“How do you do it?” I often get this question when people learn that I’m a full-time lawyer in Chicago raising four kids ranging in age from 4 to 11. The universally acknowledged impact of the pandemic on the work/parenting juggling act has more colleagues and acquaintances posing this question. I give the same standard, but sincere, response every time: “Well, it isn’t pretty!”
After giving this pithy rejoinder, I typically redirect the conversation back to business and do a decent job suppressing the commotion in my brain (which is ever-present but this particular question opens yet another wide avenue for the internal dialogue to run down).
My first thought always goes to the single parents and others with fewer resources than me because I truly don’t know how they do “it.” Occasionally, my reflection moves to a darker place where I lament the lack of the things that might make it easier. On better days, I’ll indulge in an inward chuckle and just take stock of the beautiful disaster that is my own household, where there is never a day without screaming, laughter, cries for attention, fights over technology, chocolatey cheeks and sticky fingers, monumental messes, banging doors, and the soulful songs of an over- worked dishwasher and clothes dryer.
Sometimes the question conjures up dramatic visions of a woman playing 10-way tug-of-war over a pit, with rope-burned hands and a haggard, mud-encrusted face. Then I’ll replay the times when I’ve wiped little butts while arguing with opposing counsel, or tied little shoes, or checked a thermometer with a trembling hand, or cleaned up the bottle of breastmilk spilled on my keyboard while fighting back tears. These visions typically lead to marveling at how many times a day my self-perception cycles from zero to hero and back again; it’s dizzying.
My favorite campaign theme – “It takes a village!” – often weaves its way into my reflections.
I’ll think, “Damn right it does, Hillary,” and bow inwardly with prayer hands to my amazing husband and the nanny, neighbors, family, friends, bosses, teachers, tutors, therapists, coaches, etc., keeping me and our little human train on the tracks.
“Gratitude” must be my real answer to the question, or at least the biggest part of it. Pretty it isn’t, but every day I do find a way to feel grateful for my beautiful disaster and everyone who has helped me close my eyes feeling like I’ve done “it” again.
For many parents like me, the greatest silver lining of this pandemic has been the ability to more openly share our domestic identities and personal accounts. After years of taking great pains to conceal or minimize all things relating to my progeny or emotions, I now have managers and colleagues welcoming the sight and sounds of my children and inviting candid conversations about the importance of self-care that go far beyond a glib reference to “work/life balance.”
These days I share an office with a second grader. She’s not the worst cubicle mate I’ve ever had, but I do find her highly distracting at times. Since she doesn’t care for headphones and takes her lineup of conference calls on speaker, I’m often forced to reserve a huddle room (aka the bathroom) for my own lineup of conference calls.
She wiggles and jiggles around in her chair and broadcasts every thought – “this is so boring,” “when are we going back to school?” “wait, what am I even supposed to be doing right now?” When she melts right off her chair into a puddle of sobs (because why does reading Iris and Walter for the umpteenth time matter when the pandemic and resulting closure of the trampoline park and Chuck E. Cheese has thrown her into an existential crisis), I’ve actually started joining her.
These mutual meltdowns have bonded us. In our office, it’s now acceptable to vocalize, to say aloud: “this is hard,” “I’m tired,” “please, make it all stop!” We stamp our feet, have a cry, collapse on the floor. Then we touch noses and resume our posts with a brighter outlook. My young co-worker has proven to me the powerful effects of authenticity and a shared moment on our ability to persist and leverage adversity into a growth opportunity.
My new answer to the “how do you do it” question is: “Gratitude and the occasional meltdown; dirty details offered upon request.”
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This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s holiday 2020 magazine.