A big law firm is recruiting me pretty heavily to join their ranks. I know. I’m as surprised as you are. Isn’t it obvious from my resume that I ran from Big Law as fast as my legs could carry me? I did that during the Great Recession, too. My antipathy toward Big Law runs deep. The lawyers I’m talking to are messing with my head, though. They are testing me. The people seem so nice, and the work so compelling, the hours expectations so reasonable, and the money so tempting. It’s the security I’m really after. Watching the world get rocked for the last year makes has a way of making me want to fold myself into a big company that will carry me and my family through the worst waves. My commitment to charting my own course, I fear, is not pandemic proof. I think I’ve made up my mind to stay put and then every interview throws me off. I can’t see if the behemoth I’m looking at is a storm or a freighter with a lifeline. The only thing that’s clear is that they want me.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” my husband puts out there, his foot halfway to his mouth, “but why do they want you so badly?” That, at least, is easy to answer.
Because there aren’t that many people who do what I do.
Because I have a unique set of skills and experience.
Because I have a stellar reputation.
Because I have a killer resume.
Because I have valuable industry contacts.
Because I interview really well.
Because I’m smart as shit.
Because I’m personable as hell.
Because I have a track record.
Because I’m a good firm citizen.
Because I’m a woman.
Because I would make them a ton of money.
It’s that last bullet point that’s driving the day, for them and for me. Big law is a numbers game, a leveraging, a squeeze. It’s exploitation, point of fact. Looking at that list, I can’t help but think, if I’m such hot shit, why don’t I make all that money for myself?
This is the only time of year I miss working at my old law firm. I hated the mad rush to meet deadlines–both the arbitrary internal ones and the hard dates set by courts and arbitration panels–and I hated not knowing if I would have to be in the office right up until 5 PM on the 23rd or if there would be pressure to work on Christmas Eve but the office was always a little more sparkly at the end of the year. I loved watching the snow flutter past the window in my office. I loved watching the partners make the rounds delivering annual reviews and bonus news. I loved jetting out at noon on a random Tuesday in mid-December for the company-wide holiday party in the big back room at Maggiano’s. I loved the treats that would show up in the kitchen from vendors and signing holiday cards for clients. I loved giving cash to my assistant and I loved her holiday sweaters. I loved having my husband’s gifts delivered to the office and carrying them home in a duffel bag from the firm. I loved walking to the train in the dark and seeing all the skyscrapers all lit up like Christmas trees.
I quit that job in 2019, so this isn’t the first year I’m missing corporate Christmas, but combined with the loss of my the winter party in my daughter’s classroom and the pageant at church and the Nutcracker and Christkindlmarket downtown, the season has felt decidedly dull. And that’s fine. People are getting evicted this month. People are losing contracts and jobs. They are lining up at food pantries. Thousands of people are still dying every day. If the worst thing I can say about the final month of this year that rocked the world is that it was boring, or depressing, I’ll take it.
It has been depressing, though. Last Thursday, we got some disappointing news right before our daughter’s school closed for winter break. The principal emailed to tell us that the school doesn’t have the capacity for all the families that opted into in-person learning when if they start bringing kids back next semester, and our daughter wasn’t included in the first priority group. I understand and don’t dispute the choice and don’t want to get into the equities of getting back to school in this post. I only want to give you the context so you understand that I went to bed feeling like my family was slipping through the cracks.
The next day started off with a win, albeit a small one: for the first time in a week, my daughter willingly changed into clothes that she hadn’t slept in. Technically, she just put on a different pair of pajamas, but they were clean. Her class was having a winter “party” and she was so excited to play games and watch a movie “with” the rest of her class in the iPad. Her mood put the rest of the household in a festive frame of mind, and the day went up from there.
I put out a call for support re: the social isolation my family is facing and half a dozen good friends responded with kind messages and texts. A few kind people offered to set up video hangouts with my daughter. A good friend invited us over for an outdoor playdate.
