I shove myself out of my white leather work chair at the sound of a child whimpering at the open door to our spare bedroom, which has become a makeshift office/video classroom/iPad hangout. Turning away from my computer screen, I find River, my 2 3/4 year-old son, pouting in that deeply sad way only a manipulative toddler can muster. In long, drawn out slur, his drooped eyes looking up at me, he says “Everett won’t let me watch Yippi Train.” Which means Blippi, his favorite YouTube show, but he can’t yet pronounce a “b” sound.
As he looks up and sees the earbuds in my ears, he shouts, “Take those out!” Did I mention I’m on a conference call with my boss, her boss, and four other people? I try to negotiate on mute, whispering, “Mommy’s on a call honey, just a second.” Then in my ear, I hear, “Donna, what do you think about that?” My heart jumps. Once again, I was caught not listening. “That sounds fine to me,” I say, taking a chance. “Great,” my boss says, and continues the discussion. Dodged yet another bullet.
I step out of the office, bent over holding my son’s hand, juggling the phone, trying not to snag the earbuds from my ears, a stuffed cat thrust under my armpit. I slip. On paint. I keep going. Just get the kid sitting in front of the TV, I think. I look to my left. The front door is wide open. Where’s Everett, my rambunctious, tireless five-year old? Where’s Loren, my husband? Dropping the hand of the little one, I bound out the door. “Everett!” There’s Everett, soaking wet, in his pajamas and no shoes, devising water experiments on the front lawn. Loren is pacing the driveway, also on a conference call. He sees the distraught look on my face and mouths, “I’ve got him.” And then he gives me the thumbs up. I look down and see a path of paint prints that I have left in my wake. This is Monday.
In the midst of COVID-19 and Shelter-in-Place restrictions, my husband and I are both full time caring for our two small boys and full time working from home. Well-meaning people say things like, “Can’t you take shifts? Like you work in the morning and Loren works at night?” and “Just tell your work that you can’t be on calls all day. They’ll understand.” But when calls take place some days from 7:30 am to 6pm, and are spaced out all throughout the day, sometimes 6-7 hours total, and your husband has clients with their own schedules too, how does this theory work? And implicit in these suggestions is that your family is most important. They come first. Don’t they?
It has been made very clear to me as a professional woman and a mother that I am to believe that work and family both come first. I am supposed to give 100% at work and 100% at home. I am supposed to be a rock star in the office and then come home and be a super mom. At least that is what I have come to understand over the last five years. Even when I was having my babies, I was explicitly told that if I wanted to get promoted, I had to hit the ground running at the end of my 12-week maternity leave. And I worked with both babies right up until the day I went into labor so I could make my hours and get my bonus. No rest for the weary.
The way I have been able to at least fake this equal level of effort is by compartmentalizing my life. I pay excellent people a fairly significant amount of money to care for my children during the work day, people I trust implicitly, so that when I leave home or drop them off, I can disconnect, at least partially, from my children for a few hours so I can mentally connect to work. At 4pm when I head out to commute on the train home, I cut the work cord and plug back into thinking of my family. What will I start cooking for dinner as soon as I step into the house? Does Everett have an activity tomorrow? Are there enough diapers?
But now, there are no compartments. Everything is jumbled up together in the chaotic, grimy, loud circus that my home has become. Screams of small children mingle with serious strategic conversations in my ears. I share my opinion with senior leaders while stirring butter into pasta at the stove top. I change poopie diapers while talking to my boss. The wall I put up between work and home has disappeared. And my children and I are suffering as a result.
It is incredible to me that anyone thinks a parent can work from home full time while also caring for small children, also full time. Ask anyone this question, “So what was it like the last time you watched small children for an entire day? Were you tired?” They will laugh and say yes. “OK, so do you think you could slot in an 8-hour workday alongside that babysitting? That’s no problem right?” They will agree – this is impossible.
Since I went back to work after Everett was born a little more than five years ago, I have struggled daily with the push and pull of striving to be both an excellent parent and an outstanding employee. Some days the guilt has me staring into space in my office after a stressful meeting wondering why I don’t work part time and stay home. But of course we can’t afford that. Other days I feel confident that I’ve chosen a balanced path that allows me to stay engaged professionally and intellectually, while providing for my family and setting a strong example for my boys of what a strong woman looks like.
But never before the last six weeks have I felt so acutely the impossible choice between work and my kids. When I work hard, I worry that they feel neglected. When I shut down my computer for a couple of hours, I check email obsessively and can’t be present in the moment with them. There aren’t 16 consecutive hours in the day to be able to do both well. And my compartments are so far gone, I wonder if I will ever be able to stand them back up.