One of my greatest joys when I worked in Dublin was the walk to work. I remember sunny days, cup of coffee in hand, crossing the river to the sound of music through my headphones.
I began that walk at a time when I had recently moved back to Ireland from abroad, to old friends, a new life, long before a new love and a young family had arrived on the scene.
That stroll, over the river through Temple Bar before the crowds hit the cobbled streets, was my ease-in to the working day. The coffee, the light exercise, it energized me. There were the ambles after work too, the strolling home, the stop in the shops on the way back, mulling life over in a cafe. There was the meeting up with a friend to walk together, decisions to stop for glass of wine sometimes, to have dinner in theirs- the pot always had extra for visitors. After some months, there began to be the calls to my then boyfriend, now husband, to see what he was doing this evening. The choices for food, for what to do with our time.
These spaces between events. Between facets of life, the transition from home to work and back again. The opportunities to just do nothing... or something... but to not have to plan it, justify it, or have it interrupted prematurely. This was something I missed keenly on becoming a mother. These there the moments that I felt were lost to me with the new responsibilities of nurturing a baby, and later, managing work and childcare.
Something I read recently evoked those feelings strongly:
“There was no slack, no lubricant empty hours. It was precisely the luxury of those hours, those free and careless hinges between this event and that, that I secretly desired to purchase back, for with the birth of my daughter they had disappeared and were not expected to return for some years.” (Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work)
At first, I felt that I sometimes had these spaces back again, particularly around the office hours.
The stroll to work (when it wasn’t my turn to do the creche drop off) was reminiscent of my pre-baby days. The coffee, the music, the route. When it was my turn for drop offs, it was usually a more hurried affair, but still there was still a delicious (if relative) moment of freedom between closing the door of the creche and resuming my journey towards work.
Even little things felt like a ritual of ‘switching on’ to work mode.. like the getting into the lift, taking off headphones, checking appearance in the mirror, the morning hellos.
The walk home was generally less relaxing, often a hurry to the creche for the pickup, or a quick pace in the knowledge my partner was at home with baby and waiting to hand over duties. But sometimes I managed a walk homewards with a friend, or a brief browse through the shops before I was expected to resume my parental load. Less occasionally an afternoon meeting out of office was cancelled and finding myself with an unexpected half hour I stopped at a café and spilled some thoughts onto paper.
Lunchtimes too, though often shortened, in order to maximize time at home, still provided opportunity to pause. Picking up lunch from a café further away than strictly necessary, sitting in a park to read a chapter of a book. Less often, a visit to a photography show or an art exhibition. Many times, a chat over a sandwich with a friend.
When I began to work from home, these spaces vanished overnight. I went from kids to work to kids without a pause. Motherworker, my brain not freed from either responsibility as I moved between computer and cooker and conference calls with Paris to creche pickups from across the green.
The morning transition was not so difficult- fresh and ready to face the day. It was the lunchtime and evening transitions I found most difficult. The scramble to get a reasonable amount of work done before the pre-school pick up, then rushing toddler home, still with my to do list in my head and the unreturned phone calls in my pocket.
The same then in the evening. Tired having worked a full day and no decompression chamber of light exercise, outside walks and talks with friends. I would leave the office room, but a part of me would remain there. I would neglect the rules and boundaries of when to work when not to work, leave my computer on.. return to it to send just one more email, edit just one more page. It uses to be that I complained to my husband about not knowing when he was working when he was not and now it was my turn to blur these boundaries..
So how did I set about responding? And still, to be very honest, I have to work on this!
There are some obvious things to create boundaries between work and family/homelife, like having a separate work space if you can manage it, at least for some of the work hours. But what about these less obvious separations and boundaries?
I began to think of easy ways to signal the transitions and to pause between the transitions into "work" and back to "home" life. I try to observe simple rituals in terms of shutting down my computer and leaving my desk- it is really easy to let the boundaries slip when you work from home. Just a few ideas below... that may be helpful at this time to preserve some sense of 'normality'.
Signal the transition into the work ‘you’. Shower, change into clothes that are comfy but make you feel productive (sure have a pajama day once in a while, but be aware of what makes you work best!) Put on makeup if you like. Make a cup of coffee and appreciate the aroma for a moment as you sit down at your desk.
Creating space between "work" and "home". Think about the things you do on your commute that give you a little breathing space between work and home. Can you factor in a version of these things into your work-from-home day? Take a stroll down the road, hell, walk around the house 5 times, or simply stand outside and take 10 deep breaths of fresh air. If exercise is part of your morning or evening routine, could you build it in, even if it’s a much shorter session? If you read a book on your train commute (or an audiobook as you drive), could you read/listen for 5 minutes?
Observe the ritual of shutting down and switching off. It might be tempting to not put anything away, but it can help to close the laptop, shut it down, turn off the notifications. Tidy the desk... close the notepad. Put things away if you’re using a bedroom to double as an office. whatever you need to do to signal the end of the day and maintain those boundaries.
Decompression post-work. Blast out a favorite song, taking advantage of the absence of co-workers to turn the volume up!. Do a little dance, call a friend for 5 minutes. Especially if you’ve been working on something intense or there has been some work pressure today- something that helps you to release a little of that energy instead of carrying it with you into the family interactions.
Other ideas? Please feel free to share!