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She loves her job. COVID-19 is threatening to take it away.
These days, Autumn Saxton-Ross feels like all she can do is the bare minimum.
“It’s like, okay, what do I need to do to be able to show up for my kids? What’s the bare minimum that I need to do to show up for work? What’s the bare minimum I need to do for myself so I don’t stab myself in the eye?”
For the last month — since the nonprofit where she works had to cancel all its educational programs and lay off most of its staff, since her hours were cut from 40 a week to 16, since she had to pull her kids from school — she’s been walking around like a zombie.
“I feel like I’m just now kind of coming out of autopilot,” she said. “Not even really feeling like a person, more like a robot.”
There have just been so many losses, one on top of another. Big and small, tangible and intangible.
There’s the income she’s lost, and the hours at her job. There’s the fact that her 3-year-old and 5-year-old don’t get to see their friends anymore, that she can’t take them to visit family. There’s the isolation, the fact that she can’t even go drown her sorrows with a friend.
One of the biggest losses, though, “is that feeling of knowing the person that you are,” she said. “Like, I have a job that I love and I’m good at it and I do it. And I have kids, they like their school and they like their daycare, and I drop them off and I pick them up, and we go for hikes on Saturdays. Like, none of that’s here anymore. So every day it’s like, huh, who am I in this new weird world?”
For the last four years, her job, running environmental education programs for kids, has been a big part of her identity. She loves it, in a way few people ever get to love their jobs.
“It’s the perfect job for me,” she said. “I have a background in public health and recreation, so to be able to find a job that allows me to do both of those things is very rare. I like going to work. Not many people can say that.”
“Out of a staff of about 200, I was one of two black women in an organization that believes in connecting young people to themselves, others and science through the outdoors. Which is very important to me, helping people that look like me and come from my background,” she said. “I’m a city kid, originally from Kansas City, Missouri. And my connection to the outdoors was not Yosemite or these big spaces, my connection to the outdoors is from my grandmother’s backyard, my backyard or a city park.”
And now, she feels it slipping away.
“I think the organization may be able to come out of it. I don’t know if I can hold on long enough to stay and watch,” she said. “I have a young family, pretty expensive mortgage, a little bit saved, but not enough to be able to work part time for six months.”
Already, she’s had to start looking for something else, even though she doesn’t want to.
“I would love to be able to stay where I am,” she said. “But I also have people to feed.”
Though she and her partner, a personal trainer, have both lost most of their income in the last few weeks, they’re okay right now. Mostly because they’ve been able to reduce their expenses, by a lot.
“The first decision that we made, having no idea if I’d be employed or not, was to pull our daughter out of daycare,” she said. “Within a week I went ahead and told her daycare, ‘you know I love you, but I need that $1,200.’”
The second thing they did was apply for a forbearance on their mortgage.
“Without those two,” she said, “we can make it.”
She is worried about what happens when the forbearance is up. It’s unclear, at this point, when and how they’ll have to pay back these few months. But, she figures she’ll cross that bridge later, when she has to.
“That’s on my list of things for when I’m in a better space to want to have those conversations,” she said.
Also on that list, applying for unemployment. She just hasn’t been able to deal with that yet, though she knows she’ll have to soon.
There’s already so much she’s grappling with, including the reality that, even though she’s lost so much, she’s still better off than most.
“Just knowing that there’s so many people out here, especially people of color, that don’t have that privilege of knowing that they’ll be okay for a few months,” she said. “Recognizing that privilege and at the same time just holding worry and pain for people that don’t have the privilege that we do.”
It feels like there is so little she can do, so little she has control over.
“The only thing that I get up every morning and try to do is think, what’s one thing that I can say yes to, to my kids? I have this time, what’s one thing I can say yes to?”
A meeting with her daughter’s stuffed animals? Yes.
A picnic dinner on the floor in front of the TV? Yes.
Staying up past bedtime? Yes.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“Having the time to actually focus on them, and not really care if anything else happens, because there’s nothing else happening,” she said, “having that space is nice.”
Maybe the only nice thing in this new coronavirus world.
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