It has been a time of massive adjustment for our household. It’s time to take a breath. Let’s recap.
Thanks to the Sunday of Tumult (22 March) wherein the east coast of Australia speedily jumped within the day from “self-isolate as far as possible but SCHOOLS ARE DEFINITELY STAYING OPEN” to “Wait… we’re closing the schools! Except for those in ‘essential services’, whatever that means — sort yerselves out?” to the Federal government stepping in just hours later and yelling, “SCHOOLS ARE DEFINITELY STAYING OPEN! Take your kids out at your own discretion and peril!” I paraphrase. But it was an abysmal day for Not Confusing the Australian Public, with many of us in the communication field screaming silently.
All this happened on that Sunday, with the PM’s press conference reverberating through social media well after 9:30pm AEST. Meanwhile, some peeps in Queensland still awake were going, “Wait… what? School? Huh?” and I’m trying to explain Australian politics to Singaporeans unused to State and Federal governments from different sides of politics seemingly running off in parallel to do their own thing for the good of the realm and then colliding into each other in stretches of dark tunnels. It’s a far, far cry from a benevolent totalitarian government steadily rolling out Year 55 of its 100-year plan and counting. It’s easier to be organised when you have a single head for a single body.
The announcement about schools came on Sunday. We had all of a single Monday to sort ourselves out and then that was it — Tuesday was Thundercats are Go. Whenever I encounter a post from Singaporeans wringing their hands about how crazy it was to co-educate their children on Wednesday past while still working from home, I think of all the lead time they have to transition to juggling work and teaching full-time, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
I hold two part-time jobs, with the second gig now in jeopardy as things change but then I have also blessedly picked up another client. It’s a much smaller gig but I’m hardly ungrateful. The nature of Tony’s job means he can’t work from home, which means I’m flying solo and suddenly keenly aware and appreciative of what my own mother had to put up with as a single working mother dragging me along home to home as she tutored other people’s kids.
It hasn’t been straightforward. Teachers themselves are on a steep learning curve, and the announcements, resources, assignments and advice fly in thick and fast from multiple directions. That Monday after the announcement, I spent a few hours that night trying to consolidate the sum total of the kids’ obligations to school before chunking it down into a reasonable work program for each of them that would fit around my priorities and vice versa. I ended up having to rework that schedule at least twice during that week before giving up altogether and teaching each kid separately. My weekend got burnt to a crisp trying to catch up with my day job.
In all that time, I was very painfully aware of how significantly my life just got upended (again) while my spouse’s remained relatively unscathed and unchanged. And in my chats with woman friends from all over, I find I am hardly alone in noticing this — the lion share of this upheaval is borne by women.
Even when men work from home, it’s the woman who the children run to and distract. It’s taken me two days to get this far on this blog post. Even in the last two paragraphs, I’d been interrupted every second-to-third sentence. They’re hardly bratty kids — they just generally crave companionship, have memories of goldfish, and live very much in the present. But do you know what it’s like to constantly break concentration, then try and find your focus again only to have it ruined not three minutes later? It’s fatiguing, frustrating, and bloody demoralising. It’s, frankly, torturous. Yesterday, it took me 3 hours to do what would normally take me 45 minutes, tops. It’s why I’m increasingly waiting for Tony to come home before I start on a piece of real work. But he doesn’t get back till 6:30pm on average and by then, I’m already mentally switching off.
Most unfairly of all, it’s the clutter and dirt blindness that frays our mental health — the house that needs to be ordered after a long day at home with children. The table that still needs to be wiped after dinner, the floor that needs to be swept, the kitchen linen that ought to be changed, the dishrack that needs to be washed and cleaned, the toys that haven’t been put away yet. The additional disinfecting that should happen each time our spouse returns home. The millions of things (mostly) women do as a by-the-way that everyone else doesn’t think to do themselves… all that still remains to be done. (Telling women to outline what they’d like to get done, by the way, is also adding to our workload. It takes energy to delegate. Please just make very accurate guesses and act on them.)
Our housework doesn’t get halved — not even close. Meanwhile, our time to do our day jobs just shrank by a factor of at least two. And the mental load and hassle of having to plan and retrofit a whole other job in amongst it all is the other untold burden that most women in my shoes end up shouldering. We’re also grieving, like everyone else is. The exhaustion that this pandemic induces is universal and we are hardly immune. If anything, we mourn more because our losses and changes are greater.
But what am I thankful for? An employer who understands and gives grace and space. We’ve touched base every Monday to Thursday for two weeks straight and it’s been a welcome part of my routine. The picture at the top of this post was a typical moment of me conferencing while the kids beavered away at their schoolwork. My children are my colleagues now, along with the ones I work with usually. And honestly, if I didn’t have such an understanding employer I’d be a lot worse off mentally and emotionally by now.
Most of all, I am very grateful to have a job at all. This tension between work and home life is only possible because I am still gainfully employed. I want to mention and honour this truth because while the going is tough at the moment, there is a lot to be deeply thankful for — including the husband who is taking a couple days’ leave next week.
Even in this madness, I am a lucky and blessed duck.