Quarantine Diaries Day 226: Office Wars

I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. My presence at home distracts my daughter from e-learning and throws them off their routine. When I come up for coffee or walnuts or cheesy puffs she looks up from whatever screen is working best today and says, “Hey guess what?” and then we chat over her teacher and he has to redirect her when I leave. When I join them for lunch, he says she’s like a whole different kid. When he’s being whatever, she looks to me as if to say, “see what I’m dealing with all day?” and I give her a look that says, “tell me about it.” I get to be the fun mom and he is serious business dad. I don’t think he likes that.

The downstairs room where I work and he works out is a mess of cords. I have work laptop and another work laptop and the tablet where I do my writing and last week I brought out the space heater. I keep talking about how I want to tell my firm to stop paying rent downtown and bring all my office furniture home. We could put the futon in storage, or just throw it away (it’s not like anyone’s coming to stay) and move is $$$ stationary bike into the garage. He really doesn’t like that.

I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But I used to eat cans of soup for lunch and now I eat roasted vegetables and pasta. I used to scour discount shoe retailers for boots sturdy enough to stand up to several miles of sloshing through the snow, professional enough to stand up in court, and sleek enough to withstand the withering stares of ladies who lunch and now I wear slouchy socks all day. I used to get sexually harassed when I changed into leggings to go for a run and now I know the freedom of almost nobody looking at me at all.

I think my husband wants me to go back to the office. But, look, I tried to go back in June and the man on the other side of the wall was coughing into a phone while hawking his gluten free bread products and the other man with whom I was once locked in a silent battle over the thermostat in my office was sweating buckets at his desk and the receptionist was walking around with her mask dangling from one ear and every month or so I get an email that there’s been a positive test in the building.

My husband definitely wants me to go back to the office. But, like, would you go back before there’s a vaccine? Would you ever go back at all?

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 87: How To Slow Down Time

img_20200515_135644207-1None of the times I became a runner did I set out to run fast. I joined the middle school track team in seventh grade just wanting to be part of a team, eager to prove myself as an athlete but not caring if the coaches ran me in heat one, two, or three. I started training for a marathon the summer before my second year of law school just wanting to see how far I could go, wanting to prove myself as a person with grit but not caring if I finished in three, four, or five hours. I started running again after I built a career, after I had a kid just wanting to a damn minute to myself, wanting to prove I still existed underneath the suit I wore to court, now covered in baby spit, but not caring how many miles I covered in the forty-five minutes a managed to eke out for myself a few times a week.

Speed crept up on me when a few years of doing the same treadmill workout at the gym got so boring that I started nudging the speed up from my usual 6.2 mph and discovered that I could get a better workout in a shorter amount of time by running as fast as I could for a minute or two or three at a time and then slowing way down to recover and then doing that again and again. Speed crept up on me when I started looking at my watch after running longer distances outside and realized I could hold paces closer to eight minute miles than nine for five, ten, fifteen miles at a time. Speed crept up on me when I started following a marathon training schedule that included weekly workouts that reminded me of high school track practice–100m strides and 400m repeats and yasso 800s–and realized that the burning in my legs and lungs that I’d dreaded and done everything in power to avoid when I was a teenager was a thrilling change of pace from the sedentary lifestyle I’d grown accustomed to since law school. Speed crept up on me and I wanted more.

Speed is not just for running, by the way I do everything fast. I walk fast, dragging my kid along with me; I eat fast, leaving nothing on the plate; I read fast, skimming the page to get to the salient point; I work fast, saving the client money and getting myself home by five; I talk fast, cutting you off because I know what you’re going to say.

This is not the way I set out to live. This is just the way I learned to live.

Once upon a time there was more time. There was so much time it was like there was almost too much time. Whole days and weeks and summers and years stretched out in front of me until I’d get to do the things I wanted to do. I don’t remember when it changed, though if I had to guess I’d say it was around the time I slid from adolescence into early adulthood, around the time I quit using weed to spin hours into days, around the time I quit working low-wage jobs to go to law school, around the time I adopted anxiety as a lifestyle. Now, of course, there is never enough time. I have to move quickly because it’s up to me to save it.

