“I don’t think this should affect work. There might be other factors affecting work, but small children should not be it.” When it was announced that schools and daycare centres would close in Finland, this was an actual quote in our largest newspaper. The ”expert” was a professor emeritus in labour law, so who are we to doubt? I have two children, aged 1 and 4. I’ve had them both as an entrepreneur, so my maternity leaves were a loose concept. So I guess I’m as close to an expert as they come.
I’ve written about how parenting is not always bad for work. How, in fact, it can boost performance. But working with the kids there? I love my kids to death, but they are good colleagues in the same way as that loud person in an open office who speaks on the phone all day is.
Let’s face it: there are no excellent tips here. No magic tricks that would fit everyone. But there are ways to make it bearable. Here are a few:
1. Know your personal rhythm
Let’s start with the basics. We all have individual working styles. In fact, our cognitive performance varies up to 20% over the course of a day (Hines, 2004) which means we have certain times when our cognitive potential is high and our output best. This optimal time is personal. One in five has a chronotype that makes them morning types which means cognitive performance peaks early. Another 20% are night owls, and the rest are something in between. (Adan et al., 2012)
What’s your personal rhythm? At what time do you do your best work? Find your own peak periods, and optimise your remote workday around those. When you hit one, be prepared: Turn off your email, close the company chat, give the kids snacks, turn on Netflix. Then work in peace. When you plan around your peak, you get more done in less time.
2. Create a daily schedule
Kids have a daily schedule in school and daycare for a reason. And what our kids’ daycare professionals keep telling us is that kids actually like to know what’s going to happen. So with your personal work rhythm in mind, create a daily schedule for you and your kids. Breakfast, lunch, playing in the park, homework, screen time. Write it on a piece of paper, draw pictures if your kids can’t read, and stick it on the wall. Well planned is half executed.
3. Engage them elsewhere – and be creative
This advice I almost don’t need to give. Most parents know the peace and quiet that follows from giving a kid an iPad. But try to be creative. One colleague shared how he was at home with a 1-year-old and had to work. By sprinkling raisins all over the living room floor he bought himself half an hour of undisturbed work time and a jolly happy toddler. I myself have gained almost an hour of work by sitting next to a kid playing with bubble wrap (just don’t leave them alone with it, that stuff’s dangerous). Screen time is not the only thing to capture kids’ imagination.
4. Dare to break up the day
This is an extraordinary situation. So your workday doesn’t need to look ordinary. Bravely add pauses into the day for time with your kids. Break to go to the playground, take your bikes for a tour, paint with water colours, walk to a park. Engaging activities will also make nap time calmer.
Make “walk & talk” your friend. I’ve had countless conference calls over the past days where one party has been outside – biking with the kids, in the park, or with the dog. Don’t be afraid to share. We’re breaking convention here, you guys, so the more open we can be with each other about how we’re making a difficult situation work, the easier it will be for everyone.
5. Involve the village
It takes a village to raise a child, they say. Even considering the restrictions COVID-19 is setting on us (not involving risk groups in child care, keeping groups small, maintaining proper distances, etc.), asking for help is not wrong. I’ve been encouraged by how the village has rallied to help with childcare. I’ve heard of parents working in shifts: one parent watching two kids while the others’ parents work, changing shifts after a few hours. I’ve heard of volunteers offering their help on Facebook groups, in apartment buildings, in neighbourhood groups. I know people whose work has been all but erased by the crisis who have reached out to help working parents. We’re in this together, and here it really shows.
6. Stay focused
When working at home with kids you can’t afford to distractedly work on four different things at the same time or to procrastinate on that one annoying task. On a piece of paper, write down the tasks you need to get done. Place that paper next to your laptop. When you get a calm moment, be razor-focused on completing that, and only that.
7. Use rituals to change roles
When the boundaries between work and home invariably get blurred we need to work with our mind to switch from ”work” mode to ”mom/dad” mode. Try to find a small ritual to knowingly change roles. Brew a cup of coffee when you sit down to work. Review your to do list. Switch into more casual clothing to go out. Close your eyes and take five deep breaths. Or maybe use the hand washing ritual for a 20 second visualisation: ”Who is the person I want to be next?”
8. Be present when you’re present
Do all the work you please, but when you break from work: be present. Really present. Here, my daughter is my best role model. The other day I was fretting at home about some work thing, distractedly cleaning up. Then I felt a small hand tug at mine. “Mommy, she’s really sick.” I felt alarmed – something with her baby sister? She pulled me down and made me sit. On the floor, curled into an old sleeping bag, was her purple unicorn. She stroked it over the head. “Mommy, she’s really sick. We have to really be here, now.” And we were.
Childhood is magical. Children have an amazing ability to see the world with acute perception. Kids are always there, what they’re doing is always the most important thing. Kids don’t let moments slip by. And us parents are in a privileged position to take part in that childhood magic – if we live the moment and let the kids lead.
9. Practice extreme self-compassion
Even if you nail all the advice there’s still one enemy to trump them all: a bad conscience. We all know it: that creeping feeling that cannot be quieted: “am I a bad parent?” So let’s get this over with: Are you a bad parent if you’re working while the kids are home during this crisis?
No, you’re not. As working parents we want to have it all. Super-employees, super-parents. It’s an admirable goal, but it also sends us on a stressful quest for perfection. You’re not a bad parent. You’re not. You’re fulfilling your obligations towards your kids, your employer, and society in containing this virus. You’re a good parent trying to make the best of an impossible situation. You should cut yourself some slack and practice extreme self-compassion. More than that, you should feel proud. In times when millions are at risk, you’re juggling two important and all-consuming roles, teaching your kids the value of work, and giving them a role model of working parenting.
What’s more, you’re not alone. So next time you’re on the playground, keeping proper distance, give that fellow parent on a conference call a small nod and a smile. Acknowledge that you’re in it together. Because the beauty and irony of this crisis is that even though we’ve never been physically further away from others, we’ve never been emotionally closer.