Can You Take a Mental Health Day While Working From Home?
"I knew I needed a day to recharge and work on my mental health but was unsure how to go about it, especially with limited places to go and a bedroom that doubles as an office."
Doomsday prep edition
One WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This first installment is all about getting ready to hunker down until things get back to normal.
Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an emergency. I know I certainly didn’t expect to be living through a global pandemic, but here we are! Before we jump into all the doomsday stuff, though, I should probably introduce myself:
Hi, I’m Terri.
I live in New Orleans with my partner, Kelsey. I do niche work; I’m a full-time program coordinator for a production company that runs academic quiz competitions (think College Jeopardy! for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and supplement my income hosting trivia nights and doing research and writing work. Kelsey got laid off from her job as a Development and Communications Coordinator at a nonprofit a few months ago, and has been working gigs as a film PA and doing grant writing and editing as she looks for something more permanent. Both of us already worked primarily from home, so we haven’t had to make as many COVID-19 adjustments as people who are working remotely for the first time. We’re dealing with some financial stress, but we’re actually pretty lucky (and all of the resources for freelancers that have recently popped up have been immensely helpful). Kesley’s work has largely dried up, but we hope the recent stimulus package will help us some. I’m also still getting a paycheck, and, luckily, even more freelance work than I usually do.
Money isn’t the only source of anxiety for us; there’s also family. We’ve got 3 kids—ages 5, 9, and 11—home from school. Like many parents, we’re trying to figure out how to work from home without going nuts while the kids are home too, how to manage kids’ online school work, and just generally how to not crumple up into a puddle of frustration and tears on the kitchen floor. (Pro-tip: Curated playlists/dance breaks may help.)
Basically, we’re taking it day-by-day. And I’m taking you, dear reader, with us, as I document the trials and tribulations of a WFH parent with three kids amidst a global pandemic. My trials and tribulations, to be exact. I can’t guarantee Tiger King level drama, but I can promise it’ll be relatable, entertaining, and, I hope, you can learn from—or at least laugh at—my experience.
Come back next week to see how it’s going; this series will last as long as the COVID-19 outbreak does. Or until I crack. This will be a fun game, right? Seeing which comes first? (And, after all, it’s not like any of us are going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Hang out with me!)
Wish me luck. Wish us all luck.
My kids’ dad and I share custody. For one week, the kids are at my and Kelsey’s place; the next, they’re with their dad. Luckily for me, the kids’ dad wanted to keep them for most of their first full week home from school—so my partner Kelsey and I had what seemed like a pretty simple task: get the house—and our minds—ready for next week, when we’ll have 168 hours quarantine quality time with the kids.
Don’t judge us, but neither Kelsey nor I are especially interested in or skilled at cooking—in regular life we eat a lot of box and frozen meals. We’d recently stocked up on things like pancake mix, beans, rice, and pasta, and with what we already had in the pantry we could probably last a week or two. All we needed was canned fruit, fruit snacks, kids’ yogurts, cereal—stuff to add variety and help us avoid meal-time whining.
So, instead of fighting long lines and empty grocery store shelves, we made an online delivery order. (This was before workers at Instacart and Amazon went on strike. Unless or until they get the hazard pay and sick leave they deserve, all our pandemic shopping will happen in the flesh.) We thought we were off to a strong start. We were wrong.
On the day our delivery was scheduled—three days after we’d placed our order—we got an email: All delivery grocery orders were cancelled. That the store would refund our purchase was of little reassurance; we would have to take our actual physical bodies to the actual physical store, and we’d have to do it when everyone else in town was doing it too.
Luckily, we still had a couple of days before the kid-week started, so the grocery run could be grown-folks-only. We figured we’d make a trip of it; not only would we get food, but we’d also stop at the hardware store and get a grill and citronella candles (because if we were all gonna be stuck at home for a week, why not BBQ?).
Since hurricanes are the only kind of looming apocalypse I’ve ever prepared for, I was surprised by how empty the hardware store was—and relieved to know I didn’t need to worry about getting plywood to board up windows or an axe to break through my roof from the inside. We grabbed a grill and charcoal, a couple of extra lighters, some batteries for the Xbox controller, and a couple of house plants (because a pandemic is no reason not to impulse buy). But, just as we rolled our cart into the check-out line, there was an announcement. The credit card machines were down; the store was only accepting cash.
Okay. Fine. It was inconvenient, but maybe this was a blessing in disguise. We didn’t really need to drop a couple hundred on nonessentials, and while, sure, it’d be nice to have a fiddle leaf fern and a majesty palm, we could live without them.
So, off to the grocery store we went.
We filled our cart. Maybe we overfilled our cart. But, in our defense, there are a lot more things available at the IRL grocery store than there are online. And we didn’t know we needed mozzarella sticks or prosciutto or artichoke hearts or tequila until we saw mozzarella sticks and prosciutto and artichoke hearts and tequila.