Sometimes it feels like everything in my life is conspiring to slow me down. I bought one dog and then adopted another that both straight up refused to walk. The first dog, the corgi, used to waddle fifty meters down the sidewalk then fall on his belly with his stubby little breadstick legs stuck straight out behind him. The second dog, the reactive staffie mix, used to walks to the corner and then freeze up with his tail between his legs and refuse to budge. I married a man that shuffles his feet on every walk and can’t tell a story without getting lost on the way to the point. And don’t get me started on my kid. My kid is slow. You’re probably thinking that all kids are slow and you’re not wrong, but my kid is really slow. My kid is so slow that her preschool teachers brought up how long it takes her to put on her coat and mittens at parent-teacher conferences. My kid is so slow that she’s never finished a school lunch a day in her life. My daughter is so slow that her teacher doesn’t bother to set the three-minute timer for bathroom trips because she just can’t make it back. My kid is so slow that her preschool class left her behind on the walk from the school to the playground next door. My kid is so slow that her kindergarten class lost her on the walk from the classroom to the exit at the end of the day three days in a row. Of course my rushing puts me in perpetual conflict with my family. In pre-pandemic times, we were always running late to school because my efforts to rush my kid out the door only slowed her down and inevitably resulted in frustrated tears and forgotten backpacks.

Back to running, though. This year was going to be my year for speed. I was coming up on twelve months injury-free and a strong marathon training cycle. I’d been running with a speedy group from my local running club since the fall. The club would be moving to the track once a week for interval workouts in the spring. I was focusing on the half over the full marathon to build my confidence for racing and running fast. I was aiming to try for a new personal record in the marathon in May.

You know what happened next. The pandemic hit and the races were cancelled, the track closed, and the running club scattered. Time slowed down and I slowed down with it. Honestly, I didn’t mind. I was happy to slow down, grateful for the opportunity to rest. After two months of running slow every morning and going nowhere the rest of the day, I was starting to drag, though. You know? You know. I was getting antsy. I wanted to go fast again. I started tentatively introducing speedwork back into my workouts. I did a few interval runs, one minute on, one minute off, and it went well. I felt energized and eager to get back to my old routine. I didn’t exactly know what I was training for, but I didn’t care. I decided to do a workout I’ve done a million times, a 1-2-3-2-1 fartlek. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of doing a speed workout while maintaining social distancing on the crowded lakefront path, which required me to weave back and forth between pavement, grass, asphalt, packed dirt, and loose sand. The combination of sideways movement and forward acceleration was too much and my calf tore in the last one minute interval. There was no walking it off. I hobbled home and put my foot up on ice for the next ten days. This week I started jogging again, but I’m taking the hint this time. I’ll be going slow for a long while.

Now that I’ve finally given into the pandemic’s demands, the benefits of slowing down are hard to miss. There are fewer family blow-ups in the mornings. We have nowhere to go, nothing to get dressed for, no appointments to keep. There is no reason to rush my daughter and therefore no reason to fight. I still feign my morning commute with a walk around the neighborhood but with no real reason to get to work at any particular time, I can stop and wait for my daughter to stare at a pinwheel turning in the wind or a bird tugging a worm or work up the courage to step over a beetle turned over on its back in the middle of the sidewalk.

I slowed down and time slowed down with me. Time practically stopped. A few weeks ago I took my daughter outside after lunch on a weekday, giving us both a recess from school/work. We hit the basketball court where she’s been riding her scooter almost every day. Mindful of the fact that I needed to get back for calls for her and me by 1:15, I called out “ten more minutes!” at 1:00, and then climbed back onto the child-sized skateboard she’s been letting me roll around on. I’m not very good–my feet are too big for the board and I have weak ankles and poor balance and am in my mid-thirties–but I’m getting better. That day, I got lost in practice, pushing off from the court again and again, rolling farther and farther, and practicing my turns. Is this what they call flow? Eventually my daughter whizzed by me and jolted me out of my concentrated reverie. Shit. What time was it? I looked at my watch, ready to tell my daughter to pack it up, and then stopped. It was only 1:04.

