Work, worth and paying attention in the time of coronavirus

Why can’t I focus?

I write this in my pandemic journal, because I read journaling is a gift during this time and because “you’ll want to tell your grandkids about the 2020 pandemic” and because I already keep a journal. 

Focus? The situation at hand requires me to “work” from home with my preschooler underfoot. Regular interruptions to “go potty with Mommy,” to “get a snack with Mommy,” to pop in on yet another Skype meeting — stilt my productivity. I shift one production schedule back no less than three times. It takes twice as long to edit an article.

Seems like a cruel joke that I picked “pay attention” as my 2020 intention. Now I’ve forgotten the question. Oh yes. I write:

Why can’t I focus? 
A: Your son keeps interrupting your workday.
A: Your work keeps interrupting your parenting.

Jay and I split up parenting shifts. When I’m with Jack during the workday, I find myself preoccupied by the tasks awaiting me in my inbox. 

Lately caring for him feels like tossing a stick of dynamite back and forth, neither of us wanting to get stuck with an explosion. We know this is hard for him, too, and we’re doing our best. But it’s not enough — we can’t replace his friends or teachers or grandparents. 

Uneager to dissect my failings, I set down my pen.

While unloading the dishwasher that evening I’d confessed to my husband, “I just feel so guilty all the time.” 

“Why?” he asked, collecting a stack of dishes. I tallied it up in my head: mom guilt, work guilt, too much screen time guilt, wife guilt, guilt that our home looks like the cross between a child’s birthday party gone awry and a war zone, guilt that we are safe while others suffer. 

For years I’d measured my worth as a Highly Effective Woman, meeting deadlines, achieving goals, caring for others, clearing clutter. She didn’t seem to live here anymore.

“Just… everything,” I sighed, holding up a grit-flecked glass that would need hand-washing. “Dishwasher didn’t do its job again.”

***

Jack’s at the dinner table finishing a slice of peanut butter and jelly toast while FaceTiming with my mother. My phone leans against a mega-sized jar of peanut butter reflecting just his face in the frame with his grandma’s, as if they’re chatting at our table. His eyes dance as he tells her about the birdhouse he and Daddy placed in our tree. I watch him smile wide; I grin too. Conversation slows.

“Okay, now, ask her how her day was,” I prod, gently touching his shoulder.

“Grandma, how was your day?” he says. I mouth, “Good boy!”

She begins to answer, but Jack’s already launching into another story.

“Honey,” I interject, tapping his shoulder again, “That’s all fine and good, but you need to listen. It’s Grandma’s turn to talk.” I catch myself sounding like Mama Bear from Jack’s beloved Berenstain Bears books. My son keeps talking, oblivious or ignoring me, and I repeat myself. 

“Honey, you need to listen.”

My own words startle me. What is my attention — or lack thereof — trying to tell me?

***

Days later, a colleague shares an article on productivity whose point seems so obvious I don’t know how I missed or dismissed it. It triggers a memory from last summer.

“You’re too hard on yourself,” my friend Seth told me over drinks at a work conference. His insight made me cringe. 

“No, I don’t think so,” I answered, swirling my pinot grigio.

Seth is one of my oldest friends. We’ve studied Kierkegaard together, he’s my husband’s fraternity brother and we see each other occasionally for work and social events. He knows me. “Yeah, you definitely are,” he said, patting my shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

I imagine telling him today that I’m failing. That my back is breaking under the weight of my pride and high expectations. Deep down I worry I never was a Highly Effective Woman — this proves it. I have no color-coded schedule, no sourdough starter, no stomach for offering at-home haircuts. I want to pay attention but most days, I’m a distracted mother. Most days, I barely cobble words together.

At this, Seth would just shake his head. 

The next time I crack open my journal, I return to the previous entry, drawing wisdom from the article:

Why can’t I focus?
A: You are in the middle of a pandemic. 

***

“Mommy, it’s rainy again,” Jack sighs, staring out our droplet-streaked front window.

I join him and zero in on puddles pooling across the pavement. I’ve taken the day off work to spend with Jack and I don’t want to waste it indoors. I ask, “Wanna go puddle jumping?” 

