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The Earnheardts | I miss my office

Now I live in some sort of hellscape where I’m never fully at work or at home. I’m stuck in a setting where I’m either ready to work and no one has returned an email, or I’m busily creating work to send out to others, or I’m waiting for some terrible email to interrupt family movie night.
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

When I was a senior in high school, I won three class superlatives. They were: Most Immature, Class Clown, and Most Disorganized. 

Not exactly the kind of recognition that made my parents proud, but I have to admit, the voters in the Purchase Line Class of 1993 had me pegged. 

I think I still own the Class Clown moniker. It helps when you’re a professor and need to “entertain” in the classroom. Life has matured me, but if you asked my students and colleagues about Most Disorganized, I’d still win in a landslide. 

My office of today looks a heck of a lot like my high school locker. 

Every computer I touch has a desktop window that makes most people shudder. I prefer to look at overlapping icons and unrelated files sitting on top of each other. At any given moment, I have about a dozen untitled folders created that will never have content.  

I’m also an email hoarder, challenging the limits of cyberspace and storage with spam from 2012. My work systems make sense to me. For everyone else, my professional spaces are a mess. 

When the pandemic hit, I was forced to bring this part of my life into my home. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me or anyone I live with. And, at this point, it’s safe to say that I miss my office. I know it’s out of fashion to admit this, and that a large population of the country is reveling in their custom-made, work-at-home environments. But for me, remote work is the worst of both worlds.

I have textbooks lying next to half-eaten cupcakes. I’ve found the cat napping on my loaner laptop. In April I found a homework folder that belonged to one of my students in my sock drawer. If this keeps up, it’s not too farfetched to think I’ll be saying things like, “Yeah, I’m sorry. My dog ate your homework.”

But, as I’ve established, I’m used to dealing with messes. I can put the folder back where it belongs and eat the rest of the cupcake. What I can’t do is protect the kids from my work-self. As my employer strains under the financial repercussions of the pandemic, it’s a bad time for YSU employees.

Ella, Katie, Sadie and Ozzie try to stay away when I’m working, but when you’re under the same roof, it’s not the same as being in a small, 10-foot-by-10-foot space with no windows and a locked door. My office provides the kind of privacy that I simply can’t get at home. 

Working from home doesn’t suit the way I set boundaries in my life. In pre-COVID days, I would leave home and make it to campus by 8:30 a.m. When I was there, I was fully immersed in my work world.

At the end of the day, when I went home, I was also completely home. I didn’t check email with any frequency. I didn’t grade, I tried to forget about committee work. I was able to be fully present with my family. Even though my office is a mess, at home I keep most of our living spaces clear and free from the clutter. Home was a safe place, away from many of my grown-up concerns and responsibilities.

Now I live in some sort of hellscape where I’m never fully at work or at home. I’m stuck in a setting where I’m either ready to work and no one has returned an email, or I’m busily creating work to send out to others, or I’m waiting for some terrible email to interrupt family movie night.

If you are someone who relishes boundaries, you may be struggling with this, too. 

I also acknowledge that some of you are perfectly happy with the kind of flexibility this situation creates. I did a load of laundry while advising a student. I get it. That’s efficiency 101. And many of my colleagues look like they’ve created fully functioning home offices. I literally “see” their efforts in my video conferences.

They are the haves, the online meeting-goers who have the space and privacy to set up their carefully curated backgrounds. I am a have-not, the online meeting goer who is sneaking around the house looking for a place that has good wifi and no children. 

I usually do my meetings from my bed and, when people tease me, I tell them it’s either this or the bathroom. 

Not only is this situation stressful for me, but I also know that it’s having an impact on the children. In normal times, the upsets of work would be left there, at work. But now they’re dealt with in terse phone conversations while a 7-year-old is playing in the next room. I’ve had to explain things like enrollment declines, contract negotiations, furloughs, and department reorganizations in kid-friendly terms because they want to know why I’m in a bad mood. 

I suppose the upside is that I have lots of people willing to stress eat ice cream with me.

Just last Monday I received a call from a distraught colleague who had been laid off. I went from watching an episode of Teen Titans with my kids to being forced into the reality that when we do finally get back to work, we’re coming back to a different place. 

I’m fully prepared to admit that if I didn’t have children, I may have a different view of working from home. I also recognize that having the ability to do my job remotely is a blessing and I am thankful for that. Hell, I’m thankful just to have a job.

But, as I make my way through it, I can’t help but see the ways in which work-life is now much harder than a few months ago. I miss seeing my colleagues (I mean actually “seeing” them, being in the same space as them) and, more importantly, I miss seeing my students. 

We connect through virtual meetings and email, but no one wants to tell corny personal stories or make inside jokes during a crowded WebEx meeting. I used to tell people that I throw good meetings. It’s impossible to have a little work party on Zoom (although, if anyone from Zoom is reading this, I’m open to suggestions). 

Yeah, my office is a mess. When I do get back there, I’ll be wearing a mask and using a lot of hand sanitizer, but it’ll be a step in the direction of normalcy. Returning to a physical location will be the first step in figuring out a new life that is being carved out of crisis. 

I can’t say that I’m looking forward to all of it, but even if I can’t shake anyone’s hand, it’ll be nice to see them again and then go home and ignore my email.

— Mary Beth Earnheardt is director of the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.