I don’t wake up with panicked thoughts of not enough sleep! not enough time! anymore. I don’t move through my days bookmarking life hacks, optimizing every moment, in an effort to make the most of the time I have. I have all the time there is. The only question is how do I want to live?

Quarantine Diary Day 70: Work Family

My work from home situation works like this. I work from the futon in our extra room, a pseudo-den/office/guest room/home gym that doesn’t have its own door, but is the only room on the first floor of our townhouse and so is pretty cut off from everything else. Up on the second floor, my husband home schools our kid at the kitchen table, which sits right in the middle of our living room/dining room/kitchen in the type of space that dummies on HGTV call “open concept” and that families sheltering in place call “a nightmare” and “a terrible idea.” We have a third floor, too, with two bedrooms. Our WiFi network is called ThreeStoryLuxury, which is a 66.67% accurate description.

I work from 8:30/9:30 to 5:00 with a lunch break at 12:00 that I eat at the table upstairs with my family. Home school is in session 10:00 to 4:30. Husband runs a tight ship with a strict schedule except from 2:00 to 3:00, which he tries to call Choice Time because that’s what they called it at our daughter’s school, but sometimes he slips up and calls it Quiet Time, because what it really is is his only break during the day. Every day during Quiet/Choice Time, husband “meditates” (naps) on the couch in the living room and daughter plays in her bedroom upstairs. Usually I come up at some point during this stretch for coffee or a snack and I also visit daughter upstairs, just a quick hello and check-in to see how she’s doing, and then I go back to work. Quiet/Choice Time is the most peaceful part of the day.

Until last week, that is, which is when my daughter realized that Quiet/Choice Time presents a prime opportunity for her to sneak past her teacher/dad and venture down to my office to visit me at work. She doesn’t hang around long, and she doesn’t say much. What she does is deliver notes–interoffice memos, really–with detailed questions and precise instructions about how and when to answer. She leaves them on a shelf just outside of the office and then stands there silently until I’ve stood up and retrieved and read the note. The notes go like this:

  • “Hi Mama I love you. Here’s a dog. Leave me a note bake pleas at 2:24. Hope you like the dog.”
  • “Mama, every day I will send you a dog and then you send me a leter bake I will send you 1 home for it then we will both send letrs  to each other.”
  • “Hi Mama I love you Please leve notes on the bike sete downstairs.”
  • “Hi Mama wold you like a Golopigos turtel or a sea turtel. I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Of course I respond, with words and pictures and inside jokes. On average, we exchange five to six notes a day. I hang the pictures she draws me up on the window next to the futon and tuck the notes in my planner. I know she is saving my letters back to her in a special box in her room. The process is all very adorable and highly distracting. Sometimes the notes come during conference calls. Once she dropped off a note during a call with a client and only gave me six minutes to respond. After the second day of this, I considered whether I should put an end to it, remind husband that 9 to 5 is his jurisdiction as the stay-at-home (hahahaha) parent, remind daughter that I need to be able to focus on my job. By this point, it should not be lost on anyone that I am the fun police in my family, and that I am fairly compulsive about maximizing my productive time.

Luckily, something else occurred to me before I acted on my impulse to strip this delightful bit of family life from my workday, which is this. Fielding notes from my daughter is not all that different from engaging with a chatty coworker or friendly receptionist. It’s true that when I’m hyper-focused on work, I find all of these things annoying, because they slow me down, but it’s also true that slowing down and taking the time to talk to another person is what makes a day–a life–worth living. It’s not easy to have your actual family become your work family, but I know I’ll miss it when it’s gone. I can’t imagine I’ll be able to persuade anybody in my actual office to deliver me little bowls of cheez-its and drawings of wiener dogs and carefully, dreadfully written letters telling me over and over again what a great mom I am and wishing me a Happy Valentine’s Day in May.

