I lost my identity during the pandemic – if we never fully return to the office, how am I going to get it back?


I cling to a deeply unpopular opinion: I want to go back to the office. And I want everyone to come back with me.

I’m quite vocal about this opinion with people I know, love and work with. Most think I’m crazy and many disagree with me. They are surprised to see me line up with Elon Musk and David Solomon. I guess I’m more surprised that I’m so alone in wanting to be back.

I am well aware of all the reasons why no one else is interested, even if some excuses are more valid than others: the pandemic is not over; child care is unpredictable; the ride is terrible; a typical nine-to-five day at the office is unsustainable for working parents; we will miss the animals; work clothes are uncomfortable; and people are more productive at home, to name a few.

I understand. But I don’t like it. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s inertia that’s keeping us all from putting on tough pants and getting back to our daily commutes. Yes, we’ve just spent the past two plus years proving that we can successfully work from home, but those were amazing years. No doubt we had no other choice. Even those of us who never want to walk into an office again can probably agree that the last two years have been absolutely zero.

There is a deeply personal reason why I want to return to the office. It’s selfish, but I don’t care. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my identity in the pandemic – the busy, successful publisher and the New Yorker who had a busy schedule and plenty of reasons to put on a dress and a nice pair of shoes . I’m afraid I won’t really find myself if I have to work from home for the rest of my life.

I think a lot about life before the pandemic and marvel at everything I used to do. How did I do it all? Will I still be as successful?

In the spring of 2018, I joined a group of running moms with the goal of training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. I had a full time job and a 2 year old, and it seemed like a good way to both exercise and make new friends.

During the first crossing of Prospect Park, another mother asked me: “Do you work?

Did I work? Ah yes, I worked. And in many ways, I have been defined by this work. That spring, I was putting the finishing touches on a book I was writing, while working full-time as an editor at Refinery29, managing a small team of writers, and running the wildly popular Money Diaries franchise. I worked. And I loved it.

In the summer of 2018, I also managed to take a month-long sabbatical that included two weeks on Cape Cod with my child. It was nice to have some time off, but it was by no means a vacation, especially all that time without full-time childcare. At the end of the two weeks, I was sure that I was not fit to be a stay-at-home mom. As much as I loved my child, it was time for him to return to daycare. And for me to go back to the office.

It’s fun to become a mother. Your identity changes, you add an additional descriptor to your bio: wife, friend, wife, daughter, writer, editor, mom. And as your world expands in so many amazing ways, it also becomes narrower, more regulated. I was probably overcompensating that year, to prove to myself that I could do anything, that the rest of my identity wouldn’t fade away now that I was also a mother.

Of course, I couldn’t have worked like this without the support network that I carefully built around me. My husband is a capable father with a somewhat flexible work schedule. My mother lived nearby and took great care of the children. We had excellent daycare and a very good housekeeper. I had an accommodating landlady who was also a friend and a mother. My child was healthy, and so was I. It was exciting to do it all, even if it was exhausting. I was happy, at least that’s how I remember.

Fast forward to the spring of 2020, when the support network crumbled as the pandemic forced everyone back home. Suddenly, my husband and I were doing all the childcare and household chores and still working full time. I was in a new role that came with a lot of responsibility. I had a team of young journalists who were also struggling to get through a very scary time while showing up every day to report on how dramatically the world was changing.

I can do this job for two weeks to flatten the curve, I thought. Or a month. Or three. Spring turned into summer, and we left town for the beach, expanding our little circle of three to include my parents and eventually getting help with childcare. These days are all scrambling together, an endless loop of Zoom meetings and editing and trying to find new ways to entertain a lonely 3-year-old. Cooking dinner, reading the news, deciding where to give money to ease some of the guilt I felt about being safe and having a job and living in a vacation town while the world around seemed to end.

It was in the fall of 2020 when I felt like I was disappearing for the first time. Most of the time, I only left the house for the 20 minute walk to my child’s pre-K. In a mask, basic blue Everlane anorak, skinny jeans, and Saucony sneakers, I was a generic version of a 40-something Brooklyn mom. This persona I had so painstakingly forged—an ambitious journalist ready to take on the world with a child and a husband in tow—was slowly eroding. I no longer felt important or special. I felt like another harassed mother struggling to manage childcare, household chores, and a job. All the things worth working hard for – the events, the after-work drinks, the occasional gossip and intrigue – were gone.

