Features Published 10 August 2020

The blurred boundaries of lockdown working

Poppy Burton-Morgan writes on why working from home makes it extra-important to learn how to close the door.

Poppy Burton-Morgan

“incurvatus in se” by auspices, licensed under Creative Commons

As a writer and director, I used to love the freedom and spontaneity of a freelance arts career. No two days were ever the same. I was comfortable working from home or wherever else I ended up – writing lyrics on the tube, writing a sex-scene in a hospital waiting room. When I became a mother in 2012, I joined the legions of parents who go for the relaxed approach to feeding, sleeping, playing – we were not a ‘routine’ sort of household. So I was happy to be available at all hours for quick response late-night WhatsApp messages from the costume designer, or an agent asking for their client to be released from rehearsal for an audition. It was only really stressful when work demanded a quick response mid-school-run – one producer always seemed to ring then, so I’d take my kids to the park and hide behind a tree to take his calls.

Like many people working in the arts, I used to feel sceptical about a lot of the language around boundaries. It can feel like a way of keeping people out, building walls, making barriers. And I think it’s no coincidence that many artists and creative folk have trouble with the idea of imposing boundaries because our porous open hearts and emotional sensitivity feel like integral parts of what make our work powerful or affecting.

Then lockdown happened. The prospect of any boundaries between work and home seemed to dissolve, just as I was thinking it was about time I embraced a bit more structure in my life.

I run a theatre company, Metta Theatre, jointly with my husband (designer William Reynolds), but we also have two small children. If we were going to continue working through lockdown and not kill each other or our children, we needed a schedule. So we decided that I would work 10-1 and Will would work 2-5. Vice versa for the homeschooling and playing with the kids. At first, the massive reduction in hours (I would easily work a 16 hour day outside of lockdown) was daunting, but it has proved terrifyingly productive. Having so few hours really focuses the mind to just get on with it. So the first bit of lockdown was… whisper it, kind of okay. The routines were holding everything in place, there was a shape to our days. I was mostly writing; an emergency Arts Council funding application to allow us to make three cast albums of shows we’re developing, rewriting those shows for eventual productions, and working on poems and other bits and bobs of writing just to stay creative. At 1pm I’d switch off my ipad, have lunch and spend the afternoon with the kids, feeling far more present than normal because I wasn’t responding to a million emails and messages. So structured. So effective. Living my best lockdown life. And the kids were happy too, with a structured day of homeschooling feeling comfortingly familiar in the absence of school-school.

Then things started to slip. We recorded the first album entirely in lockdown, so there were zoom rehearsals, which I could mostly schedule into my working hours. But then came questions from the studio, questions from the sound engineer. A press release to feedback on. And then the mixing process. I tried to do that work within my allocated three hours, but often it was time sensitive, so I was right back in the stressful place of hiding behind the tree to talk to the producer. Except now the tree is the downstairs loo. Some actors have voice memos from me which are predominantly my children screaming in the background. Totes profesh.

Time to reinstate those brilliantly effective early lockdown boundaries…  and create new ones. When I know I have a day that requires some quick response things in my non-work hours, the kids and I play a game. Games are good because they have clear rules (boundaries) but they’re still fun. So I have 10 lives. If I look at my phone for more than 30 seconds I lose a life. Sometimes, I really can respond in 30 secs because it’s a simple two line email. Sometimes, I sacrifice a ‘life’ because I have to listen to another mix of a track from the album, but the kids accept that and leave me be for three and a half minutes.

And I’m also starting to find it easier to say no, professionally as well as in parenting. In early lockdown, when everyone was so visibly struggling with their mental health, it felt there was a lot more compassion around people protecting the limits of their professional and emotional capacity. Everyone had so little headspace that they felt more okay about drawing a line to protect whatever headspace they did have. So I felt like I could say ‘no’ to a lot of things, especially networking-type things over zoom. The pressure on artists to always be alive to opportunities is stronger than ever, only now it’s digital. But zoom specifically fuels my stress and anxiety (I honestly never realised how technophobic I was until now) so I’ve engaged far far less with all of those ‘opportunities’ than I would have pre-lockdown. And honestly I don’t feel like I’ve missed out.

Where I still struggle is those invisible boundaries around my heart. The whole notion of leaving things ‘at the door’ becomes hard to disentangle when there is no door. And as my world has shrunk to the rooms of our home and a computer screen, so too has my capacity to manage. A single problematic negotiation with an agent feels like it’s souring an entire project. Challenging people or difficult conversations feel overwhelming, and my tendency to take things to heart, to take them inside of myself, has left me with a literal sour taste in my mouth.

But just like I’m choosing to say ‘no’ to the overwhelming myriad of zoom opportunities to protect the boundaries of my three hour working day, or resisting the urge to reply to non-time-sensitive work messages when I’m parenting, I am setting better boundaries around my heart – working harder to not take responsibility for other people’s feelings or comfort. This was a problem for me before lockdown, but the new conditions I’m working under have forced me to confront this problematic side of myself, where open-heartedness bleeds into losing sight of the boundaries that helpfully separate myself from others.

While we’re grieving for our decimated industry, for the literal loss of loved ones, and stressing about the continuous struggle to juggle work and life, the very best thing we can do is be kind to ourselves. And saying ‘no’ to things can be a great place to start. Setting healthy boundaries is a way of carving out the space for your own health and sanity, finding a way to retain your shape instead of bending or blurring it to accommodate others  – whether they’re your colleagues or your children. Creating structure for a daily meditation and gratitude practice has also been transformative for me personally, helping me build new levels of mental resilience and clarity. As we start to open our doors to the world again I only hope I hold on to some of these lessons post-lockdown, and to remember it’s still okay to sometimes shut the door.

Listen to the cast album for The Rhythmics on Spotify here

For more on parenting under lockdown, read Lucy Bell’s piece on Carers as Artists – or read Farah Najib’s No Drama Club Today, which explores the impact of school closures on kids. 

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Poppy Burton-Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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