Making it work-ish, from home
For the past two years, my wife and I have shared one, seemingly unambitious New Year’s resolution: no major life changes. Sure, like many others, we’ve also aspired to lose weight, sleep more, and fix our finances. But those common goals were all secondary to and largely dependent upon simply not adding any more complicating layers to our already stressful lives.
In 2019, our resolve for continuity lasted about two weeks, before an onslaught of nightmarish nerve pain led me to neck surgery, which meant taking medical leave from work and being useless around the house. That was just the start of a 12-month dark comedy that was so absurdly difficult at times that my wife and I would wryly laugh at night and naively believe that our life plan was already crumpled so far beyond recognition that it couldn’t possibly take on any more wrinkles.
The first cases of COVID-19 were reported on Dec. 31, 2019, in Wuhan, China. Of course the virus didn’t yet bear its now ubiquitous name, nor was it top-of-mind in our house when we woke up on Jan. 1. After all, Wuhan was 6,500 miles from San Jose, Calif., and our New Year’s resolution was born out of five straight years packed full of life-changing events that had impacted our family far more directly.
It’s now obvious that our 2020 resolution to avoid big changes failed, in ways we never could have imagined. Nearly every trace of normalcy and routine has vanished from our lives, as it has for everyone in various ways and to differing degrees of dismay, boredom, and tragedy. My family is still adjusting to our new dynamic of having both parents work from home full-time while also trying to keep our full-time kids safely engaged throughout the day. We’ve learned a lot over the last several weeks, often from trial and daily failure. While no person’s how-to advice applies to everyone’s unique situations, I’ll share some dos and don’ts I’ve discovered.
If you and your partner are both working from home while caring for kids, discuss your work calendars with each other on a daily basis. Be aware of each other’s important calls and timely projects so you can put them on your own calendars and schedule shifts for who’s taking lead on childcare from hour to hour. Neither of you will feel fully caught up during the day, but at least you‘ll minimize real-time panic and bickering.
The prior half decade held some of the most magical milestones life can offer. My wife and I bought our first home together in 2015, trading my bachelor-era condo for a ranch-style house that could accommodate the family we hoped to start growing “someday.” A few days before our moving date, we learned that my wife was pregnant, and within three years, we filled our home with two beautiful children: one boy and one girl, just like the plan said. I know everyone says this, but my kids truly are the best.
Those same years also presented the most daunting challenges we had ever faced. In 2016, the company where my wife and I had met six years earlier closed our Silicon Valley office, prompting both of us to search for new jobs while the ink was still damp on our mortgage paperwork and our son’s birth certificate. The next three years served a slew of orthopedic issues (Bonus tip: Don’t play football for 10 years, lift heavy weights for 20 years, and/or spend decades hunched over keyboards as a very tall person). These problems forced me into four surgeries over a 20-month span, followed and connected by physically, mentally, and emotionally grueling recoveries that deeply affected our whole family.
My various, often overlapping phases of immobility (two multi-month non-weight-bearing periods), limited mobility (knee scooters, crutches, and walking boots galore), and extreme lifting restrictions (nothing that weighed more than 10 pounds for three months) all came while my children were learning to walk, crawl, and instinctively gravitate toward the most dangerous objects in any room. I know everyone says this, but my kids truly are the worst.
Throughout all of this, I still did everything I could (and many things I probably shouldn’t have) to contribute to our home and family. I cooked while on crutches (my arms have nice burn scars), cleaned from my knees, and mastered the one-handed diaper change (they stayed on most of the time). Still, my wife, heroically, had to pick up the considerable slack — all while also working full-time at a global tech company. Of course no “good year” is all good, and no “bad year” is all bad. While the last few years routinely taxed us into emotional bankruptcy, we also managed to make professional strides (my wife at Apple and myself at realtor.com), finish several home-improvement projects, and, most importantly, create amazing family memories.
If you’re working from home while caring for kids, don’t feel bad about your inability to perform either, let alone both, of those functions to your typical standards. Yes, make sure your kids are safe and fed. Sure, work as effectively as you can. But remember that there’s a reason this lifestyle isn’t the norm, and it’s not sustainable to run both engines full throttle at all times. Unless you‘re a frontline health worker (thank you if you are!), your work likely isn’t saving lives. I’m awful at following this advice. Each day in quarantine is an emotional roller coaster that usually ends with me feeling like I’ve failed at both work and parenting. Don’t be like me. And if you really want to feel the rush of saving lives, just stay home!