Quarantine Diary Day 55

In the parallel timeline in which coronavirus never made it into human bodies, I’d be in the final week of tapering for my fifth marathon, which I was scheduled to run this Saturday. The taper is the final phase of a marathon training cycle when a runner gradually decreases the mileage and intensity of her workouts in the two to three weeks leading up to a race. The taper is critical to recover from the accumulated fatigue, repair muscle damage, and restore the glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, and hormones that have been depleted during training. A lot of runners have a hard time with the taper. It is kind of a mindfuck to slow down, to back off the training, after months of buildup and go go go. I don’t. The taper, in my humble-braggy opinion, is the best part of marathon training. It is explicit permission–nay, instruction–to rest.

Remember March? Remember what it was like back the early days of our efforts to flatten the curve, when we still thought the kids might go back to school and the we might all keep our jobs? We were babes in the woods. The IOC was still refusing to admit that the Olympics were postponed. The organizers of the marathon I was planning to run certainly weren’t in any rush to cancel their event, a tiny little thing with less than 1,000 runners in all three races (5k, half, and full marathons) an hour and a half outside of Chicago, and still two full months away. If there was a chance the marathon was still on, I was running it. Training, I figured, would be a breeze with all the extra time on my hands. The first Saturday after we started sheltering in place I ran 15 miles.

Running has always been something I had to work to fit into my life, around family and work and recovery, but I worked hard to make it happen, because I love the sport to a degree that borders on obsessive. Ever since I became a mom, I’ve wished there were more hours in the day, assuming that I’d use the time to run, maybe train for an ultramarathon. All I needed was more time, and then the miles would add up faster than I could count them

For the few weeks of shelter-in-place, they did. My usual six miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays turned to eight. An easy four miles on Friday turned to ten. Cross-training on Mondays turned to more running. Even after it became undeniable that the marathon could not possibly go forward in May, I stuck to my routine of running long on Saturdays, twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles.

I was so grateful to be able to run. In those early weeks I thought, “How lucky I am that I have this sport that I can do outside and all alone? How lucky am I that I don’t need a gym or an instructor or a group? How lucky am I that I have this sport as a coping mechanism, a healthy outlet in which to shoot all my screaming fear, skyrocking anxiety, and scary depression? How lucky am I to have an excuse to leave the house? How lucky am I to have something that lets me turn all this time on my hands into time on my feet, a ritual that magics idleness into productivity.

As my weekly mileage started to creep up, something weird happened, at least it was weird for me. Running started to feel less like fun and more like a task. I was starting to dread waking up early for weekday runs. I was starting to get bored on long weekend runs. I was starting to get tired. Lots of experts have written about how the conditions we are currently living under are, counter to intuition, exhausting. Rolling Stone called the phenomena moral fatigue. Health policy wonks chalk it up to stress and anxiety. I knew this was something different, though. Even pre-quarantine, my body and mind had been giving me inklings that I might be pushing too hard. One of the last conversations I had with my therapist before COVID-19 took over all our conversations was about my ambivalence about going out with my local running club. They run fast and all I wanted to do was run long and slow. Also, even though I was training for them, I kept putting off signing up for races, because that level of commitment felt like too much. In hindsight, I can see that these were early indicators that I was burning out on running.

This kind of burnout is new to me. It’s not like I don’t know about rest. I keep a strict bedtime and take two full days a week off from any type of exercise. In quarantine, I am working less, not commuting, eating nothing but home-cooked meals, and getting closer to eight hours a sleep a night than any previous point in my adult life. So I took a hard look at my training schedule and realized I’d been building or maintaining my mileage without scaling back for about six months, and running without any meaningful break for over year. In the past, injuries and life events had forced me to take hiatuses, which I always resent, but I’ve been blessedly injury-free and able to run as much as I want for a long time now. In other words, I forgot about the concept of periodization, or the process of dividing training into smaller periods of varied volume, intensity, and frequency. The body needs easy weeks every three to four weeks. I also forgot about seasons. The body needs time off. I knew I needed a break, but I resisted giving myself one. Running was habit. Running was an escape. Running was, if you’ll forgive me for perpetuating disordered thinking in the name of honesty, an excuse to eat more indulgently than I otherwise might.

