Coronavirus

Now That We Work From Home, My Husband and I Have Front-Row Seats to Each Other’s Professional Lives

And it’s weird.


working from home with spouse

Working from home with my spouse nearby is part of the new, and weird, normal. Illustration by Tara Jacoby

It started pretty quickly — maybe four, five days into our quarantine. I wasn’t restless — two years of being a stay-at-home mom and work-from-home freelance writer prepared me for staying in for long stretches of time. And I wasn’t just on edge. Who isn’t on edge now, as we watch the world buckle under the weight of COVID-19 from our windows and balconies and bedsides? I was … prickly. Because even though my quarantined life isn’t wildly different from my unquarantined life, what has changed is that now, someone else is watching me live it.

Like millions of people, my husband, Justin, is now working from home. I’m acutely aware that when your biggest complaint in the midst of a life-altering pandemic is that you get to spend more time with the people you love, you should be grateful. And I am. I’m grateful that Justin still has a job, that he’s able to do that job remotely, that we don’t have to rely on outside child care, and that our three-year-old son, Quinn, isn’t old enough to require any sort of serious home-schooling structure. While my weekly jigsaw puzzle of work, preschool, play dates, meetings, and kiddie activities has ground to a halt, every afternoon at 1:30, I’m still doing the same thing I’d be doing even if society hadn’t suddenly packed up and gone home: putting my son down for a nap, hushed into stillness by a white-noise machine and blackout curtains.

Quinn and I, we have our thing. Sometimes it runs smoothly, and sometimes it sputters. Sometimes we make it to mommy- and-me preschool on time and in one piece, and sometimes I realize halfway through story time that I’m still wearing my slippers. (This has happened. Twice.) Sometimes Quinn’s lunch is healthy, cut into adorable shapes and presented like a goddamn art installation, and sometimes it’s a lumpy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich laced with M&Ms, because that’s life.

Sometimes, in the quiet crevices of the day, I am very productive. I do the laundry, clean the house, respond to all of my emails, work on my stories, nurse the tiny nugget of a novel lingering in the back of my brain, and get stuff done. Other times, I putz and putter and procrastinate. I start a million projects, all at once, or I start nothing at all and watch terrible reality TV with my laptop open and unused beside me. But it’s fine, because isn’t that how some days are for everyone? And besides, no one’s watching. Or listening. Or judging.

Until now. Welcome to quarantine.

My husband is a high-school English teacher, which means he’s currently — God bless him — trying to get a bunch of second-semester seniors to read Don Quixote remotely. He’s doing this from his office on the first floor of our house. He has a few Zoom and Google Hangout sessions sprinkled throughout the day, but a lot of his new workweek is spent posting assignments, communicating with kids via email, and grading. This means his office door can mostly stay open, and he can pop out to help with things like lunch (his PBJs aren’t lumpy) and naptime, or to distract Quinn for a few minutes so I can go to the bathroom without a toddler driving a garbage truck over my knees.

While his proximity is comforting, it’s also disconcerting. Justin’s a very involved, amazing dad. He’s patient and loving and also somewhat rigid. (Goldfish are never for breakfast; bedtime is always 8 p.m.) But the Monday-through-Friday slog calls for a particular style of parenting — it’s pick-your-battles survival mode, and Goldfish for breakfast isn’t always a fight worth picking.

This is somehow different from weekends, or even the summer, when Justin is home more often. Weekends, you can tag-team; summer carries a certain levity. You don’t want to wear pants? Okay! You want Dad to make frozen waffles for breakfast every morning? Sure! But the new normal of coronavirus lies somewhere in the middle. It’s like we’ve skidded into a bizarre prolonged summer, or into that hazy week between Christmas and New Year’s, when everyone is home and each day is indistinguishable from the next.

Only we’re not there, of course. And my husband is here, but only halfway. For a good part of the day, while he’s trying to teach five classes from a laptop, he has to be a spectator. And the way you live your life — how you navigate the push-pull balance of parenting, how you approach your work, how you spend your downtime — never comes into sharper focus than when someone else is watching you.

“I have my routine, and now I feel like somebody’s watching my back,” says my friend Jane, a stay-at-home mom whose husband now works surrounded by a princess tent and spiky piles of Barbie shoes. “It sounds weird, but I like my privacy.”

But what does privacy in a committed relationship look like, and did we give up the expectation of it when we signed on for this whole living-together thing? Apparently not.

While giving us unlikely heroes (and villains) and highlighting the best (and worst) of our world, the pandemic has also shifted the way we think about space: how much we need to keep between us (six feet), how little we actually require to do our jobs (many people are speculating that COVID-19 will permanently change working patterns, which could lead to companies abandoning corporate offices for virtual setups); how we can maximize it (makeshift hospitals have been set up in sports stadiums, hotels and convention centers), and how much we value it.

I’ve let my husband bear witness to the most intimate moments of my life, but God forbid he ever sees me standing at the refrigerator eating shredded cheese out of a bag when I should be working.

I guess I didn’t realize how much I value my own space and privacy until I didn’t have it in the same way anymore. I’ve let my husband bear witness to the most intimate moments of my life — holding my hair back as I threw up throughout my pregnancy, watching as I delivered Quinn, not to mention all the other little indignities that come with sharing a home — but God forbid he ever sees me standing at the refrigerator eating shredded cheese out of a bag when I should be working.

