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

Remember, you’re their parent, not their teacher

Over the next few days (and weeks? months?) I’m going to offer some tips and advice about home educating, working from home, and maintaining positive mental health. In future posts, I’ll focus on more specific topics – to stick to the curriculum or not, educating children of different ages and/or abilities, good communication, home educating older children, etc. Today, I’m going to start with some general thoughts about home education, so that you keep these in mind when you’re planning what to do with your children at home in the days and weeks ahead.

Many home educators resist using the term ‘home schooling’, and for a very good reason. Home is not school. We are not teachers – apart from those of you who are teachers, but even then, you’re generally not your own children’s teachers. Teachers are an incredible bunch of dedicated, hardworking people, who do an amazing job of caring for, educating and socializing our children. However, they are educated and trained to teach children in specific situations, namely, large groups of children, in classrooms, for a specific number of hours each day. They have been trained to follow or adapt a curriculum, and they have been trained to work as part of a larger team of people with a shared vision and commitment to the institution of school (in the general sense) and to their own school institution (in the specific sense). Home is a very different environment, and the dynamic and relationship we have with our children is very different to that between our children and their teachers.

Forget about trying to turn your home into a school. It’s not going to work and you’re going to end up with frustration, anxiety and tears from everyone (and, believe me, no-one wants to see Daddy crying over the conjugation of French verbs).

Instead, create an environment in your home where children are self-motivated to learn and grow:

  • Televisions, tablets and phones are the enemies of imagination and enthusiasm. Turn them all off – and that means you too, Mum and Dad. Set aside long periods of the day when no-one uses these devices. (In a future posts I’ll discuss how to effectively communicate this to children and how to maintain cyber silence while working from home)
  • Be patient. This is new territory for everyone. If your children have always been in formal education, then this is a big change for them too. Reassuring them and caring for their emotional needs is far more important right now than making sure they know their periodic table.
  • Limit the time you spend doing ‘sit-down’ classroom-style educating. My children’s teacher has set up a WhatsApp group and is now sending work for the children to do. In addition, on the last day of school, I asked my girls to bring home their geography, science and maths books, as those were the subjects I think need most work. However, rather than sitting at the kitchen table or wherever for hours on end, limit these sorts of activities to two 20-minute sessions a day. If there’s frustration after 10 minutes, don’t beat yourself up, or get mad at your child/children. Accept that it’s not going to be, and give it another shot later or tomorrow. And if, on the other hand, the 20 minutes turns into half an hour or an hour and the child is wildly enthusiastic – run with it. Because chances are, they won’t show that same enthusiasm tomorrow.
  • Accept slowness. Standing over your child and expecting him or her to complete a task in a set period of time is going to end in frustration. Be present for your child, to help and assist, but accept that it may take the child a long time to complete an activity. We’ve all got extra time on our hands right now, so what does it matter? This doesn’t mean that your child dawdles and draws out 5 minutes of maths homework over two hours. Gently encourage and assist your child, but accept that just because you can write a sentence of five words in five seconds, or can solve 6 x 3 in the blink of an eye, that your child can too. Work at their speed.
  • Accept that things probably won’t work out as you had planned. You know all those awful YouTube videos of people making crafts? You know all those nice cakes in children’s cook books? You know those photos your friends post on Facebook of the amazing things their children have made? Let’s get one thing clear. In 99.9% of cases, your activities with your children are not going to meet the vision you had for them before you started. And that’s perfectly ok. The education, the learning and the fun are to be found in the process, not in the finished product. If you imagine that by the end of a 20-minute history session, your child will know the names of all Henry VIII’s wives, accept that there’s a good chance they won’t. If you imagine that your child is going to build some spectacular castle out of cardboard boxes and toilet roll inserts, accept that it will probably be a spectacular mess and look nothing like the castle of your imagination.
  • Change your expectations. It doesn’t matter that your child knows the names of all of Henry VIII’s wives. What matters is that you sat down together (or stood at the kitchen sink together, or kicked around a football in the back yard together) and talked about Henry VIII and his six wives, and why he had six wives in the first place, and what became of some of them. It doesn’t matter that your imagined castle is a pile of cardboard and PVA glue rubble. What matters is that you and your child planned and made something together, or that you left your child to his or her own devices to plan and make something.
  • Finally, follow their lead. Listen to what they want to do. Find out what interests them. Use this time as an opportunity to learn about things they might not otherwise have time to learn about. Your child is curious about something? Dinosaurs? The First World War? How peanut butter is made? Do the research together and learn together. Many children are asking about the Corona virus right now. Well, there’s a biology lesson in virology right there. Forget about this particular virus, get out your actual or virtual dictionaries, reference books, resources of all kinds and find out what a virus is, how it works, what it does. Rather than being teacher and student, you are learning something new together.

