It is OK to say “I need to cancel” in the middle of a pandemic

This is your official permission slip to stop in the middle of anything you’re doing while working from home and say, “I have to go.”

That’s all you have to say.  Add “I’ll catch up later” if you want to set expectations. Then disconnect and do the thing.

Let me explain.

I don’t work from home on an everyday basis, but I do work from home quite a lot. If it’s my scheduled day, it’s because I like to work from home and I feel more productive here. Sometimes, it’s because I physically feel like crap but mentally I can work… I just don’t have the spoons necessary to both drive to work and actually get any work done.

If I’m out for a significant amount of time — a week or two or three — it’s usually because my husband’s Cystic Fibrosis is flaring up.  I’m in my home office, doing my job… but I’m also keeping a half an eye on the household. On “good” days that means I’m mostly just letting dogs in and out a dozen times so he can sleep. On bad days, I’m helping him set up an IV run,  ensuring we both eat something, ensuring he’s taking drugs on time, etc. All things my employer is not paying me to do, but which have to be done, and which my husband can’t do at the time.

The biggest challenge I experience in mixing work and home is remembering that it is ok and expected to drop everything for your family.

Compartmentalizing is a human coping mechanism. It allows us to put work first when we’re at work and family first when we’re with our families.  It prevents the cognitive dissonance of believing both work and home come first at the same time. It’s pretty necessary.

Most of us can’t succeed at our jobs if we always put home first every minute of the day. (This statement null and void if your job is stay-at-home parent, and also you deserve a raise.) We have to get the work done or at some point we are probably going to have a crucial conversation with the HR department.

Simultaneously, if we always put work first, it’s a challenge to keep the household functioning. There’s a lot to be said for bonding and caring for your family. They love you and you love them, even if you don’t always see eye to eye. There’s also a lot to be said for getting the laundry done, the trash outside, and the bills paid. Living in squalor because you got that powerpoint deck done on time is not recommended.

Our kids, by the way, have the same challenges. School is for being your school self with your classroom friends and your teachers. Home is for being your home self with your chores and your neighborhood friends and your homework and your family.

Most of us compartmentalize work and home physically as well as psychologically by being in different spaces for each. In short, when we’re together at home, we think like it’s “home time” and when we’re apart, it’s “work time” or “school time”.

Then a pandemic comes along and puts work and home and school all in the same physical and cognitive space and that really does a number on our brains.

I speak from experience when I say you won’t endure this every day. In fact, you may have days on end when you can work from home with almost as little cognitive dissonance as in the office. It’s not an every-moment thing or we’d’ve all collapsed into a heap of sobs by now.

The moment will come. Probably you’ll be presenting or listening to a meeting or participating in something important to work. Someone in the family will make it clear that they need you right now and the cognitive dissonance will kick in.

Brain: I need to respond to this thing
Brain: But I’m in the middle of a meeting! I can’t just walk out of a meeting!
Brain: But they need me now!
Brain: They’ll be fine for another minute, won’t they? Kitchen’s not on fire
Brain: But the meeting isn’t important either!
Brain: But we could be fired!
Brain: But they need us now!

When this happens, stop. Say “I have to go.” Leave the meeting. No matter who it is. No matter what it’s about.

Your family comes first.

This is when the rubber hits the road, folks, not for us as the employees, but for our employers who have espoused “Family first” or “Work/Life Balance” values at us for years while simultaneously asking us if we could get that extra thing done after the kids are in bed or on the weekend or whatever. Our employers have no choice but to face the facts that the work/life balance is going to tilt in the “life” direction while we all deal with the physical, mental, and legal impacts of the social distancing, quarantines, and virus spread that’s going on.

And maybe your office isn’t pushing you too hard (mine isn’t) but you still have expectations about what you need to get done or how you need to behave during work time. I am one of those people who constantly holds herself to unreachable standards in the first place, so I’m really prone to getting angry at myself for not being able to supermom my way through the work day.

Throw your expectations of yourself at work out the window, and embrace lower expectations.

This isn’t “business as usual”. This isn’t even “working from home as usual”. This is a pandemic, and during a pandemic there is no “normal”.

Kids need our attention more during a crisis than on a standard work-from-home day. They may rationally understand that there’s a virus going around and we have to be careful not to catch it or spread it, but they may not understand how to emotionally process that. They may understand they don’t have school, but the whole “no sleepovers / no parties / no gangs of roving neighborhood kids” is weird. And while your kid(s) may be the exception, most kids don’t know how to process stress.

The CDC has information for parents on what to expect from stressed out kids, and it’s worth reading not only for parents but also what to expect from stressed-out adults. This isn’t normal, and we can’t expect that any of us will be at our best.

So please, accept this as your “get out of cognitive dissonance free” card, or your “meeting hall pass” or your “emergency escape hatch”. Whatever you need to know that it’s OK to drop everything in the middle of that meeting to go straighten out the issue taking place a room over. It’s okay. It’s expected. And it’s what we all need to prioritize right now, for our collective health.

Author: Anne Gibson

anne gibson is a Senior Staff Product Designer and General Troublemaker working on design systems from outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things. (The terriers are winning.)