A neighbor dropped off a big box of LEGO and books that her kids had outgrown and she thought my daughter might like.
A friend brought donuts.
A package from Harry & David, care of my boss, showed up our doorstep: a gourmet dinner, packed in dry ice, which my husband promptly dumped in a bowl for a good hour’s worth of entertainment.
I saw neighbors on my afternoon walk and stopped to chat.
My husband checked the mail and brought in a stack of cards from friends and family across the country.
I directed money to people who needed it, and started talking to my husband about the charities we’re going to support this year.
We ordered takeout for dinner and watched Bad Santa.
After all that, at the very end of the day, I got another email from the principal. The school will have room for my daughter after all when if they start bringing kids back next semester.
I didn’t need to get that email to feel seen and supported. I came by that feeling over the course of the day, when I looked around me and realized I wasn’t alone. Somehow, my world felt festive. I puzzled and puzzled, how could it be so? It came without parties. It came without flashy clothes. It came without bonuses, airplanes, shopping, or shows. I puzzled and puzzled for how long I’m not sure. Then I thought of one thing more. What if friendship, perhaps, doesn’t look like before?
There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.
The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.
Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.
Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.
I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?
The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.
In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.
I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.
I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.
Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.
Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.
Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.
Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.
Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.
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?
For the first few years of my daughter’s life my mind and my newsfeed were consumed by stories of women leaving the workforce. That wasn’t an option for me but I was obsessed with the idea that my life would be better if I’d at least had the choice, as well as with the idea that everybody was doing it better than me whether they hired a nanny or quit their jobs to stay home or never went into the workforce in the first place, and I sought out story after story to test my highly self-centered and ultimately fear-based theories. When my daughter went off to school and I started peeking over the other side of early childhood parenting, I want to shake all the women having and raising babies with with men by the shoulders and implore them:
If any part of you wants to work, find a way to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if childcare eats up your whole salary* a significant chunk of your combined household income. If you can afford it and you want to work even a little bit make it happen. Early childhood is over fast unless you’re having a million babies and before you know it all your kids will be out of the house for 6+ hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about what to do with this next phase of your life you’ll be solidly into your career and thanking all the ladies who who showed you that life can be so good.
*Don’t measure the cost of childcare as coming entirely out of your salary. Your partner is paying for and benefits from childcare too.
It may have been un-nuanced, unsolicited, and unwanted, but that was my advice from Before Times and I thought it was pretty damn good. Now, another wave is here and it’s even bigger than the one that washed over my life when it felt like everyone in my orbit was having babies. 800,000 women dropped out of the workforce. One in four are considering leaving or at least scaling back. I don’t have that option but I understand why women would take it if they did. A mom of a kid in my daughter’s school works full time out of the house and does e-learning late into the night with her second-grader. A partner at a law firm is on the verge of quitting her job. A colleague is working double time to pay her kid’s tuition at his dream school that could close any week. My sister launched her second book and wrote and pitched a third with her three kids running wild at home and an essential worker husband working longer hours than ever. More friends than I can count have had to trust that their kids will be safe at daycare or bring caretakers into their already overcrowded homes, and are paying a premium to do it. Even more are running themselves ragged running e-learning themselves at home while also working full-time. Quitting, if it’s an option, must feel like the only one. Of course, the stay-at-home moms don’t have it any easier. My sister–in-law wrangled five kids entirely on her own while her medical resident husband finished out a three month rotation in another city. A friend who was supposed to go back to teaching this year is homeschooling her two kids instead. An acquaintance who was supposed to go back to school herself and figure out what kind of career she wanted when her youngest went back to kindergarten this year is instead watching herself disappear.
I don’t have a speech for these women who are raising children with men. I don’t have any idea what they should do. It’s not fair that the burden of all the extra childcare and attendant emotional labor is falling on women but I understand why they are the ones picking it up. I understand how it is easier to let even the most carefully constructed egalitarian marriage fall to pieces than to try to keep that wobbly tower upright in harrowing times.