“Yay! Yay! Yay!”

I help Jack into his green froggy rain boots, throw on sneakers and grab our light jackets. We venture out our red side door and crack open the garden gate. Sidewalks — well-trafficked on fairer days — stand empty.

Rainwater-drenched grass overwhelms my nose. My son releases his grip on my hand and barrels straight for a puddle. A neighbor with a black Portuguese water dog waves hello before crossing to the opposite sidewalk.

The pearly clouds overhead temporarily dry up as we scour the neighborhood for the perfect puddle. This one by the street is too dangerous. This one on the sidewalk is too shallow. We keep going.

All the while, I catalogue beauty: Verdant green grass juxtaposed against crumbling city asphalt. Trees shifting from flowered to leaved. Violets sprinkled through common patches of grass. The tiniest drizzle of rain kisses my face, igniting my senses.

I’ll record this in my journal, I think.

Now the rain’s picking up again and I’m tugging Jack toward home and he’s tugging me the opposite direction, unwilling to end the search. In the middle of the alley, I stop.

“Jack, I think I’ve found it!”

He turns his head. “What Mommy?”

“Your perfect puddle,” I point. “Look!”

We rocket toward the puddle. SPLASH! Jack jumps in and stamps his feet while I stand back to observe, scanning the alley for cars.

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. Black mud cakes the outside of his frog boots. 

Splish, splash, splotch. Splish, splash, splotch. The rain grows heavier. His cheeks turn upward in delight. 

Mine do too. I keep watching: I want to imprint this moment to memory.

“It’s time to go buddy,” I finally say. “Why don’t you take one more splash in the puddle?”

SPLOTCH! 

Raindrops slice through the air. Holding hands, my son and I jog the full quarter-block to our house, never stopping until we reach the finish, hearts hammering in our chests.

I throw back the gate, unlock the red side door, usher Jack inside and pause, suspended between the glow and warmth of home and the wonder of a spring storm. Between dry and wet. Safe and wild. Failing and flying. Proving my worth and simply trusting it. Before every obligation comes tumbling back, I stay still, listening to the raindrops.

Diary of one day

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

5 a.m. ~ The sound of chimes, my iPhone alarm, breaks my dream. My eyes dart open. The bedroom is bathed in darkness. My dog is snuggled up against my husband, who’s snoring blissfully on the other side of the bed. I wrestle myself out of bed; the cool air shocks my body awake. I’d much rather retreat to warmth of my covers, the delight of my dream. Instead I rise. Time to start my day. First, a shower.

5:30 a.m. ~ A few mornings a week, I set aside time to tackle freelance projects and write for myself. My wet hair is drying and I’m dressed for the day, so I flip open my laptop and get to work. I prepare an invoice for a story I wrote for The Everymom and answer a couple emails. I scroll my Instagram feed a bit. OK, enough. I set down my phone and switch back to the laptop.

Finally I start to write. I’m workshopping an essay about my tendency to hover parent and my son’s tendency to stick close to me. I type: He is always in my orbit — I’m the earth, he is my sun. I pause and think. Maybe it’s the other way around? I go on: I’m barely done with my meal and my son is already tugging my hand toward his playroom. He wants to sit in my lap and play with his blue playdoh, make snakes and snowmen and pretzels with it. He wants me to be in his orbit, and honestly, I do too. So why do I feel so ashamed of this?

I keep writing, thinking, writing, grasping for the story.

7:08 a.m. ~ “Mom-my, Mom-my, Mom-my, Mom-my!” My son’s squeals derail my train of thought. I haven’t finished the essay but I’ve made decent progress. I stand, satisfied, and head to his room to start our day. (I don’t always feel satisfied. Some days I feel annoyed, reluctant to leave my work. Sometimes I skip my morning writing altogether in favor of sleep.)