A few weeks ago, my body and mind conspired to put a stop to the madness. I woke up early on a Monday morning and put on my tights and sweat wicking gear, instead of heading out the door to run I sat down on the couch to write. My legs were tired but my mind was firing off ideas. 45 minutes later, too late to finish the miles I had planned,vI was posting my first Quarantine Diary on this blog. That night, I noticed how much energy I had. I was excited about my new writing project. I was, for once, not completely wiped out. It was hard to get to sleep that night. I couldn’t wait to wake up and write again. Ahhh, I sighed. So this is what I’m meant to be doing right now.

Old habits die hard, though. I wrote frantically for the next two weeks, squeezing in time before and after work and parenting. In the evenings, my husband would call up the stairs, “Am I going to see you tonight?” After bottling up my words for so long, I had no shortage of ideas, until very recently. Yesterday morning, I mined the well in my mind and came up dry. I wasn’t overly worried. Something would bubble up before the day was done.

I turned my attention to my tarot deck. I don’t know how to say that it feeling like a hard left turn or without sounding like a flake, so I’ll just acknowledge it and move on: I have a tarot practice. Usually, I just draw a card for the day without thinking asking a specific question, but yesterday I asked, “What is the next right thing in regards to my writing?” I pulled the four of arrows, or swords. From the guidebooks: “Rest and sleep are vital to restore stamina and vitality.” “It is not a weakness to require rest at times.” “This card may also be advising you to keep some new idea to yourself.” The imagery of the card blatantly subverts the ethos of “I’ll rest when I’m dead” and warns instead “Rest now, or you last long.” Sometimes tarot is so on the nose it’s annoying.

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I’ll admit I could stand to wrote more sustainably, and that I probably should if I want to keep doing. And, fine, since the tarot insists (okay, okay, invites), I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s not just the work or the running or the writing that’s wearing me down. My whole life has been an existential sprint from one thing to the next, from college to law school to big law to marriage to parenthood to homeownership. You might think I slowed down when I got sober, but I didn’t, I just changed directions. That’s when I started waking up at I’ve been at 5:00 am to pray and meditate and exercise. When I slept in, inadvertently or intentionally, I felt like a lazy piece of shit. My discipline in matters both physical and spiritual was not just a point of pride, but a matter of life and death in my mind. If I let go of my vice grip on my schedule, what else would slip?

These days, there’s no reason to wake up that early. Work is slow. Running is slower. I have nowhere to go. What if I slept in? What if I took it easy? What if I stopped running, kept eating, and put on five pounds? What would my life feel like if I ran but not a marathon, if I wrote but not a book, if I worked without trying to impress people, if I parented without trying to be the best, if I gave up my endless quest to achieve? I think it might feel like waking up after a good night’s sleep.

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. 

Ashes To Ashes

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Yesterday in therapy my counselor asked if I liked being a lawyer. I said yes, and then went on a tangent about how much harder it was at my previous job at a big firm downtown, where I was petrified of showing my real personality. I established rigid boundaries between my work self and my real self and flattened myself out into a picture of the kind of person I thought people wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time thinking about my work wardrobe, buying the cheapest versions of fancy lawyer clothes I could countenance, and then hating them all. I was too weird, I thought, for the workplace. Of course, with few exceptions, I largely failed connect authentically with my coworkers. It wasn’t my law firm’s fault. I was just insecure, afraid of getting fired. Even then, I liked my job because I like being a lawyer. But I was also suffering deeply from the fragmentation. Seven years is a long time to hide who you are.

