It was nearly a year ago that I left my office on the University of Montana campus, harried and concerned. Just a few weeks ago a quick power outage at my house forced me to revisit my office for the first time since and it was just as I left it- messy with “big paper” notes on flip charts, dusty piles of mail, and cubbies of lonely post-its and well-loved mugs.
The office was empty save for two masked students who were surprised to see me. At that time, I had just received my first vaccine dose and was still a very high-risk person if infected with the virus. Seeing some of my teammates in the flesh caused me simultaneous feelings fear and joy. What a haunting feeling for my excitement to be swiftly overshadowed by internal concerns of merely sharing a room with someone else.
In the last year, the year of COVID-19, we have abandoned so much of our former state of being from how we get our groceries to how we educate our children to how we entertain ourselves. We have done so amidst monumental changes in our country’s leadership, our state’s leadership, and deserved calls and protests for racial justice.
We have weathered all of these changes while experiencing a new, conflicting state of being. This new, unnatural state of being holds us intimately together with our immediate family, friends or housemates and then, simultaneously, isolates us from our larger communities, where we used to often foster our larger purposes and passions outside the home.
In spite of having to navigate the opposing and overlapping gray areas of togetherness and isolation – and in spite of already carrying a lot more of the household work and dependent-care duties – I know there are women who are still working to support their communities.
In November, my office conducted an informal survey to women in business and leadership roles and we found that of the 51 respondents, the biggest stressor they were facing was general connection – feeling disconnected from their families and friends.
This constant conflict of intimate togetherness and communal isolation forces me to find moments of gratitude to survive the moments of darkness: I am lucky to have a partner who shares my load; I am lucky to have extra time in the morning with my family; I am lucky to have the time to call and visit with my parents in Oregon; I am lucky to love my work; I am lucky to have the privilege of new time, employment, housing, and childcare. I feel guilty about these privileges in a time when so many do not have what I do- stability in such an unstable time.
And still, I have suffered during this time. My mental health has ebbed and flowed as I question my own mortality with the unexplained, inferior state of my lungs. My partner’s mental health has equally taken a toll as he confronts a new normal in work and life. My kids’ emotional wellbeing has forced us to pivot many times in order to support them to our best, and safest, ability.
In our home there has been so much togetherness and yet, we navigate these emotional pitfalls day-to-day, mostly in our heads, reaching out only when we remember we may need some support. I find myself still missing my larger community of support, of purpose, and of passion as I am not able to share my strife over coffee with a dear friend as I once was.
I am unable to summon the same energy for a Zoom call with friends as I was at the pandemic’s beginning. Even in forging a new connection at a work event, I used to connect over the silliness of my everyday family affairs, which still was actually delightful to share. I miss my community and, dare I say, need it at times. I am almost certain I am not alone.
While all women trudge forward during this conflicting time, together-and-alone, I am in awe. They are holding together so many pieces with super glue, with screws and nails, with duct tape, or even with scotch tape… but they are holding it together. They are persevering. They are incredible.
I know women who own main street businesses who have made incredible pivots that saved their business. I know female founders who are looking to expand their current business. I know brave moms leaving their stable career to start something new. I know bold women in their 50s who are actively pursuing a new business. All while they hold their other pieces together. All while they fashion their own relationship with being together and alone.
My team, at University of Montana, is striving to create a statewide community for aspiring or current women business owners through online courses for women and a new, online community. But larger than the education we hope to give, we hope to help build meaningful relationships between these women that they would normally gain from an in-person community of like-minded peers.
A community that allows for them to drop a few pieces along the way only to pick them back up or pick up something new. One that supports them to be vulnerable as they discover or pursue their next horizon. One that allows them to find a community of support that makes this new, conflicting state of being a little less exhausting.
I only hope we can all hang in there together a little longer. I only hope we can continue to create community together. I only hope that everyone can find a glimmer of gratitude. I only hope that we can continue to support each other as we all navigate the tense times of togetherness and the darker times of aloneness.
Morgan Slemberger is the director of women’s entrepreneurship and leadership at University of Montana. She is mother to two young kids, partner to a Montana high school teacher, and outdoor enthusiast. For more information about upcoming courses and the online community, check the Pursue Your Passions website. Courses are designed for Montana women, but open to anyone.