Working-at-home pandemic blues

Author Tanya Lary (right front) with sons Misha (front) and Jack, and husband Martin Carney. Lary’s take on working at home will resonate with many.

By Tanya Lary

I am writing an urgent briefing note, hunched over a tiny laptop, and someone is washing their hands, vigorously, six feet away from my head.

Update: I’m writing an urgent email to accompany the urgent briefing note, and they’re still washing their hands. When will it stop? Are you allowed to tell people not to wash their hands so much? In direct contravention of public health advice during a pandemic?

Update: Now they’re just running the water for no apparent reason. My nerves are starting to frazzle.

Later: I’m on my seventh consecutive teleconference, and someone is frying onions. I make a strategic move to my couch, putting another 15 feet between me and the onions. Somehow it is now 7 p.m.

Where did the day go? I have only gone outside once, to take a call while walking past a construction site with idling trucks. I woke up my kids, reminded them repeatedly that “school is starting!,” answered multiple questions on verb tenses, walked past younger son’s video class, endured his “massive embarrassment” over my impromptu appearance in Grade 7 math, made a yummy hot lunch, texted with friends, called my parents, went down a brief COVID-19 news spiral and drank loads of coffee. From early afternoon onwards, coffee is the force that keeps me in the game. Is it day or night? A weekday or the weekend? It’s all blurring together.

I am working at home with three other people – two boys age 12 and 14, and my husband – in a relatively small house. My husband’s work in the food and wine industry has shut down. He does the shopping and most of the tidying and cooking, monitors the kids’ schoolwork, takes them for a daily walk and brings me the occasional piece of lemon pie. The boys are doing reasonably well – two or three hours of schoolwork, skateboarding, tons of screen time. They generally find this time relaxing but miss their friends. We all have distinct personalities and challenges, and we are, fortunately, usually on different mood cycles.

I reached a new low two weekends ago (or was it three?). After nine days of consecutive work, I was on a teleconference with senior management. My kids rushed into the living room, full of questions, getting noisily ready to go on a walk with my husband. I rudely shushed them, giving them the Teleconference Interruption Glare. As soon as they were gone, the guilt descended. Working overtime is a lot easier at the office, where you can’t see the people you are neglecting and the fun you’re missing.

I am developing a nasty squint and a cricked neck to add to my curved back. I dream about chiropractors working remotely. I am constantly frustrated by technology – the laptop freezes, the VPN goes down, our teleconference lines go down, someone sounds like they’re calling from the trunk of their car. There is a lot of background noise – boisterous small kids, complaining older kids, barking dogs, querulous partners – that gives me an insight into what others are contending with.

My work-at-home problems, I realize, are a relative luxury. I am a public servant, lucky to still have a job. I’m able to do meaningful work with lovely colleagues. I’m getting a little cranky but I think of others suffering so much more – healthcare and retail workers, the sick and unemployed, struggling small business owners. I feel guilty about my own crankiness.

I have a long list of Things I Have Not Done During COVID. I have not made sourdough bread, started seedlings, read more books, cut my screen addiction, drawn a picture, written a letter, written a novel or invented a cure for COVID-19 using only the ingredients available in my fridge.

I also have a small but satisfying list of things I have done. I have kept in touch with friends and family, baked and gardened with the boys, played games and completed one puzzle with the family, danced at a Zoom party, sat in the sun and had coffee with my husband.

When this is all over, I hope we will change some things for the better: higher pay and more respect for retail workers, cleaners and migrant farm workers; better conditions in long-term care homes; more flexibility for those who work from home. But I also hope we get back to some of the routines we took for granted and now keenly miss: working in an office with others in the Very Same Room; coffee runs with friends; meeting after work on a crowded patio. I will be happy to log out of the online world and go back to the real, physical, face-to-face world in all its glory.

Tanya Lary is a public servant who is surviving the pandemic with her family in the Glebe.

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