My best hour of work is between 8 and 9 pm, sitting in the dark on the floor of my son’s room.
Doesn’t seem tenable, right? It’s true. The faint glow of the cartoon owl night light that’s more shocking than soothing lights up the room partly while the backlight from my phone adds more ambience. It’s a wonder that my toddler goes to sleep with those distractions.
We do the hour-long dance every night. He “reads” two books, one sitting up and one laying down. We snuggle and hug, say our “I love yous” and “goodnights.” He rustles his sheets, likely with some figurine or toy that he snuck into the bed, mirroring the actions of his favorite superhero. I sit in child’s pose, trying to be very still and breathe very deeply – hoping against all hope that, if I model that sense of calm, then he’ll follow suit. With a few more “mama, can I tell you something?” questions that punctuate the quiet dark, his breathing gets more measured and he very slowly drifts off to deep slumber.
But heaven forbid you move too much until he gets to that point. The cycle starts again with any extraneous noise, causing more FOMO in a four-year old’s brain.
I loathed the fact that I had nighttime duty every night. After all, why couldn’t his dad put him to bed sometimes? When we’d suggest it, our son would throw an epic toddler meltdown and we caved. The sacrifice of an hour each night so that our son would sleep soundly was the price I was (begrudgingly) willing to pay. The routine started in earnest at the beginning of the pandemic, a time when we were all craving some sense of routine and normalcy. If me putting my son to bed each night helped him move forward as the world was ripped up from beneath him, so be it.
As the weeks dragged on, my bitterness grew. Scrolling through Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds wasn’t enough to make the time pass any faster. At least the mindless scrolling helped me not think about the laundry, the dishes, the Zoom class, my meeting that I wasn’t prepared for at 6 a.m. – the list goes on and on.
Bedtime routines drew out longer as the pandemic ensued. I became more frustrated at the fact that I didn’t seem to have any personal time with three (four, if you count our husky) always circling within the same four walls. This introvert craved stillness. A quiet space to think – at least enough quiet to recognize that my tinnitus had reached new levels.
One night, I noticed that little dude drifted off super quickly, and I wasn’t ready to tiptoe (née quietly sprint) out the door. In this exhaustion-fueled moment, my body wasn’t moving. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and stayed for a little while longer. The quiet enveloped me like the warm gravity blanket I dreamed of ordering. I found a sliver of margin, just for me.
A lot has been said about how the pandemic has impacted women in professional settings, with unemployment numbers rising solely among women with Black women and women of color disproportionately affected. We see women, regardless of whether they have children, taking on the lion’s share of caregiving roles. The pandemic has highlighted the cracks in our system that no one seems to be addressing at a policy level because, let’s face it, there are too many systematic cracks.
Work aside, the pandemic crunch has played a significant role on mental health, and I’d argue, the amount of time we’re able to be still, find personal time, and heal from the great wide mess of things we’re dealing with. A 2020 Deloitte survey noted that 89% of female survey respondents indicated that demands on their personal time have drastically changed, 92% of them indicated it was a negative shift. This conversation isn’t just about work-life balance. It’s about life-life balance; the life we have that is intertwined with our community, and the life we have that gives us the energy to make it all happen.
While it may seem like a luxury to pay attention to it, it’s too important to our health to ignore.
That second life needs some serious healing balm right now. Finding the small pockets of time to drink that lukewarm three-hours old cup of coffee isn’t cutting it. Desperately trying to plug in five minutes of sitting – just sitting – without distractions isn’t working. The demands are too high. The guilt (either self-prescribed or systemic) is too great.
In the cacophony of articles written about how women – especially women of color – are bearing the brunt of this pandemic, the conversation is growing. It’s great to see, though I echo the chorus of women saying “we’ve known this all along! So what are we going to do to fix it?!” Fists clenched, hands raised, exhaustion. We’ve documented the problem for far too long, from an Invisible Labor Calculator to zoom happy hours/venting sessions. We’ll continue to share these stories until there’s action, even when it feels like no one is listening.
It keeps me asking “What will move the needle?” When will we see change?
There have been some calls for policy change as a result. The Marshall Plan for Moms, started in part by Girls Who Code CEO and founder Reshma Saujani, has gained traction as a starting point for appointing people within the Biden administration to focus on this issue. We’ve seen inclusions for childcare tax credits in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan, only to watch it be taken out in political pinball. Melinda Gates has expertly laid out the impact that giving women agency and space to lead will have on our global economy in “The Moment of Lift.” The data is there.
We’re at a turning point. Either women move our communities forward by having the space and backing to address inequities and identify new solutions at a faster rate to turn the tide, or we’ll have to find time to do it in the margins between the multitude of tasks that face us. Don’t get me wrong – we’ll always approach the societal challenges we face with compassion and a sense of how all can thrive, but it will be at our detriment if we don’t have the adequate time to heal ourselves. To address the upcoming pandemic of mental health and the strain of taking care of our families, grief of our loved ones, and more.
But if we have to change the world in the slivers of time that we’re supposed to tend to our own selves, our world will crumble.
All I’m asking for is more time and power than can be found in the margins of each day. I’m asking for space and the economic and policy support to empower women. To let us examine the world and provide our best efforts in how to bring our communities and governments forward. My bet is that if, if we fully look at gender inequity in this moment, we’ll save future generations from needing to work through generational trauma that has ripple effects for years to come.
We need more than the margins. We need to be front and center at the table. Addressing childcare, supporting caregivers at all levels, and building the infrastructure will improve our economy as a whole. I’m not a mathematician and I can see it clearly.
Until then, I’ll just keep checking in with myself to see if I need stillness or to work in the waning hours of the day while my toddler drifts to sleep. I treasure that time more than I used to because I know it’s likely the one time in the day that I can be me, uninterrupted. With a fully charged phone, I can write an article or sketch a quick thought about my writing down. My best ideas – which used to come to me on a run or in the shower – now also flood in while I’m in a very dimly lit room, with the whirs of a slumbering toddler. It doesn’t necessarily ratchet my life up to 100, fully energized and restored. However, it is a glimmer of hope that, someday, those margins will grow. The hope that, maybe, I’ll get more sleep. And with more sleep and clearer eyes, I’m able to contribute more to help us all heal and move our world forward with equity and grace.
We find the margins however we can, pandemic or otherwise. Somehow, women just make it work but it shouldn’t have to be this hard of a fight to take care of ourselves and our community. In the meantime, I’d like a check for my $380,569.42 of unpaid labor please, along with repayment for all my fellow weary caregivers who, I’m sure, are owed much more.