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By: Justin P. McCarthy | May 5, 2022
For all its relentless, irredeemable, plodding horror, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has borne to a haggard world a handful of precarious boons. Globally, our awareness of racial, cultural and social inequities between those with access to healthcare and those without has increased. We’ve been forced to acknowledge the deep structural challenges of living in a society where some people could keep working through lockdowns and afford care for kids in school at home–or not in school at all–while many suffered hardship over hardship, struggling to subsist.
More recently, in a labor-hungry economy, employees have had more power than at any time in recent memory. And for many, work has transformed in positive ways. At home, we’ve mastered new hobbies, learned to play, study and stay in touch remotely and scaled previously unthinkable heights of binge media consumption (our household has made it through the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe—twice).
We’ve spent more time together as families than most of us ever expected to, and we’re closer than ever as a result. By now, though, most schools in the United States have reopened (while a shocking number worldwide remain closed, or partially so). With parents largely freed from our additional pandemic responsibilities as actual or proxy teachers and quarantine cruise directors, many of the workplaces that closed as long as two years ago are inviting or requiring employees to come back.
When my wife, Katie, got her first Return to Office (“RTO”) email toward the end of 2020, we were skeptical. COVID-19 was tearing across the planet, sickening hundreds of millions, all the while mutating into ever more sinister forms. A few weeks before the given date, as cases spiked, another email let her know RTO had been pushed back. This would happen three more times.
The kids, cats and I grew used to having Katie around. Always an earlier riser than I am, she took over breakfast duties most mornings, and started walking Jack down the hill to middle school each day. The two of us would take long hikes on Ring Mountain when our cleaning crew exiled us on Mondays, and we’d have lunch together almost every day.
Her office was the kids’ first stop when coming home from school, or soccer, or softball, or martial arts. Rather than calling each other three or four times a day, as we’d done before, I’d run upstairs and sit on her couch, or she’d visit me down at the computer to talk. Our two cats, finding Katie the only person in our family who ever sits still for long, started spending most of the day with her.
Katie’s final RTO notice came this January, letting her know she’d be returning—for real, this time!—the last week of March. By that point, she’d been home for over two years, during which she’d gone into her city office exactly twice. It was a huge adjustment for all of us.
The blow was softened by an updated policy of at-home Fridays, with the dangled promise of an eventual second day, and a handful of additional remote summer and winter weeks, but none of that matched the giant piles of additional together time we’d all grown so used to.
It’s gotten so quiet here during the day. For the first week or so, our middle daughter, Ali, would still shout, “Hi, Mom!” when she came in the door. That’s a big hole I can’t—and don’t want to—fill. I’ve started reading during lunch, and time for our walks now has to compete with everything else Katie needs to do at home on Fridays.
I make sure I’m around when the kids get home, that I check in with them, see how things went at school. It’s not that they’d rather be talking to their mom, it’s that they’d all rather talk with her, too. They get different things from each of us. I don’t have a lot of kind words for SARS-CoV-2, but I’m grateful for all the extra time we got to spend with Katie, and so are the kids. It’s made us all appreciate one another more. As for the cats, they’re stone-cold mercenaries. After a few weeks of confused lurking in the empty office, they decided to take Stephen Stills’ approach and settled for me. I’ll take it.
Justin P. McCarthy lives in Tiburon with his wife, Katie, and their three children--Jack, Ali, and Claire. He’d be delighted to hear from you at email@example.com.
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