I hope this provides some reassurance that you’re doing just fine. I’ll further unpack these ideas in future posts. Tomorrow I’m going to write about juggling working from home with home educating.

Home education? Check. Working from home? Check. Social isolation? Check.

It will be one week tomorrow since all schools in Spain closed. Schools in Ireland closed the day before and, as I write, schools in the UK are preparing to close tomorrow. I know we’re expected to say we’re bored and fed up and can’t wait for things to get back to normal. But actually, here in my house, we’re having quite a good time. (Am I allowed to say that?) It dawned on me that there are three reasons why we’re doing alright: 1. My daughters were home educated in the past; 2. We lived for six years in the confined space of a 36 foot yacht; and 3. I work from home.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to blog about life in social isolation. Goodness knows, there is nothing but Corona virus news on every social media platform you turn to. Do I want to add to this relentless and overwhelming mass of information (and misinformation), and people sharing their personal stories?

However, over the past week, a number of friends and family members in far-flung corners of the planet have asked for my advice on home schooling. At the moment, like many others, I am home educating while working from home under conditions of social isolation.

Even though I no longer home educate my daughters (or do I?), I still give the subject a lot of thought. Apart from chocolate, sex and spaghetti bolognaise (not necessarily in that order, and not usually at the same time), education is the thing I think about most. I wrote an anthropology Masters on the subject, and a PhD on the passing on and sharing of environmental knowledge and skill between and across generations (i.e. informal education). This past Christmas, I wrapped Tim Ingold’s Anthropology and/as Education in Christmas wrapping paper and placed it under the tree for myself. That’s how much I love thinking about education. And, although I don’t have as much experience as many home educators who’ve seen their children through from babies until they left for university, I have been through the trials, tribulations and joys of home educating my girls, and what I learned from those years continues to inform how we learn together today, how we approach their school work, and how we think about learning and education in general.

I’ve also worked from home for the past number of years. I’m a freelance editor and writer, and my working life is spent at home, alone, in front of my laptop. Over the years, I’ve also learned by trial and error what works and doesn’t work for me, which practices improve my productivity (and which sound the death knell for productivity), and how to ensure a good work-life balance. What works for me may not work for others, but I have some thoughts and ideas that might be helpful, especially if you’re mixing work and education at home.

Finally, we lived on a boat for six years, so sharing a confined space with my family, while working and getting on with the daily tasks of life, is no news to me.

Therefore, starting from tomorrow, I’m going to write a series of short blog posts with tips about home educating, working from home, and caring for your own and your family’s mental and physical health at this challenging time. These will be based on my own experiences over the years, the experiences of others, and what’s working and not working for my family right now. Of course, what works for me may not work for you, but it might provide you with some food for thought.

If you want to get involved with questions, suggestions for posts, or feedback, then I’d love to hear from you.

I’ll start tomorrow with some basic thoughts and best practices for home education. Hope to see you then.

Reading, part II: If she can see it, she can be it*

*Motto of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Katie’s exciting first foray into the world of novels. As I was writing that post I was also thinking about Lily’s reading habits, and about the lack of female protagonists and heroes in the types of books she likes to read. And, as I was thinking these thoughts, it transpired that Lily herself was thinking exactly the same.

Currently, Lily is working her way through the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. Before that, she read all the Harry Potter books and she’s also a big fan of Percy Jackson and has asked for more of those for Christmas.

So, when she got out of bed one night a few weeks ago to come share her thoughts with me, I realised we had the same concerns. ‘There are no girls in the Alex Rider books’, she announced. ‘And, apart from Hermione, there are no girls in Harry Potter. It’s all boys.’ She backtracked a bit, explaining, ‘Well, there are girls, but they don’t do anything. They don’t do the stuff the boys do.’

