Last week, attorney Rod Ponton appeared in a Texas court looking like a kitten. The court was meeting online and the judge and others were unable to help Mr. Ponton. He didn’t consciously choose to appear as a kitten. He reported that a filter setting was changed on his computer without his knowledge and he didn’t know how to correct the problem.
Who would do such a thing to this poor man, you ask?
The answer won’t surprise any of the parents reading this column. Ponton had lent his computer to his child.
I found Ponton’s story relatable.
The pandemic has brought parenting into the professional world in the most unprofessional ways. It has allowed those of you who don’t have small children at home to see behind the curtain of those of us who do. As a working parent, it’s a curtain I work very hard to keep closed. Tightly closed. Like blackout closed.
Some parents feel differently and regularly share their children with the world. I admire them, but it’s just not for me. The people around me don’t judge, and my (very patient, supportive) colleagues have always been kind about my children. They ask about them and make genuinely thoughtful comments about how big and beautiful and smart they are.
But no matter what they say, my inner critic always thinks, “How can anyone respect me if they see the unseriousness of my personal life?” Even writing this column can be hard because it’s a glimpse inside our chaotic home life. The main difference is the level of control. In normal times (i.e., pre- and, one day, post-pandemic), I decide what to share and how and when to share it.
The curtain is open for a few minutes but then yanked tightly back in place before I get too uncomfortable.
It’s the times when I screw up while working from home that make me cringe. When I’m in a meeting, I don’t want anyone to think of me as a mother. I don’t want anyone to see just beyond the edges of the video, where one slight tilt to the left will show a massive pile of dirty clothes, and a tilt the right will reveal one of our kids picking a nose (and maybe not his own) or flipping a middle finger just for the fun of it.
My children always seem to have different agendas and motives. Because I’m at home, they don’t seem to understand that I need to be a professional. Who can blame them? I don’t take my children to work with me, not even on our annual “take your kids to work” day. Before the pandemic, I did almost all of my work in the office. It was a firm boundary that has now been smashed to smithereens.
Mostly the kids are good at letting me alone, with one exception. Our son, Ozzie, looks for opportunities to interrupt work and upend the seriousness. He’s a clown and he knows it. He’s an entertainer. For him, people on the other side of a WebEx meeting aren’t my co-workers. They’re just another potential audience for his high jinks and crass humour.
Adam and I work in the same department at Youngstown State. Because of this, we often find ourselves attending online meetings together. It’s a tough situation to work through when the kids are remote schooling from home. When we’re both on, we’re both engaged with work, and there’s no adult to entertain (i.e., distract) the little ones.
In a recent college-wide meeting, Ozzie discovered how powerless we were. He found me in the kitchen giving a report and peeked over my shoulder to see Adam as one of the other participants. When he saw his Dad, it was only a few seconds before he realized that Adam was online in another room.
Ozzie ran from me to Adam. Soon his face was pressed against Adam’s in the tiny online window. When I was done talking, Ozzie was back with me (waving from stage left with a cheesy grin; and by “cheesy grin,” I mean he literally had cheeseball powder crusted around the ring of his mouth). He proceeded to run between the two of us for at least 20 minutes until I bribed him with a cupcake.
Thank God for the mute button and Little Debbie’s cupcakes. Because this screen bombing was a new occurrence, Adam and I had no predetermined deterrence strategy.
We were sitting ducks, and Ozzie knew it.
But, if we weren’t on a work call, we would have been able to use our normal strategy of yelling at him. This is a little something my friend, Tiffany Anderson, calls “bringing the thunder.” I’m not proud to admit it, but on occasion, I yell at the kids. Adam does too. We probably do it more often than we should, but at times it can feel like tone and volume are the only way to break through the complete disregard for what we’re saying.
Yelling at your child isn’t the same as raising your voice to another adult. With the exception of Adam, no one in my life ignores what I say quite the way the children do. It’s like the fact that they incubated in my body has filled them with immunity to my words. Even when I yell, they mostly manage to ignore me.
But, in the professional environment, I can’t yell. Even if muted, if I did yell, I would look like a crazy person and likely make my coworkers uncomfortable. Most HR departments prefer a less forceful form of mediation. But, in my experience, a reasoned approach just doesn’t penetrate the noggin of an 8-year-old. So, instead of turning away from the camera and going full mom on Oz, I just try to smile through his shenanigans and hope I don’t look like a complete idiot (or worse, a pushover).
I’m still thankful I remembered the cupcakes.
It’s not just the antics of an 8-year-old that throw me off my game. Just like Mr. Ponton, I sometimes let the kids use my work laptop for school. I probably shouldn’t do this, but when you have four children in online meetings, you need a fallback plan. You need multiple devices. We mostly manage (thankfully, Liberty Local Schools lends middle- and high-schoolers Chromebooks to use during the school year).
Once in a while, something breaks down and I don’t even think about my work. I just respond to the emergency of getting the child-in-need-of-tech into a Google hangout, albeit on my work computer.
This is completely acceptable until a kid tinkers with settings on your work laptop (e.g., Mr. Ponton) or randomly dismisses or deletes an “alert” for a meeting, which was my dilemma last week. I received a call from work asking why I wasn’t “on” an online meeting. I felt like the kid who gets called out by the teacher in front of the whole class. My face flushed and I had to summon deep reserves of courage to enter the call late.
My colleagues were very kind, but I still felt like I let everyone down. And yes, I blamed it on the kid. Why not? These days, the “my kid did it” excuse is as commonplace as “I can’t get my camera to work.”
There’s something deeply humanizing for all of us when we log into our professional lives from our personal spaces. We see glimpses of people we think we know. People who are trying to present themselves as best they can. And, sometimes the presentation falls apart or is sabotaged by a little kid holding chocolate cupcakes (yes, he found a way to leverage a second treat during our online meeting).
I don’t know what it will be like when we resume less-online lives, but I am looking forward to restoring some boundaries.
In the meantime, I appreciate the kindness and patience of my colleagues and friends. I appreciate the ways in which their lives have changed and understand that the curtain can’t stay as tightly closed as some of us would prefer.
I am hopeful that this will make me less concerned about showing myself as a mother and build my comfort level in both worlds. After all, we’re all in this together, and the occasional kid or critter who pops up in a Zoom call is sometimes a welcome distraction during the virtual workday.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.