Whenever I scroll through the last few years of photos on my phone, I’m struck by two questions:
- How did we get so lucky to have so many priceless experiences with our beautiful family?
- How the hell did we do all this while going through so much?
That second question has two answers — one poignant and one pragmatic. Despite the many things about which my wife and I hold differing opinions (e.g. her love for sci-fi vs. my “taste” in reality shows), we share at least two fundamentally unified beliefs:
- Raw onions are vile.
- Family is far more important than all other parts of life combined.
So no matter the obstacles, we’ve stayed resolute to realizing the types of cherished family moments we both romanticized even before we had a family together. Despite arduous logistics and tough timing, we celebrated holidays, took trips, and visited aquariums, zoos, and museums. We hosted my son’s second birthday party the day after one of my surgeries. We attended “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood Live” by working with the venue to find seats that were ideal for both recovering surgical patients and starstruck toddlers. We visited a goat farm while both kids (just ours, not the young goats) were in strollers and I was on a knee scooter.
I don’t mistake any of these recreational activities for heroic acts. Our kids were too young to ask to do them, and we knew they might be too little to even remember them. But we wanted to pack as much happy into a generally difficult and sometimes grim stretch as we possibly could. We also wanted those pictures that we could refer to, digitally and mentally, as inspiration when dark times felt especially black.
Don’t be harder on yourself during this time than you are on others. Any of us who are the least bit rational understand and freely forgive the fact that our colleagues, family members, and friends are all doing their best to cope with these uniquely difficult times, which might mean being less responsive or responsible than usual. Yet we beat ourselves up for not acting and performing like this is normal. Maybe your kids are getting too much screen time. I know I want to charge Curious George and Daniel Tiger rent for how much time they’re spending in our house. But I also know my kids are sharing more time with their parents throughout the day than they ever did before.
The pragmatic answer to the aforementioned second question: We had to. We had two young kids. We had expenses. We had no choice but to keep plugging away to provide for our family’s material and emotional needs. This didn’t just mean keeping food on the table, but keeping smiles on the little faces we tried to shield from our many fears, tears, and bad words.
We also knew we were lucky. We had good jobs at great companies that let us work through and around our setbacks, as well as take time away from work when we needed to and return when we could. We were also fortunate to have healthcare, a comfortable (albeit usually messy) home that made forced downtime more bearable, and a supportive extended family, including four nearby parents/grandparents, who helped us in countless ways on a nearly daily basis.
Don’t pretend that this new normal is normal. When someone asks how you’re feeling, be honest. Maybe the weight of the world or even just your own home life feels particularly heavy today. That’s fine. Own it. Maybe you’re actually enjoying the fact that you don’t have to commute to work (beyond a room or two) and you never have to change out of your “workout” clothes. That’s fine. Own it. But also wash your clothes.
While I know our parents would have been consistent, deeply important parts of their grandkids’ lives even without any adversity, I also have no doubt that our home was filled with more love because of our need for support than it ever would have been had waters been smoother. Our kids have unique nicknames and inside jokes for each of their four grandparents. They also have bonds far deeper than I ever had with any of my grandparents, who all either passed away before I was born or lived far away as I grew up. And right now, our kids dearly miss their Grandma, their Grandpa, their Nana, and their Papa.
Last year wasn’t just tough because of my neck surgery, nor the daily challenges of balancing life with two working parents and two toddlers. My dad, who turns 78 this week, faced his own, far more dire health problems, including a major operation that kept him between the hospital and my parents’ home for months of uncertain recovery. We didn’t share every detail with our then 3- and 1-year-old kids, but we explained that Grandpa had an owie, the doctor fixed it, and now he needs to rest. It was the first time in our kids’ lives that a loved one had left our house and not soon returned. And while my dad eventually rejoined our lives, his difficult recuperation revealed other problems that had him set for heart surgery this spring—a date now on hold due to COVID-19 hospital concerns. My dad found out he needed this surgery in February, following a routine post-opt angiogram. He had two options: Have surgery in a few days (an opening was available) or take a few weeks to process the news, continue regaining strength, and enjoy some family time before surgery. My dad chose to wait—largely because he wasn’t about to miss my son’s fourth birthday party.
