A while back, I had a coworker who constantly clipped his fingernails in the cubicle next to mine. I don’t work in one of those super trendy, everyone-gather-in-the-open-concept-kitchen-at-2pm-for-kombucha-and-a-presentation-about-essential-oils companies, so fortunately there was a wall between our desks. I wasn’t forced to watch as he blithely groomed himself, and he didn’t see me plugging my ears and quietly humming the theme song to The Office to block out the noise.
This used to be my most enduring office-space horror story. But that was before a global pandemic forced me into sharing a workplace with a fourth grader, a three-year-old (three and a half, she insists), a geriatric rescue mutt, a goldfish, and a teacher, otherwise known as my lovely wife.
Like so many other families, we’re locked in a never-ending turf war for space in our own home. As the first few weeks of work from home dragged into months, I realized that the fragile blessing of work-life balance is predicated on having time, energy, and resources to devote to each. Now, each day presents a new, unforeseen obstacle. But, as with every challenge, our family is adapting, looking for silver linings where we can. Here are a few lessons I've learned about surviving the new normal.
Virtual learning can be loud sometimes.
For my day job, I work in television: equal parts harried newsman and air traffic controller with a dash of Ryan Seacrest. I produce content for some of TV's and cinema's biggest awards shows and, while the interviews I book are normally filmed in a softly lit studio with a professional camera crew, that’s not possible right now because, you know, 2020.
A few weeks back, I sat down at my kitchen table (unicorn princess camp was happening in the living room) and dialed into a conversation with a big-deal actor. Right as we got underway, a loud THUMP THUMP THUMP boomed overhead. Was it an earthquake? A burst pipe? A rogue washing machine? I ran upstairs to investigate and found my nine-year-old with his laptop on the floor, his PE teacher shouting words of encouragement.
“We’re doing jumping jacks!” my son shouted gleefully.
A bit exasperated, I asked, “Do you think you can do them, I don’t know, a little more quietly?”
He gave me a quizzical look and replied, “They’re jumping jacks, Dad!”
I nodded and closed the door, slinking back downstairs to my makeshift office. As I unmuted myself, I explained to everyone on the call about the PE situation, and how, if they heard any startling noises, not to be alarmed. “Don’t worry,” someone said. “We’ve all been there.”
Lesson learned: Lots of folks are in the same boat as you with virtual learning, even if it feels like you’re all alone. Chances are a makeshift daycare center/science lab/gymnasium is lurking just off your colleague’s screen, just like yours.
It's best to plan Zoom calls around music class.
I tried to rectify the jumping jacks situation by moving my designated workspace to the master bedroom. One afternoon, I popped in my earbuds, opened my laptop, and began a fairly important meeting about some high-profile projects. About halfway through, I heard a quick, piercing, noise. “Can everyone mute yourselves?” one of my colleagues asked. “I think we’re getting some feedback.”
“That must be it,” I thought. “Feedback.”
When it was my turn to talk, I ran through my impressions of an idea when the noise shrieked again. This time, it was louder and varied in pitch, repeating the same pattern over and over again.
Unable to continue, I told my team that I thought it was a bad connection and would try to dial in again. When I hung up, I heard the noise again and scrambled to find its source. I rushed down the hall and arrived at the door to my son’s room. Peeking inside, I saw him cross-legged on the floor, blowing into a plastic recorder. I checked one of his many (many) virtual learning apps on my phone and smiled in resignation. Today was music class.
Lesson learned: Make sure you organize your work day with your kids’ learning in mind. Their schedule is just as important as yours, so plan accordingly.
Sometimes, it's best to just not ask questions.
A few days later, my son came downstairs in the middle of class time asking for dry yeast. To say I was skeptical would be an understatement. But he insisted his science teacher told him to get it, along with a few other ingredients, for an experiment they were conducting. So he headed upstairs with a bag of yeast, a banana, and a plastic bag as I said a silent prayer to myself.
A few minutes later, I stood outside his room and eavesdropped. Pressing my ear to the door, I caught the words “rotten,” “decaying,” and “next week.” Knowing what disgusting things grow in his room on a good day, I was not enthused. So I shook my head and decided to let the situation play out. When I went into my son’s room later that evening and saw a large, gooey brown spot seared into the carpet, I didn’t ask questions. I just grabbed a sponge and prayed that tomorrow’s lesson involved cleaning supplies instead of culinary products.
Lesson learned: Virtual learning can be messy. What your kids are doing is important, even if it’s difficult to recognize.
At the end of the day, we're figuring it out and making it work.
Over the past few months, I’ve come to understand the importance of stepping back and appreciating the hidden value of these stressful moments. Sharing an office space with a fourth grader isn’t ideal for me, and it’s certainly not perfect for him with virtual learning. He’s missing out on the full experience of being in an actual classroom, and I’m finding it hard to be fully engaged in my own professional passions and obligations. I'm not the only one either—this scientist mom is a great example of making it work.
But, in working this out together, I’m getting to witness something I never would have otherwise: my son actively learning. I’m seeing things click into place; vague ideas in his brain becoming concrete in real time. When he learns a new word, memorizes an important concept (like how Alexander Hamilton was a real person, not just a lyrically gifted rapscallion—who knew?!), or becomes excited about an idea he didn’t understand before, I’m getting a firsthand look at his enthusiasm, his abilities, and his progress.
That’s something I get to observe as it’s happening instead of hearing about it second-hand at the dinner table. And, as difficult as this entire situation is, that’s not just a lesson learned. It’s something I never knew I was missing.