I have been talking with neighbors, friends, and friends of my adult kids to see how COVID-time has impacted working parents with children. Some parents love working from home. They find they are more productive and more creative than ever. They are enjoying having so much family time. They hope and wish that they will never have to go back to 9 to 5, five days a week. “What’s not to love about working remotely?” they ask. No commute. Working in sweats. No distractions from difficult coworkers. And lots more family time. These are not the people I worry about.
Some parents, like those quoted below, are finding staying home a major challenge. They are reporting frustration, disappointment, disillusionment, and burn out. They often feel guilty that they aren’t being more productive for work and that they aren’t keeping up with their kids’ home schooling. They feel even more guilty that they aren’t enjoying spending all day with the children they love. They wish and hope to get their kids back to day care and school — and themselves back to work ASAP.
“I remember telling my wife, ‘We’ve got this’ when we first went into lockdown. Our kids, ages 8 and 10, love to do craft projects and they are both readers. How hard could it be? Was I ever wrong! — My teacher wife struggles to put math lessons online. Until a week ago, she still had over 100 middle school kids to interact with. That was on top of schooling our own kids. Our kids complain about boredom. I can’t get my work done. We have all started losing out tempers — and maybe our minds.”
“As a single mom of two young teens, I’m always behind in getting my work tasks done. I’m frustrated with trying to get the kids to do their schoolwork. I’m sick of the daily battle to get them off their phones and outside. I’ve had it with their whining and begging to let them go see friends. I don’t give in to it (I do love them soo much) but I admit I sometimes think to myself, ‘Fine. Go ahead. Go hang out and get sick.’ Then I feel terrible that I even feel that way.”
“How are we doing? It depends on the day. Sometimes the kids are cooperative and find things to do. While my husband and I try to do our remote work, they work on school assignments pretty independently. Other times they are underfoot wanting to be entertained. I don’t want any of us to get sick, but we’re kind of sick of each other by now.”
What’s the difference between parents who love working remotely and those who don’t? I suggest that it is not the “working from home” that puts people under stress. Parents of babies who are young enough to nap and stay put, playing and cooing, next to mom or dad or whose kids are old enough to not need constant supervision have generally been able to manage well. But parents of kids from age 1-12 are tearing their hair out as they try to do the double duty of job and child school and supervision. That’s especially true for those who are fielding multiple kids at multiple ages and stages.
No one planned for this. No one had time to adjust in an orderly way. One week the adults were on the job and the kids were in school or daycare. The next week they were all home. Boom.
At times the double duty can feel almost impossible — only because it is. There is no way to effectively work the usual 8 hour day and also provide 6 hours of “school” or 8 hours of daycare at the same time.
In an attempt to be helpful, I researched strategies that at least some families some of the time are using to stay reasonably sane in this crazy-making time. I share these stress-busters only as ideas for you to consider as you do your best to manage the weeks and maybe months ahead.
6 Tips for Maintaining Sanity
1. External structure is essential. Kids thrive on structure, even when they fight against it. Households that are running well have a set a time for play, a time for school work, a time for naps, a time for meals, a time for bed, etc. The regularity makes kids feel more secure. Structure and predictability free the adults from having to constantly make decisions about what to do next.
2. Establish definite on-duty and off-duty times for childcare. When every adult feels in charge of the kids all the time, no one gets much done. It’s more helpful if the adults define “shifts.” The person not on kid-duty then feels free to focus on work. The kids know who to go to for what they need.
Parents who don’t have live-in partners count on grandparents, relatives, or other parents. Some form “quarantine pods” with other families who share the same COVID safety standards, so the adults can switch off the care, entertainment, and schooling for kids. — Yes, child-free time may be less than what people had pre-COVID, but they often find that their efficiency increases when their uninterrupted time for work is limited and precious.
3. Set realistic expectations for home schooling: Build school time into the daily schedule so getting down to assignments isn’t a daily argument. As much as you can, do your work while they do theirs. Insist on quiet, uninterrupted periods (even if it’s in 15-minute blocks) while everyone gets down to work. Build in breaks. Build in check-in times.
Don’t expect yourself to keep exactly the same school schedule or to take the place of trained teachers. You can’t! But you can give your kids the message that their education is important by taking it seriously. Fortunately, most schools do provide packets of materials and assignments, both online and in the mail. There are also numerous sites online to help. It will go better if you do your own “homework” and take a little time the night before to review the lessons for the next day and round up whatever supplies the kids are going to need.
4. Stay connected: Things people mean to get around to when they have time often end up not happening enough or at all. That includes social time. Schedule regular meetings with coworkers and regular social time with family and friends via zoom, messages, and phone calls to help fend off feelings of isolation.
Kids need to keep up with their friends, too. Set up regular Zoom get togethers the kids can look forward to. If you have young kids, rotate responsibility for these get-togethers with the parents of your kids’ friends. Adults can read stories, host sing-alongs, or lead games like “Simon Says” that can be done remotely. With teens, do talk with them about how you can balance their need for privacy with adequate monitoring to keep everyone safe.
5. Self-care is family care: Selflessness is a set up for failure. It’s a mistake to skip meals or cut down on sleep or to forego any kind of exercise in order to get job tasks or household chores done. It only results in “running on empty.” Don’t feel guilty for attending to at least some of your own needs.
6. Give yourself credit: Working from home while parenting kids isn’t something any of us were prepared for. We can only do our best to manage the double duty and stay reasonably sane in the process. As tempting as it is to just collapse, take a moment at the end of each day to breathe and give yourself credit for what went right. Make a mental list of three things you can feel grateful for. Positive psychologists assure us that doing so will help us feel better and be more able to get up and do it all again tomorrow.