Friday, May 13, 2016

Home Work

The other day an elephant watched me as I worked, its fuzzy gray trunk resting atop the table, its unblinking eyes gazing vaguely in my direction while I typed. Last week an inanely smiling purple cow sat in the elephant’s place, seemingly laughing at me – a reminder, perhaps, to not take myself too seriously. Some days there is a Lego brigade of emergency vehicles – fire trucks and police cars and rescue vans – lined up at some cordoned-off crash scene across the room.

These are things a person who absconds to a more traditional office will likely never encounter while settling into a work day. Sometimes they are a hindrance to my work, a reminder that I will have to pester the kids when they come home to pick up yesterday’s mess, or this morning’s, let alone whatever clutter develops today. But these things are also a reminder of why I am here, working at the dining room table of my home rather than at a desk in an office somewhere else. I’m pretty sure there’s no place else I’d rather be.

My life changed in many ways when I became a parent. One of those was that I replaced the unpredictable schedule of a small town reporter with the equally hectic, but very different, world of caring for two newborns. For a while I was almost completely lost in mothering twins, then another baby two years later. There are chunks of time during those first years I simply do not remember. But amid the relative chaos I started to seek – and slowly find – work as a freelance writer.

At first, it was the occasional article for a special section of the newspaper, then press releases and other copy-writing for area businesses, and eventually a book and some sporadic magazine work. By the time my youngest was born, I was busy enough to be working at the keyboard while she slept in a sling wrapped around my torso. Not ideal for physical comfort, but being able to do work beyond changing diapers and feed small children – while still being around to change diapers and feed children – was important to me. It was essential to holding on to that part of myself that exists beyond the Mom Realm.

Once upon a time, I was the kid who needed absolute quiet to do her homework; if my brother’s music in the next room was barely audible, I couldn’t concentrate. In college, I kept my tiny dorm room tidy to bolster my focus. Any semblance of neat-freakness I once had, however, disintegrated with the arrival of children in my life. Keeping track of myself is one thing, managing three other beings – and all their stuff – is a whole different animal.

These days I typically set up shop at the dining room table, smack dab in the center of my family’s bustling activity. I try to make sure the breakfast dishes are put away and the table-cum-desk brushed of crumbs before I bring the kids to school so that I can get right to work as soon as I return. I’ve become pretty good at tuning out the hum of the dishwasher and the snoring of the dog. The dust bunnies don’t bother me if I focus on the notes in front of me.

Still, it is sometimes hard to fully concentrate on the task at hand when that task is surrounded by a home full of other tasks to do. It’s also not ideal – for any of us – to have my books and piles of notes scattered across the table, the kitchen counter, the dining room chairs.

A couple of years ago I spent a good bit of time and effort organizing my neglected home office. And for a while I worked there, where the biggest distractions were the view of the sun peaking over Mt. Washington in the quiet early morning hours and the fact that my coffee maker was two stories down.

Gradually, I stopped going to the third-floor office, for a few reasons. It’s hot up there in summer and really cold in winter. And the old dog won’t climb the stairs with me anymore. I’ve become accustomed to her company, even if that company is mostly sighing snores as she naps nearby. She also has a knack for interrupting me with a beseeching take-me-for-a-walk look at the very moment I need such an interruption.

Alas, I am preparing to return to the upstairs office, relocated now to the side of the house without a mountain view, to a space that has served during our time here as a cluttered and rarely used guest room, storage of extraneous stuff, and the kids’ playroom. Now it is a place where I can spread out notes and not have to gather them into a pile and hide them away before dinner.

I like the idea of the office as a place I can be focused and serious when I need to be. The call of household chores will be quieter in this space, tucked away in the top corner of the house. There will be no silly purple cow laughing at me from the next chair over. But it’s good to know the dining room table will be here, with its familiar grooves and divots, its skim of crumbs leftover from breakfast, surrounded by reminders of both work and home – and all the ways they are intertwined.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 13, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

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