More and more of us these days are finding ways to stay at home. And once upon a time, the opportunity of staying at home to WORK and earn a living was a new concept that I can call nothing less than a God-send for me.
I made the transition to work from home in 1999. At that time, my career was going full-throttle. I had a secure full-time job that I was pretty good at. I knew my business ins and outs very well. And our company, while not free to be boundless in creativity due to a surplus of capital, was at least adventurous and young enough and seeking out the techie options to be among the first to move key employees off-site to home, rather than risk losing them because of transitions in life.
So when my daughter Emma was born, I was a delighted new Mom, and the way was paved for me to keep my responsibilities at work, keep my paycheck, keep my position, keep my mental engagement, AND be home with my new baby all the time. By phone and email and the amazing ability to run reports and print them out an arm's reach from my more-than-capable assistant who stayed in the office, I had the best of both worlds: stay at home mom and career manager of a business I loved.
Now, 13 and a half years and three more kids later, I still work from home. But the job has changed and the circumstances have changed. The older kids are busy and in school now (after a VERY difficult season of trying to homeschool three at one time, with different learning styles and different attitudes, and my own sense of purpose and optimism eroding day by day, until eventually, it became clear to me I was not equipped to both teach adequately and enjoy life with my children in that context. Now I consider a college-prep, academically sound, well-integrated K-12 Christian school to be the God-send). I am no longer in a management position because the division of the company I started with has been sold, and subsequently, shut down. I now do pure editorial work, and that means very little interaction with the others on my team. A conference call twice a week and a few well-focused emails are the limit of our interaction.
The gilded memory of the first work-from-home situation has certainly tarnished for me. And the days that pass in this very same context, this same house with these same drapes and these same dull views, the vacant houses (because all their tenants are at work or school), the empty streets, the quiet hum of hot water heater and gas logs...the days are heavy. And the days are lonely. The gilded option of the early stay-at-home pioneer, the woman who could do it all, is replaced with the weight of the lost community. With forced isolation.
I am lonely.
It's more than a state of mind, I think. Though I do not deny that I am at once hereditarily programmed, personally hard-wired, and environmentally conditioned to need human interaction more than some of you do, I say that and simultaneously adhere fully to the Both/And principle here: I need interaction. It's a condition that can be mitigated somewhat by training the mind to accept circumstances, but I do not believe it can be completely affected. There's a human need for community and common purpose. And that community and commonness of purpose is absent for me. The fuel I need to work well by myself is inadequate to keep me feeling engaged and content in isolation.
I have temporarily suspended the use of social media for this first month of the New Year (if it takes that long), because I need to accomplish some pretty big deadlines: a magazine to get to the printer and a major essay to write. I also hope to establish some good sleep patterns for myself, so that I am better able to make use of my time as well as cope with the ups and downs of life. But the distracting buzz of the Facebook News Feed in the background was the closest thing available, I think, to offer a counterpart to the footsteps from the office next door to the break room, or the sound of the other young person tromping down the hall and leaping to smack the EXIT sign before bounding down the stairs from my hall dorm to the student lounge below. Activity buzz from the past, pleasantly distracting and letting me know that I was still part of the world, even if moderately sequestered at the time.
So today, it sunk in. This creeping feeling of being closed off from the world around me, here in this one spot for most of the day, pressing keys clackety-clack on the laptop that applies less than two pounds of pressure to my thighs. My senses are underused. Seven billion people in the world, and how many will I see or talk to today? Tomorrow?
I sent out a call for help: the silent dispatching of a single email with three recipients generated one very alive phone call from my emergency first-responder. God, thank you for that. The apocalypse has not happened. There's still life out there, at least in Alabama. I'm no Legend and neither, really, is my friend in Alabama (though I suppose that depends on who you ask), but the relief of a friendly human voice who either really likes me or does a great job of pretending he does so stoked me back up to stable status and the ability to rise, stretch, pace a little, and find a reason to put on some lipstick and run a comb through the Merida-like locks that hadn't had such treatment yet today.
So, I realized it. I truly have it: the stay-at-home blues. I don't know that this will work for me forever. It filled a need for a season, but it became such a phenomenom that now, most workplaces actively seek for ways to keep their employees off site. Cut the rent. Cut the overheads. Shrink the parking lots. Reduce the coffee and bottled-water bills. And for some, it's a perfect arrangement. The work attire budget shrinks as does the gas-tank budget. The flexibility to manage hours around kids' schedules and to run errands during the work day can be a plus, as is moving a load of dirty laundry from the washer to the dryer at lunchtime, or taking a run mid-day without having to worry about offending with the odor or image of old sweat afterward. But I don't think I can do it. I need the vibrant interaction and the changing scenery of being out and among others.
For me, life opened up when I went to college. Lonely and always feeling a little like I didn't belong in the social circles of my preteen and teen years, I took on a challenging major in college that thrust a select number of us into tight quarters for most of our days and nights. I was desperately busy and confined primarily to one of two major spaces: my own drawing board in the studio, overlooking the drawing boards of dozens of others with whom I shared triangles and fine-quality pencil pointers and erasers often singing out loud together to the music the first arrival set to play when the hands on the clock reached 5:30 and our profs headed home to leave us to burn the midnight oil. Or I was in my own dorm room. There I worked on the floor facing the open door that led to the hall where traffic regularly tromped by, popping in for a hello or an invitation from time to time.
After college, I transferred much of that same type of environment to the workplace. Again, a desk or an office in the middle of the flow of other purposeful traffic. Life was whirling by, and my work was accomplished independent of but fully integrated with other people. Even if we didn't exchange much in the way of conversation at times, there was the implied community of individuals working toward a common goal, and needing the work of each other to get there. It was alive and vibrant. And life here at home is not.
At least today I came to understand why I have such difficulty staying here with only myself for company most of the time. At least the reason for my lack of contentment is identified. But don't be surprised if it's not too long before you see me, desperately crying out at the door of some office somewhere, like a farm cat climbing a screen, demanding, "Let me in! Let me in! I will work for fellowship!"