21 Oct The unexpected, best-kept secret of 2020
Separating the bad and ugly from the good
If someone were to ask me to describe the year 2020 there are many adjectives which come to mind. My mind immediately wanders to the countless memes on social media that poke fun at this crazy COVID-19 year of lockdown doom and gloom. In short – what is definitely not a secret, is that 2020 will go down as one of the worst years of a generation.
By all accounts I have been fortunate to come off light this year – both myself and my husband still have our jobs and thankfully I haven’t lost a loved one to this terrible disease. But as a working mom of two toddlers employed by one of the largest professional services firms in the world, I can’t deny that this was a roller-coaster year.
The uncertainty of this pandemic initially caused me tremendous anxiety
As the impact of the pandemic unfolded, I started to hear about people that have been hit hard financially, emotionally or physically, and my heart started to bleed. I read way too many news articles late at night. It sent my mind racing way past my bedtime, and the less I slept the more exhausted I became, which impacted my productivity, my emotions and my eating habits.
Everything we had planned for and accepted as a given was all of a sudden overshadowed by uncertainty. Are we through the worst, or is the worst still to come? Who will become sick next? Will the economy ever bounce back? When will I see my parents again? How do I explain this to the kids? Should I secretly stock up the house with more toilet paper (just in case)? How am I going to juggle homeschooling and work? Would I have been better off in another country? Whose fault is this? What’s next?
But the show had to go on
We charge on a time-spent basis, so you have to put in hours if you want to meet your KPI’s. And you do want to meet your KPI’s because you hear about other businesses suffering and people losing jobs and you would not want that to happen to you.
But you also do not feel like working, because it is just soooooo tempting to escape it all and give in to your 5-year old daughter’s request to bake cookies and play Barbie on a random Tuesday afternoon. I’ve always loved Barbie…. sigh.
Instead, you pour yourself your sixth cup of bad coffee (because you don’t own a fancy coffee machine) and shove your smartphone like some kind of socially-unacceptable-but-totally-effective peace offering into the hands of your daughter. You are instantly hit with a pang of guilt because you haven’t done homeschooling yet this week. You try to make a mental note to “be a better mom” as you dial into another zoom call and act all professional like the grown-up you are supposed to be. Fake it till you make it, they say.
But 17:00 comes and goes and your work is not finished. Your husband’s call is also running over, and you can hear him politely excusing himself from his call, pressing the mute button, and snapping at your 2-year old to “Stop that!” You feel agitated with his impatience, but then you remember that he does hold the moral high ground today since you were the one who got to sleep last night (thanks Panado!) while he had to get up three times for the kids. Finally, you’re both done working, you throw together something marginally nutritional for supper and force yourself to do something fun with the kids until it is time to attempt the pyjama drill. You wanted to tell your husband that you would like to watch a movie with him once the kids are in bed, but instead, you snap at him over the mess in the kitchen. You end up falling asleep with the kids while he washes the dishes.
Days run into weeks and weeks into months. You sort-of establish a new routine. After some fights, tears, honest conversations and much-needed makeup sessions, each family member naturally assumes a certain set of tasks in and around the house. And before you know it the year is on its back.
And then the weirdest thing starts happening
As I started seeing other people again (which by itself was weird), we started to share our experiences.
One friend who lost her job, tells me that “2020 was her best year so far”. Another friend with a very demanding career in the public sector, tells me that for the first time in years “her family is really at a good place.” My sister who is a stay-at-home mom says that “it was just so peaceful to have the kids at home more often, not having to play taxi all day”.
I have a relative who was forced to close her business after 25 years who reflected that “it was the push that she needed to start a new venture.” My mom, who just retired and became a widow two years ago, was all alone during lockdown. We were worried sick about her, but she ended up feeling liberated because “for the first time in her life she could just binge-watch TV in her pyjamas all day!”
All of these people tell me their stories with hesitance, almost as if it should be our little secret. I mean, someone can’t possibly have benefited from this disastrous year. But the more stories I hear, the more I realise that I am weirdly nostalgic about 2020 coming to a close. Not to belittle the harsh realities that accompanied COVID-19 and the resultant economic lockdown, but in hindsight, I believe that a lot of good did come from it all.
Out of hardship comes change
- I am a different wife, mom, friend and colleague from a year ago.
- I am more sensitive to other people’s needs.
- I am less self-centred.
- I am more grateful for what I have.
- I understand my husband better.
- I spend more time with my kids.
- My kids have learnt what it is to be bored. To not be entertained all day with extra-curricular activities, playdates, or by mom and dad.
- I bicker less.
- I appreciate the simple things in life much more than before – I now have hobbies.
- We actually go on walks through our neighbourhood. We know our neighbours.
Finding common ground
Zoom calls have taken me into the homes of colleagues and clients across the world. There is something vulnerable about having another person look into your home and realise that both of you are restricted by this pandemic. You share an experience and get a glimpse of the person behind the professional title.
For the first time, I saw my 50-year old male boss as a “working dad”. I noticed my very-important-client-in-New York looking bleak the other day, and found out that he hurt his back when he fell from his bicycle. Another senior client lives all alone in a small apartment and has little contact with other people due to strict lockdown regulations in his country. I noticed that many of my colleagues – especially the younger ones – did not have the luxury of a comfortable designated workspace, or uninterrupted internet connections, while some of my peers struggled as they did not have the same support structure that I had. But all of them were doing their thing – always friendly, pro-active and reliable. And nobody underperformed. These experiences opened my eyes to a lot of things.
Achieving my full potential
I have been fortunate to work with a team of people who respect and trust me. I believe that this breeds loyalty. Not once during 2020 did I feel micromanaged, policed or my intentions doubted. On the contrary, I was allowed the utmost flexibility and autonomy, and also strived to grant this to my juniors.
Did I take liberties? Depends on what you define as being a liberty. If you see taking a trip to the store at 10:00 on a Monday as a liberty, or randomly playing hide-and-seek with your kids on a Friday afternoon, then I guess I did. But not once did I drop the ball on a colleague or client, or compromise on the quality of my work.
Would I work this way forever? Yes and no. I can’t imagine ever not having this level of flexibility and autonomy again, but I do miss the human interaction. I miss dressing up. I miss going into the office and experiencing the city buzz. I sometimes wonder if it is wrong to want the best of both worlds – to stay at home in your sweatpants some days, and to power dress in stilettoes on others? I don’t think so. And I would like to believe that 2020 has gotten us one step closer to this kind of life.
Technology – friend or foe?
A reflection on 2020 would not be complete without addressing the other major stakeholder of our times. This year has inspired me to embrace technology. I know that if I want to stay relevant, I need to continuously adapt and upskill myself. I respect its place in society – good and bad – and realise that I need to foster a healthy relationship with it.