Disclaimer: This is a post about my experience as a Dad. I am not a Mum, I am a Dad. Hence I am writing about being a Dad. Doesn’t mean I belittle or ignore Mums who have struggled too. The struggle is real, for all of us.
And so it began
Like so many of us, I didn’t want this. Office life suited me fine. But on Friday March 13th 2020, my employer’s CEO issued an executive instruction from the very top: From the following Monday onwards, everyone in the entire company must work from home until further notice – unless they have a clear emergency reason to be physically in the office, under strict limitations.
And so it began: everyone went home that day, and stayed home. There was a general feeling this arrangement would last at most for two or three weeks, then we would all return to our desks and have a good laugh about the shorter ‘commute to work’, and whether or not we got dressed each morning during this so called ‘lockdown’ or whether certain people attended conference calls in their pants. We would giggle about it, then we would return to normal working life; that was the plan.
It didn’t work out that way.
A year later, neither my workmates nor I have set foot in the office, nor have we seen each other in person, having set ourselves up with remote working facilities in our homes.
All of this, to avoid risking contact with a virus that may or may not be present in either our place of work, or within each other’s breath or skin.
So this was it. Working from home. The office building sat empty, drawers shut, and computers off, the CEO emailed us at home with regular updates over the year, occasionally remindng us that individuals can venture into the office, but only if there’s a critical and specific reason to do so, and by prior arrangement with HR. Of course, the weight of guilt attached to even considering being in the office, was too much for anyone to do that.
The new setup
I had no choice but to set up my home office in my son's bedroom.
Everyone’s homes are different. Not all of us have a spare room, a study, or even a shed. Some of us have garages that are unfit for human habitation, or no garage at all.
In search of a private, usable space, I had no choice but to set up my home office in my son’s bedroom. He is rarely in there during the day so it made sense.
At first it was very surreal; in place of office furniture and filing cabinets I had Star Wars posters, comic books and cuddly toys. A picture of C3PO and R2D2 became familiar. Even his Star Wars carpet was weirdly at odds with my grown up work.
I no longer had a grown-up swivel chair, but I had ‘borrowed’ a dining chair which was comfortable enough. Gone was the large, swish pine desk area I was used to; instead I had to make do with a small white table designed for kids to draw pictures on. And worst of all, no more air conditioning, just a horridly hot temperature in summer, but a window that opens.
The window faces direct into the summer sun, and in those early months I often I found myself hidden behind closed curtains, in the dark, hunched over my laptop like a hacker while birds tweeted and children played in the garden. (I’m not a hacker).
In the months since I set up my new ‘office’ (with kind permission of my son), I grew accustomed to the view of the rooftops on my estate, and I got used to watching the birds who populate those rooftops during the day.
From my window seat, I would sometimes notice an old fella change his bins, or see a neighbor cut their grass. The nearby presence of such mundane activity became oddly reassuring.
So far, this probably doesn’t sound too bad. But there are things I haven’t mentioned yet, things which made it far tougher than it started out. Things which go way beyond the initial expectation.
I needed the office banter more than ever.
It is easy to undervalue one’s workmates, to think of them as separate, emotionally detached parts of your life, but the forced reality of home working made me miss them a lot. Throughout this crisis we have communicated daily, digitally, but it really doesn’t feel the same; I miss being around them; around colleagues, around people.
I became very aware, very early on, that none of this setup was doing my mental health any good. And when I suffered a bereavement (my mum died of cancer), I needed the office banter more than ever. When politics saddened or angered me, I needed that ranting session at the coffee machine.
On the sunny days, I yearned to get on the bus (or even my bike) and go to the office and work on a project and then nip out for a sandwich at lunchtime, then carry on til home time. On the rainy days, I missed it all too.
Summer 2020 came along, and it was humid and unpleasant being stuck indoors. For me it was also a season full of grief and distress. All of which I would have coped with better if I wasn’t stuck in this little room all by myself. To help me through it, I would take regular breaks and occasionally go into the garden and have some fresh air.
Autumn 2020 came as some relief, and from my workspace I observed the outdoors’ colours change; a steely grey blanket soon covered the sky, leaves fell into gardens, trees were laid bare and the daylight hours got shorter.
Fireworks night, cancelled. Halloween, cancelled. Christmas, still happening, but at home only.
I must say that Christmas was made less stressful by the enforced lack of travel. No pressure to see anyone, no arrangements to make. It was a much needed silver lining at the end of a dreadful year.
New year, different shit
Sometimes I'd take a quick, solitary walk around my estate, just to get some oxygen.
2021 dawned and I found myself in the same setup. But something had changed, in the outside world; changed for the worse. The new viral peak had come, and it was very bad. The pandemic’s death rate in the UK had reached such horrifying levels that I took it upon myself to stop any kind of contact with other humans, unless there was a vital reason for it.
To site an example, we ran out of washing up liquid so I ordered some off Amazon and waited 24 hours rather than pop into Tesco’s which is 5 minutes away.