Create separate spaces for the different parts of life you’re trying to balance. It’s impossible to effectively do so all the time — especially if you live in very finite quarters as most of us do. But I’ve found that simply moving a few feet between our living room (where my family usually hangs out) to our garage (which is cold and kinda gross but now features a makeshift folding table “desk”) to work helps me shift and reset my mindset when needed.
Thankfully, my dad was able to attend my son’s March 1 birthday party, which fell on one of the last weekends when life still felt normal—including 20 preschoolers and dozens of parents packed into a play space, sharing handshakes, hugs, and climbing equipment without fear of the virus that hadn’t yet monopolized the news nor our collective consciousness.
Later that week, realtor.com took the proactively prudent step of encouraging employees in offices located near areas that had had COVID-19 cases to work remotely, as did Apple. The following week, those strong suggestions became mandates, and our son’s preschool closed the same day.
Remember that kids are adjusting to new normals, too, and many of them are too young to understand why or how to do so. Some great wisdom that our family pediatrician gave us is that when young kids act out of control, it’s usually because they’re feeling big feelings that they don’t understand nor know how to handle. They don’t like feeling that way, so screaming at screaming children (however temping) isn’t very effective. When kids lash out amid this disruption to their own lives, simply holding and calming them is often the best remedy. Use these decompression moments to comfort yourself, too.
While those decisions were made for us, my wife and I had to make a difficult choice that was hard for those it most affected to fully understand. Following a candid conversation with a friend who is a doctor and a father of two young kids, my wife and I told our parents that we were going to distance ourselves and our children from them for the foreseeable future. The toughest part of that decision was that the end of this pandemic and its resultant physical distancing weren’t foreseeable at all. Unlike the earthquakes we’d personally experienced while living in the Bay Area, or even the fires that scorched nearby wine country in recent years, this virus’ insidious nature lies in its invisibility.
This crisis isn’t a sudden jolt followed by a literal putting back together of pieces, nor a televised inferno that, while tragic, can at least be contextualized by finite proximity and containment percentage. This situation remains uncertain in many ways, and indefinite. There will likely be no clear, unanimously agreed upon moment when we can share a cathartic exhale and say, “At least it’s finally over.” When the virus is finally contained, it will only be after unimaginable loss and with lingering uncertainty that it won’t return.
This crisis is depressing, but don’t feel guilty for enjoying some of the unique dynamics it presents. I avoid scheduling meetings from 12–1 p.m. because that’s when I get to eat lunch with my family and put my daughter down for her nap. I miss my colleagues and wish I were able to work in the office because I feel more productive when I do so, but since I can’t be there, I’m going to savor the small moments I typically miss on weekdays.
My parents respected our decision to distance ourselves from them, even if they thought we were being overprotective. My dad said he wouldn’t live in fear, so I told him I’d do it for him. I told my parents that I hoped to be proven wrong regarding how worried I was about how bad this might get, but that I’d rather they hate me for awhile now than for me to hate myself forever for even incrementally increasing their risk. My delivery was in deadpan humor, but the sentiment was sincere.
The same day I talked to my parents, my wife spoke with her mother. My in-laws are only 65, and my mother-in-law had still been regularly watching our kids at our house while we went to work (or worked from home), including that day. My mother-in-law understood our decision but fought back tears as she left our home for the last time in what has now been seven weeks. As my mother-in-law walked to her car, our son ran to the window and sobbed. Nana had said goodbye like usual, but our son could sense the sadness. We are luckier than most parents that our children are able to spend regular time with their grandparents, but that also means that indefinite physical separation is even harder for all three generations.
During particularly tense times, remember that unless your stress is due to your health or that of a loved one, you’re probably lucky to have whatever it is you’re stressed about: a job that feels particularly busy, children and/or a partner who are particularly in your space, etc. If you’re battling to balance life, that means you have things worth fighting for.