I open the door to Jack’s room. He stands at the end of his crib, ready for breakfast. “Good morning, my love,” I say, striding toward the window. I open the blackout curtains and light spills into the small space. “Mommy, I hungry!” Jack shouts. Before we head to the kitchen I heft Jack up on the changing table, which faces the window, and give him a fresh diaper. He whines and rubs his eyes as they adjusts to the morning light. I change his diaper easily, thinking soon I’ll be doing this less and less, once we start potty training. Now we’re ready for breakfast. My husband is stirring across the hall, but I see Gus, our dog, nestle deeper under the covers, unready to face the day.

Breakfast of champions.

7:45 a.m. ~ After munching on Eggo waffles and fruit and washing it down with milk (his) and coffee with cream (mine), then getting Jack dressed, it’s time to pile on our winter gear and head to Jack’s Montessori school. This, along with getting dressed, is one of the most difficult parts of the day. It’s hard convincing our strong-willed toddler to get ready when he’s too busy exploring the world around him. Today he’s decided to scatter his sock collection around his playroom like confetti. Never a dull moment here.

8:10 a.m. ~ We are finally out the door and en route to Jack’s school, after kissing my husband farewell. Kissing goodbye and hello is a ritual in our family — we try to do it no matter what, even we’re fighting or having a not-so-good day. It’s those times especially when I think we need the physical affection, a little reminder to be softer with each other and ourselves. I turn on NPR and drive cautiously; the roads are icy today.

8:20 a.m. ~ This morning while dropping Jack at school, I meet his new teacher. Now that Jack’s two and talking lots, he’s transitioning from the toddler to the twos classroom. Jack stands waiting at the door to go in his classroom. “Hug and kiss?” I ask. He nods and I wrap my arms around his little frame and kiss his cheek. “I love you!” I shout after him as he bounds toward his peers.

8:57 a.m. ~ I’m logging into my computer now, prepping a file for my one-to-one meeting with my supervisor. I only have a few things on my list for her so it should be a relatively quick conversation. That’s good because my editing list is quite long — it’s deadline day for our magazine’s features and I have several stories to file and another meeting to attend.

Werk, werk, werk, werk, werk, werk, werk.

9:20 a.m. ~ I hunker down in my cube and pull up my first story to edit. I’m refining a second draft of a story about medical justice. The copy’s fairly clean, just need to tighten up a few more turns of phrase here and there. Editing requires one to cut and rearrange words to make a story more clear while maintaining a writer’s voice. It’s a fun job, one that consistently challenges me. I dig in, losing myself in words.

10:35 a.m. ~ It’s time for another meeting, this time with my coworker Allison. Allison runs our brand’s social media accounts and I’m lead for my publication’s social media, so we try to meet on a monthly basis to discuss relevant content for our shared audiences. As we walk through the building, I list off our best articles from our February issue so Allison’s team might share a few on their Facebook account, which has a sizable following.

11 a.m. ~ Back to my desk for another hour of work. I have another story to work on, plus emails to tend, which keep me busy until it’s time for lunch.

12:15 p.m. ~ My coworker Michelle and I use our lunch break to run a quick errand at Target. I have to make a return and pick up a few toppings for dinner tonight — turkey tacos. She has to pick up supplies for a presentation. We move quickly; lunch and work await us at our desks.

Wearing my smarty pants glasses today.

1:30 to 4:30 p.m. ~ I eat a salad at my desk and finish editing my last story for the day, then I write and work through more emails with writers. I’m finishing my last assignment for our May issue, and starting on preparations for June. I look out my fifth floor office window. There’s still snow on the ground. The sky is gray. Summer feels light years away.

4:45 p.m. ~ After saying goodbye to my coworkers, I head toward the elevator. It’s time to pick up Jack, and my heart feels light. I also have a 30-minute drive to look forward to where I can listen to a podcast. This evening I choose Modern Love. I’m catching up so I select last week’s episode, which is a replay of the essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal before she passed away from cancer. It’s a beautiful, funny, poignant story, and the reader does an exquisite job capturing the complex emotions in her story. Tears build up in the corner of my eyes when the essay reaches its climax. Eventually it ends; I switch to NPR as I navigate a tangle of traffic.

