(House)work from home

Quarantine Diaries: What Is “Working” From Home?

The fourth installment of one WFH parent’s journey amidst the coronavirus pandemic. This one's all about figuring out what it really means to work from home. There’s also a Zenon reference.

In case you missed it, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic—and none of us really knows what we’re doing or how to cope. At least, I don’t. I’m taking it day-by-day, trying to balance working from home and parenting three kids while also wondering if this is the end of the world as we know it. And I’m taking you, dear reader, with me. This is Quarantine Diaries. Come back next week to see how it’s going; this series will last at least as long as your toilet paper supply.

Chapter Four: New thinking for a new world.

Call me naive, but at the beginning of this whole COVID-19 quarantine situation, I didn’t feel like the massive shift to working from home would be that big a deal because I’ve been WFH for years. And sure, COVID WFH would entail a few more stressors—the kids being cooped up in the house full-time, having to figure out what their schooling will look like, the general stress of a pandemic—but WFH would still be the same at its core. I was confident. I was ready.

And, it turns out, I was wrong.

It took me more than four weeks to fully realize that I’m doing a lot more than working from home right now. I’m not just answering emails from a designated office-like space (a.k.a. my dining room table), I’m reorganizing some of the central aspects of my life. I’m dismantling and rebuilding my relationship with my work, my friends, my kids, and my partner every day.

This novel coronavirus has led to novel conditions in many facets of my life, and this week has been all about adjusting to my (our) new world.

Task One: Google Hangouts versus Zoom.

I had a big milestone this week: At 33 years old, I finally had my first Zoom meeting. I’m officially a Supernova Girl. And ya know what? Wearing a not-bummy T-shirt for the first time in who knows how long, engaging with other actual human people in a professional manner through the magic of the internet wasn't half bad.

Well, the first one wasn’t that bad.

I actually had two video meetings this week: the major milestone Zoom (for some freelance work), and a Google Hangouts staff meeting for my full-time job. They couldn’t have been more different, and not only because they were on different platforms. The major difference was in how the two meetings were conceptualized.

"I’m learning that trying to engage with life the 'regular' way ends in things going off the rails, across the board."

The Zoom meeting was run like a Zoom meeting. The Google Hangouts was run like a traditional in-person staff meeting. If you’ve ever been a part of the latter—or if you’ve ever watched an episode of The Office in which Michael has Pam call everyone into the conference room for a sales team meeting—you know that these meetings aren’t always efficient. There’s chit chat. There’s banter. And if you’re lucky, there’s food.

But that’s not the case with remote meetings. The natural back-and-forth that happens IRL doesn’t work through a screen. If you’re bored, you can’t quietly say something to the person next to you without interrupting a speaker across the table. And there’s not the same feeling of, well, we were all going to be here anyway, because there’s a good chance your work from home schedule is different from your colleagues’

The entire time I was in the Google Hangout (and trust me, it was way too much time), I couldn’t help comparing the two meetings. At first, it wasn’t clear what the core difference was. But then, as our boss asked us to “go around the room” to give feedback and no one knew who should start, it clicked. Instead of accounting for the fact that our work conditions and the meeting interface were different than our norm, we just did what we usually do. We didn’t adjust, and so we didn’t succeed.

This wasn’t the first time in the past few weeks that a task has fallen apart because I’ve tried to do it the old way. There was that time we took the kids to the park to wear them out, only to arrive and deal with a full-on Booker meltdown because all of the play equipment was roped off (thanks, coronavirus). Almost every trip to the grocery store has presented some kind of American Gladiator style obstacle (though, thankfully, none have been as bad as the first one). After hours of research and writing about how to file taxes for freelancers, the tax filing date changed. I’m learning that trying to engage with life the “regular” way ends in things going off the rails, across the board.

Tip: Modify your meetings (or whatever you’re doing) based on new goals and parameters specifically designed for the new world in which we live.

Honestly, I feel a little silly for getting four weeks in before realizing that, to get through this quarantine, I’ll need to reprogram myself for a new reality. Because this isn’t the first time I’ve done that.

Not to get all academic on you (I’m a Literary Studies MA, so I can’t help it), but I’ve been queering my life since my mid-20s. Realizing that compulsive heterosexuality wasn’t the only option for building a life—for establishing a home, for raising children, for being—has drastically changed my world. And, maybe surprisingly, it’s also had an effect on how I view, value, and engage in labor.

"I learned to do invisible, affective labor, and I learned not to view it as labor. And, importantly, I learned to feel anxious if that labor wasn’t done, and guilty if I didn’t do it."

I was raised as a girl-child in a biggish Southern Black family. I learned to be constantly aware of other people’s needs and comfort; I fixed plates for my male relatives, I chipped in with childcare and cleaning without being told. I learned to do invisible, affective labor, and I learned not to view it as labor. And, importantly, I learned to feel anxious if that labor wasn’t done, and guilty if I didn’t do it.

Living with Kelsey, another former girl-child who was socialized this way, has been a breath of fresh air. Our kitchen counters are consistently wiped down. Our floors are regularly swept. Unlike her last boyfriend, I don’t refuse to wash dishes because I washed them three nights ago so it’s not my turn (thanks for setting the bar so low, Evan).

We’re living the dream.

Or, we’re living the dream most of the time, because there is a downside: I’m so socialized to chip in when housework is going on that I get exceptionally uncomfortable if I don’t, even if the reason I don’t pick up the dust rag is because I’m busy doing something else.

In the time BC (that is, “before COVID-19”), this wasn’t as big a deal, but now that the kids are home all day every day, it’s become much more of a challenge. I struggle to focus on my work when I hear Kelsey making lunch for Booker, or when I see her bring a basket of clean laundry to the couch to fold. I don’t know how to work from home while she does housework.

"Working from home isn’t just telecommuting or remote work; it’s figuring out—and fitting yourself into—an entire framework for labor."

But this week, in part because those video calls got me thinking so much about reconceptualizing my world, I’ve realized that more thoughtfully queering how we think about our division of labor can actually help me focus on work. It’s helped me let go of some of my anxiety about housework by realizing that, right now at least, that’s not my job. And it’s helped me let go of guilt by recognizing housework as work. I’m not damning Kelsey to the hell of invisible domestic labor, because I see and value what she’s doing. I’m paying the bills so that we can have a place to live and food to eat and all of the streaming services. And in doing so, I’m reprogramming myself to better cope with this new reality.

Tip: Concepts like “work” and “bandwidth” can look really different than you’re used to right now.

That’s OK. Communicate openly about what needs to get done, and what everyone can contribute. Figure out how to share the burdens of running a household in quarantine in a way that feels fair.

I think we have a tendency to think working from home is somehow easier than going into an office or other brick and mortar location. After all, home is where you relax, where you can be most comfortable. But what I’m realizing is that working from home isn’t just telecommuting or remote work; it’s figuring out—and fitting yourself into—an entire framework for labor. And, honestly, it might be harder than working from an office. When you work from home, there’s no separation between your domestic life and your working life. It’s all interwoven and connected.

I’m hoping that in the weeks to come, this realization helps me adjust some things about my current work from home strategies and routines—especially my tendency to let myself get distracted by housework tasks that aren’t my job. At the very least, it should help me run a better (or queerer) Zoom meeting.

Terri is a writer, researcher, and program coordinator for the US's first academic trivia league for HBCUs. She lives and works in New Orleans, with her partner, their 3 kids, and an ever-growing book collection.

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