Last week, when I was complaining yet again about how impossible it feels to raise a happy, healthy kid at this moment in time, my therapist gently suggested that some women might be envious of my situation. She’s not wrong. I don’t know a whole lot of women whose lives haven’t been made immeasurably harder by the pandemic, but when it comes to work/life balance–that ever elusive, always illusory, annoying buzzword–my life got easier.
In March I realized my long-held dream of eliminating my commute and working from home. I sleep in an hour later every morning and eat a full breakfast with my family. When my husband stands up to clear the table for school and my daughter starts fussing about brushing her teeth, that’s my cue to head off to “work”–i.e., a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. By the time I make it back and set up my computer in the office downstairs, I can hear my daughter in her first video call of the day. I work for a few hours, come up for a quick lunch with my family, and disappear back downstairs for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes sounds of my daughter’s cries or my husband’s mounting frustration drift down the stairs. My heart breaks and I put on a pair of headphones. I try to finish work early so I can exercise and then call my mom as soon as she finishes up her shift at a school where the kids been back for months. I come upstairs at the end of the day to dinner on the table.
The evening shift with our daughter is mine. It’s not always easy but it’s usually fun. We dance wildly to Parry Gripp and read Harry Potter and throw balls inside the house and play card games and go for walks and draw with sidewalk chalk. I used to try to look at her school work in the evenings but now I don’t bother because allowing her to maintain some sense of separation between school and home seems more important than proving I’m as involved as moms who don’t work. I used to shuttle her to and from activities in the evenings but now they’re mostly cancelled and I refuse to put her in front of a screen more than she needs to be. We eat dessert every night. We unload the dishwasher and put away a few toys and then it’s off to bed. After a bath and jammies and a few chapters and a few songs, she’s down and the night is mine again. My husband cleans the kitchen. He charges the devices for school the next day. I burn incense and read and meditate and play music and then sit on the couch to watch TV with a bag of candy corn on my lap. I go to sleep before he does.
The weekends are all different, but the balance is there. This weekend, I put in the emotional labor to plan a playdate for our daughter, but my husband cleaned the house on the off chance anybody might need to come inside to use the bathroom. I supervised the kids playing outside but my husband brought out the snacks. We both played for hours with our daughter and did chores and took a few hours for ourselves both days of the weekend. Our dryer that has been on the fritz for months finally gave up the ghost and instead of freaking out I let my husband order and arrange install of a new one while celebrated a week off of laundry duty.
I don’t have any advice for women trying to sustain an egalitarian heterosexual marriage with kids in a pandemic. What I do have is advice for constructing a marriage that will rise to the occasion when crisis hits:
Get yourself a stay-at-home husband. Switch the traditional roles so completely and shift them so far out that the seesaw hits the ground on the other side and you’re sitting up high legs swinging in the air. Make your income indispensable. You will feel the weight of responsibility but there will be no question your job comes first. Understand that everything that needs to happen in the home is also a job, and it’s not yours. Let your husband make the appointments and the beds or let them go unmade. You will feel the pain when it’s not done right but there will be no question whose job it is. Undoing all the cultural programming and fighting your way into social structures that weren’t built for families like yours will hurt like hell but one day life as you know it will fall apart and your kids will be home for 24 hours a day and instead of scrambling and stressing about how to keep all the balls in the air you’ll go off to work and leave your husband to deal with this fresh new hell and you’ll thank me for telling you that life can be so good.
It feels unfair, how much harder my husband’s life got this year while mine got easier. It is unfair. But it’s not like it was fair before, when the bar I was working so hard to clear was set to Perfect Mom instead of Pretty Good Dad. It’s not like the scales are perfectly balanced today. I probably still do too much, way more than my dad ever did, more than my husband would do if our roles were reversed. Luckily for our marriage, I’m not aiming for fairness; I’m playing the long game of self-actualization. The pandemic might have set me back, put me into survival mode. It might have destroyed my marriage. The only reason it didn’t is because we had someone at home to track down toilet paper and masks and wait in line at Trader Joe’s and take over our daughter’s early elementary education and that someone was someone other than me.
