A few weeks into the ‘new normal’, disaster struck: my husband and I had conference calls scheduled at the same time, and no child care. I found myself in our garden, playing as quietly as possible with my kids, and listening in to my meeting on my earphones. I wasn’t alone. Many of my colleagues on the call are mothers, and more than one or two of their children chimed in while we were on the call. One colleague remarked on this: all of this invisible work that parents are constantly engaged in is now being made visible, as we beam ourselves into virtual offices, bringing our children and our messy homes with us. How wonderful! How revolutionary!
It’s been months and the novelty of life in the age of the novel Coronavirus has worn off. Nerves are frayed, productivity is down, cabin fever has set in. In an act of acceptance, I finally set up a work space away from our dining room table. The table is small and could no longer contain all the paraphernalia of my and my husband’s work, along with my son’s make-shift home classroom. It took me this long to accept that I won’t be going back to the office anytime soon, and that I need to find a way to carve out office space so my children could continue to enjoy their non-office home spaces without being told to shush or keep Peppa Pig and her compatriots from joining my work conference calls. My new office is a small corner just off of our living room, near a window (for the best possible lighting for video calls) and with enough space for a small desk, an ergonomic office chair and our new small printer, the purchase of which was also a surrender of sorts to this new world order.
There is no door and I remain physically accessible to my children at all hours. I can still hear Peppa and co and I am still relying heavily on the mute function on all those video calls. But the divide that used to exist between my work space and my home space feels like it’s been shifted permanently, and the porous nature of this line is no longer temporary in its feel. Where I could make use of the physical distance and distinction to enforce a mental boundary between work me and mom me, I no longer have such crutches. The places in which my children lurk in my mind even when I am making small talk in the office kitchen are no longer hidden from me or anyone I am engaging with when I work. The true outsize nature of my mom life is slowly revealing itself. I am no longer masquerading as a worker who is also a mom. I am who I really am: a mother who works. The ‘mom’ part has always been first. Working from home, amongst the details and presence of my children’s lives, has brought it into sharp relief and forced others around me to reckon with it.
In some ways, this has been liberating. I have shown up to ‘work’ as I am after long sleepless nights with my one-year-old, with no effort taken to hide my bone-deep exhaustion. I have delighted in showing off my cute kids and in sneaking peeks at my colleagues’ kids. It’s also been hard. My mind has wandered during calls. My focus is dulled. I have days on which it takes every ounce of will I have to remain at my desk when I would rather just cuddle my babies and nap with them.
I know I am not alone in this. I have had endless conversations with colleagues and friends about the new tightrope we are walking daily. My social media feeds are filled with think-piece after think-piece on the shattered illusion of the separate places of work and parenting in our lives. It’s as if, in forcing us to shelter, work, love, parent, be in one place, this pandemic had brought us face-to-face with the wholeness of our humanity. No-one is ever just one thing at once. When I am at home, I am at once a wife, a mother, a writer, and a part of a vibrant professional community. I might not be performing each identity at once, but I carry all of them. When I am at work, I don’t cease to be consumed with the particularities of my children’s lives. For so long, people – especially women – have had to pretend away at least 60% of whom we are for the sake of our professions and our job security. The gift of COVID-19 is that it has stripped away the props we rely on in this pretense: the office, the meetings, the work trips. Without these, we can no longer pretend away crucial parts of our identities.
This is a difficult but exciting moment. It offers us all a chance to acknowledge the wholeness of our lives. It’s an opportunity to welcome whole people into work and home spaces and make room for nuance and complexities. A long time ago, before I became a mother, I managed a small team. One of my team members was a parent, and she would occasionally send me 2AM texts about her son’s poor health. It drove me crazy. Years later, I understand what she was trying to communicate. She was trying to make me understand that she is more than who she is when I see her at work. She is a mother, up at 2AM. And when she inevitably takes time off to care for her son, I would do well to remember and respect that.
It’s a source of great shame that it’s taken a pandemic for me to understand and allow for this, even in myself. It’s a lesson well-learnt and one I hope none of us forget, even after the threat of the novel(ty of the) Coronavirus is behind us.