I write this with the drone of a narrator talking about some war in the Pacific going on endlessly in the background. For two hours straight, I’ve been at my dining table (which is now my work table), editing, writing and taking work calls. For two hours straight, my husband has been sprawled on the couch behind me, watching documentaries in boxers with a cold beer in hand. Don’t get me wrong. He deserves every bit of this time-off, especially as his music-led experiences business goes from a chaotic pre-coronavirus schedule to a time that has cancelled all kinds of live events, the very industry on which his company runs. But living with and loving people who have found themselves either without a job or have had the pandemic temporarily freeze their income streams, is tough—especially when you have a work life that’s only gotten a bit crazier than earlier.
‘Time’ has become a bizarre concept under the pandemic-induced lockdown. Each day is a long, exhausting cycle of work-from-home and work-for-home; but zoom out a little and you will find yourself wondering where half the year has even gone. But for someone like me, who is still able to distinguish a Sunday from a Monday, being around those (even virtually) for whom everyday is a Sunday, becomes a mixed bag of envy and relief. There’s envy over the fact that some girlfriends are day-drinking while I type this, but relief over having a job that guarantees a monthly income at a time of massive layoffs and furloughs.
There’s envy over how some friends did a Netflix Party on a weekday, or are waking up straight at noon and continuing their binge-watching late into the nights, or that they all seem to have the time and energy to bake that damn sourdough, or that I have had to choose a Zoom work call over a fun video call with friends several times, or that I often don’t have the time to edit a piece and wash utensils on several days.
But there’s also relief that there is some semblance of life from the pre-coronavirus days for me, that I (yet!) do not have to worry about where the money to pay the rent will come from, that I still feel valued by colleagues and bosses, and that the work I’m doing is still a bit bigger than just the confines of my home. It’s a privilege to even have these two conflicting emotions at play right now, and I’m aware of it every time I find myself frustrated or resentful about my share of housework. I know. But I’m still pissed. Not sure at who, though. Maybe just ’rona.
“It’s especially tough when the people you’re living with expect you to be as proactive as them when it comes to housework,” says Saakshi*, who works with a television viewership measurement company and lives with her husband and in-laws. “For me, learning how to work in this new environment has been challenging but what’s been even more so is clocking in the work hours while also keeping everyone happy by doing my share of housework. I am perpetually exhausted, and spend weekends just sleeping in. To tell someone to not use the mixer/grinder or put the television volume low while I’m on a call has often been met with annoyance. So it’s been up to me to figure out an arrangement.” The arrangement in her case means working from her bed, which has now led to back and neck issues. “I don’t have the space to move a table into the bedroom but neither can I work from my living room. So, invariably, I end up lying on my stomach and typing.” For some others, space can be even more limited—with video calls inevitably requiring dodging other family members and house sounds from making background appearances.
Being the only busy one—and busy, in this case, means trying to strike some sort of work-life balance—can also take a hit on your motivation levels. “I see this affect my mental health because while I am supercharged about work on some days, everyone around me is in a daze and trying to figure life from the ground up,” says Amir Irfan, who works with a private bank and lives with his partner who was recently furloughed. “My motivation used to come from working with colleagues who are friends because the work I do by itself is not something I enjoy. But I can’t be resentful about it either because my partner feels I should be grateful just to have a job right now. So we don’t really chat about my frustrations with my work life.”
But maybe it's this very frustration needs to be looked into. “So much of the issue will evaporate if you are able to just talk about it,” says Ishita Gupta, founder of Breakthrough Counselling. “You’ve to understand that now, your partner is, in a way, your colleague as well, with both of you working towards certain goals. But in this case, if you want to let them know something, you can’t just send off an email telling them what to do. Most people don’t know how to ‘work’ with their partner but I recommend leaning into it. Make a housework schedule if that helps. Figure out what specific issues are bothering you—if it is resentment about having to do more work in general, or envy, relief, or just feeling overwhelmed—and speak about those.”
For urban, ambitious couples who’ve come from relatively privileged backgrounds, where housework was not factored in earlier but now matters day on day, these kinds of conversations can be uncharted territory. But counselling psychologist SnehaJanaki believes that the issues that affect us currently have actually always been present in our dynamic with the people we love the most, especially our partners. “The issues you feel right now are not new—they always existed,” she says. “But they are now being amplified. It’s not like COVID-19 has created gender roles. It’s just that they are magnified right now, and for those working, work has become even more stressful now. So while there can be resentment and envy, we also can find it tough to deal with our feelings of privilege and value when we realise that we are being called upon but others around are not.”
SnehaJanaki suggests you approach these emotions with the metaphor that the Japanese art of kintsugi offers. In this art form, broken pottery is repaired with gold-dusted lacquer, creating gold seams in place of the original cracks, highlighting the damage but also making it more beautiful than the original. “Now that the cracks in your relationship have been made visible, it’s a good time to fill them up. If someone is even doing the dishes together, it can be a meaningful exchange,” she says.
Other WFH bodies I know have found their own ways of dealing with it all too. Someone I know has slotted in time on her calendar to catch up with her girlfriends in the afternoon when their kids are napping (“I just block off that time on my work calendar and pretend I had a meeting, and then work an extra half hour to make up”); someone else has asked their partner to move the television to their bedroom so that they can work comfortably from the living room (“I used to just fall asleep while working from the bed”); someone else has an Excel sheet printed out with housework schedules (“That way, it’s fair for both of us but I am doing less on weekdays and more on weekends”). “You will have to have difficult conversations with people around you at some point in life—be it about success, career trajectories, or the impact of work life on personal life,” says SnehaJanaki. “Now is a good time to have those and make use of the opportunity that’s been handed to us.” And since WFH might just be a trend that's here to stay—considering the fact that more offices might need to shed their office space and save on rent—maybe we all really need to look at this opportunity handed to us, and figure a sustainable way that works for all.
As I wrap this up, I’ve also just finished a late lunch and now begins the toughest part of the day—the time when everyone in my life is free to take a siesta. But not me.
*Name changed on request
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