On the sixth day of quarantine, I was on my hands and knees with a roll of blue painter’s tape, outlining a very complicated highway system on the floor.

“Bringing out the big guns already?” my husband said nonchalantly as he walked out of his office to grab a glass of water between Zoom meetings.

“We always do stuff like this,” I lied. Sure, Quinn and I do plenty of creative things — music classes, kiddie museums, field trips to local construction sites, library visits, art projects. One time, his preschool teacher mentioned “sensory play,” and I dumped an entire box of quinoa onto the floor, which was a terrible idea because have you ever tried to clean up quinoa? (“Oof, yeah, should’ve used macaroni,” the teacher said when I told her.) But if I’m being honest with myself, this specific creative thing was done to show off: Look at what a good mom I am! See how many things I juggle! Look how hard this is!

Now more than ever — because we’ve had to mix our daily routines into one big fishbowl, and because I’m feeling especially helpless — I’m anxious to justify my stay-at-home role. I don’t have to: Justin gets it, appreciates it. But it still doesn’t hurt to let him watch me build I-95 in the middle of our house.

Living and working together has made it easy for all of us to be productivity judges: Why are you doing this and not that? When will you be finished? How do you work this way? This is particularly sticky for us, because my husband and I have completely different working habits. He divides his tasks into manageable chunks and dutifully chips away, sitting upright at his desk, a jar of red pens sprouting like a bouquet of roses in front of him. In college, he once told me, he finished assignments days before they were due. I waited to begin 10-page papers until the night before and then worked until morning, propelled by caffeine pills, fruit snacks and panic.

I still work at weird times — usually in the middle of the night, when my mind is clear and the world is quiet — and in weird places: crouched on the floor, kneeling at our dining room table, sitting cross-legged on a couch, on a chair, on the floor, on a bed. I write anywhere but at my desk, which I bought in a desperate attempt to force myself to work like my husband, who can concentrate for hours without once pacing the room or getting up to get a snack or cleaning grout with a Q-tip or taking a BuzzFeed quiz to see what cat breed matches his personality. (I’m Siamese. I hate cats.)

But in our quarantine fishbowl, my husband has a front-row seat to the weird ways I spend my time. “Just sit down and write!” he’ll say, hands splayed at his temples. I’ll snap at him for being on my case and spying on me, he’ll snap at me for cleaning grout instead of writing, and then we’ll both stomp off angrily, surely thinking the same thing: When will this be over?

This frustration spills out most in the two-hour window between dinner and bath time, which has become a family shoot-around with a Little Tikes basketball hoop — a concerning development, as I hate basketball almost as much as I hate cats. It’s all orchestrated by Quinn, a squat little dictator who solemnly distributes the balls and tells us when to dunk, dribble and shoot. In the face of a pandemic, these casual shoot-arounds have turned into a serious affair. Justin has marked the court with painter’s tape. We have the free-throw line, the three-point line, and something called the paint.

While Quinn tosses a ball around obliviously, Justin and I play aggressively. I shoot; he knocks my ball out of the way with grim ferocity. I play offense, driving an elbow into his shoulder. When Justin’s ball swishes in, and it mostly does, he shouts obnoxiously, Quinn shrieks with delight — How seriously they’re taking my game! — and I mutter “Whatever” under my breath. It’s not a good look for either of us. I’m sure Quinn will someday talk about it in therapy.

“Show me how to do it, then!” I yelled on the 15th night of quarantine, when my 10th ball bounced off the rim. And for a moment, there was a ceasefire. My husband stood next to me, showing me how one hand is the guiding hand, how you shoot the ball softly (“not like a rocket”), how there should be a flick of the wrist, and how, if it’s a good shot, the ball should swish into the net with a whisper.

“You’re a really good teacher,” I finally said as he repositioned my grip on the ball. “Basketball, but the other stuff, too.” Maybe, I realized, as my husband was watching us, he was half-hoping we’d be watching him, too — the way he’s so patient with his students, the way they respect him. I shot again and again. Sometimes the ball bounced in with a bang — never a whisper — and sometimes it didn’t, but my husband doled out patient advice, Quinn offered up a chorus of cheers, and for a night, I thought maybe we’d all make it out of this in one piece.

Maybe, I realized, as my husband was watching us, he was half-hoping we’d be watching him, too.

On the 19th day of quarantine, I woke up tired. I’d been up late writing, kneeling in my son’s teepee. When I came downstairs, Justin handed me a cup of coffee. He didn’t ask what time I came up to bed. We work differently, but we’re both stuck in the same fishbowl now. Maybe I’ll try to start writing at my desk. Couldn’t hurt. And maybe he’ll stop raising an eyebrow when I let Quinn eat Goldfish for breakfast.

On the 21st day of quarantine, I played basketball with Quinn while Justin graded essays in his office. Quinn ran circles around me, demanding three-pointers. I tried to follow Justin’s advice — flick of the wrist, soft hands. I missed the first seven or eight shots, and then, finally, I hit one. Maybe my husband heard it, but he probably didn’t, because the ball went in with a whisper.

Swish.

Published as “Love and Basketball” in the May 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.