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I lost my identity during the pandemic—if we never completely return to the office, how will I find it again?

June 29, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC
In a sweater, jeans, and a mask, I was a generic version of a fortysomething, pandemic-era Brooklyn mom.
Courtesy of Lindsey Stanberry

I am holding tight to a deeply unpopular opinion: I want to go back to the office. And I want everyone to come back with me.

I’m fairly vocal about this opinion with the people I know and love and work with. Most think I’m crazy and many disagree with me. They’re surprised to find me aligning myself with Elon Musk and David Solomon. I guess I’m more surprised that I’m so alone in the desire to be back.

I’m well aware of all the reasons why no one else is interested—though some excuses are more valid than others: The pandemic isn’t over; childcare is unpredictable; the commute is terrible; a typical nine-to-five day at the office isn’t sustainable for working parents; the pets will miss us; work clothes are uncomfortable; and people are more productive at home—to name just a few. 

I get it. But I don’t like it. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s inertia that’s keeping us all from putting on some hard pants and resuming our daily commutes. Yes, we just spent the last two-plus years proving that we could successfully work from home, but those were extraordinary years. Arguably, we had no other choice. Even those among us who never, ever want to step into an office again can likely agree that the last two years absolutely sucked.

There’s a deeply personal reason why I want to go back to the office. It’s selfish, but I don’t care. I feel like I lost a piece of my identity in the pandemic—the busy, thriving editor and New Yorker who had a packed calendar and plenty of reasons to throw on a dress and a cute pair of shoes. I’m worried that I won’t truly find myself again if I have to work from home for the rest of my life.

I think a lot about life before the pandemic, and I marvel at all I used to get done. How did I do it all? Will I ever be that successful again?

In the spring of 2018, I joined a moms running group in an effort to train for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. I had a full-time job and a 2-year-old, and it seemed like a good way to both exercise and make some new friends.

On the first run through Prospect Park, another mother asked me, “Do you work?”

Did I work? Oh yes, I worked. And in many ways, I was defined by that work. That spring I was putting the finishing touches on a book I was writing, as well as working full-time as an editor at Refinery29, managing a small team of writers, and running the wildly popular franchise Money Diaries. I worked. And I loved it.

In the summer of 2018, I also managed to squeeze in a monthlong sabbatical that included two weeks in Cape Cod with my kid. It was nice to have the time off, but it was by no means a vacation, especially all that time without full-time childcare. By the end of the two weeks, I was sure I was not fit to be a stay-at-home mom. As much as I loved my child, it was time for the toddler to go back to day care. And for me to go back to the office.

It’s a funny thing becoming a mother. Your identity changes, you add an additional descriptor to your bio: woman, friend, wife, daughter, writer, editor, mom. And while your world expands in so many amazing ways, it also becomes narrower, more regulated. I was probably overcompensating that year, to prove to myself that I could do it all, that the rest of my identity wouldn’t be erased now that I was also a mother. 

Of course I wouldn’t have been able to work like this without the support network I carefully built around me. My husband is a capable dad with a somewhat flexible work schedule. My mother lived nearby and provided a huge amount of childcare. We had a great day care and a very good house cleaner. I had an accommodating boss who was also a friend and a mother. My child was healthy, and so was I. It was thrilling to do it all, even if it was exhausting. I was happy—at least that’s how I remember it.

Fast-forward to spring 2020, when the support network crumbled as the pandemic forced everyone home. Suddenly, my husband and I were doing all the childcare and the housework and still working full-time jobs. I was in a newish role that came with a lot of responsibilities. I had a team of young reporters who were also struggling to navigate a very scary time while showing up every day to report on the dramatic ways the world was changing.

I can make this work for two weeks to flatten the curve, I thought. Or a month. Or three. Spring dragged into summer, and we left the city for the beach, expanding our tiny circle of three to include my parents and finally getting some childcare help. Those days all blur together, a never-ending loop of Zoom meetings and editing and trying to find new ways to entertain a lonely 3-year-old. Cooking dinner, reading the news, deciding where to donate money to alleviate some of the guilt I felt being safe and employed and living in a vacation town while the world around us seemed to be ending.

