Presence is a privilege

Dave Algoso
6 min readMar 9, 2022

In January, at the height of the omicron surge, our kid’s school was shut down for the third time in as many months. Our four-year-old was initially excited: more time to play with mom and dad! Her hopes were dashed when she remembered that being home during the week wasn’t the same as the weekends. School might be shut, but mom and dad still had work.

We spent the days trading off who would keep her occupied, with one of us tagging in on a board game as the other rushed to join their next call. We replied to slack messages on our phones while reading Dory Fantasmagory, or plopped her in front of another episode of Dinosaur Train so we could send an email. After she went to bed, we pulled a second (third? fourth?) shift to keep projects moving.

Even if we managed to squeeze enough work-hours out of the day, the switching was exhausting.

Fortunately my clients and collaborators are all amazing and understanding of the pressures that come with pandemic parenting (many are parents themselves). The week was a blur but one meeting when the child came running in stands out. My wife tried to intervene, but with a strong-willed kid, it’s often easiest to just let her look at the boxes of people on the screen until she gets bored and wanders off.

No one on the call minded the interruption. They took a moment to say hi, then went on with the conversation. But my train of thought was completely derailed. My brain had switched from “professional facilitator” to “dad mode”—those aren’t actually so far off from each other, but they’re enough different that it took me five minutes to get my head back on track.

The last two years have shaken how many of us work. More remote, less travel, more screen time, less childcare, more nights at home, less time with friends or extended family.

Those shifts have affected all of us differently. Some never had the privilege to work from home, so they had to choose between their health and their job. Some (usually mothers) had to quit jobs to be the sole caregivers, because their partners didn’t have the flexibility to trade off childcare or eldercare throughout the day.

Others were never much concerned with the pandemic in the first place, and maybe lived in areas where most people thought like them, so they made fewer shifts—maintained “normal” lives, as they might say.

As a combination of vaccine uptake and weariness has shifted the dominant political mood (at least, here in the United States) toward that desire for “normal”, I’m trying to shed my own anxieties about having a kid who’s too young to be vaccinated but old enough that she needs social interactions. And as organizations start looking at real-life gatherings again, I’m trying to figure out how to bring in-person facilitation back into my practice, in light of those anxieties.

But more broadly, I’m wrestling with how the legacy of switching stays with us all—even those without kids at home. Beyond childcare and before COVID, we’ve all been doing too much switching: from twitter to facebook to slack to email; from one meeting to the next; from one all-consuming news story (new variant!) to the next (Russia invades Ukraine!).

The effects of this show up in my professional life: I’m less focused, for fewer hours in the day, and more exhausted at the end of it—even on days when our kid is in school. And I see the effects walking around my neighborhood: drivers barreling through red lights or speeding down residential streets, distracted by their phones or simply too agitated by life to care about anyone else.

I think about what this looks like multiplied across millions of people. What it means for our information consumption and susceptibility to polarization or disinformation. What it means for our civic institutions and ability to work together in addressing community problems. What it means for our mental and physical health, our relationships with our families, the future prospects for our kids.

The White House calls this a “national mental health crisis”—pointing to evidence that the pandemic has left us with collective trauma. Their strategy calls for a range of new responses, starting with increasing the availability of behavioral and mental health services. Beyond the White House, society’s best advertised response seems to be a set of new startups providing therapy and mindfulness. Such services are invaluable. And they have always been under-provided and under-utilized, due to stigmas around mental health.

But if we’re facing a new mental health crisis, it’s not (only) because we lacked care but rather because something is making us unhealthy. The White House’s strategy points to social media, especially its effects on kids and some policies for restricting ad targeting. Republican leaders seem to think the problem is that everyone’s worrying too much—“living in fear” as they would put it—and that saying everything’s fine with COVID will make everyone feel fine. I suspect the cognitive dissonance will have the opposite effect.

There’s an academic discourse around what are called social determinants of mental health, including how factors like poverty, housing, technology, green spaces, and racism shape mental health. The concept makes intuitive sense but gets little play in popular discourse, beyond the dimensions related to toxic work cultures, social media, or intergenerational trauma—all important, but only narrow expressions of a larger problem.

We have the society-wide version of a massive chemical spill, but we’re treating it like everyone just mysteriously got cancer at the same time.

Thinking about social determinants requires us to think in systems and beyond disciplinary boundaries, neither of which are things we do naturally or easily. It means going beyond even our local social circumstances to consider the political and economic determinants, which are well beyond what we can or should expect mental health providers to tackle.

Part of the challenge is the lack of a common language for this. In my own life, I don’t think in terms of “social determinants” or even mental health (possibly a generational legacy of failing to appreciate its importance). Where I feel this most is in the ability to be present, both for my family or in professional settings.

The last two years have taught me that presence is a privilege: I can better facilitate a meeting when I don’t have a child bursting into the room (or, earlier in my career, when I didn’t have a child at all). I can think clearly through the next steps in a project when I got enough sleep the night before. I can build a really awesome cardboard castle with my kid when I know I’m not checking my phone out of fear that I won’t be able to finish my work later. And I can get daily errands done, when mask mandates make it safe to bring my kid to the grocery store (which she loves).

Four-year-old looking out across a lake
Also a privilege: going for a walk in the park during a school shutdown.

I can’t do any of these things if I’m constantly switching between work and family. Or if I’ve got a knot in my stomach because a driver almost hit my kid on the walk to school. Or if I’ve just spent another hour on the phone arguing with the health insurance company or some other faceless corporation squeezing profits out of its customers while cowering behind helpless call-center staff.

Others face far worse versions of this: I’ve seen colleagues so shaken by a recent hate crime or police violence against their community that they needed to reschedule meetings and take a day, or at least ground themselves for a moment before they could focus on the task at hand.

The ability to be present for one another is a privilege that everyone should enjoy. It will make us each individually healthier (mentally and physically) and will make us all collectively better (at our work, at supporting one another, at building the kind of society we want). But we can’t get there by addressing the symptoms.