On being, and managing change while working from home (WFH)
To share one experience of a working mum’s ‘COVID-19 state of mind’, I turn to Roald Dahl’s lesser-known sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl, 1962).
Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator adventure (Dahl, 1972) starts with Charlie Bucket and chocolatier Willy Wonka squeezing Charlie’s entire family, including bed, into a glass-walled entity, to be catapulted high into the sky for a crash land back into the factory. One grandparent, distracting Wonka, knocks him against a lever which thrusts the Elevator into orbit. It is in this glass space you will find my household, on the emotional COVID-19 self-isolating journey of unknown length. A space in which I’ve flitted between a cantankerous mess to projecting optimism for a new dawn. Along the way, consciously charting a morphing mental state routed along a ‘Change Curve’ (Kubler-Ross, 1969). Introduced to me nearly 2 decades ago during time as a Kaizen Engineer, it’s a system I cling to, for all its humanising and calming effects. Needless to say, familiarity gifts no pass through any stage!
Countdown to lockdown
The early days of the pandemic were intoxicating and energising. Like many, I was fuelled to innovate and share, to help facilitate a quick and smooth migration to a fully online world. Years of experience working with online students, I felt a strong call of duty. A challenge graciously endowed with a flood of new learning, content and best practices, freed from paywalls or firewalls; gifted by educational and private benefactors. The universities and schools prepared to close their doors, while I parodied a gluttonous child running amok in Wonka’s sweet facility, gorging on all manner of new knowledge and insight. I was learning as fast as I was sharing. Alas, information over-load kicked in, and so did the stress.
In Dahl’s story, Wonker’s elevator docks at a Space Hotel that has been compromised by the freakishly COVID-sounding ‘Knids’; brutal, vindictive, murderous beasts. Back in my story, as most schools and offices battened down the hatches, a family eased dutifully and comfortably, and relatively light [we missed out on the stockpiling toilet-roll and sanitiser memo] into their own safe elevator. There was no trepidation about the prospect of long-term home-schooling whilst studying and writing on a WFH mission. With Wonkerish vision, anything was possible! These, in hindsight, were the denial days.
Not facing undue exposure to COVID-19, unlike my husband, and all front-line workers, with no immediate threat of disrupted income, a mix of guilt, duty and gratitude for a protected position, drowned out newly bubbling frustrations. About 10 days in, travelling at the speed of the rocketing elevator, juggling the day jobs and study and facilitating full school days for a 3, 5 and 7-year-old, tempers, specifically mine, frayed! Everyone and their kitchen sink were on teams’ calls , online training and sharing. Students required reassurance, new deadlines emerged, and the many diarised commitments reaffirmed. I was resolute. Be neither broken or drop any ball!
Pushing through the remaining layers of the old world, the heat inside the vestibule rose.
As the smart WFH-brigade across the globe fairly delighted in transference to their more beautiful or serene contexts, shared pimped up home offices pics, or tweeted positivism and joy of their filling of unclaimed slots of time, I instead started to fizzle. Bobbling up and down like I’d downed some ‘frobscottle’ (BFG). Really, I sniffed [not coughed], am I the only one peering out of my steamed glass vacuum, orbiting at speed, to think that WFH whilst home-schooling three is a ‘catasterous disastrophe’!? Had I so quickly metamorphesized into a character from BBC2’s ‘Motherland’, unable to fitfully negotiate my family and professional existence?
Do not fear! My character has not turned to the dark side in this Dahlesque plot. I have had moments, where I’ve captured sweet pictures of all three of my little darlings on task, but I am typically not at work at the time. It doesn’t mix well. Three days of trying to remove 24-hour lipstick off my daughter’s forehead is evidence. It’s like trying to line up hens in a wind-tunnel. Two on independent tasks while you’re in workflow yourself, is manageable, but add the fourth spinning plate and down the lot crashes.
No matter how well-intentioned the advice on “implementing an effective work-from-home system whilst multiple home-schooling!’ well it’s just blithering, poppyrot, gobblefunk! So, with the backdrop of the malicious, ‘oozy-woozy COVID grobes’ spreading at colossal speed, I had arrived at the peak of the frustration stage, with a galumptious bump to the head in my glass chamber.
