Smart Work Story With Writer Tara Mandarano
Tara is a single mother with a seven-year-old daughter living north of Toronto. Becoming a parent was a huge transition, and in the year following the birth of her daughter, she experienced both postpartum depression and anxiety. Writing, both as a career and a passion, gave her the opportunity to work through her mental health experiences, and she has continued to pursue freelancing in an effort to be there for herself and her family. While remote work isn’t new to Tara, she experienced a big hit last year, losing a prominent client to decreased marketing budgets as a result of the pandemic.
How would you say work changed for you in the last year?
I would say that I've had to be a lot more aggressive about how I go after work, like finding new and creative ways of seeking out opportunities. For example, subscribing to various newsletters (some of them even paid) that are centered around writing opportunities. I’ve also joined some great writing groups on Facebook, specifically ones that offer jobs and support, and I’ve given more attention to using word of mouth to get my name out there. It’s been tough to make ends meet while balancing time with my daughter at home, since she is currently learning remotely. It can be hard to get a full day of working time in, so I’ll often pick up on things I couldn't get to during the day at night, when there are less distractions and responsibilities. It’s been a huge change not being able to go to coffee shops and change up my workspaces, which was great for my mental health.
How do you stay motivated to do your best work?
Prioritizing my mental health has allowed me to stay in a better headspace professionally, but it’s pretty tough to stay motivated. There are some days that are really hard, but as a freelancer, I have the benefit of being able to choose when I work (but that also can also be a con of remote work.) I’ve also focused on picking projects that I am very passionate about, and that’s made a really big difference and encourages me to stay focused.
How do you balance your work life with the rest of your life?
Working from home all the time, it doesn't feel like there’s a clear-cut boundary—partly because there’s not a lot to do right now, so I end up working more in general. I think I make an effort to really put my own self-care and mental health before my work. If I’m having a bad pain day or a flare-up (because I have fibromyalgia and a history with endometriosis), I make the conscious decision to look after myself first, since I know I won’t be productive because of what’s going on in my body. So instead, I consciously design a day like that as a “rest day” and try not to feel guilty about it, because I know that the next day I’ll likely feel better.
Is there anything in particular that you love about working remotely?
I love everything about it. I don’t drive, so I love that I don’t have to commute. I love the comfort of being able to be in my own house and wear what I want. The biggest thing I deal with is mental health issues and chronic pain, so being able to make my own schedule and work when I want to is the most important thing to me. At this point, I don't think my physical health issues would enable me to work in an office full time, so the fact that the option to work remotely exists and is becoming more acceptable across industries means I can keep working in a way that suits me.
Is there anything you don’t like about working remotely, and how do you deal with that?
I hate the fact that I feel like I’m stuck in the same place all the time, especially now with the lockdown in effect. Before the pandemic, I could go to a coffee shop or the mall. I would go to different places to get a change of scenery and have social interactions, which really helped break up the day and allowed me to feel connected to other human beings. It’s one thing to work from home and have the option to go places, but not having that option anymore really makes remote work feel lackluster. It’s also had a detrimental effect on my mental health.
What personal strengths have you been tapping into more with all the changes you’ve experienced in the last year?
Adaptability, resilience and self-compassion—not only in terms of adapting to the pandemic, but I’ve also been going through a marital separation. This has been the hardest year of my life, hands down. So I’m still developing these skills and qualities, but being able to accept and adapt to my new reality is the biggest strength that I’ve achieved as a newly single parent experiencing a separation during a pandemic. Being kinder to myself and reminding myself that these are extraordinary times has been important to remembering that I’m doing the best I can under these outrageously hard conditions.
What does mindfulness mean to you in the age of remote work?
It means really just trying to center myself and still my thoughts, and it’s about taking a few minutes to myself to focus on things that will calm me. I was raised Catholic, and while I‘ve pretty much lapsed in most ways, a few months ago I saw a pack of beautiful rosary beads and I bought them on an impulse. I feel like they’ve sort of given me a new mindfulness practice, and I use the beads to relax and calm myself through prayers and visualizations. They’ve also become a tool to take me out of my body and away from my concerns and worries, so that I can take a step back and take a break. I never had the desire to do that before, but I think there’s something in my higher self of consciousness that recognizes that I need to take time out from writing articles and watching Netflix to center myself every now and then.
How good are you at asking for help?
It’s really ironic, because in the articles and essays I write, I’m usually talking about mental health, mental illness awareness, that kind of thing. And I always mention that people should reach out for help without being ashamed. But when it comes to myself, I feel that exact same emotion. Then I feel like I’m not walking the walk. Being separated for nine months has been extremely difficult for me, and it’s still hard to pick up the phone and call my parents or sister. It’s taken so long for me to not feel ashamed or embarrassed that my husband left me in the middle of a pandemic. So that’s when I’ve turned to my writing instead of picking up the phone. I’ll write a post, an essay or a poem, and get my feelings out that way. It’s been really therapeutic, and I get great support from people engaging with what I write online. I definitely want to work on getting over myself and overcoming my negative self-talk. I also need to work on remembering that people do want to be there for me.
What skills do you think are necessary to be a successful remote worker?
Motivation, diligence and determination. You have to be motivated to get the work done and determined to succeed and invest in yourself. And probably also just making sure you have other things in your life that you can turn to—away from work—so that you don't get sucked into working more than you should.
What do you think it means to be emotionally available and aware right now, and how important is that your overall well-being?
To be emotionally available right now for me means being able to see, hear and witness other people’s experiences on an emotional level with them. I think being emotionally available has probably been underrated, and that as a society in the middle of a pandemic, we’re finding out that we’re all actually in the same boat. A lot of us are going through mental health challenges that we’ve never faced before, and we don’t always know how to deal with it or what to do. The best gift we can give ourselves and the people in our lives is to check up on each other—to see how we’re really doing—and ask what we can do for someone if they’re in a bad way emotionally.
Many of us have been focused on adapting our expertise to this new world of work, but what about your soft skills? How have those adapted and changed in the last year?
I think everyone's soft skills have developed and increased a lot more in the last year, because they’ve had to. Instead of just knowing someone as a coworker, now you see evidence of their real life on Zoom calls. You see more of what actually goes on behind the scenes, and I think that makes people more compassionate and understanding in general.
How would you say that you make smart work?
I make smart work by being able to integrate my work, mental health and self-care into my daily life. To be able to work and also balance those personal areas allows me to function comfortably, and that’s what a successful day looks like to me. Work doesn’t take over one hundred percent, but it fits into the section that I need it to on any given day.