commute away, I’m finding that most days I cannot walk enough. Walking outside, when I can’t go anywhere else, is a pleasure. I like watching the trees bud and the flowers bloom. I like peering into my neighbors’ yards and waving at people walking their dogs. The thing that drained me is now giving me life.    

At the beginning, I invited my daughter with me every time I left the house. She needs to get outside as much as I do, and I like her company. In fact, our walks our glorious. We collect sticks and rocks. We photograph flowers. We race as fast as we can. At least once every walk, my daughter peels ahead of me or drops back, lost in thought or in the wonder of it all. When she remembers I exist, she sprints back to me shouting, “I love you mama!” 

Lately, though, it’s getting harder to get my daughter to leave the house. As much fun as she has when she’s out there, she is getting tired of walking. She is tired of our neighborhood, tired of me. She misses other kids, and playing on the playground. Feeling obligated to make the most of this time, I keep pushing her to join me, and the walks are turning into a battleground. I think, if it were up to me, I would be walking four or five times a day, but I can’t, because I am a working parent and my time belongs to my family and my job. I start to get bitter. 

Just in time, I remember that the gift of this season is the gift of time. This weekend, we finished dinner, and I asked my daughter to pick up her toys. The family room was a disaster and she was starting to fuss. Outside, it was a gorgeous spring evening. The sun was setting, and the neighborhood was all gold. I thought about how much I’d rather be out there than in here. I thought about how there was no reason to rush through the evening, from dinner to chores to bathtime to bed. I walked upstairs, told my husband I was going for a walk. “Supervise the clean-up,” I said. “I’ll be back in fifteen for dessert.” I came back in twenty minutes to a clean house and ice cream sundae ingredients lined up on the counter. 

I am entitled to time to myself. I am entitled to do something enjoyable without turning it into an opportunity for my child. I am entitled to a life that doesn’t feel like a grind, that doesn’t turn me into dust. If I want to go for a walk, I can go for a walk. I don’t have to have a reason. It doesn’t have to be a commute. 

Devil’s Haircut

I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.