Working and parenting from home? You’ve got to be kidding!

These are strange and novel times and we’re all adjusting to new ways of living that change daily. It’s a time of adjustment for everyone. Some people find themselves working from home for the first time. Not only are they adjusting to the new habits of working from their living room or kitchen table, many are doing so while caring full-time for children and/or adults. And while everyone’s situation is different and unique, I thought I’d share some of my experiences of working from home and how I’ve adapted (and am daily adapting) to this new situation.

I’ll say, first of all, that my daughters are 9 and (in three days from now) 11 years old. They are great friends. They’re also very self-sufficient (and will even make a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, or make a batch of cupcakes, if the mood takes them). I’m aware, therefore, that I have it a lot easier than people attempting to work while caring for younger children, or children with big age gaps, or children with disabilities, or children who simply don’t get on with each other. But there might be something in my daily work practices that you can adapt to your working home life to make it all run a little more smoothly.

Remember, this is a huge adjustment period for everyone in your home. Forget ‘productivity’. Forget trying to ‘home school’ your children (see my last blog post). Don’t beat yourself up. Get plenty of rest. And remember that the transition to working from home is not something that will happen overnight. It’s taken me months to find a system that works for me and to find a work-life balance that suits me and suits my family.

BC (Before Corona), my typical day involved getting an hour or two of work done before the children got up. I’d then take two hours off – the first to get the children up, fed, presentable and out the door, and the second to walk the dog, shower and get dressed for the day. My children only have a five-hour school day, so that left me with four hours. My work requires high levels of concentration, which I can only keep up for short periods of time. So, I’d intersperse 30- or 40-minute bursts of work with chores – washing the dishes, hanging out the laundry, preparing lunch, and popping to the shop to buy groceries. Doing the chores like this got me away from the computer for short periods of time, got me moving about, and gave my brain and eyes a break.

The girls came home from school just after 2pm, and from then to 4pm was work-free, when we ate lunch and hung out together. Even if they didn’t want to hang out, I was available if they needed me. Most evenings, the girls were out from 4pm to 7.30 or 8pm, during which I got back to work, again interspersed with chores when I needed a break from the computer. If I had a pressing deadline, I might find myself doing another couple of hours of work after the children went to bed.

Most days didn’t work out quite like this. A phone call from a friend, a mid-morning invitation for coffee in the village, hour-long Spanish classes two evenings a week, the girls’ friends coming around to play, could all get in the way of my ideal work day. That didn’t matter, so long as I met my deadlines and produced quality work.

As for weekends, holidays, birthdays – those were sacred work-free days. It wasn’t always that way, but over time I discovered that for my physical and mental health, taking plenty of time off, and taking those important times off, was essential.

That was then. Now we’re into new territory, and I’m adapting many of these practices to this new and evolving situation. I have made some decisions that impact my ability to work effectively and to look after my children to the best of my ability.

First, I made the decision to cut back on the amount of work I do. I’m a freelancer and I don’t earn a salary. Instead, I only get paid for the work I do. Right now, I’m spending far less money than usual. We’re not allowed to leave the house other than to buy food. So, there are no morning coffees with friends, no Friday evening gin and tonic at the bar, no mid-week lunches out when I can’t be bothered to cook. No cinema, no trips to the beach, no shopping for anything that’s not food. So, I don’t need as much money as before. Therefore, I’ve cut back on the number of work assignments I accept each week. Instead of doing my usual 30-ish hours of work last week, I did fewer than 20.

I realize that, for some people, this is not financially possible, and for others, work targets set by others must be met. But think about areas of your work where you can cut back. Is everything you currently do absolutely necessary to the effective completion of your work, or are there elements of your work that you can drop? Prioritize your most important work, and drop or postpone the rest. Don’t make yourself ill by trying to simultaneously work at full speed and care for your family at full speed.

Second, I thought about how I can organize my work day in such a way that I get to spend time with my children, when we’re all at our best. We’re all sleeping in a little later these mornings and going to bed later. I’m no longer setting the clock for 6am, but rather getting up around 7.30am and working for an hour and a half before the girls wake up. Once they wake up, we have breakfast together, followed by study time, and then some exercise (a YouTube workout, a game of padel in the yard). I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon pottering around, cooking, baking, and being available for the children. In the last few days, I’ve saved my work for three or four hours in the late afternoon. The girls play together or are engaged in some activity, and sometime between 5 and 6pm they sit down to watch a movie. In those few play and movie hours, I pack in as much work as possible. In this way, I spend a lot of time with the children, or am available for them while I do housework, but when their energy is flagging, when fights are most likely to break out, when the chances of tears are greatest, they can curl up on the sofa with a movie.

Third, I’ve revised my thoughts on weekends, holidays, and so on. Do weekends even exist now? I have the privilege of choosing, to a great extent, not only how much I work but also when I work. I’ve decided that, over the coming days and weeks, rather than sticking to my Monday to Friday work schedule, I’ll work when it feels appropriate to work, and I won’t work if I feel the children need me more, or if I need a day to process what’s going on.

Fourth, I talk about all of this to the girls. On the day they finished school we sat down and made a plan (more about this in a future post). Included in that plan was my need to work. Every morning over breakfast I tell the girls the hours of work I will have to do that day, the times I will be available to do things with them, and the times when I will, for the most part, need to be left alone to do my work. I also ask them to think about what they want to do during my work times. Do they want to do something together? Does one of them want to do something on her own? How are they going to negotiate those different plans and come to a compromise? Clearly communicating and working out our plans right from the start of the day makes their execution all the easier.

Finally, I accept that there are going to be interruptions. Hungry children will come begging for snacks, fights will break out, knees will be grazed. I just have to accept that it’s going to happen. For those of you who work as part of a team, chances are your colleagues are in the same boat, many working from home while caring for others and running a household.

As I write all this, I realize that much of what I have written about working from home might not be true next week, or even tomorrow. A few days ago, this post would have included the long walks we go on every day. Two days ago, it would have included the solo walks I take with the dog every day. Those are no longer options for us. Right now, my girls are getting on incredibly well with each other. I don’t know if or when they will start to tire of each other’s company. And I don’t know that work assignments will continue to flow into my inbox. So, maintaining flexibility is essential and remaining open to anything that might come around the corner.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself and be kind to the people you live with.

Tomorrow’s post: Staying positive

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