I know this next bit might sound more like a Kafka short story, but we weren’t living a real-life simulation of “The Trial” (though it was, indeed, a tribulation). To our abject horror, it happened again: Right as we rolled our cart into the check-out line, there was an announcement. “The credit card machines are down,” a disembodied voice boomed over the grocery store loudspeaker. “The store will only be accepting cash at this time.”
It’s one thing to forgo a grill and some greenery. It’s another thing to voluntarily set yourself up for a Donner Party experience on the eve of a global pandemic. We had to find cash.
We decided it was a bad idea to leave the cart behind—what if by the time we got back with the money the store was empty? So, Kelsey posted up in the produce section, and I went off into the wilderness to find funds.
But here’s the thing: when everyone wants cash, cash is hard to come by. And we’d really overfilled the cart; we needed a lot of cash. I’ll spare you the details, but it took me almost an hour and visits to three separate ATMs to get enough money to make groceries. I may or may not have cried in the parking lot of a CVS. (This is one of those mistakes to laugh at, not learn from.)
In the end, we were able to get what we needed. But our spirits were broken. Told ya this would be relatable!
The rest of the week was mostly a blur, and so were tasks two to thirtylevenmillion. My parents are both immunocompromised (my mom’s in her 70s; my dad’s a diabetic), so I ran errands for them and made sure I had enough of my own medications. (I’m asthmatic. And I take a daily allergy medication. And I have Sickle Cell trait. And I’m allergic to the two most common and effective classes of antibiotics. All this is to say: I’m not really meant to survive in the wild.)
Kelsey and I rearranged the living room to make working and playing in the same space easier—and, hopefully, to avoid that weird invasion-of-personal-space thing that always happens because even though this house is huge and there is absolutely no reason to be touching another person ever, the 5-year-old’s foot somehow always manages to touch the 9-year-old’s hand and now everyone is crying, ohmygodwhyarechildrenlike this?! We dug the hula hoops and jump ropes out of the closet behind the washing machine, pumped up bike tires, and bought a volley-ball. We washed everyone’s sheets.
We never did get the grill, but we did manage to do one other important thing: make a schedule for school days.
The kids’ school is officially out until mid-April, but New Orleans has the highest coronavirus infection rates outside of the New York metro area, and there’s a good chance everything will stay shut down through the rest of the school year. Gone are the days of a kid-free home from 7am-3:30pm. No longer will kids be worn out from recess and the one-and-a half-mile walk home from school. For at least the next month, our regular routine will have to change. Drastically. Here’s what we came up with.
For me, the biggest concern isn’t making sure the kids stay on track with their school work (are they really going to need to know that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell when the world has turned into an Octavia Butler novel?). Maybe I’m a horrible parent but, if I’m honest, my biggest concern is keeping them busy, because unoccupied kids are obnoxious kids. They fuss and fight with each other. They demand your attention when you’ve got other things to do. They eat 48 tubes of Go-Gurt in three hours.
As the main breadwinner for our family, I have to work right now, and I can’t work in an environment like that. I can’t effectively parent in an environment like that. I can’t live in an environment like that—and neither can they. As someone who was still a teen when Katrina hit, I’m acutely aware of how having your world upended can affect you for the rest of your life. I know all this disruption will affect my kids’ mental and emotional health, and providing them with a stable routine is one thing—and maybe the only—I can do to mediate that.
While all this preparation was going on, I was still working. Between the grocery store and pharmacy runs, between bringing my CPA my final tax documents and calling my divorce lawyer to see if isolation or quarantine could affect our custody agreement, I was still working.
In fact, I was trying to put in extra hours so that I can be a little more flexible next week, when there’ll be the chaos of kids—and, potentially, the added anxiety of a curfew or actual government-mandated quarantine. I’m realizing now that part of why the rest of the week was such a blur—and why the grocery store run was so stressful—is that maybe I was already wearing myself too thin, trying to get ahead on my editorial quotas and research contracts, sending out extra pitches so that I get things in the pipeline before the entire economy grinds to a halt. I was tired. I was irritable. I wasn’t at my best. (I guess this is as good a time as any to apologize to Kelsey for that whole stop asking me about bathing suits blow up.)
If I learned anything this week, it’s that nothing about this whole COVID-19 thing is going to be simple, but I’m hoping that, having put in the doomsday prep work we have, and with the realization that I need to be a lot kinder and gentler with myself, I’ll be able to survive next week—and however many more weeks of this nonsense come after it. Ya know how they say on Tinder (not that I have one…) “here for a good time, not a long time”? Well, I’m pretty sure the inverse is true here. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try and… make the best of it. I swear I wasn’t cringing as I typed that.
In all seriousness, though: there’s no way to plan for a pandemic; we’ve just got to learn to roll with the punches. Come back next Friday—and the one after it—to see how it's going. (And DM me @Supermaker on IG—I want to know how you’re faring, too!)
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