5:20 p.m. ~ I’m at Jack’s daycare. His teacher opens the door to his room and yells “Jaaaack!” He comes rushing toward me, smiling. “Mommy!” he says. “Hey buddy!” I wrap him in a bear hug and kiss his cheek. “How was your day?” I ask.

5:45 p.m. ~ I unlock the side door and usher Jack into our warm house. I smell turkey tacos, Jay must have started dinner early. I hear Gus whimpering and scratching, anxious to greet us. We remove our winter layers — first scarves and hats, then jackets, finally boots — and Jack is chattering away. “Daddy?” he asks and I see Jay open the door at the top of the stairs. Jack lumbers up the stairs toward his father. We are home.

6:30 p.m. ~ Dinner’s finished and Jack and I are in his playroom, building towers of red, green, purple and yellow plastic blocks. It’s time for Jay to go to the gym. He lifts Mon/Wed/Fri when he’s not traveling for work, and I practice yoga on Tue/Thur, when he’s in town. I feel dread sink in my stomach. Lately evenings with have been hard. Our son doesn’t want to go to sleep, and I struggle with all my might to convince him to do so. Bedtime antics are at an all-time high, “I want milk,” “I want a snack,” “More stories,” “More songs,” anything that will delay sleep, my son will try it. I don’t want to do bedtime alone.

I try to smile as I say goodbye to Jay. I try to focus on the fun I’m having with our son but inside I’m anxious. I pull out my phone and distract myself as I scroll through others’ highlight reels on Facebook. I stop on an article from The Atlantic about “sharenting,” I begin delving into the story, then bookmark it for later and switch attention to my son, who is currently scaling his little gray armchair like a little daredevil. (I finished this article later and instantly checked myself by setting my Instagram to private, but I’m still pondering how I can respect my son’s privacy while also sharing meaningful stories about our lives with friends, family and followers.)

Scenes from The Velveteen Rabbit.

7:40 p.m. ~ I’ve successfully executed the first leg of Jack’s bedtime routine, which includes: bubble bath; diaper; “jamas” (tonight Jack selects a dinosaur pair); teeth brushing, which Jack and I do together; and an extra glass of milk. Now it’s story time, my favorite part of the evening. We select three different books: The Book With No Pictures; The Velveteen Rabbit and Jack’s Winnie the Pooh storybook. Jack snuggles in my lap and we read together in his rocking chair, Gus curled up like a cat near my feet.

I love reading to my son, and sometimes he even joins in repeating words and phrases from his favorite books. I love children’s books; my favorites are the ones with actual stories not just rhymes — The Snowy Day, Corduroy, Where The Wild Things Are. In this moment, reading to my son, I feel happy and present and loved. After we finish I will sing to Jack and place him down gently in his crib. I know this will be hard. I’ll ask him to lie down, and he’ll resist. I’ll lie down next to him and sing some more, encouraging him to quiet his mind and go to sleep. I’ll try to quiet my mind, too.

So. Tired.

9:10 p.m. ~ Finally I retreat from Jack’s room to mine, exhausted. Some nights I go straight to bed after this, others I read for fun and do what I call “evening pages,” essentially journaling stream-of-consciousness to get out all my errant thoughts, write prayers, record special moments during my day, especially with Jack, and make mental notes of to-dos. Tonight I rustle under the covers next to Jay, who’s munching a bowl of Raisin Bran and drinking a protein shake, eager to tell me about his latest PR at the gym. Gus snuggles up between us in the bed. I try to listen but I slowly nod off to sleep. It was a long, full day. A good day.

This busy life of mine — raising a toddler, nurturing a marriage, juggling full-time work and freelance gigs, working out, connecting with family and friends and making room for me — reading, journaling, prayer, a hot shower — is such a blessing. I thought writing this diary-style blog might make me feel exhausted and burnt out and overwhelmed. Instead it made me immensely thankful for the life I’m privileged to lead. Writing my story summons within me a deep gratitude for everything God’s given me. That’s what I try to remind myself anyway, even when the day feels not-so-good, wasted, ruined, dull, unproductive. Each day is an opportunity to learn, grow, encounter grace. Each day is a gift.

What does a regular weekday look like for you? I’d love to hear from you.