As I stare down a new school year, an ordeal that will have me juggling the e-learning schedules of two young kids, a job I adore, and an increasingly cluttered house, I know what I’m going to have to do to get through it with both my career and sanity intact. It’s not going to be pretty, but it is going to work.
I’m switching time zones.
Goodbye Central Standard Time, and hello British Summer Time. Thanks for the memories, Chicago. Londoners, I’m joining your crew.
This won’t be my first trip ‘round the global clock. I’ve done it sporadically throughout my life as a writer, mostly in times of absolute panic as deadlines converge in terrifying synchrony and the only way to keep my freelance career afloat is to wake up at 3am and write like my next rent check depended on it. But this time it’s going to be different. I’m not switching my waking hours for a month so that I can use my morning-person energy to crank out a project while my American colleagues snooze. This time I’m going to do it for a whole school year.
Of course, I know this wouldn’t be the right choice — or even remotely feasible — for most folks.
I know it sounds terrible. I do. In fact, I could almost hear you groaning just now. But remember the spring, when we were all doing that impossible dance of trying to be three people at once? To be a conscientious coworker, a loving parent, and a calm, experienced educator? It was an infuriating struggle that brought out the absolute worst in me.
You see, I hate the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions at once. It’s bad enough when it’s two kids with simultaneous questions, but it’s excruciating when I’m also trying to cook, clean, and send a coherent note to an editor. When caught in that whirlwind of requirements —a kid here with a math problem, a kid there stumbling over a word, the clothes dryer buzzing, and the endless ping-ping-ping of my inbox—I start snapping at everyone. It’s ugly and I hate it. So, I’m not going to do it.
Instead, I’m going to change my own hours drastically enough to allow for a half workday each morning before my kids wake up. I won’t be able to write at my typical pace, and I’m sure my next book will take twice as long as the last one to finish, but I will have taken one heaping thing off my plate during the e-learning day. I’ll still be a mom-teacher, which is its own problematic can of worms, but it’s far better than mom-teacher-author.
The logistics are fairly simple: My alarm will go off at an ungodly hour, and I’ll be in my darkened kitchen, sipping coffee by about 3am. Once properly caffeinated, I’ll head up to my desk, where I can quietly plug away for four glorious, peaceful hours. When a kid begins to stir, I’ll close my laptop and commence with the new-normal ritual of Zoom school, tablet assignments, and masked outdoor play. After tucking my kids into bed around 7:30pm, I’ll silence my phone and climb under my own covers. If all goes according to plan, the whole family will be sawing logs by the time our street lights flicker to life.
As I said above, I recognize this is not realistic for many folks, for many reasons. Plenty of jobs require daylight hours and plenty of people need to exist on the same schedules as their neighbors. Moms are already incredibly overwhelmed with the onslaught of new COVID-related responsibilities. Suggesting that they shoulder yet another enormous task—especially something as extreme as adopting a new time zone—would be a step too far for most rational folks.
But for me? Well, it works for a few reasons. First, my job as a writer is part time and flexible. It doesn’t matter when I write, as long as I meet my publisher’s deadlines. Second, my physician husband tends to head into the hospital long before most people have even left their last REM cycle, so if anything, this shift will bring our schedules more into sync. Heck, this will probably be some of the most consistent sleep he’s gotten since med school. But the most important reason it works is that in this nightmarish hellscape of a year, I’m empowering myself to take control of something. I can’t control coronavirus or our country’s dumpster fire of a political situation, but I can control how I structure my day. By shifting my hours forward, I can ensure that I get what I need to happily function: sleep, access to a career I love, and the blissful silence I need to nurture it.
This is not a uniquely dramatic response to the upcoming school year. I’m just putting a label on what most working moms I know are already doing in one form or another. Whether working for an hour before breakfast or long into the bleary-eyed evening, it seems like we’re all trying to force our careers into the nooks and crannies found on the margins of our children’s lives. I’ve simply decided to carve out a bigger, more reliable space for mine.
My strange little system isn’t perfect. I’m starving for dinner at 3pm and end up abandoning regular mealtimes in favor of constant snacks. I run a high risk of burning out—this schedule leaves me and my husband with essentially no time to decompress at night. I can’t participate in any late-night Zoom cocktail hours, and I tend to miss out on some supremely hilarious group chats with my West Coast friends. However, in the short-term at least, the pros outweigh the cons.
Switching time zones to maintain a career during a pandemic might seem like the ultimate martyr move, but in my case, it’s not. It’s my way of prioritizing my own mental health on the eve of what’s sure to be an emotionally grueling year. I like writing. It makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I’m a better mom and friend and wife. I’m going to do what it takes to make sure I keep at it. If that means I’ve got to fire up my laptop at the same time that my friends across the pond are sitting down for their first cup of tea, then so be it.
Sure, I’m going to have a whopping case of jetlag come June. But I’ll bet you £20 I’ll have my career and sanity, too.