The summer after high school I lived at home with my parents in Phoenix counting down the days until the dorms opened up and I could move down to Tucson for college. I was like a prisoner scratching days into the wall. That was a bad summer. I had no boyfriend and no romantic prospects, I had two friends and I was pretty sure they liked each other better than me, my parents were mad at me all the time or maybe I was mad at them, I was broke as a joke, and the state took away my driver’s license after I racked up my third speeding ticket before turning eighteen. I also had this terrible job. It was a job I could mention in passing without it sounding terrible. I worked at a photography studio, a fixture of the community that shot family portraits and engagement photos and senior pics. I was an artsy kid, always aiming my point and shoot at the clouds and chain link fences and art deco buildings downtown, so the job sounded pretty good, except that I never went near a camera, print, or prop. I never even saw the clients. I was a telemarketer.
The boss was an older lady who wore quite a lot of jewelry and shimmery, silky tops. If she wasn’t glamorous, she was at least reaching for it. If she wasn’t the owner, she ran the place within the inch of its life, and she kept a stable of girls in the back room wearing headsets and working the phones to get people on the books for a free sitting for an 8×10.
Does it sound like we were offering free 8×10 portraits? Yeah, that’s what the customers thought, too. There were no free portraits. We were offering a free sitting, i.e., we were waiving the $50 fee the studio usually charged just to walk in the door.
We had a few different lists–customers who had come in before and residential lists that the boss had recently invested in with the hope of reaching new customers. The warm contacts were not warm. Most of them remembered that for years and years, the studio had offered free 8×10 portraits to first time customers. Most of them had taken advantage of that deal to score a new family photo or picture of the new baby and not been back since. People loved that deal, but too many people didn’t buy anything on top of the free 8×10 and the studio was losing money, which is the reason it had to go and also the reason that the portrait studio had a telemarketing arm.
The boss had updated the scripts to be technically accurate but not explicitly clear. On the phone, I always tried to emphasize that I was inviting people to come in for a free sitting not a free photo. The offer was not enticing. Most people didn’t realize there was a sitting fee in the first place. The people who picked up on the distinction right away were pissed and disinclined to schedule an appointment. The people who didn’t catch on until the end of the call, after they had gone to the trouble of finding time on their calendars to book and I reiterated that we couldn’t wait to see them for their free sitting, were even more pissed and inclined to cancel or not show up. There were also people who sounded so excited about the appointment that I was pretty sure they had misunderstood. I felt bad about those people, but I couldn’t explain to them what they had done, warn them what was coming. It wasn’t in the script. Were they pissed when their pictures were printed and they got the bill with no free 8×10? I had no way of knowing–that was weeks down the line and the photographers handled their invoicing–but I could guess, and those were the customers that made me feel the worst.
The cold contacts may have lived in the desert but they were like ice. The National Do Not Call list had been signed into law that spring, just two months before I started working at the studio, and registration for it opened up while I was on the job. Enforcement wouldn’t begin until October, but the people who knew about the law were not shy about screaming “Put me on your Do Not Call List!” into my ear. People who didn’t know about the law were not shy about yelling at me, either. Of course, most people didn’t answer or hung up the phone when they realized I was selling something. The few people who stayed on the line long enough to hear my pitch seemed to understand that there was no free picture but didn’t think much of the offer and even if they did, weren’t about to take time off work to come in for a family portrait in the middle of the summer.
That was the other thing. The people who did schedule always wanted to book a few weeks or even months out but we were trying to fill empty slots in the next two days. The whole thing was weird and we all knew it, the people on the phone and the girls in the back room.
