It has undoubtedly been a few challenging months for everyone, with different pinch points and difficulties. However, I am going to set out my experience and share my learnings as a parent of two young boys, now aged 5 and 8, working through the pandemic.
It has been a bumpy ride for us, and just when we thought we were through the worst, we have once again returned to the thick of it, with some hard weeks and possibly months ahead.
Looking back to lockdown 1.0, I still remember leaving the office and saying goodbye to my colleagues, fully expecting to return in 2 or 3 weeks. How wrong was I? As I headed home, I gave little thought to home-schooling and juggling, fully expecting to take it in my stride.
Wake of the pandemic
The challenges of working from home, with kids, can of course vary. For instance, a teenager, in secondary education, is likely to need less time and attention than an infant, toddler or primary schooler. However, I know from colleagues and family that teenagers provide their own challenges (none of which I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing yet).
As lockdown 1.0 kicked off, I was plunged into a sense of panic on what to teach and how! Luckily, the school stepped up and took that in hand. But then came the really hard part of actually doing the day job, whilst home-schooling one child, who was attending school, and another that was in nursery at the time. In the first couple of weeks, we muddled through, but with the perpetual guilt I felt as a mother, who was unable to give both work and home 100% attention.
I realised quickly things needed to change. I had to let go of the guilt and accept that us parents can only do our best, but not only that, I needed to ensure I maintained a good work life balance. I also had a duty of care to myself, so that I could then take care of my family’s needs.
So, what did I learn and change in lockdown 1.0 that may help, now we’ve entered the latest UK lockdown:
- Be honest!
Employers are willing to help, they (generally speaking) don’t want you to fail and they certainly don’t want you to burn out. Speak about how you’re feeling and where the struggles lie. You should be able to find a solution that works for both parties.
Also, be honest with your child’s school, they again are willing to help. If the work is a challenge, tell them! Or if it’s incomplete, for whatever reason, communicate with them. Don’t do what I heard one parent recently doing, and that is complete their child’s work for them. That isn’t achieving anything, and you WILL get caught out.
- Down tools
Take some time off. Today, a supplier of ours mentioned that he’d taken a series of half-day holidays as it had all become a bit much. Take a break! Go for that walk because a change of scenery will help everyone.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
If your child has only managed to complete a bit of their work, take that as a win. Focus on the subjects that matter. Similarly, we all have a number of time-consuming, non-essential tasks. See if you can simplify your workload. Forget about the piles of laundry. If your kids do indulge in more screen time than preferred, that’s fine too.
If you find getting changed out of PJs all too much, that’s also OK. A Mum I know recently confessed to throwing a smart top on over her pyjamas, to join an early morning call. Did being dressed semi-professionally impact on her performance during the call? Of course not! Did anyone notice? No! Did it help her get the job done? Yes!
Also, I know parents worry about family meals, wanting to make sure they are nutritious and tasty. That can be hard to achieve when you are time poor. Some things my friends and families have found helpful are:
• Slow cooker meals
• One pot dishes
• Recipe boxes, for example Gousto, SimplyCook and HelloFresh
Even if that’s too hard to manage, there is nothing wrong with a takeaway or a fish-finger sandwich.
- Time management
Maintain a regular schedule (as much as you can), so that you and your child have clear expectations on what is required each day. Starting with breakfast, right through to bedtime and everything in between.
I know of one family, where the young children (KS1) came down to home school in their school jumpers daily. It helped them differentiate between school and home time and thereby, focus better.
That said, if it just isn’t feasible to maintain your schedule some days, then so be it (see point 3).
The constant interruptions can be hard to handle and I’m not sure I know how to tackle them completely either.
A friend of mine recently shared her embarrassment with me. Due present to 100+ colleagues, mic unmuted ready to go, her child walked in bellowing repeatedly “Mummy what’s for lunch?”. Of course, it was at that point technology failed her and she couldn’t mute her mic.
My own 5-year-old hopped onto my lap in EVERY meeting during lockdown 1.0, announcing to everyone “Hi – I’m being good”, before wandering off again.
These are both rather tame interruptions, but we felt they undid the professional image we’d so carefully constructed of ourselves (of course it didn’t, but it was embarrassing). However, if you are in need of making your most recent embarrassment inducing interruption less significant, a simple Google search will reveal many a funny anecdote, to help you feel better.
The question remains, how do you deal with the interruptions?
You could warn those you’re on a call with. Don’t apologise for being a parent and having to adapt to the role of teacher, whilst working. This is something you needn’t feel sorry about. It is not your fault, but let them know you may be interrupted, so it’s expected and you’re less embarrassed.
If you can, create a designated workspace, allowing your child to see you are ‘at work,’ it may just deter them from interrupting. Set rules on how to get your attention. If your child is too young to be left to their own devices, consider zoning a room, so you can be in the same room as your child and keep a watchful eye.
For young children, create busy bags (or as I had, a busy drawer, so my 5-year-old could pull out a different game or toy to play with), these should buy you some time to get key work completed or to attend a meeting uninterrupted. Just select toys that are single player!
And if all else fails, a noise cancelling headset is an essential piece of kit and a wireless one is even better for those urgent demands!
