When asked about how I’m doing with the 7 week (or longer) shelter in place order issued across the San Francisco Bay Area I call home, the answer surprises most. While most people struggle to adjust to mandatory work from home, limited human contact, and a complete shutoff of basically anything fun or entertaining in the outside world, I find that my daily life... pretty much hasn’t changed. That’s because in late December of last year I gave birth to our first child, and have essentially been operating, in large part, as though already under a shelter in place order. Not leaving the house much? Check. No gym time? Check. Being extra paranoid about having anyone near me who is sick, might be sick, or was around someone who was sick, including crowded places I might otherwise have taken a summer baby? Check, check, and check. Yes, I take the virus very seriously, and yes, I worry about and feel compassion for all the people I do and do not know. The biggest changes to how I was actually living my life, however, have been downshifting our ~1 guest per week (including grandparents) to zero, calling my mom a little more often, and the daily presence of my husband at the desk behind our couch, a space usually reserved for video games but now scattered with test hardware and mugs of tea. While he was here constantly for his one month paternity leave, it was very different from having him telecommuting full time from our living room.
So here are some tips for dealing with a quarantine, shelter in place, or safer at home order that I’ve learned from three+ months of full-time momming, both with and without the 24/7 presence of another adult.
Embrace Video Chat for Socializing
Technology as a means of social connection may be nothing new to you. As we become a more global society, with friends and family moving about (and simple Bay Area traffic being what it is), I myself have utilized video chat for regular e-coffees for years, particularly with former work colleagues already used to VC’ing for meetings. With a newborn, especially a winter one, I found it even more critical, as the in-person lunches I once enjoyed a few times a week were not really an option with the sea of sick people still going into offices where I normally met folks during the week, friends who never got around to getting their flu shot, and the wave of sniffles that washed across my social circle. I actually had some upcoming face-to-face events on my calendar when the shelter in place order came through, leading to some regrettable cancellations. With the mandatory lockdowns now in place, it may be the time for you to embrace video chat, or if you already have to finally get your less tech-savvy loved ones online too. We found using a phone call to walk family members through the setup process worked well for the first few chats until they got the hang of it. You don’t need to limit yourself to e-coffees either. We recently did a board game night with friends using Steam, an online gaming platform, and Google Hangouts; we opted to pay $5 per person for Ticket to Ride but there are free games too. Jackbox is another excellent option for e-game nights. Another friend formed a weekly D&D group with some old college buddies. I’ve even heard of VC cocktail hours, a virtual “water cooler” where colleagues can just pop into an ongoing VC, and even a VC dinner party, complete with matching dinner menus (very “we’ll be looking at the same moon”, but in the best of ways). Some chat platforms allow more than two callers, either for free or paid, so browse around if you don’t find one that meets your needs right away.
Do Go For a Walk (SAFELY!)
Ok, admittedly I don’t do this one often enough, BUT I include it here because I truly do feel better when I get outside for a short walk, even if it’s only 20 minutes. I recognize that depending on how densely populated your area is this may not be wise, and I certainly am not recommending flocking to a beach or a park in such droves that you create an unsafe situation (ahem certain individuals). Hopefully by the time you are reading this going outside will not be limited to a balcony, backyard, or straight beeline to the grocery store, but if you can, go for a walk. Just be sure to keep your 6-foot distance from any passersby.
If You're Overwhelmed, Give Yourself Permission for Down Time
A big takeaway from having a newborn was that just because I had time where I could be doing something “productive” it did not mean I should be doing it. While I never mastered the ol’ chestnut “sleep when the baby sleeps”, I did come around to using some baby nap time for simple pleasures, like a chat with a friend, hanging with my husband, cuddling kitties, or taking a leisurely shower. Right now, a lot of people are being exhorted to “use this time for self development!”, because “you don’t want to waste this opportunity to grow!”, so here are “20 ways to declutter your stuff!”. Other friends tell me they are working until the wee hours of the morning, or at least until dinner, because it’s so easy to keep going (note, if you are salaried then please do not work yourself into a minimum wage job just because you can convert commute time into work time). If you are jamming on all this free time, awesome possum; you keep doing you. If, however, you are feeling stressed, harried, and generally under pressure to use all this time for work and development, take a pause. Yes, this is a great opportunity to repurpose some of the time from your commute, school activity, obligatory social event, etc. into self development gold, and yes, it is very easy to get sucked into wasting ALL of that time on social media or Netflix. I can raise my hand to having done the latter too. However, it is also very easy to get self conscious and downright critical of not using every waking moment of this precious extra time to “improve yourself”. The truth is that while you have gained a lot of time, you have also gained a lot of work. Which brings me to my next point...