Yesterday was also the first day of Lent. I left the office a few minutes early to meet my family for the evening Ash Wednesday service. The elevator doors opened to take me down and there was a man, close to my age, with a dark smudge on his forehead. I did a double take. The mark was jarring.

Stop staring, I told myself. It’s just the ashes. You’re about to go do the same thing.

Yeah, but, I shot back at myself. You would never do it before work.

I want to be a Christian in my heart, but only sometimes, and in my head almost never. I want to wear it on my sleeve–or on my face, as it were–not at all.

At the church, R and I had forty-five minutes to kill while our daughter rehearsed with the children’s choir. You can always count on the children’s choir to be featured at the sparsely attended weekday services. We settled down on a bench outside the chapel and downloaded notes from therapy, notes on parenting. We watched our senior pastor walk the labyrinth in the snowy courtyard and burn last year’s palms to make this year’s ashes. Before she went out in her parka and fuzzy hat she warned, Don’t worry about what you see out there, I’m just making some Jesus magic. When the smoke blew up around her, I wanted to take a picture through the wavy glass windows, but refrained. I thought the ritual might be sacred. Also, I gave up Instagram for Lent, so what would I even do with it? A few minutes later, R pointed out that Pastor Grace had her phone up high, snapping her own photo of the fire. For Facebook, she told us when she came back inside.

Later, when we were settled in the chapel, D in the front row with the choir and R and I few rows back, I tucked myself under R’s arm and we traded jokes and snickered as we waited for the service to start. R doesn’t come to church often, so it’s something a novelty to have him there. Our irreverence continued during the service, when R said something blasphemous and a hymnal in rebuke thudded from the shelf under the pew and landed on his feet. We almost exploded in laughter when the choir sang at the way D thrust her tone chime into the air like a sword, face straining, eyes wild, belting out “Now Is The Acceptable Time.” She seems, so far, to have inherited my deep love of performing and utter lack of awareness about the way I move through the world. When the time came, D and I approached the altar together. We each took a piece of coal to rub in our hands. D tried to pass hers off to me. Here, you can have this. It smells bad. We dropped our coal in a plastic bucket and received our ashy tattoos. R stayed in his seat.

I thought about how, when I was Mormon, it bothered me that R didn’t come to church, but it bothered me even more when he did. It bothered me how he kept his mouth closed during hymns, his eyes open during prayers. It bothered me when he stage-whispered comments about the church leader dozing off behind the pulpit or a too-long talk or a painfully sincere testimony. There’s a way to act in church, I thought, and you don’t have to be Mormon to figure it out. I didn’t like what it said about him, that he couldn’t he get with the program, and I didn’t like what it said about me, that I couldn’t just enjoy having him there. We were, I thought, too worldly to be Mormon. I flattened myself out into a picture of what I thought a Mormon needed to be, straining myself and my marriage in the process. It wasn’t Mormonism’s fault. I was just afraid people would find out who I really was, and the jig would be up. Of course I suffered. Thirty years is a long time to hide who you really are.

I haven’t been to an LDS service in a long time. I am wildly grateful to have found a new church home, something I never expected after leaving Mormonism but, honestly, think the church is getting the better end of the deal. Churches in general, in my view, are blessed to have any members at all. And the fact that my new church gets the realest, most authentic version of me? The silly and the snarky and the deviant and doubtful all rolled up with the serious and faithful and the diligent and sincere? The one that comes with a hilarious and filthy-mouthed husband who doesn’t know how to use his inside voice? The church should thank its lucky stars.

This year was only my second getting ashes. Last year, I was mortified the entire long walk to the altar and back again, convinced everyone was staring at me, especially my ashless husband. It felt horrifying to be revealed for the Christian neophyte and, simultaneously, the religious freak I still am. Somehow, though, I grew more in a year in my new faith than I did in many in my old. This time around I forget about them straight away, not just the stain on my own head, but the one on my daughter’s, and the one that R refused to wear. The ashes don’t matter. The baptism doesn’t matter. The church doesn’t matter. We were all dirty and now, headed into Lent, we are all clean.

