My daughter was a toddler and we were pulling weeds in the front yard. Actually, I was pulling weeds and she was looking for fairies and caterpillars, when a new neighbor walked by with a boy and a girl about Alex’s age. The two children wanted to know what Alex was doing and while I introduced myself to Ellen who lived around the corner, Alex showed her new friends where she’d hidden a fairy house made from cardboard under the pear tree.
Ellen, who was taking a day away from her office, seemed stressed. She explained the little boy was her son Bran and the little girl was a cousin visiting for the afternoon. “Would you like me to watch them for a while?” I said. “And then, Alex can visit your house.”
She eagerly accepted my offer and I turned my full attention to the three children. The day was becoming hot and we set up some toys in the backyard. When a squabble over trucks and building blocks commenced, I served them juice and crackers, diligently washing faces and hands. Time seemed to be passing very slowly. I thought about how nice it was going to be when I’d get some time alone to sit in front of my computer and finish the article I’d started writing that morning while Alex was watching “Sesame Street.” I looked down at my watch, checking to see when it might be reasonable to march the children back to Ellen’s house.
She was out front pulling her own weeds when we arrived. After the perfunctory, “Did you have a nice time? and “Thank you” she looked alarmed when I indicated I was planning to leave Alex in her care. When she explained her sister was coming soon to pick up her daughter and she had other plans I said, “Oh well, how about I take a raincheck?”
She looked at me oddly. Twenty-five years later I remember her words. “ Usually Bran is in childcare,” she said, “and I go to work.”
“Just because I work from home, doesn’t mean I don’t work,” I said. “I just have to work around my children’s schedule.”
“I commute into Washington every day,” she said. “I have a demanding job.”
At this point in my life the concept of the remote workplace was in its infancy, but I’d cobbled together a number of different jobs. I wrote a weekly column on antiques, a monthly column on historic lighting, took on various freelance writing assignments, and for additional income I’d do antiques appraisals.
Misogynist men assuming that whatever professional work I claimed to do was more likely a hobby, was expected. But this response from another woman in the workplace was not. My daughter was tugging at my arm and sweat was trickling down my face. Was my neighbor interested in opening her mind to the concept that perhaps I was working as hard as she was, even if I wasn’t working a nine to five job in an office?
“I work too,” I said. “All the time.”
She didn’t respond. She focused on coaxing her son and niece up on the porch and into house where they waved a final good-bye.
I was angry. Other women I knew with young children practiced reciprocal babysitting as a matter of survival. I’d expected her to return my favor, but I’d misread the situation. I gritted my teeth and strategized as to whether I should put on a movie for Alex to watch or grab some time after dinner to finish my article . After a cold ice tea, I put it all in perspective. I hadn’t really lost any time, I just felt used.
Now, working remotely is widely practiced. Thanks to the Global Coronavirus Pandemic, large and small employers have learned that people can often be more productive spending less time driving back and forth to work and more time doing their actual job. Unfortunately women are still burdened with the primary responsibility of childcare and the importance of what they do is often negated.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as so many jobs—from bus driver to home healthcare worker—are important and cannot be done from a distance. But maybe, just maybe we’ve caught a glimpse of different work configurations. As people return to the workplace, many are given options to work remotely part of the week. The scarcity of workers for service jobs is forcing employers to increase wages and benefits. As we pay more attention to how we define what work is and where it is done, perhaps just a few more humans are thinking about what others are experiencing.
Empathy. It’s that ability to absorb the sadness and the joy of another human being. Imagine yourself in the other person’s situation. It’s part of being a citizen of the world.
Follow me on Twitter: SN Maril and read my latest published short story “The Perfect Picture”. http://potatosoupjournal.com/the-perfect-picture-by-nadja-maril/