When I wasn’t masked, my face was reflected on my computer screen as I spent four, five or six hours a day in video calls. Do I really look like, I wondered. Where do these wrinkles come from? Why does my hair look like this? And do I really look so tired in real life? While other editors I’ve worked with showed up to meetings with fresh blowouts and faces full of makeup, I struggled to put on a different sweater than the one I wore the night before. We do not care? I do not have.

When I wasn’t masked, my face was reflected on my computer screen as I spent four, five or six hours a day in video calls.

Somewhere around the year, as we excitedly rushed to schedule vaccine appointments, I held out hope that this might be the end of the pandemic. Luckily my child returned to school in the fall of 2020, but that doesn’t mean work is back to normal. But with the vaccines, I thought maybe we could lose the masks and stop the zooms. Come back to the office and resume a normal life. I could rebuild my support network again and start trying to do everything again.

But summer brought us the Delta variant, and as soon as we took our masks off, we put them back on. The Zooms continued with my sad, tired face coming back to me, counting the hours of each workday, wondering what had happened to my ambition.

Over the past nine months, I have struggled so hard to get rid of this gloom and find myself. A new job has helped some. Plus a new network of working friends who understand the pains of the past two years. And while my weekends are looking more and more like “before time” with brunches and birthday parties, the work week doesn’t look much different from fall 2020.

For me, there is one piece of the puzzle that is exceptional: a real return to the office.

And yet no one else wants to go back. My Twitter feed is full of people touting all the benefits of working from home, but no one talking about the downsides.

On days I work from home, I often start at 5:30 a.m. rushing to make changes before my colleagues log in and the Slack notifications pile up. I take a break to shower and take my child to school, back at 8:30 a.m. to sit at my little desk in my bedroom and rush through a busy day at work, only stopping to warm up my coffee for the hundredth time and chatting with my husband, who works from the living room. I love him, but even after working side by side for 24 months, I’m sure he doesn’t know the names of all of my co-workers and isn’t capable of indulging in meaningful gossip.

When I’m not in a meeting, I look around my apartment to see that it’s filled with examples of how I’m not a perfect housewife and mother: clothes left on the clothes airer that must be put away; a pile of dirty plates that need to be loaded into the dishwasher; crumbs around the toaster that need to be swept up; a dirty sink that needs to be scrubbed. When my child comes home at 5:30 p.m., I do my best to get away from my laptop, to refocus on my family life. After 12 hours of work, it’s time to do my other work.

After 12 hours of work, it’s time to do my other work.

But oh! On the days I go to the office, I have an excuse to choose an outfit, to put on a pair of shoes that’s been languishing in my closet for two years, to slip on some blush and mascara, and transform myself into an ambitious working girl that Melanie Griffith would admire. Yes, the ride is terrible at times, but it’s also a rare quiet time alone to read emails or a book or just think, and there’s a freshly made Starbucks on the other side and a security guard friendly greeting you as you swipe your badge around the building.

On the best days, a few other people show up and we have in-person meetings where we don’t have to log into Zoom. We can chat a bit about the new Superior gun movie, and no one worries about trying to unmute before speaking. I don’t need to see my reactions reflected on my laptop screen. I get to spend time with people who see me first as a journalist. And it feels good.

Even on the worst days, when no one else comes and I still have to zoom all day, at least I wear nice clothes and don’t feel like I have to fold the laundry between meetings.

For me, a real return to the office would signal a return to normal. I’m not sure that will ever happen. The labor market is too tight, say some experts. This ship has sailed, say others. You only want to go back because you’re an extrovert and a manager, say my skeptical colleagues. Maybe that’s part of it. But in my heart, I know the truth: the office is a place where I am at my best – ambitious, interesting and talented and more than just a mother. And if the office leaves, who am I? I’m a little scared to find out.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com


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