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.

Need Versus Want Versus Deserve

One of my first big steps toward recovery was making an appointment with a counselor. Initially, I tried to find somebody whose experience spoke directly to my very special and unique circumstances. My first run at sobriety through a twelve-step program left me convinced that I was different (better) than the folks who needed God and daily meetings and inane “literature” to keep clean. In reaction to this, and in a simultaneous act of desperation and ego, I sent my first inquiry out to a woman who advertised herself as specializing in working with “high functioning” individuals seeking to address career-related anxiety. I considered it a bonus that she specialized in career transitions as I was convinced that the bulk of my problems emanated from my insanely high pressure job. I pretended that I liked the fact that she was herself in the process of transitioning from counselor to bona fide life coach, even though that struck me as if not a red flag, then at least a pink one.

I also searched for counselors That specialized in substance abuse, but not, like, serious substance abuse. I was only drinking except for that one time in February when I took what was left of the hydrocodone from my c-section because I was annoyed at my husband and spent the next day ransacking medicine cabinets until I broke down and realized I needed to get myself a dealer, a prescription, or into an NA meeting (they are right when they say you don’t realize you are an addict until the drugs run out). I pretended not to notice that many of the addiction counselors that I found online specialized in something called “harm reduction,” which is the clinical term for “drinking less, but still drinking (thank God).” I pretended not to notice the crawling in my arms, the way my insides lurched in anticipation when I read those words, which I took as permission. Nothing red about those flags flapping furiously in the wake of my denial.

In the end, the high end life coach didn’t have any openings and the addiction specialists worked across town and I ended up going with the first local counselor who saw clients late into the evening, because as a full-time working parent of a young child, that was the only time I had. I made the call from the back porch, whispering into the phone because I didn’t want my neighbors to overhear. I told her I was anxious all the time and afraid of falling back into old, dangerous habits. She told me she could help. I booked five days out and cried with relief into the cool autumn air.

By the time I made it to the appointment I was high out of my mind and couldn’t look the counselor in the eye. At her suggestion, we walked up and down Lake Michigan and I told her, in halting, unemotional tones, what was going on. I told her about my long hours and my toxic co-workers and my dead dog and my oppressive religion and my transgressive marriage to a non-Mormon and my clingy toddler. I told her about my expectation that I would be perfect in all aspects my life, explaining that it was not as unreasonable as it sounded because I’d pulled it off pretty well for 30 years. I told her how the anxiety started in my head and worked its way into my chest until I was on the verge of panic. I told her how the depression started in my chest and worked its way into my head until I was on the verge of tears. I told her I didn’t know what to do.

When I finished unloading, the counselor said a few things that stuck. She said that she was not surprised that I got high. She said that I was burning the candle at both ends for my family and my job but that I wasn’t doing anything for me. She told me I needed some new coping mechanisms. Together, we came up with an action plan that looked something like this:

  1. Go to bed early.
  2. Stop looking at my phone before bed.
  3. Exercise.
  4. Join a mom’s basketball league.
  5. Meditate.
  6. Start a blog.

That’s right. I paid a counselor $150 an hour to fix my brain and came out with a list of New Year’s resolutions.

As with any list of resolutions, this one needed a bit of tweaking. I never could muster the nerve to play basketball with a group of stranger moms, particularly since I had it on good authority that at least one of the moms was a former collegiate player, so I decided to train for a race instead. I never made it past the first meditation session using the Headspace app, so I ditched developing a regular meditation practice in favor occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

