“What are you going to do all day while I’m gone?” my six-year-old asks as we shuffle out the door.
I grind my teeth together and remind myself he doesn’t have any memories of me commuting to the office pre-pandemic. The question is innocent, but I struggle to keep my composure.
“Well, I do have a job,” I say, “I just do it from home.”
He shrugs, says nothing, and continues to the bus stop four houses down.
He was only four months old when my maternity leave ended and I began working for Corporate America. Those early days at the office forced me to toggle between onboarding and pumping sessions and, although exhausting, it was exhilarating. I felt like I had “made it” professionally.
As a suburban native, I capitalized on the availability of the express bus and quickly gained familiarity with the streets of downtown – winding between skyscrapers and navigating a myriad of conversations along the way. My semi-private cube was decorated with butterfly handprints my son had crafted at daycare and photos of the three of us, happy as could be.
Naturally, the novelty wore off in time. But the routine was one I was comfortable with, day-in and day-out.
The desk I work at now is littered with the artifacts of my family of five. It’s a catch-all, heaping with pieces of broken chalk, dirty socks, and half-empty juice boxes. It’s evolved from a professional work-from-home space to a make-shift end table at the foot of our stairs.
It does not evade me that having a family means sharing spaces–that their belongings impede on mine occasionally. But the Desk Situation grinds my gears to no end. This house is not only my home but my workspace. I just need one ounce of separation between the two.
When the pandemic hit, the ergonomic desk chair and cute cube I considered my home away from home abruptly transformed into a kitchen chair in our living room. The white noise humming and the quiet chatter of the office were suddenly replaced by my son regurgitating the entire plot of The Lion King in the background. The balancing act that hundreds of people experienced (and still do) is like a game of Jenga.
In the real-life, mid-pandemic version of the game, I found myself trying to balance shifting priorities and routines to keep my tower upright. The repeated losses and wavering mental and physical health added stress to an already-imbalanced situation.
Take away the “school” block, and add distance learning to the top.
Push out socialization, and replace it with sheltering at home.
Remove daycare from the daily routine.
Carefully place on the top of the wobbling tower–my husband’s employment on the front line.
The tower sways dangerously close to tipping.
Work doesn’t end when my six-year-old hops off the bus and hollers at me about an after-school snack. Do I care how many GoGoSqueez pouches one child consumes in a day if it means I hit this deadline? I concede and remove “balanced eating” from my toppling tower of blocks.
I’m in a Zoom call with a senior director when my six-year-old comes into view on screen. Sure, you may argue that kids and pets in Zoom backgrounds have been normalized, but his presence in this particular situation heightened my concern for professionalism, and my instinct was overwhelmingly unloving.
Which Jenga block did I just sacrifice this time? Was it motherhood or my career?
The next day, it happens again. But this time I’m on a call with a different team. My son makes his demands and is met with opposition from yours truly. He turns around in a fury, running out the front door and into the rain, shoeless.
The Zoom call continues, uninterrupted.
I knew calling my husband wouldn’t change the situation, yet I found myself hollering into the phone in hope of a little empathy. Near tears, I cry, “This is why I can’t have a career and be a mother! It’s impossible!” (Colorful language omitted, but definitely used)
I hear someone say my name. It’s not my husband’s voice coming from the phone; it’s my laptop in the next room, directly next to the backdrop of my afternoon meltdown. I get up, return to earth side, and walk back to my workstation preparing for the worst. “Feel free to mute yourself,” they say.
The mute button.
I could have sworn I hit it.
Not only is my kid out there somewhere in the rain–I’ve now cussed at work.
My Jenga tower topples to the ground.
As an introvert, I dread ice-breaker questions, but that’s what’s on today’s post-meltdown meeting agenda. As one about interior design styles circulates, I try to think of something clever, but a dead-pan response is all I can muster. “My aesthetic is toys strewn about the floor and dust-covered floorboards,” I say, to which my team erupts in laughter.
As a working parent, I don’t have a bucket list of fancy restaurants to try. My passport is practically empty (if not expired). And it takes me weeks to finish a book.
But I have funny antics to leverage. I have the strength to endure really difficult seasons and situations. I have empathy for working parents who are merely trying to keep their careers and families alive.
If you have to clean up dog puke before clocking in, you are not alone. If you throw in a quick wash cycle between meetings so your family has clean underwear, I see you. If you then forget about that load of laundry until 10 p.m., please text me because I forgot, too.
To all the working parents continuously shifting to remain upright, may your Jenga tower stay balanced.
After all, we have each other to lean on.