But children are more resilient than grownups. Our kids are happy and playful most of the time, although they still ask when they will see their grandparents again. We continually explain, in ways that we feel are appropriate for our kids’ ages and personalities, that we don’t know for sure, but that their grandparents love them as much as ever and we can talk to them any time.
Make a schedule — no matter how arbitrary. A semblance of consistency helps give form to otherwise shapeless days, along with the feeling of “flow” that many of us thrive on. Eat meals at around the same time every day (even your late-night quarantine snacks). Maintain a rhythm with your mundane tasks and chores, and even use this ordeal to create new routines. Since we no longer commute, my family now eats dinner by 5:30 p.m., and we actually get our kids bathed and ready for bed at a reasonable hour that never seemed possible before. I still stay up too late, but at least it’s a consistent 1 a.m.
Calibrating the candor with which we explain to our kids the many sudden changes over the last several weeks—including preschool, tee-ball, and swim lessons abruptly stopping—has been tricky. We generally default to age-appropriate honesty, but we’ve been wary of oversharing details because we know how bright, curious, and downright obsessive our kids’ little minds are. We take comfort in their innocence (just in regard to global crises; they cause trouble daily) and try to protect it while still letting them live in and learn about the real world around them.
Two months ago, our family went to dinner on a Friday night. We sat outside, near a large fountain. After dinner, our kids ran to the fountain, admired the coins scattered across the bottom, and then dipped their hands into the water as if to scoop up sips. My wife and I shouted “No!” and explained on the way home that water in such fountains isn’t clean. “But, Dad, it looks clean!” We further explained that many unclean things enter that water (including kids’ grubby hands), leaving behind germs and viruses that are too small to see. The next day, my son asked to watch YouTube videos to learn more about germs and viruses. Later that weekend, at my daughter’s first ballet class, the teacher told the kids to lay on their tummies and tap their fingers. The teacher called this “making ladybugs,” to which our 2-year-old daughter said, “Bugs are viruses that go on your back and bite you and make you sick.” I hope scientists researching COVID-19 have better grasps on such things.
If you’re fortunate enough to be working, be honest with your colleagues when your brain is no good to them. I get burned out earlier each day than I ever did before. There have been times when I’ve gotten an email, wondered why someone was reaching out “so late,” and then realized it was 3 or 4 p.m. I’ve responded to some of these with zombie-like honesty: “I’m happy to help with this, but my brain is broken right now. I’ll get back to you tonight or early tomorrow if that’s OK.” It’s always OK. People get it, and they’d rather get the best you a little later than a shell of you right now.
I find myself stressed, scared, and sad much of the time as this pandemic unfolds. I struggle to find balance. I’m emotionally uneven. I fear for my father, my family, my friends, and the world at large. But I also know I’m not alone—neither literally nor figuratively. I’m very lucky. While I miss having some semblance of alone time, I can’t fathom going through this without being surrounded by loved ones who I can hug, play with, eat with, and sometimes do absolutely nothing with.
I’ve joked that I can’t related to people who say they’re bored, but I realize we all face our own unique challenges as we cope with this together. Some of my friends and colleagues’ lives appear simpler than mine, but I don’t know that for sure. Some of them are struggling with disheartening isolation and other problems that I may be unaware of and/or unable to personally relate to. My issues may differ from those of the amazing younger people I work with, but their struggles also differ from one another’s, and all of our ways and means to cope vary just as greatly. These circumstances are hard for me. Some people may have it better than I do. Many certainly have it far worse. I have a loving family, a rewarding job, and a cozy home with plenty of food. Some people have none or only some of those things. We all have it differently, and our unique challenges are all equally valid.
Don’t feel sorry for feeling sorry for yourself. This situation sucks. Yes, the horrifically tragic pandemic, but also the day-to-day adjustments we’re all making to cope. It’s OK to feel sorry for yourself — just remember to feel sorry for others, too. Besides, there are no social distancing rules against pity parties!
My new resolution is to better accept and adapt to change. I hope this crisis is among the worst life changes any of us ever see, but just as there have been many unexpected twists in recent years, I’m sure there will be lots more surprising turns, bumps, and potholes on the roads still ahead. The only thing I know for certain is that the way to progress is to keep moving forward, even though that’s often the scariest direction to go.