When Your Home Becomes Your Office — And Daycare
I’m a single mom. I’ve been there.
Hi. I hope you are doing okay. What a time we are in. Godspeed. Okay, to business.
I’m a single mom to an almost-five year old. I work for myself — I run an online professional network for women and am a writer, lyricist and consultant — so not only do I work from home, but I often do so at odd hours depending on when news breaks or the need otherwise arises. The bottom line: I have done LOTS of work while being distracted by my child. That work has frequently taken much longer than it should have. But for those of you coming off of a harrowing first few days of trying to work while also being a putative full-time homeschooler, I promise you — it is possible.
Here are a few thoughts on how to make this work, with the caveat that I am hours late on this story because of [gestures broadly]. I am no one’s productivity expert! But I’ve written stanzas from the playground and sent edits back and forth while pushing a stroller and done a live TV segment while breastfeeding and, just today, led a very professional Zoom call with a child climbing on my head. So in this very unique and weird set of circumstances in which we now find ourselves, I’m kind of an expert.
Here are some tips.
Boundaries! Save! Sanity!
Coming from someone who has few of them (see above re: child climbing on my head), I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to establish them. Especially now.
For your partner: TAP EACH OTHER OUT. If you both try to work and teach/caretake at the same time you will both need a break. Set a rigorous, separated schedule and adhere to it. Closed door. Bose headphones on. (Staggered wake-up times can help here, too.) I’m not married but I have amazing family members who, when we are together, make sure I have time away from Ruby when I need to work. Sorry kid, mommy’s not available. (Sometimes I get a babysitter when I’m home, just so someone else can do bath and bedtime, and I hide in the kitchen with my computer. I wrote that in the present tense — and I’m not going to change it.)
If your partner — of whatever gender, but c’mon, let’s be serious — somehow fails to grok that household labor is a shared enterprise, be blunt. This has been a shock to the system, might as well go all the way. You can (digitally) pick up Fair Play by Eve Rodsky or All The Rage by Darcy Locksman for some strategies on how to set new and explicit boundaries.
For your friends and family: Right now, everyone wants to check in with each other, which is natural. Everyone is emailing, everyone is Zooming (new fixture of our new reality) and your folks are FaceTiming on the hour because they miss their grandkids. It’s hard and it’s heartbreaking but also, you need to actually get things done. If you can schedule check-ins in tandem with both sides of the family it will save time and feel just like Thanksgiving. Just kidding — finally there is one thing even more stressful than this!
For everyone else: My friend Melanie Hopkins who runs her own financial consulting firm now has an addendum to her email signature: “**PLEASE NOTE THAT DUE TO SCHOOL CLOSURES MY WORK SCHEDULE WILL BE M-F 8:30AM-1:30PM THROUGH 3/29/20.” Now that’s a boundary. I know not everyone has the autonomy to call their own work hours but to the extent you can circumscribe your availability, Lucy van Pelt style, it will help.
Even in the time of coronavirus — actually, especially at this time — other people don’t get to decide how you prioritize your time. (Unless they’re going to pay you lots of money. That’s a consideration.) You need to be healthy and stay optimistic, and that will be a lot harder if you are weighed down by what everyone else wants. Boundaries are your friend.
Your Kids Will Be Fine If You Ignore Them
I don’t mean put them in a room with a phone and come back to them at happy hour. But when you really need the time, you just have to take it. Your kid will be fine. You just have to take it.
(You will pay for it after, often in the form of cleanup, or them being a nightmare to get to bed. But don’t expect every hour of the day to be perfect. It won’t be.)
My friend Lyz Lenz, a journalist and author, is also a single mom and recently published a terrific thread on Twitter with tips for simultaneously parenting her two children while meeting deadlines. Some of her suggestions are genius — like playing “tattoo parlor” with washable markers — wherein she gives you a peek at the future in the form of her kids being just fine.
You can also press mute on a phone call — and walk away from your child while you briefly un-mute to speak. If you are on a video call, by all means angle that screen up to capture your serene, competent face, while somewhere around your knees a wailing toddler hugs you for dear life.
Of course, when they need you, they’ll really need you, and you’ll just have to push the rest off. But you have work to do, and you need to keep things going.
…But Help Them Help You
Everywhere you turn online, you will see one thing emphasized for your kids and your household above all: Structure. I am here to give you zero advice on this, as I am drawing up schedules for the first time with the rest of you (except for those of you who excel at structure, and to you I say, brava).
But I have realized that the more I can signal to Ruby when I am working, the better off we both are. And the most confusing signal of all is the phone.
To Ruby, the phone is where her videos live. It’s where she can find her Bubby and Zaida and Auntie and Daddy’s faces. It’s the thing mommy trains at her at all times saying, “Smile!” and “Do that thing you just did again! Please honey please!” So when she grabs it away from you in the middle of an important email, she doesn’t get that you’re working.
It’s going to take effort to unlearn our phone habits, but it will help a lot to offload from phone to computer, and make it clear that computer is work. Kids will get it — but phones are confusing because they think they are toys.
Setting aside clearly-delineated areas for work and play will help a lot, too. Prior to this week my desk was used as a place to pile things upon, and then things upon those things, because I prefer to sit on the couch when I work. But now that we have rearranged the living room to be the play area, I will need to reclaim the desk as the place where Mommy works. Signaling will help our kids know when we need them to give us space.
Oh right, that. Look, we are all living under a cloud of uncertainty and dread, and that is tough. But you can still do things that you love, and that your kids love, and enjoy each other. Probably my top tip: Sing! It’s hard to be sad while singing unless it’s, like, Adele. If you can’t think of anything, put on Grease. You probably know all the words. Ditto for 80s music (why do I know so many songs by Toto), Springsteen, or Beyoncé. Music is joy. You deserve that.
Also try to find things to watch and listen to and do with your kids. A smart YouTube video. Fun yoga. That pepper-and-soap virus simulation. Or rearranging the furniture as per the above. Whatever! Be jolly. It will help.
This sounds like I am way more disciplined and productive than I am. I most definitely am not! I’m finishing this up while we watch Frozen 2. I’ve just been juggling the home office-slash-daycare for almost five years, so I’ve learned a few things. I promise you can still be productive. Just maybe not as productive as you were a week ago.
This originally appeared in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.