By Krystina Wales
I should go to bed. But I can’t.
Going to bed means I will have to get up in the morning and go back into the office, in a building adjacent to the hospital where I work, a hospital that holds fewer COVID-19 patients than other hospitals in the region, but only one executive not wearing a mask, one IT professional servicing a computer and not sanitizing in between, can spread the virus. It’s early May. The fear is still palpable.
I walk solemnly into my husband’s art studio and sit on the stool next to his desk chair. My somber attitude stands in stark contrast to the colorful paintings that litter the desk. He looks at me expectantly, but I can’t form words. I just want to be in his presence.
There is nothing left to do, no more tasks to accomplish. I’ve bathed our two girls. We brushed teeth, read books, and cuddled before they went to sleep. Afterward, I cleaned the dinner dishes, wiped down the counters, prepped the coffee for tomorrow, straightened up the toys, and fed the dogs. Everything in my physical space is as it should be.
And yet nothing is as it should be. And there is nothing my husband can say or do to relieve the heaviness in my chest.
I eventually tell him good night. I crawl into bed and lie under the covers, watching “The Office” for the 400th time. In seconds, I zone out, thinking back to my last maternity leave. It was six months ago, but feels like forever.
Going back to work then felt like a reprieve, a gift. After so much time spent glued to the recliner in our playroom, keeping up with the demands of a breastfeeding infant and a needy toddler simultaneously, it felt good to shower regularly, put on nice clothes that fit me again, venture out into the world and talk to other adults about important, real-world matters. My work in hospital donor communications kept me challenged and engaged: telling donor stories, planning events with my team and meeting with new partners.
The theme song for the cartoon “Daniel Tiger” reverberated in my head throughout the working day. But it felt like a distant memory from a world I knew I didn’t belong in, at least not fully. My husband is the natural caretaker. It’s his job to look after our daughters when I’m at work. I know he’s good at it. Ever the doting, concerned and patient husband, he’s been taking care of me for years.
And so, it was easy to leave before anyone had even begun to stir in their beds, to enjoy drinking my coffee hot and my lunch without sharing. To feel productive and part of a team, making contributions to better our organization.
But something gnawed at me.
I spent almost three years after I had my first child fighting for time. Time for my job, for my husband and daughters when I came home at the end of each long day. For myself. I never had enough of it and felt like a failure because of it. Countless nights my husband would look into my exhausted face and beg me to let him help, cajole me to leave the dishes and forget about the toys, to stop letting the pressure build up behind my eyes and on my chest where it sat like a heavy suit of armor.
Then the pandemic hit. I went into survival mode. Keeping my family safe was paramount. As a healthcare professional in support of frontline workers, my stress and anxiety lifted only when we received orders to work from home. I could control my exposure more readily. Any anxieties I had about working from home—Would they think I was as focused or dedicated? Would I be able to juggle it all?—were overpowered by the greater stressor: would we be all right?
It was the little things that slowly started to chip away at my armor. Watching my two-year-old sit at her desk, typing away at a makeshift computer and picking up her plastic cell phone so she could work like Mama. The few short moments when my eight-month-old nestles into my neck before she goes down for a nap. Getting to kiss my husband in the morning, him refilling my coffee.
I traded in microwaved overnight oats for making them fresh in the pot, my two-year-old by my side. I traded writing with co-worker interruptions to writing with toddler interruptions. Blocking out landline rings and colleagues yelling to little voices asking for “Daniel Tiger” and carrots or blueberries.
It was different and new, but it felt right. I had spent years trying to separate my life as a mom from my life as a professional, working twice as hard to prove nothing had changed when everything had. Balancing an impossible load, I was mentally tearing myself into pieces and and expecting I’d still be whole when I arrived home.
I came home in more ways than one after the work-at-home order. I came home to myself. A hard nut to crack, I didn’t realize I could be a talented professional and an attentive, happier mom until I was forced by a global pandemic to try a new way.
Then, we were told it was safe to return to the office. The night before I was due to go back, I tried pretending the weight I felt in my chest was my fear of the virus. Beneath my pretense, I knew: it was the fear of losing myself again.
I didn’t want to spend any more time pretending an hour of time in the afternoons with my kids was enough for me.
I didn’t want to pretend I didn’t think about them during the day.
I didn’t want to believe that made me any less dedicated to my work or deserving of less respect from my colleagues.
Mostly, I didn’t want to believe that the feeling I had of working at home was a crazy, once-in-a-blue-moon, special edition life I could only achieve in a global pandemic.
I wanted to believe I could be me: all of my pieces, together.
Krystina Wales works in donor communications and engagement in Baltimore. A mother with a coffee obsession, she writes personal essays about life, work, and family.
Photo by Xavi Cabrera