By Kara Gehbart Uhl
Perhaps more than anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has demanded adaptability. You’re either sending your masked kids to school full-time, juggling a hybrid schedule or helping them manage remote school (and countless tech woes). Maybe you’ve switched from offsite daycare to an onsite nanny. Maybe you’re having to help your kids solve math problems between calls or you’re shushing each other during virtual meetings. And then, as soon as your family hits its stride, everything changes.
You’re not alone.
After years of experience working in a corporate office environment, 13 years ago I began working from home as a freelancer while pregnant. Eleven years ago, while caring for my 2-year-old daughter, I became pregnant with twins. I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when working from home while parenting without outside babysitting help. And this year I’ve learned even more now that both my husband and I are working from home while our children are sometimes engaged in virtual instruction through their schools, backyard play, video game challenges and epic sibling battles.
Before I share some tips and tricks, know this: No one is expecting perfection. Working from home with kids is hard. Your plate isn’t just full right now, it’s overflowing. And that chicken nugget (cooked from the old bag in the freezer) that just fell off that plate will be snatched up by the dog whose muddy paws wrecked the living room rug after your child let him inside while you were in the middle of a conference call. Not only is that OK, it’s expected. But when the tears, or curse words, inevitably begin to flow, here’s a bit of help.
Set clear expectations when working from home with kids
Kids are not colleagues. But what they lack in brain development and maturity is made up with love and humor; and sometimes, frustration. Years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, our entire family was in the minivan and my husband needed to make a work call. After explaining the importance of being quiet, there was a brief pause and then my daughter yelled, “Do you want to hear how good I can make a sheep sound?”
Following are tips to make your day a bit less stressful.
- Choose separated designated workspaces for every working adult in the house (an office, a desk, even a temporary card table in the living room). This sets the expectation among your kids that when an adult is in that space, they need to leave that adult alone unless it’s an emergency. An exception: When kids are doing their schoolwork, some parents find it helpful for everyone to share the kitchen table. That way an adult is present to answer school-related questions, help with online submissions and break up sibling arguments when one kid is mad that the other is tapping their pencil on the table too loudly. If two adults in the same household are working from home, share this responsibility to prevent parent/teacher burnout.
- Kids like order, routine and knowing what’s ahead. Be clear about the day’s itinerary (“I’m working until 4:30 p.m. today; we’ll hang out after 4:30 p.m. This evening we’ll all play Uno.”) With older children, hold regular family meetings. Give them a voice so that the family’s daily routine works for them, too. Remember that this is stressful for everyone, not just you.
- To head off noise and interruptions, equate your work to their schoolwork, reminding them of how irritated they are when they’re trying to do their assignments and a sibling (or parent) is being disruptive.
- Kids sometimes need to entertain themselves, but don’t set them up to fail. Suggest quiet activities when they have downtime. (Puzzles or crafts are great.) Download books from the library or teach your kids how to access and listen to podcasts and audio books. Provide easy access to LEGOs, board games, toy cars, dolls – whatever they’re into. Allow them additional screen time. We’re in the middle of a pandemic – an hour or two of extra electronics each day isn’t going to scar them forever. Plus, many authors, illustrators, musicians, teachers, national parks, museums and more have been offering engaging, educational and free online content. Take advantage of it. Make a long list of “things to do when you’re bored” and post it for easy access.
- Know they’ll make mistakes. Kids are kids. They’ll forget, they’ll lose their patience, they’ll get into arguments and they’ll break rules. Things are challenging right now. And different from anything they’ve known before. And for some kids, even a little scary. Show some leniency to avoid ever-building resentment. When quiet is crucial for a conference call you have to take, talk with them beforehand. Explain the importance of the next hour and their obligations. Be clear about which emergencies warrant interruption and what consequences they may face if an interruption proves unnecessary. Follow through.
If you live with a partner, don’t be shy to ask for help or mix things up. Many employers are being flexible with their work-from-home policies right now. Take advantage of that. For example, both you and your partner could shift your work hours so only a few overlap. In a recent Robert Half survey, more than 60% of workers who have children under the age of 18 living in their household said windowed working – breaking up the day into chunks of business and personal times – helps them be more productive. (See the SlideShare below for more of Robert Half’s findings and insights.)
Without weekend activities, Saturdays and Sundays are akin to Mondays and Tuesdays. Shifting entire days to lessen overlap will allow for even more childcare responsibility. Drop any guilt you might feel toward your partner and/or employer. Maintain honest, open communication with both. You and your partner, equally, deserve uninterrupted work time. And while it’s unfortunate that shifting hours or days means fewer hours for you to be with each other, remember that this is only temporary.
Also, don’t forget that engaging with people outside your home is still possible thanks to the wonder of technology. Applications such as FaceTime and Zoom allow kids to engage with other kids, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and babysitters virtually. Entire board games can be played with someone controlling the board and everyone else dictating their moves. Need an hour of not being interrupted? Ask Grandma to play Chutes and Ladders (which never seems to end anyhow) remotely. It’s a win for all involved.
Leave the house (while following the rules)
Don’t underestimate the benefits of even a brief change of scenery. Take your work to a local park and snag an empty park bench. Also consider your front porch, back deck, balcony or patio. Physically leaving the house (even if only a few steps) and getting some fresh air can do wonders for the psyche. Your car is a good place to conduct conference calls or interviews when silence is necessary. Driving to a deserted parking lot also is a great way to achieve distance, silence and a change of scenery.
Develop a routine
Many children thrive on routine. If your child has schoolwork, considering sticking to the school schedule. Create working hours, state them and set boundaries. When working, practice self-discipline and ignore the (ever-increasing, I know) housework and your personal to-do lists. Set timers to impose deadlines and breaks. Pick a plan, and stick with it. But also, given these unusual times, know that sometimes it’s OK to break the plan, too. Some examples: We’re trying to steer our kids more toward books but we also know that video games allow them to play with their friends while also social distancing. Throw in some surprises. We all need them right now.
When things are unthinkably tough, it can be easy to despair. Often, a simple back-of-an-envelope list of things you’re grateful for can give you an emotional lift. It may look something like this:
- My job
- My ability to work from home
- Nurses, doctors and hospital staff
- Extra time with family
- Engaging, creative teachers
- Neighbors looking out for each other
Working from home with kids can work. It does work. But every family is different, and we are living in unprecedented times. Find what’s best for you and those you love and stop the comparison and guilt. There is great value in your children seeing you succeed professionally, personally and creatively – and if you’re like most people, your family’s finances depend on your work. So show them, through your actions, the importance of a balanced life, filled with work and school, time together as a family, and time for individual passions. But above all, be kind to yourself. You’ve been asked to accomplish the seemingly impossible. You’ve tried. You are enough. This is temporary. And those frozen, bagged chicken nuggets? Let’s be honest. Kids like them better than the homemade version anyway.