The job was embarrassing and demoralizing and the teeniest bit sleazy and I’m not in contract with a single former coworker, and when I think about it I have nothing but warmth in my heart. In my memories, it’s always golden hour and the strip mall studio is glowing in the desert sun. The call lists and fresh and the appointment books are full. The boss is beatific and bestowing us with dollar store goodies for a job well done. The radio is on, alternating between country and r&b. The girls are taking a break from dialing or covering their mouthpieces while the phone rings and telling jokes. We are all busting up.
Those girls, and the boss too, did a lot for me. The girls treated me like part of the team even though I had nothing in common with the peppy former cheerleader or the farm girl from the rural northeastern part of the state or the older girl from downtown Mesa who lived with her grandparents and loved The Temptations or the ex-meth addict who paid her utilities one week and lived next to a guy who gave people tattoos on his porch. The girls made me laugh all day at a time when the rest of my life felt bleak. The girls taught me that the cheapest place to get lunch was the cafe at the Target across the street. The girls told me not to trust the guy I’d met on a dating site for Mormon singles who would end up selling me drugs and ripping me off. The girls helped me call the police when I thought I wasn’t sure if I’d been assaulted by a different guy. The boss let the police come to the studio, let me make the report in her private office. The girls covered for me when I wanted to sneak out for the day and interview for what I thought would be a better job and comforted me when I came crawling back a few hours later, having realized that the better job involved selling knives door-to-door and required an upfront investment of $400.
My job at the portrait studio suuuuuuucked but it was 100x better than calling voters in Texas on behalf of the Democratic party, which is what I did yesterday afternoon. The answering machines and hangups that made up the majority of my calls were a relief. Every interaction with a person on the other end of the phone was painful. There was the woman who got pissed when she heard the word “Democrat” and refused to give any indication who she was voting for except that it wasn’t Biden. There was the troll who said he wanted to talk and then kept me on the phone while he pretended to take a piss and sighed and groaned into the phone. There was the Biden voter who said he’d only vote if we took him off our list, NOW. There was the woman trying to do e-learning with her child and the man at work who asked me to call back after five and I said I would knowing I had no control over when the software would dial their numbers again. There was the military guy who wasn’t planning to vote because he couldn’t figure out how to get a mail in ballot and I couldn’t help him because the script didn’t allow it. There were the names I butchered and the languages I couldn’t speak and the calls I didn’t know how to code. Turning out the vote sounds like fun when it’s a rock concert. Turning out the vote sounds easy when it’s on Facebook. Turning out the vote sounds self-important when it’s pestering your family. When it involves talking to real voters you don’t know, turning out the vote turns into a job.
It didn’t matter how badly a day at the portrait studio went, at the end of every two weeks I took home a paycheck. I’m not sure if I did anything worthwhile yesterday except save the campaign from wasting a few seconds on hostile voters and reassigned numbers. I didn’t even come out of it with a good feeling.
I’m going to do it again today.
Do you want to know why?
It’s sure as hell not love of the Democratic party. I support Democratic policies, but I can’t say that the party as an institution has done more for more than the girls at the portrait studio did.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side put a man on the Supreme Court who did the same thing to Dr. Blasey Ford that I reported to the police in the back office of the portrait studio.
I’m supporting Dems because the other side wants to shut down planned parenthood, which is where I went that summer when I was afraid I had been exposed to HIV.
I’m supporting Biden because the other guy paid less in federal taxes in two years in which he was running for and serving as president of the United States of America than I did in two years of working minimum wage job.
Calling people at home is rude as hell but not as rude as Trump was during last night’s debate.
Calling people at home is embarrassing but not as embarrassing as having Trump at the helm of our country.
Calling people at home sucks for everybody involved but I’m going to do it anyway because, unlike our president, I actually give a shit about Americans and want us all to have good lives.
Calling people at home might not make a difference but I want to live in a world where at least I can try.
Voters might not want to hear from the Democratic Party but at least I’m not offering them a free sitting for a $50 8×10.
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.
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 monthsold. 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.
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.
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.