Recognize and Respect How Much You’re Already Doing
For me, there was nothing like a new baby to force me to dramatically downshift my expectations of what I was going to “accomplish” in a day. I found myself disappointed by how much I had “gotten done”. There are two things at play here. One is that, if you couldn’t guess it by the use of quotes, I was completely undervaluing and discounting all the work I was doing. I had prided myself on believing in the value and effort of “women’s work” (which to clarify can and is done by people of all genders). I frequently told my friend who is a full-time mom that her job was much harder than mine, and I meant it. Yet, when it came down to it, I wasn’t giving myself credit for the hours and hours of hard work I was putting into keeping my son healthy, happy, and well-loved. The other related piece of this story is that I wasn’t appreciating how much it was taking out of me. Yes, I knew the sleep deprivation would be hard, but clearly years of insomnia would have left me better prepared than most. I had a great co-parent, a helpful mother-in-law from out of town, and numerous friends who had “gone before me” who could offer advice and encouragement. I was showering regularly for goodness sake, an activity many had told me would be near impossible once I had a newborn, so clearly it wasn’t as hard on me as everyone had said, and with the amount of support I had I knew I had it better than many. Despite all this, I hadn’t factored in that 1) the work was constant, unpredictable, and more mentally and emotionally draining than expected, and 2) I really did not have time or energy for many of the self-care rituals that had helped refuel my tank in the past. I was losing energy at a faster rate than I realized and unable to replenish it nearly fast enough; there truly was nothing that could have prepared me for just how tiring it is.
Similarly, nothing really prepares you for dealing with a pandemic.
True, you may have gained some hours in the week by not commuting, running kids to activities, or doing your usual extracurriculars… just as I “gained time” when I quit doing my day job and had a my wonderful mother-in-law in town to cook, clean, and in general do pretty much all of the housework for two weeks. However, you are constantly doing unfamiliar, unacknowledged, and often unseen work. Some of your new work is mentally taxing; learning unfamiliar skills like expanding your culinary prowess beyond cereal, homeschooling toddlers or teens (how did I ever learn pre calc?), or navigating the finer points of working from home. Restructuring routines for yourself and possibly dependents replace a natural autopilot with a slew of conscious decision-making and experimentation. There are social pressures, either isolation OR constant contact with people you live with, especially taxing if those relationships are already strained or you are entertaining bored children. Even being an introvert trapped in a house with an under stimulated extrovert has likely got to be exhausting (I’d ask my husband but I wouldn’t trust his response to be uninfluenced by the asker).
Most of all though, there is the often unacknowledged emotional work constantly humming in the background; the ever-present itch of being in an unknown situation with no control and no end date, the distraction of worrying about loved ones, the paranoia every time someone coughs. It’s the post-apocalyptic feel of driving down an empty street to a grocery store where entire sections of shelving lay barren, or constantly checking the news and taking the anxiety with you to bed at night. Some of you have taken on or been assigned the role of emotional support person for others, whether it’s reaching out to someone more isolated or scared than you, providing explanations to children without destroying their sense of security, or supporting friends or family who are more visibly and/or directly impacted. There is the stubborn family member who insists on going out despite having an underlying condition and/or more birthdays than you; how do you convince them to stay the heck home already, knowing full well that they are an adult and will do as they please? For some of you it is even reading about the destruction COVID-19 is wrecking on strangers’ lives and feeling for the tragedy of people you will never meet.
All of this to say, you are probably doing a lot more than you think, and certainly doing things you weren’t doing before. What you are likely NOT doing are many of the things you did to replenish your tank, like go to a gym, meet a friend for lunch, etc; you are dipping more frequently into a well that is replenishing less often. So cut yourself some slack and realize you likely won’t be as “productive” as you were before, at least not in the same way. Put another way, to keep the same level of work productivity would mean doing more work with fewer resources and less replenishment.
So yes, read all the articles you want on how to be productive working from home, and seven tips on organizing your closet. And yes, maybe don’t spend the entire time watching Netflix (or YouTube, or Amazon Prime, or … whatever). Just seek a balance, and if you're feeling overwhelmed by all the pressures and possibilities, remember that just because you could be using all of this time to improve yourself doesn’t mean you should be.
Giving yourself permission to tick off less on your usual to-do list is not letting yourself off easy; it is acknowledging the reality that nothing about this is easy.
Again, do not mistake me in thinking I’m completely untouched by or in any way indifferent to the virus. On a professional level, particularly as a stress and resilience coach, I see how my clients are impacted and coping, and wish I could do more to support them. On a personal level, I, like so many, have elderly family with underlying conditions, friends in NYC and other US hotspots, and of course a desire to maintain my own health and well-being. My mother still has not seen her first grandchild, as the soonest she could travel (due to medical reasons) lined up almost exactly with the shelter in place order. I had finally made the arrangements to rejoin the land of the living shortly before Santa Clara County became one of the first worst hit areas in California, so I cancelled the in-person lunches and tabled my newly-purchased barre class pass. More diffusely, I experience the anxiety of being in a pandemic, whack-a-mole style what-ifs my imagination conjures up, and the empathy for people experiencing true tragedy as a result of coronavirus’ sometimes lethal consequences.
So this article is my small way of giving back, of offering support in a way that I can. It was written over the course of almost a week, in 2-10 minute increments during nap times, between lunch and dishes and cats and yes, some occasional down time. It is what I could contribute, what I could control, and where I felt I could add value. In these strange and unsettling times it really is the best one can hope to do.
What about you? Do you have any shelter in place tips you’ve picked up from unlikely places? Share them in the comments and we can all benefit from the collective wisdom!