A couple of weeks before this, Lily had a sleepover at her friend Luisa’s house, and accidently left her Alex Rider book there the next morning. Going to bed the next night, with the book still at Luisa’s, she didn’t know what to read. Not wanting to start a new book while in the middle of another one, I suggested she read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay ‘We should all be feminists’ (here’s a link to the TED talk of the same), that I had left on her bedside locker some weeks earlier, when she’d moved into her own bedroom. She shrugged and, unconvinced, took the book from my hands for want of anything else to read. An hour later, she was out of bed, wanting to talk about the essay with me, about the hotel reception scene, about men assuming Chimamanda couldn’t have money of her own. The essay exercised her already feminist view of the world and added a new layer to it.

So now, here she was, complaining that her action/adventure/espionage books were devoid of female heroes.

I had been thinking the same thing, while also contrasting those books to another favourite author of Lily’s, Jacqueline Wilson. Although Lily is no longer as interested in Jacqueline Wilson’s books as she once was, there was a time when she devoured everything that the prolific Wilson produced. And I realised that she was, on the one hand, reading books with girl protagonists in domestic settings, with domestic problems involving families, school friends, mothers in bad romantic relationships (a recurring Wilson motif) and, on the other, boy protagonists charged with saving the entire world, involved in international espionage, the sons of gods and wizards.

She reads all sorts of books, of course, and I’m being reductive to some extent, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see the domesticity of girls and the world-saving of boys in the books that my 10-year old daughter reads. Even Susan, Lucy, Peter and Edmund, in their equal roles as kings and queens of Narnia, conform to gender stereotypes when Aslan confers on them their symbols and tools/weapons.

Because I haven’t, as either a child or an adult, ever been interested in those genres of action/espionage/fantasy that Lily is currently so fond of, I am in no position to advise her on books with female protagonists. I know the Skulduggery Pleasant series has a girl hero (who is Irish, to boot). Apart from that, I’m at a loss. Therefore, if anyone can recommend books in those genres with girl protagonists, I’d appreciate it.

Alternatively, as I’ve suggested to her, she may just have to write those books herself.

 

Reading, part I: Wonder

BloomKatie, nine-years old, is reading her first novel, Bloom by Nicola Skinner. She reads it aloud to me, a chapter a night before she goes to bed. We’re almost 90 pages into this delightful 350-page book about a play-by-the-rules girl who finds a packet of magic seeds that turn her world upside down.

A few nights ago, Katie stopped reading mid-sentence and turned to me with a look of wonder and bliss on her face. ‘I can really see all the people and places’, she proclaimed. ‘Can you?’

I got a lump in my throat. You’ve got it, I thought to myself. You’ve cracked the joy of reading, words creating entire worlds in your imagination of people and lives and places.

She’s read before, of course, but short books that can be read in one sitting and that don’t involve the immersion of the imagination that comes with reading a lengthy novel. She’s invested in the world of this book far more than she’s been invested in any story she’d read before.

What particularly made me emotional about this epiphany of Katie’s the other night is that she’s long held this misconception that she’s ‘bad at reading’ or ‘not very good at reading’. These are her own descriptions of her reading ability and, try as I might to dispel them, they have persisted. It’s probably younger sister syndrome (if such a thing exists). Lily, who is only 17 months older than Katie, was an early reader, and by the time she was the age that Katie is now, she had read all but two of the Harry Potter novels, most of the Narnia series, as well as a huge number of Jacqueline Wilson books (more on all of this next week). Lily is a voracious reader with very particular tastes and has been reading beyond her age level (if such a thing exists, which I doubt) for a long time. Katie, by her own comparison, is ‘not very good at reading’.

My past attempts to instill confidence in Katie’s reading ability have fallen short. She simply wasn’t ready. Her frequent mistakes, her slow reading pace and her lack of understanding frustrated her and deterred her from wanting to read more.

But something about this book has flicked a switch. She bought it herself, for one thing, choosing it and paying for it with her own money at Easons when we were passing through Cavan town earlier in the summer. Reading it every night, she has become highly invested in the characters and in the place. She is the one dragging me to her bedroom each night so she can read the next chapter.

At first, she read slowly, stumbling over words and ignoring punctuation. But chapter-by-chapter, her reading speed has increased, her word recognition has improved remarkably, her ability to understand new words based on context or pre-existing knowledge of similar words has improved, and she now reads with correct intonation and timing (most of the time). Her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. Listening to her read is a joy. Her joy in reading is a joy.

She’s now got a pile of books on her desk, stacked in order of what she wants to read next. If this carries on, we’re in for a cozy winter ahead filled with adventures of the imagination.