While most parents have worked from home with their kids for the occasional sick day or weather-related school closure, the prospect of doing so for weeks on end amid long-term school closures is especially daunting.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close across the country, and many employees are already working from home. With social distancing keeping people isolated for the time being, school and work are now taking place at home, and largely at the same time.
“It has been stressful figuring it out,” said Alicia Carrithers a fitness company marketer and single mom to two boys, ages 9 and 1, who lives in Kirkland, Washington. She is working from home and her son’s school is closed until at least April 24.
A nanny and the baby’s father will split time with her youngest while she works. Her older son’s school is developing a distance learning plan.
“But how much am I going to need to manage him doing that work?” she said. “He’s nine and tends to turn toward video games. I only have one laptop that I use for my job.”
As families face these new challenges to work-life balance in close quarters, parents are trying to keep their kids healthy and busy while still doing their jobs and not totally losing their minds.
How can parents make this work?
Set a tone of understanding and empathy
Working from home with our children for an unknown period of time is uncharted territory for families, said Elana Benatar, a child therapist at Lotus Point Wellness in the Washington DC area.
“We are all figuring it out,” she said. “It might get a little messy.”
It is important to talk to children about what is happening, at an age appropriate level, she said. Some children may not understand what is going on and only see that you are limiting them in ways that don’t seem reasonable.
“Explain to them that we are all trying to look out for our community,” Benatar said.
It’s like that old “Mister Rogers'” quote, about responding to scary news by asking people to ‘Look for the helpers,’ she said. “They are being the helpers right now,” she said. “Part of how we help each other right now is to stay home.”
If Mister Rogers doesn’t register, explain social distancing using Elsa and Anna of Disney’s “Frozen” movies. Elsa had to stay away from her sister to keep her sister safe.
Organizing your child’s days around work time that can’t be interrupted will be best for most families, Benatar said. Have an engaging activity planned or screen time available to keep them busy will help get you through your toughest work obligations.
Establish a routine early, and stick with it
Katie Stone Perez, a program manager for Xbox in Redmond, Washington, who pulled her daughters Emma, 8, and Elizabeth, 10, out of their school on March 2, has already been working from home with her kids for a couple of weeks.
While some parents are looking to home school schedules and sharing lists of online activities that are temporarily waiving subscription fees, others are removing the caps on screen time. Perez is trying to strike the balance between the two.
But technology in the morning proved troublesome, Perez said. “If I let them have electronics first thing in the morning, their attitudes go downhill and they fight and bicker.”
Instead they start with a “care plan,” like getting dressed, having breakfast, getting outside for a bit. Then they do their “work plan” for the day, which includes school work as well as supplemental activities Perez found like documentaries on Disneynature that have activity packets to download on subjects including the Arctic, pandas and pirates.
In the late afternoon they socialize and play video games with friends remotely, including creating a “realm” in MineCraft so that they have a safe invite-only space to hang out.
Her kids are also getting a dose of life skills, too, because: “The dishes. Oh my god. It is real,” she said. “If they can come out of this and be more self-sufficient around the house, that’s tremendous.”
Divide and … get by
Maira Wenzel and her husband both work for Microsoft and have been working from home for two weeks. They found that they can work together in the one office they have, but not if they are both on calls.
“We made another little office, but it is in the middle of the kids’ playroom,” she said.
Appearing on video calls surrounded by toys has helped her colleagues to be more understanding of the situation, Wenzel said, especially now that her kindergartener and third grader have joined them after their school closed on Thursday.
She and her husband plan to divide up kid-duty based on their work calendars.
On Friday, the kids’ first day home, Wenzel treated it like a day off, letting them play video games and relax, before settling into a routine. But she had to step in to quiet them when her husband was on a conference call and the children were screaming.
“Eventually it will happen to everyone,” she said.
There is no professional advantage to pretending things are normal, said Nicole Coomber, a professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland.
You will reduce your anxiety and better manage everyone’s expectations if you are upfront with coworkers about what is going on, she says.
“We know that when teams have high levels of trust and a feeling of safety, they are better performing,” she said. “When you are open with colleagues, it helps them understand they can be honest, too.”
She put this into practice on Friday when she took her four sons, ages 4 to 9, hiking, even though she also had a conference call. With 50-plus attendees on the call, she modeled being real for others by acknowledging that she was with her kids outdoors.
Similarly, be honest with yourself about having your kids at home, she said.
“Our kids’ teachers are professionals,” she said. “I can’t become an elementary teacher overnight. It is unrealistic for most of us and everyone needs to have more grace with themselves at work and at home.”
Especially since, for a while anyway, they are one and the same.