For the next few months, I treated this list like a prescription, and the items on it like medicine, because that’s what they were. I dutifully turned off the TV after a single episode of Walking Dead and went upstairs at 10 PM. I stopped asking myself if I had time to go to the gym and just went. I submitted a proposal for a blog on women’s issues to a local collective and forced out content for content’s sake. If you’d asked me before I went to therapy whether I had time for myself, I would have laughed. Sure, if you count trying to see how much work I can cram into my 25 minute train rides to and from work and playing LEGO with my two-year-old as time for myself. I wanted to read fiction and write essays and play music and run along the lake, but somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to do the things that made me come alive unless they were in the service of my employer or my family. I’d bought into the idea that women can’t have it all, that by having a good job and a happy family I was already taking too much, and that if I dared to ask for more I’d lose it all. By re-framing my dumb hobbies as mechanisms for coping with anxiety that was driving me to self-destruct, my counselor took want and deserve out of the equation. As she pointed out, I wouldn’t be able to do my big job or take care of my family if I went to rehab. I made time to read and write and run because I had to.

The other thing my counselor recommended is that I go to recovery meetings. She started with gentle suggestions, emailing me dates and times of meetings vouched for by her colleagues, meetings with professionals, other lawyers, women. After yet another lapse, one that left me so sick I was begging my husband to take me to the hospital and finally willing to do anything to stop ingesting poison, my counselor gave me the gift of telling me that it was time to get serious about finding a recovery community. I’d tried to stay sober myself and failed. I needed help.

I balked. I questioned whether I could call myself an alcoholic. I questioned whether I had time. When the memory of the last hangover receded into the distance, I questioned whether I still needed to go to what I perceived as the extreme lengths of taking time out of my busy schedule to sit in musty rooms listening drunks read from an outdated book, listening to drunks talk about their problems, holding hands with drunks, listening to drunks recite the Lord’s prayer. That’s how I described the experience of participating in AA when I was convincing myself I wasn’t sick enough to continue with the program. During these negotiations with myself, I discounted the way I felt every time I walked out of a meeting, which was always, inevitably, without fail, better than I felt going in. Meetings made me feel lighter, seen, renewed. The truth was that I liked stepping outside of my routine, which had become staid and soul-sucking. I liked listening to people work through their shit. I liked thinking about how to live a better life. I especially liked the drunks, who showed me that I was not insane, or at least that I was not alone in my particular brand of insanity. And oh how I envied people who dropped casual references to home group and who laughingly confessed to being kicked in the ass by a sponsor, which told me that I did want a recovery community, and badly.

As usual, as a woman, a Mormon, a mom, a martyr to the end, wanting it wasn’t enough. Want didn’t justify tucking my kid into bed early to make a 7:30 meeting for young people on Thursday night or losing an hour better spent billing to check in with a Monday nooners group. And, it turned out that need wasn’t enough either, at least not after a decade spent hiding from the truth, lying to myself about what it is that I really need.

A close call and a sobriety angel cleared things up. I posted a cry for help in an online group for women working toward sobriety. I owned up to needing an IRL community, and whined that I had no time to attend meetings. A serious wise woman weighed in.

First, she handed down some knowledge. She said, “For years, I used drinking to hold together an unsustainable life. Like duct tape. When I took alcohol out of the equation, something had to give.”

Next, she put me in my place. She said, “I have two kids and a high pressure job and I go to six meetings a week. Anybody that is not okay with me taking the hour a day I need to not drink myself to death can fuck off.”

In the end, she made me cry. She said, ” You deserve a life that isn’t killing you.”

She was right, of course. This is both obvious and revolutionary. Within days, I found a meeting that I loved, that I attend and look forward to as often as I can up to three times a week.

I deserve to take 30 minutes to run a few miles because I want to move my body, not because I need it to quell the anxiety that makes me slam doors and scream at my family.

I deserve a job that does not require me to sacrifice my sanity, my safety, and my health at the alter of the billable hour and client service.

I deserve an elevated life in which I deal in wants not needs, in which I do the things I like because I like them, not because I need them to cope.

I deserve to feel like I want to live instead of like I need to die. 

Anybody that is not okay with me doing what it takes to shape that life (including, mostly, myself) can take a seat.