Four hours a day: that’s how much time I spent on the train traveling from my home in Connecticut to my workplace in midtown Manhattan. At first, I found the commute to be a nice break from the rambunctiousness of my children. It gave me time to meditate, to read, and to sit and stare out of the window in the squeaky seats on the Metro-North before I’d begin my work day at 8 a.m. At a stereotypical New Yorker’s pace, I’d hop off of the train and rush to my desk, coat and lunch dropped, and off to the bathroom and coffee machine I’d go. Then, I’d work until time for the reverse commute home with another two-hour train ride.
Until March, of course.
I needed this break, this COVID-19 break, more than I even knew. I no longer commute into New York because of the pandemic, but gratefully, I still very much have my job. Being home, being a teacher to my three children, making sure all are fed, safe, and that I am on the clock when I need to be, is teaching me about boundaries — a lesson I’ve been cultivating my entire life.
Boundaries are required for my sanity. They have a place in my everyday life, yet building them has not always been easy. In college, I learned how to say the word “no” and stand behind it, even if its delivery was as soft as a feather. COVID-19 has forced me to dust off the words I’ve buried down over the years to advance in my career. I’ve been speaking up for my needs (and those of my kids) in all the ways I need to, which I never would have imagined nine months ago. The structure of our lives has depended on me using my voice, setting boundaries, and declining work calls to finish my twins’ kindergarten phonics lesson or to ensure they were adequately logged into their own Google Meet with their “bosses” — their teachers.
According to a 2015 CNN Money report, women spent 7 hours 49 minutes working while we, on average, spent a mere 7 hours 56 minutes sleeping — yes, sleeping. We are now working from home, sleeping upstairs and working downstairs; it’s easy to work a little longer, to put in extra hours when the kids go to bed or schedule emails while bingeing one of the top 10 Netflix shows of the week. Do you know what else is easy? To not do those things. It’s easy to close the laptop, to shut off your cell phone, to let that one email go unanswered until your work clock starts again. We have the choice, the power to choose differently, to opt-in to a work/life balance that we wholly control.
When Friday arrives, I turn off, just shy of deleting my Google app from my phone. I do not check email after 5 pm. I do not check email over the weekend; that includes Saturday and Sunday. Given the nature of my job, I am available for emergent calls, which are very infrequent but happen throughout the year.
I do not feel like I am missing out on some important work email by signing off on Friday and not logging in again until Monday morning. What I am gaining is more valuable than staring at the bright screen of my iPhone. What I am gaining is time for me: to pour myself a glass of wine if I choose at 5:01 pm or to binge-watch Bridgerton on a Saturday or attend virtual church on Sunday. I’ve heeded the call from Representative Maxine Waters and reclaimed my time, and given myself back the moments that were taken away from me.
Don’t get me wrong, I value the role I play on my team at the nonprofit I work for. I am grateful for the hand I have in changing lives, and the humility I carry knowing the opportunity I have to get up and “go” to work. The honor in being a working person, an American with a job during a pandemic, is something I do not take for granted. But the pandemic has tested me in more ways than I can count: my mental health, my stamina, my strength, my marriage, my health, and my ego. The lesson I am most grateful for in all of this, the apology I will never have to make to anyone, is that I am not sorry for putting myself first.
Being a mom, we know, is hard as hell. We also know that we constantly put our kids first, and when we are asked to put ourselves first, we struggle. COVID-19 has given me the ability to not struggle with put myself first. My emotional and mental health depend on setting clear and healthy boundaries for my work (and life) balance, and both of those things are how I carry my family.
Let’s be real though, guilt is a nasty monster who can rise from the dead lookin’ like a zombie from “Thriller.” I sometimes feel the tug of guilt when I reschedule a work meeting because my kids’ teachers decided to move their Google Meet to another time, or hit the red button on my cell phone instead of the green one, declining a work call to follow-up later in the day.
But at that moment, I needed to be somewhere. Someone had to be available, and as of late, that “someone” is me. And I cannot be everywhere and everything to everyone. It is an impossible job to be at the top of my work game, the mom who bakes chocolate chip cookies from scratch every week, the wife who has meals prepared each evening for my partner, without allowing something to fall off of my very full plate.
I am putting myself back in the center of it all, setting these boundaries: turning off at the end of each workday, not answering emails while I bathe my kids or shushing them so I can complete a work phone call. This is my (and our) reality. COVID-19, we can all hope, will be a distant memory in the next few years, but what will remain are the boundaries I’ve put in place, the choices I make today, to use the voice I’ve been given. To stand up and decline work calls, reschedule meetings, tell my boss (in the most diplomatic and respectful of ways) that I cannot do something or I won’t make a deadline, has empowered me. It has also shown my kids that balance can be had, but only when we carve out time to tip the scales in our favor.