When I became a parent, my lunch hour became a non-negotiable. It was not work time or parent time. It was browse-social-media-time, shop-for-new-lipstick time, go-for-a-walk time, take-a-nap- under-my-desk time, eat-a-warm-meal-alone time. This practice kept me feeling whole.
Then COVID-19 happened, and as a work-from-home parent with a 4- and 1-year-old (now 5 and 2), I have zero discrete portions of my day and no specific time to allow my mind to power down. My home life is my work life. My work life is my home life. My partner and I each hold down full-time jobs and share the additional full-time job of parenting our two young children. It’s messy. I’m overwhelmed.
At first, it was a “make it work” situation. We thought we just needed to get over a hump of a few weeks before we went back to normal—flatten the curve, right?! We’d get through on grit and less sleep than we’d like (familiar fallbacks in a household of two attorneys), but soon we’d resume our regular grind.
I’d think to myself: we are some of the lucky ones. We can do our jobs from any location with a good internet connection. We have a comfortable living space and a yard!
Here I sit, in August, in the same situation as before. No end in sight.
I have not grown used to the intrusiveness of work thoughts during family time. I am always wondering if I can squeeze in one more email before going upstairs to settle my toddler down for his nap. (We all know that getting a kid down to sleep is all about catching him in that golden window before he gets overtired and hyperactive, right?)
I don’t typically allow myself to suffer from much in the way of mom guilt—I thanked myself for getting my then four-year-old a tablet for Christmas and handed it over for some quiet time. Again, I danced with the limits, this time of screen time—too much, and she gets dysregulated (read: TANTRUM), too little, and I do not get enough uninterrupted work time. What undid me was the tantrum that included the vitriolic: “you only play with [my little brother] and never with me!” It was a true statement that pierced me. I couldn’t parent the two-year-old thrill-seeker with a screen, so I gave most of my attention to him and didn’t focus enough time on my four-year-old who missed her preschool and was feeling our emotional absence. She needed more from her mother.
As for our professional lives—my partner was suddenly swamped with clients reviewing files and checking on updates. He realized he was scheduled for two trials on the same date. My new job as a CLE administrator also presented me with the opportunity to work long days. I needed to help attorneys figure out what COVID-19 meant for their practice, give them something to do if COVID-19’s court closures meant downtime, and a quick pivot to the digital realm with our practices. We both could’ve worked 18-hour days and not felt our efforts were enough.
We continue to feel the pressure of working alongside coworkers who aren’t facing similar pressures of having children in the home. Working parenthood, and more specifically, working motherhood is a vulnerable place. The expression that “work expects us to work like we don’t have children, and society expects us to mother like we don’t have a job” feels more accurate than ever. Now that I have some experience with juggling children in my home, I do what I can to set reasonable expectations for myself and communicate these measured goals to my superiors. I make sure that I am available when needed, but I am not reaching for the stars. I hope it is enough. My objective is to get to the other side of this with my loved ones safe and well.
As we approach fall with no apparent resolution to the public health issues in sight, I am relieved that my children are not school age, and I’m not grappling with their need for formal education. We have already endured the harrowing experience of having a child require extended hospitalization from exposure to viral illnesses in a daycare center. We are not keen to take risks here. So our children will stay home, play outdoors with the children next door, and we will continue to juggle childcare along with the blessed help of their out of town grandparents, two of whom were lifetime early childhood educators (counting my blessings here!). I am buying all the motor skills toys in anticipation of a long winter. This will not last forever. I will have my lunch hour back soon enough.