It was the fall of 2020 when I first felt myself disappearing. Most days, I only left the house for the 20 minute walk to my kid’s pre-K. With a mask on, a basic blue Everlane anorak, skinny jeans, and Saucony sneakers, I was a generic version of a fortysomething Brooklyn mom. That persona I had so painstakingly crafted for myself—ambitious journalist ready to take on the world with child and husband in tow—was slowly eroding away. I didn’t feel important or special anymore. I felt like just another harried mom struggling to manage childcare, housework, and a job. All the things that made the hard work worthwhile—the events, the after-work drinks, the gossip, and occasional bit of intrigue—were gone.

When I wasn’t masked, my face was reflected back at me on my computer screen as I spent four, five, six hours a day on video calls. Is that how I really look, I wondered. Where did those wrinkles come from? Why does my hair look like that? And do I really look so tired in real life? While other editors I worked with showed up to meetings with fresh blowouts and full faces of makeup, I struggled to put on a different sweater from the one I wore the day before. Who cares? I did not.

When I wasn’t masked, my face was reflected back at me on my computer screen as I spent four, five, six hours a day on video calls.

Somewhere around the year mark, as we excitedly rushed to book vaccine appointments, I held out hope that this might be the end of the pandemic. Thankfully my child returned to school in fall 2020, but that didn’t mean work returned to normal. But with vaccines, I thought maybe we could lose the masks and quit the Zooms. Come back to the office and resume normal life. I could once again rebuild my support network and get back to trying to do it all.

But summer brought us the Delta variant, and just as soon as we took off our masks, we put them back on again. The Zooms continued with my sad, tired face reflected back at me, counting down the hours of each workday, wondering what had happened to my ambition.

Over the past nine months, I’ve fought so hard to shake off that gloom and find myself again. A new job helped some. Plus a new network of working-mom friends who understand the pains of the past two years. And while my weekends now feel more and more like “before times” with brunches and birthday parties, the workweek doesn’t feel much different than fall 2020.

For me, there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s outstanding—a true return to the office.

And yet no one else wants to go back. My Twitter feed is filled with people trumpeting all the benefits of working from home, but no one talks about the drawbacks. 

On the days I work from home, I frequently start at 5:30 a.m. rushing to bang out some edits before my colleagues sign on and the Slack notifications pile up. I break for a shower and to take my kid to school, back by 8:30 to sit at my tiny desk in my bedroom and rush through a busy workday, pausing only to reheat my coffee for the hundredth time and make small talk with my husband, who works from the living room. I love him, but even after working side by side for 24 months, I’m sure he doesn’t know the names of all my coworkers and isn’t able to really engage in any meaningful gossip.

When I’m not in a meeting, I look around my apartment to see it crowded with examples of how I’m not a perfect homemaker and mother: clothes left on the drying rack that need to be put away; a pile of dirty plates that needs to be loaded into the dishwasher; crumbs around the toaster that need to be swept up; a dirty bathroom sink that needs to be scrubbed. When my kid arrives home at 5:30 p.m., I do my best to pull myself away from my laptop, to refocus on my homelife. After 12 hours of work, it’s time to do my other job.

After 12 hours of work, it’s time to do my other job.

But, oh! The days when I go to the office, I have an excuse to choose an outfit, to put on a pair of shoes that have been languishing in my closet for two years, to swipe on some blush and mascara, and be transformed into an ambitious working girl that Melanie Griffith would admire. Yes, the commute is sometimes terrible, but it’s also a rare quiet moment alone to read emails or a book or just think, and there’s fresh-brewed Starbucks on the other side and a friendly security guard to wish you good morning as you swipe your badge into the building. 

On the best days, a few other people show up, and we get to have in-person meetings where we don’t have to log into Zoom. We can chitchat for a bit about the new Top Gun movie, and no one worries about trying to unmute before they speak. I don’t have to see my reactions reflected back to me on my laptop screen. I get a chance to spend time with people who see me as a journalist first. And it feels good.

Even on the worst days, when no one else comes in and I still have to Zoom all day, at least I’m wearing nice clothes, and I don’t feel compelled to fold laundry between meetings.

For me, a true return to the office would signal a return to normal. I’m not sure it will ever happen. The labor market is too tight, say some experts. That ship has sailed, say others. You only want to go back because you’re an extrovert and a manager, say my skeptical colleagues. Maybe that’s part of it. But in my heart, I know the truth: The office is a place where I’m my best self—ambitious and interesting and talented and more than just a mom. And if the office goes away, who am I? I’m kind of afraid to find out.

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