It is 6:45 a.m. and, all still half asleep, I load my two youngest (Everett, 7, and Emersyn, 5) into the minivan. There are two other cars welcoming us as we wait for the “before school program” to open. I nervously check my watch and tap my foot, my impatience fueled by an impending 8 a.m. meeting at the office.
Great news! My meeting goes well.
Bad news — it lasted an hour longer than expected. I am now late to pick up the kids from the same spot where I dropped them off nearly 10 hours earlier. Finally, whizzing into the school parking lot, I see my kids on the playground in the distance with their frowning teacher.
They are the only children left at school.
Both kids wave excitedly. I wave back, trying to find an excuse to soften the impact of causing the teacher to stay late. I tell her, “I’m sorry.”
A feeling of failure washes over me.
Feeling fortunate to have been spared from the wrath of COVID-19, I finish a Microsoft Teams meeting, temporarily log off, and head to grab my two little ones from school. Alongside a few other “remote” working dads and moms, we watch our children spill out of the school’s gates and into each other’s arms.
It is mid-afternoon, the perfect time for a quick recharge before an evening schedule full of Zoom calls on next year’s budget. I get to hear about Emersyn’s new student and Everett’s home run in P.E. class before sinking back into my home office as they finish schoolwork.
A feeling of gratitude engulfs me.
It is mid-morning, a normal Thursday of working from home when an email lights up my inbox. The subject line is ominous: “Return to Work Update.”
I feared this day would come. Working remotely was no longer allowed by policy. All employees were to return to the office and their assigned cubicles the following Monday.
A feeling of dread crushes this day’s motivation.
Lethargy quickly turned into rage. How can anyone expect an employee to suddenly undo the two years of remote-working rhythm they’ve developed? How can “corporate” expect parents to find immediate childcare? What about the added household expenses associated with that care and transportation with a mandate to return to the office?
My outrage, though, had to be checked – there were kids that expected to see their dad after school. As I walked toward the school this day, I started to notice fewer parents mulling around than before. It turns out that nearly half of us had jobs that were now requiring work to be done in the office. I should have felt like one of the lucky ones who lasted, I guess. Instead, I felt like I’d experienced a slow fall from a picturesque cliff.
I came clean with my kids (now ages 9 and 7) right away, saying, “Hey guys, looks like I have to start working at the office again. Not sure what that means for you, but I’m working on it. Picking you up is the favorite part of my day.”
My kids looked crushed.
“Dad, why?” my daughter probed.
“Man, that sucks!” said my son, Everett, who was less eloquent but equally as distraught.
My stomach twisted. I hated that such an arbitrary rule would have an impact on my kids’ lives.
But we parents roll with the punches, right? That is what we must do – and that is what we teach our children to do in their lives. So, that evening, my wife and I talked and planned, got pissed off and cooled down, and, more than anything, just felt defeated.
I dutifully returned to work the following Monday, still searching for how to get Everett to his 6 p.m. soccer practice across town and wondering if my wife will have to quit her job given the prohibited price of childcare. I am heartbroken by this forced and unnecessary intrusion into our established new normal.
For 10 years, I have worked for a company that, I thought, cherished its people, and celebrated an employee’s ability to do the job from anywhere, anytime. I feel cheated.
Mostly, though, I feel my version of being a “present dad” has been compromised. The return to office life means I cannot pick my kids up from school anymore. They are late to virtually every afterschool commitment now. The daily grind of “wake up, hurry, drop off, work, pick up, repeat” has yielded our quick game of driveway H.O.R.S.E a distance memory.
I see my kids every day and, still, miss them all the same.
Great news: I have a job. I am grateful.
Bad news: I am filled with daily regrets about things I’m missing (again).
The return to the office, for me, is a return to regret. The kind of regret I thought had been permanently abandoned – like the idea of having to sit in a cubicle to be considered a productive employee.