I’m Also the Lunch Lady

Buckled into my window seat in coach, I took a deep breath and ran through my to do list in my head. It had been a whirlwind of a day already. After spending the morning preparing for the upcoming product launch event in Germany, I navigated New York traffic, crawled through airport security, and raced to the gate. Crap! I had forgotten to add lunch money to my kids’ online school accounts. I grabbed my phone, opened the handy My School Bucks app, and replenished funds for all three, a minor working mother achievement before takeoff.  

Fast-forward six years and the world has turned on its head. I haven’t used the My School Bucks app in ten months. First of all, who’s traveling? Secondly, my kids have shifted to virtual school from home. Finally — and here’s the clincher — now I’m also the lunch lady.

I’m not a particularly skilled chef, but I’m leaning into the task, finding joy in creative sandwich making and the unexpected, precious time with my youngest son, ten-years-old and, for now, happy to hang with mom for a few minutes in the middle of a school day.

Of all the many changes COVID-19 has inflicted on our world, this is certainly among the least important. This pandemic has closed schools, grounded planes, upended proms and weddings, and changed how we work, learn, celebrate, and interact. Most of all, of course, this is a horrific global health crisis, now with more than 100 million confirmed cases and over two million deaths worldwide. These numbers are staggering and difficult to fathom.

During this trying year we have also witnessed extraordinary heroism and innovation. Front line healthcare workers have borne the brunt of the response, risking their own health and safety to care for the ill. Teachers have adopted new approaches for remote education to keep our children learning. Essential workers who have manned grocery stores and delivered packages have allowed others to stay home to minimize transmission and exposure.

Scientists have worked tirelessly to understand the virus and identify treatments in record time. Over 100,000 scientific papers have been published about COVID-19 this past year, representing about 4% of the world’s research output. Massive trusted datasets from the WHO and the CDC have been made easily accessible for querying through dashboards and interactive tracking with helpful visualizations of hot spots and the spread of COVID-19. Instead of what would typically be a ten-year-plus effort, pharmaceutical companies have created, tested, and rolled out COVID-19 vaccines in under a year. Now more than 90 million vaccine doses have been administered across 62 countries.

Like most companies, IBM shifted to support remote work in response to the pandemic. At our IBM Research headquarters in New York, where cases rose sharply in March 2020, we reduced on-site staff by 90% and made significant changes to the site and work practices to ensure the safety of the essential workers still going to the lab. Ours is a worldwide organization, with 3,000 researchers spread across over a dozen locations, each at a different stage of the pandemic. As a global community of scientists, we’ve been used to collaborating across disciplines, cultures, and time zones. But COVID-19 took things to the next level, forcing many to juggle new family and health pressures. Researchers exceeded our expectations, rallying together to innovate, including building essential tools and technologies to help address the coronavirus crisis.

For me, the switch to remote work eliminated my commute and travel in exchange for endless video conferences. I usually log on in the early morning to connect with colleagues in Europe and Africa, and I work with others in California and Brazil later in the day. We use Slack and WebEx, email and texts, blogs and videos, town halls, roundtables, and virtual happy hours to stay connected. And I do feel connected to colleagues around the world — perhaps more so than ever before. We’re living through extraordinary times, and I’m convinced these challenges and shared experiences are building bonds that will last.  

When we went into hard quarantine in March 2020, I also became the lunch lady. And the hairdresser. And the IT support technician, dog groomer, house cleaner, assistant teacher, and handywoman for our family of five. I had previously “outsourced” these tasks in an attempt to optimize my time and attention on family and work. That was the most common advice from mentors and friends: Ruthlessly prioritize! Don’t let others dictate how you use your time! Your time is a reflection of your priorities! With the help of YouTube videos that showed me how to properly caulk the space between the kitchen sink and counter, trim my son’s unruly hair, and upgrade our home Wi-Fi network, I’ve acquired some new skills.

The start of our lunch-together-at-home routine didn’t go so well. My ten-year-old and I spent nearly all of our half-hour break debating what to make. No, he wasn’t in the mood for tuna. No, we were out of green grapes. No, he didn’t want leftovers. “That’s it!” I declared, fed up. “From here on out — I decide. I know what you like. I know what we have. I’m the lunch lady.” Since then, things have gone pretty smoothly. I pop off of my video conferences to make lunch, and we eat together — talking about his classes, his fantasy football picks, whatever is on our minds. Recently he asks about my blog. My older son usually pokes his head into the kitchen between his online high school classes to check in with us, grabbing a bite of his brother’s sandwich. Before, I rarely saw my kids on a workday from an early-morning wave goodbye to a late-evening return home. Now there are some beautiful moments, some silver linings, and for that I am thankful. But I could still use some new lunch ideas. And I’d be happy to outsource the toilet cleaning.

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