- Work flexibly
Recognise there are a finite number of hours in the day and that not everything is urgent. Being able to work flexibly has been a godsend for me, but it has also been necessary for me to call out what isn’t urgent and try and intersperse back-to-back calls with home schooling and life. I’ve taken to blocking out parts of my diary, giving me time for other things that need to happen.
When necessary, I’ve taken an hour out during the day and logged back in once the kids are in bed, to mop up anything I’ve been unable to do. However, be careful with this approach. Rest is important, as is a break from work. But for my own sanity, this has worked better.
Only you know what will work best for you, but discuss it openly and frankly with your employer anyway (see note 1).
- Take breaks
It’s tempting to plough through the work, without a break, hoping you’ll finish sooner and be free. But work rarely ends and those to-do lists seem to magically grow. So, factor in breaks with the family, give your child an opportunity to connect with you and enjoy one another’s company. You’ll feel better for it.
Some things that worked for me in the first lockdown were: picnic lunches in the garden, (sadly the weather prevents this now, so we have shifted to our living room), taking a 1-hour daily walk with the kids and doing a collective #PEWithJoe session.
- Set boundaries
Setting both physical and verbal boundaries has also helped me get in the zone, and helped my children understand when I am working. I’ve been putting on my ‘work clothes’ to indicate I’m working, rather than PJs, as tempting as it has been (and yes, I’ll be honest there are days where I’ve done just that, and kept the camera off, remember point 3 – Don’t sweat the small stuff).
I also say ‘I’m going to work’, to help my children understand when I am actually working and not just sitting leisurely at my computer. This has been particularly helpful with my 5-year-old.
- Prioritise and schedule
With kids around, you’re not going to have as much time to dedicate to work, so it’s important you use the time wisely. Make a list of key tasks that you need to get through each day and try thinking about which less important tasks can be done during quieter periods.
- A problem shared is a problem halved
There are times, especially in the early days, when I struggled, I have found speaking to others in the same boat has helped me. Of course, the situation we’ve found ourselves in can’t be changed, but it has made me feel better. It’s been cathartic.
I’ve also found online-learning communities and joining social discussions helpful. Not just to share worries, but also as a great way to collaborate and support other parents. From #PEWithJoe to Twinkl, it’s been wonderful to see how people, companies and parents have come together.
If you have a partner or family member living with you, who is also working from home, try and agree and plan between you, decide when each of you will dedicate time to your child throughout the day. This will enable you to get work done, whilst your child is getting some much-needed attention from a family member or vice-versa. Also make them aware of key meetings and urgent deadlines, so you can switch out parenting roles.
- Me time
During this difficult period, you’re going to be multi-tasking on a completely new level, and you’ll need a break yourself! I’ve found taking time out to just enjoy a cuppa or a quiet 5-minute break is rejuvenating. I also lock myself away, to do a quick work out (but eating chocolate may work better for you), it helps me release some tension.
- Multi-platform tools
Being able to work on multi-platform tools (like Google Docs or Dropbox) and also being able to access emails on my mobile has been very useful for me when juggling. It’s also helpful to those parents who find themselves suddenly trapped underneath a sleeping baby.
- Give undivided attention
If your child is trying to get your attention, there’s a pretty good chance they aren’t going to stop until they get it. Try and find the time to put down the work and give your child the attention they need and deserve. Then, they are more likely to get on with some independent play.
Although it’s not been an easy ride, I feel better equipped to deal with the current lockdown, with these measures in place. My husband and I have been very fortunate to have bosses that have shown understanding. Speaking to other parents, we know we’ve coped ok for having set these measures in place and having empathetic employers.
To employers and line managers of anyone in a similar boat to me, I wanted to provide a few further tips to help your parent workforce. Please be mindful of everybody’s commitments, appreciate their individual circumstances and acknowledge it. It goes a long way to boost morale. Empathise with each employee’s context, by creating deeper insights into their specific situation. Leadership signalling that unorthodox hours are ok, can make a massive difference to employees like me. Indeed hearing ‘do whatever you need to do’ instantly relieved me of a lot of stress.
Be mindful of commitments to family life. The school closures and lack of childcare offered through families, or formal childcare arrangements can mean that parents feel left out of social team meets, if scheduled at an inopportune time. Don’t make the assumption that everyone is free to have a virtual drink or chat after work. This can pressure your employee into joining when really all they want to do is fall into an exhausted slump somewhere. I am lucky that Outsourced Events has created virtual coffee catchups in the morning and organised charity events at the start of the workday (such as our much looked forward to ‘Reb-baking’ sessions, photos of which can be seen on our Instagram page).
Finally, remember ‘it is ok to not be ok’ – and who really is, at the moment? It sounds cliché, but we are all in it together. We may not be productive every working day during the pandemic – but that’s ok. We are all trying our best and showing up with kindness and compassion is more than enough.
I don’t have all the answers, but I am lucky enough to have employers that have empowered me to weave work into my daily life. When recently asked what my short and mid-term goals were, within an employee survey, I could only state ‘Survive!’.
On that note, as parents and carers of children, it is important to take care of your own mental health. If you need help and advice on dealing with mental health problems in everyday life, during the pandemic, please reach out to the NSPCC, where their helpline counsellors are available to talk, whatever the worry. You can call them on 0808 800 5000 or email email@example.com . More info here: Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice and support for parents and carers | NSPCC