Tuesday, August 25, 2020

When the Bookends Fell

If you'd asked me back in February what a successful working week looked like, it most certainly wouldn't have looked anything like the like the week I barely survived last week. Or the week I am inelegantly wading through now. Not even a smidgen. 

Back then, four of my five working days each week were bookended by getting-ready and getting-home mayhem. Mornings were a carnival of hair-wrangling, teeth-brushing, uniform-uncrumpling, emergency lost shoe location, daycare and primary school drop-offs, awkwardly running for the train, and then trying not to spill coffee on my fellow commuters.

Evenings were a similar affair, only in reverse; squeezing onto an overcrowded peak hour train in time to try and collect my small people from their respective locations, running baths, throwing endless washing in the machine, cutting up sandwiches for lunchboxes, trying to read my book club novel and consistently falling asleep with the book on my face three paragraphs in. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

I'll admit, the morning and evening 'bookends' were exhausting. Sometimes a little bit exhausting, sometimes a lot. More often than I ever used to admit, I would stop and close my eyes for a nanosecond and dream up ways to get off the treadmill, out of the daily grind.

But somehow, the routine and the rhythm and the structure made it all work. As a full-time working parent, partnered in life and madness with another full-time working parent, the bookends held our world together. Even on my regular work-from-home days, the bookends held strong, carrying out the morning and evening rituals with my children, and running a standard workday in a different location, just in plain clothes, not professional ones. 

The bookends separated parent me, weekend me, bookclub failing, personal, individual me, from working me. They got me to and from the office. They created the glorious, important, productive time, place, and space to focus on work, and doing the things I love to do in my professional life. They gave my work-from-home partner the physical and mental space he needed to pursue his professional goals and achieve his deliverables in peace. They got my children to the places they needed to go each day to learn, to make friends, to stretch their limbs and climb their own mountains, and grow as emerging individuals of their own.

And then, in March, the pandemic arrived in our Melbourne lives and the bookends started to erode. Bit by bit, tid by tad, the narrative began to change. First, it was the office, gone from my daily life with the transition to working from home. Mot just one day a week, but every day of the week. It was a significant change, but only mildly seismic, sending small but survivable tremors through our daily structure. Then it was school, with the closure of physical classrooms and the introduction of remote learning, and the fusing of working and parenting; this was a far more seismic affair, that shook the walls and reshaped the ground.  And then, finally, it was daycare, with the smallest (yet defiantly loudest, largest) member of the family added to the increasing mellee. The slow erosion had become an avalanche, and our structure collapsed.

And now, in the back-end of August, it's an all-in, unstructured family-work-life affair. The bookends have entirely disbanded and structure has unraveled. Time has become an abstract concept, with weeks and months rolling into one elongated stretch of time. 

Instead of opening paragraphs and closing sentences, days are punctuated erratically and very differently, with work deliverables, competing Zoom schedules, and the emotional ups and downs of four humans stuck in infuriatingly, yet endearingly, close proximity, the only markers of time and movement. Along with new episodes of Rosehaven dropped weekly on the ABC on a Wednesday evening - sometimes the only thing that reminds me we are halfway through another 'week', whatever that is. 

We know, beyond doubt, that we are an incredibly fortunate quartet, and we are the first to call it out check ourselves when we feel like things are tough. We are together. We are here. We are safe and warm and healthy and fed. We have electricity, and water, and the technology that we need to work and learn(and watch the aforementioned Rosehaven). My partner and I are both still employed, and we are supported as coworkers and working parents by our wonderful workplaces and our incredible colleagues, and by our family and friends around the globe, as we all collectively navigate the 'new normal' collectively and do our best to evolve and progress and continue.

But things certainly do not look or feel the same. Try as we have, we have not been able to recreate the solidity of the old bookends, in any new shape or form. We are constantly reaching for a structure that doesn't exist and failing miserably to recreate a new one that works. We are trying to be all the things to each other, at the same time as being all the things we used to be in the workplace, as well as trying to find a sense of calm and reason. 

Some days it works. Some days it doesn't. Some mornings start with optimism and end up in a crumpled heap by noon. One morning recently, the day had already been so intense I lost my cool and felt an overwhelming need to return to bed - and it was only 8:05am. Some days, we help our daughter tick off all the remote learning tasks, we 'eat' playdough creations at the backyard cubby cafe, get a load of dishes done, and get all our deliverables out the door. 

Other days, the kids bust in on every phone and video call, we make mistakes because we are tired, and we lose our tempers because the weight of everything and nothing all at once is suddenly too heavy. We fail to see actual sunlight or make it out for a permitted hour of exercise, we experience sensory overload and retreat into our headphones for large portions of the day, and we eat breakfast for dinner while wearing the same clothes as yesterday. 

In February, looking back on a successful week involved getting things ticked off at work and kicking goals; getting the kids to and from school and daycare; progressing something or another on our personal lists that we had set out to achieve - as well as brushing our hair, and interacting with other humans in a face-to-face capacity, each and every day. 

Now, success is making it through another 'week' and keeping it together as best we can. It's about surviving or thriving, depending on the day of the week or the minute of the day. It's about doing as many things as we can, the best we can, and not always doing the best at all the things. 

It's about managing energy over time, necessity over desire, and valuing long term outcomes over immediate outputs and gains. It's about trying our hardest, yet trying not to be too hard on ourselves when our hardest isn't enough. It's about supporting ourselves and our friends and families and our colleagues, and being overwhelmed with gratitude when the support comes flowing back. 

And as for the picture, well, sometimes it's about letting the kids lay every book in the house up and down the hallway to create an imaginary library so you can get through a Zoom call in relative peace. Because even without the 'bookends' of before, the stories of now just keep on coming. 

Wherever you are, however you are getting through it - keep going! We're getting there! 

M x