WFH parental realities
One function, however, deserved of Wonker-invention status is the mute and video off button, that extract the whines and pleads or exuberant chatter of young children, particularly those too young to appreciate, or are plain indifferent to, mum’s fixation with strange people on her laptop, which frankly remains a movable device, as there is no option to seat in a private work-space and close the door on life. After all, toileting, an almost continuous flow of drinks and snacks and activities, or retrieval of the contraband big scissors down from the high cupboard [my 3yr old is at the propensity to cut her own hair stage] are much higher priorities! I won’t even start on the mess that builds from the moment my said darlings rise from their beds, and it ain’t too unlike the state of ‘The Egg Room’ after Veruca Salt had run amock!
There have been oh so many ‘bobsticles’…I’m ‘biffsquiggled’ (BFG, Dahl, 1982)
Wonka view on a world in slow motion
Like most of the globe, for those forced on a new trajectory, the preparations and the initial shock of transition focused the mind. It’s only now, taking some time on leave, encased in my elevator, and safe as one could be, from the vermicious COVID threat, I can appreciate the world spinning in slow motion. A forced and difficult window where nature has dared to creep back into public spaces. Yet it’s difficult to celebrate the possibly naïve idea the earth is taking its chance to heal, when so many are traumatized by loss, isolation, grief and fear. As we left 2019, in [A telos for the 203rd decade] I wrote…
Do things differently, look for, attend to,
The possibilities of a soulful existence,
Seek, help shape, an individual and collective sense,
Of what it is to be human.
Reconnect to nature, the land, the earth.
To an interconnected, empathic community of beings.
Shape harmonious futures,
Sustainable economic and societal designs.
Unlock spiritual intuition.
Body, mind and soul.
I would now add ‘Be careful what you wish for, you will not be prepared!’
Migration rather than transformation
It wasn’t too long before I sensed I’d navigated through to the big dip of my change curve. My glass elevator did oh so rattle and quiver. Although I prefer to call it sadness rather than depression. Whilst there is uplifting talk of a new ‘post-COVID’ world, with all the vibrations and reverberations in my walled enclosure, I don’t sense a maturing or changing existence as yet. All the noise, drama and pressure for many has just transferred into millions of homes. Dahl chose to keep the status quo at his story’s close, but I do so hope that there is some bigger plot for us all. News and social media feeds suggest we are more benevolent and conjoined, on the surface at least, as we face a common enemy. Yet, we remain a common enemy not only to the planet, but to ourselves on some level. I even experience spots of horror at night. Imaginative terrors, not too unlike Wonka’s rant during the original movie’s psychedelic boat scene (Dahl, 1962)…
There’s no earthly way of knowing
Which direction we are going
There’s no knowing where we’re rowing
Or which way the river’s flowing
Is it raining, is it snowing?
Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing
So the danger must be growing
Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?
Is the grisly Reaper mowing?
Yes! The danger must be growing
For the rowers keep on rowing
And they’re certainly not showing
Any signs that they are slowing
The journey continues
Clearly the journey is nowhere complete. I expect to slide back some loops within the change curve. I suspect I have much personal and professional bargaining to do, about what is important and what can realistically be achieved in this time, whether I can make any dent in a more sustainable and harmonious future. But I can at least refuse to massage over the real challenges for WFH parents, however privileged we feel or are made to feel. Especially if by not doing so, creates an illusion that we are superbeings, and inadvertently contribute to someone’s poor mental health.
Trying to embrace this space will be my 4th-week challenge, and it will take some uncluttering. Wonka’s elevator could move “up and down, sideways, slant ways, and any other way you can think of.” (Dahl, 1962). I’ve literally taken this to represent the power of the imagination, the power of the human mind; recognizing that our spaces are somewhat of our own making. They can be happy or fantastical worlds, but also dangerous like ‘Minusland’ where you can be bitten by ‘Gnoolies’.
For us all, our mental health will dictate how our journey will pan out, and the length and the depth of the pit-stops of our individual change curves. I hit a low point. I’m reliant upon, and grateful to technology, but recognise that as much as it connects, it binds many of us tightly to a work state, and away from ourselves and our families.
I so heavily crave the symbolic deeper meaning from this journey for us all. For now, I’ll make do with some honesty, authenticity and a sprinkling of humour.
A special thank you to Roald Dahl for all the wonderful stories – you continue to keep on giving!
Dahl, R (1962) ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc: USA
Dahl, R. (1972) ‘Charles and The Great Glass Elevator’, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc: USA.
Dahl, R (1982) ‘The BFG’, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: USA.
Kübler-Ross E (1969) ‘On Death and Dying‘, Routledge: Oxon.