By Kara Gehbart Uhl
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, every morning you braced for the inevitable: You must work from home. Then the impossible: Schools are closed, and you are now your child’s teacher. Social distancing rules have nixed daycares, babysitters and nannies, too. And while social media has been filled with posts from families who are making the best of it by reorganizing their entire house or making their own pasta or starting a family band, you have found yourself in survival mode.
You’re not alone.
After years of experience working in a corporate office environment, 12 years ago I began working from home as a freelancer while pregnant. Ten 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 these last few weeks I’ve learned even more now that both my husband and I are working from home while our children are engaged in Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) through their schools, backyard play, video games, LEGOs 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 son 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, a temporary card table in the living room, even a bed). 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 p.m. today; we’ll hang out after 4 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 need to learn to entertain themselves, but don’t set them up to fail. Suggest quiet activities if it’s raining. (Puzzles or crafts are great.) Many of your favorite local bookstores are now offering online ordering. 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, cars, dolls – whatever they’re into. Allow them extra screen time. We’re in the middle of a pandemic –– an hour or two of extra electronics each day for a couple of months 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 as we all practice social distancing. 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 hard 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 very 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. 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 towards 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)
If walks are still allowed where you live, 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 your car 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: My kids still have bedtimes, but I’m letting them sleep in as long as they’re submitting school assignments on time. Last week, after learning our local dairy bar was offering drive-up service, we had everyone stop what they were doing, took a drive on a beautiful day and had ice cream for lunch. 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 do wonders for your mental health. 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.