During this terrified state of isolation, once every week or so I’d take a quick, solitary walk around my estate, just to get some oxygen. These little outings, lasting maybe 10-20 minutes, began to feel like brief, tresured glimpses of a forgotten life. And although I took in the fresh air, I lamented the fact that everything was held at a distance from me, untouchable, unreachable.
With working from home (WFH), motivation had become a problem. As in, I lost motivation. It takes energy now, to force myself to feel like working. You see, for some of us, being around colleagues, work mates, is incredibly motivating. Being seperated from them can be the opposite, even with the digital connections available.
Being forced to be at home does not put you in a working mood. It can be hard to capture that “worky” feeling.
Alone all day in a makeshift office, the mind wanders, the energy drains, the distractions of family can take over and one must discipline ones self to remain focused. This is not easy. It is exhausting.
With the children off school, everything feels more difficult. From my six and nine year olds, the screams, cries and tears come through the floorboards at the worst of times, and shatter my concentration. Impromptu visits from my daughter just to see what I’m up to, or to ask me random questions, are both lovely and awkwardly timed.
Any parent working from home can never fully devote themselves to either working or parenting.
Laughter sometimes can be heard, too, and this only makes me wish I was part of it. Now and then I am obliged to help out with home schooling or with general parenting during work hours, which I am happy to do, as part of being a parent, but it still feels wierd doing it while I’m ‘at work’.
I sense a bit of resentment from the wife for not helping out more when I am ‘at home all the time’, but that’s the inherant torment of working from home: Any parent working from can never fully devote themselves to either working or parenting.
It is a situation which typically ensnares mothers more than fathers, but we Dads have our fair share to deal with here, under extreme pressure to pay the bills while holding on to our sanity, our marriage, our dignity, our patience.
It is a life in low resolution.
So, working from home: It is a life in low resolution, the colours are muted, the world blurred and unclear, key people reduced to unseen presences, voices, text messages; there but also not there, formless yet vaguely influential. Wraiths.
A WFH dad feels like screaming against the darkness sometimes, longing for light and colour. How much longer will this last? When can the masterpiece that is normal life, regain it’s vibrancy? Please don’t tell me it’s really ruined, that the colour has drained and that people are formless, distant and faceless forever.
Loneliness while not being alone
The paradox of all this lockdown malarky is that one can feel lonely while so rarely having the luxury of being alone.
The paradox of all this lockdown malarky, as a parent, is that one can feel lonely while so rarely having the luxury of being alone. One yearns for a solitary space while simultaneously wanting to be surrounded by others. You can’t win. Loneliness eventually wraps itself around you like a soft blanket, and you come to resent those who try to pull it off you when you least expect it.
I do get lonely working in this little borrowed room. I use the radio as company sometimes, or music. Our cats sometimes relax on the bed while I type, which is nice. I often doodle cartoons in a sketch book during the very long conference calls, or while waiting for a meeting to start. I let my mind engage itself in whatever way it can, and try not to feel guilty if that isn’t strictly work related, because it’s keeping my sanity intact by a thread during a pandemic. Sanity is, after all, required for work and productivity, yes?
Everyone in the UK is familiar with this classic one-liner:
You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!Classic office joke, c. 1982 onwards
This is seeming increasingly inappropriate nowadays, so I suggest an update:
You don’t have to be mad to work here, in fact we’d really rather prefer if you were mentally stable, so please do whatever’s necessary to hold on to your marbles.Replacement joke for working-from-home oriented offices, 2021 onwards
The abandoned Hob Nobs
It saddens me to think of the empty office, though, of abandoned folders and closed lockers, of monitors not being looked at, of a shut canteen and of meeting rooms with their lights off, constantly available. Somewhere in my locker is a half eaten packet of Chocolate Hob Nobs.
I often wonder about those Hob Nobs, if they have gone stale, or if I could even eat them now, or if I might offer them around the people near my desk like I used to. Perhaps they’ve gone mouldy and evolved into something that will start a whole new pandemic when I finally open that locker door?
Perhaps they’ve gone mouldy and evolved into something that will start a whole new pandemic?
Also I think of my favourite mug, emblazened with the EU flag, sitting unused in that same locker, tragically devoid of use. I wonder if I actually washed it properly before I put it away, becasue sometimes I’d wash it the next morning instead. If I didn’t wash it there’ll be new kinds of bacterial life in it now, perhaps a cure for the Hob Nob virus which I inadvertantly unleashed.
A year, a whole year of this, and I miss the ordinary things so much. I want my old life back now, please. I want normality. Nothing grand. Just the everyday commute and grind of work in the office. The reward of a weekend that feels different to the week. The ability to let home be home, and work be work. A reason to iron a shirt. A reason to look forward to time at home. A reason not to look like this:
Now, with the schools reopening, we have a glimmer of hope.
Working from home? One year, and counting.
Stay safe everyone. This ain’t over.