This month is my 22-year anniversary of working from home as an employee. I worked from home as a newlywed, while pregnant, as a nursing mom, as a boss, as a mom to a teen, and of course in pandemic.
Sometimes working from home has meant working from the hospital where my dad was having triple bypass, or from the vacation condo while my husband and daughter skied. I’ve worked from Mexico, Hawaii, Italy, at my in-laws the UK, on site with my husband in Seoul, or Osaka, and on literally hundreds of plane journeys. I’ve worked from my childhood bedroom, in the waiting room at the pediatrician, at the ballet studio. At Disneyland. It was, honestly, great.
But, I didn’t do this by myself. I had help from Gladys who was my Mary Poppins. Once kindergarten started, teachers made space for me to work. I wasn’t also homeschooling, and my husband was at his office. The kids who passed through my house and car didn’t have to think about social distancing and weren’t yet addicted to screens.
I worked from home in the time BC (Before Covid), which seemed complicated, but was much simpler. Work from home has made my life possible for more than two decades and become ever easier through technology. Those of you who are new to it—it’s not exactly a representational experience. It’s sheer survival at this time. But if it continues I can recommend it. With one caveat.
The biggest danger of work from home for me was, and remains, boundaries, especially in a production-heavy, daily deadline-driven field. I have worked way too much. I had the luxury to avoid saying no, to cram always a bit more into the workday, which would too often stretch into the worknight—I never did the hard work of saying no. I worked during too many vacations because I already worked as a nomad, so why not just work a few hours each day on the trip so I didn’t fall too far behind?
My workload was invisible to my employer. I would tell myself that with just a bit more focus or organization, if I just tried harder, I could fit ever more into the porous container of my workday.
I sometimes don’t notice that my family has to live in my workplace. I might imagine I was keeping church and state, but how could I? The deadlines and workcalls permeate a space, as do the related stressors. On the flip side, working from home made me less stressed—able to be the flexible one, to anchor the home life for a husband who traveled constantly. So if I may say from experience, it is important to pay attention to those rhythms—to notice when working from home is a gift and breathe in that opportunity. And to notice when it is sucking the oxygen from the room and breathe out. It is too easy to unconsciously spill the workself all over one’s home. Some of that is healthy, some is inevitable. But the question must still be there: how am I taking responsibility for containing my work? How am I integrating my work into my home? How am I balancing being grateful with being overwhelmed, since both will happen.
It’s harder right now, maybe impossible. But someday, kids will be back in school, and people will move freely again, and we will still work from home, a lot of us. Whatever awareness is available now, and whatever workarounds it inspires, whatever kindness for yourself you can find, you will use it for the rest of your work life.