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 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 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 54

What are we wearing these days? For the first two weeks, I was still reaching for things that you put on a hanger in the closet. You know, blouses and button downs and cardigans and slacks. Work clothes. When it dawned on me that nobody I know in a professional capacity was going to see my lower body for a very long time I switched to jeans, but kept the work shirts because the threat of spontaneous home invasion via Skype, Zoom, and Teams loomed large. But the video calls did materialize in the numbers I thought they might. And when they did, I was startled to realize that it is not a forgiving head and shoulders shot that people see, but rather an unfiltered image of my whole head that dominates the screen. When the weather shifted a few weeks ago, I realized I have a whole drawerful of perfectly good baggy t-shirts and tanks just begging for their time in the sun. My whole professional life I’ve mourned the fact that I can’t just wear a fifteen year old raggedy concert tee to work, and now that time is here. So, these days I wear t-shirts to work, and oversized housecoats, because that’s the kind of future crazy old lizard lady I am. I gave up bras years ago, so nothing’s changed there except for any residual guilt I might have had about, well, you know. As yet unclear as to the next time I’ll have to appear in court or take a client to dinner or speak at a conference, I packed away my suits. And if you’re worried about weekdays blending indistinguishably into weekends, don’t. Remember we’re not leaving the house on weekends, either. They are, therefore, suitable for athleisure and by athleisure I mean full body sweatsuits. There’s still the matter of the ultra closeups of my face and head, but I can’t do anything about the fact that the pixie cut I was so stoked about in November is growing out into a floofy triangle and it’s not like I’m about to start wearing makeup now. I don’t think it’s too much to ask the people who have to look at my face to look at it the way I do every morning, which is to say, with admiration and appreciation and understanding that this is just how I look. Now, I know I had a head start on my sartorial unschooling, having left my office job over a year before social distancing started, but still, I’m eager to see what happens to professional mores if work from home continues for much longer. I hope we all go feral.

 

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.