It’s only been a few days of working from home with a baby and a toddler, and I’m already feeling the way most people are feeling about 2020: is this for real? As we’re all adjusting to a new normal and figuring this out as we go, I’m sharing a few things that have helped me work from home with the most inconsiderate colleagues I’ve ever known: my 8-month-old and my 3-year-old.
First, let me say that as a mom with a full-time job outside of the house, I’ve never really had to worry about how to organize our days around education and entertainment. And to be quite honest, it doesn’t come naturally to me.
I’m also undeniably not crafty, so if you’re looking for some ideas from a fellow non-Pinterest mom about how to keep your kids alive while staying sane and getting your work done, you’ve come to the right place.
What works for me may not work for everyone, but read on for five ways I’m navigating this uncharted territory.
1. Setting expectations
This is a big one. And it goes beyond setting expectations with your employer. It includes setting expectations with your kids, your partner or co-parent, and yes, yourself.
Hot take: whatever standard you usually hold yourself to at work or at home … lower it. By a lot. For us perfectionists, this is hard. For us anxious types, this is hard. Like many of us, I much prefer to give my full attention to the task at hand—when I’m at work, I’m at work, and when I’m home with the kids, I’m home with the kids.
But working at home with the kids means that being 100 percent present for anything just isn’t realistic. I’ve accepted that my toddler will have more screen time than I’d like (more on that later), and I’ve accepted that I’ll be slower responding to email than I’d like.
With my employer
Working from home with kids is obviously much different than working from home without kids. At first, every time I heard my email ping in the midst of feeding my baby or managing another threenager meltdown, I felt a knot in my stomach.
I felt like I was going to get “caught” doing something I shouldn’t be doing, when in reality, I had to take care of my kids. After I let my manager know that I would try to be available as much as possible during normal working hours, but that many things would be getting done after bedtime, my self-induced anxiety about not being on my professional A-game disappeared.
With my kids
My kids are too young to understand what is going on outside of our home, but we had to address the change in my toddler’s routine so that he would know what to expect. We kept it simple: “The next few weeks are going to be different. You’re not going to go to school. You’re going to stay home with mommy and daddy, but we will be on our computers more than we usually are.”
As any reasonable 3-year-old would respond, he was like, “Great, got it, I’ll just keep myself busy then.” Yeah, no. He’s still a toddler, and he still acts like one. However, because he somewhat understands that I will be on my computer more, he isn’t constantly asking me what I’m doing like he normally would.
With my husband
I understand and sympathize with the fact that not everyone can work from home right now. In our case, my husband’s employer made working from home optional, and I made it mandatory. Aside from the public health benefits of working from home at a time like this, the logic is simple: we both have jobs + we both have kids = we both work from home.
2. Taking turns
It took us less than a half a day to realize that neither of us would get anything done if we were both on parenting duty while working. Every night, we look at calendars for the next day and divide up parenting shifts: before nap and after nap.
Whoever has fewer conference calls or deadlines in the morning is on the before nap parenting shift and vice versa. With this approach, we are both guaranteed to have some mostly uninterrupted work time. Never have I ever been more efficient.
When I’m on my parenting shift, I’m still technically working, but I’m also the snack-maker, potty-taker, diaper-changer, and entertainer. It’s just less stressful because I’ve either already accomplished a number of work tasks in the morning, or I know that I will be able to in the afternoon.
3. Creating a safe space
A pro tip from one of my favorite parenting gurus, Janet Lansbury: create a “yes space” for your little ones, in particular, babies. I can leave a room for a few minutes knowing that my toddler is safe, but not so with my newly crawling baby.
A “yes space” is a contained area with age-appropriate toys and no safety hazards where I can place the baby to independently play for chunks of time while I’m responding to emails or joining conference calls.
We set up ours in the family room where both of us can still see the “yes space” and the baby from our respective work stations. I’m not a huge fan of our family room looking like a daycare, but that’s the reality right now.
Want to create your own? Here are a few items to get you started:
4. Saying OK to screen time
This goes along with lowering your standards, and it might not be the most popular thing, but the truth is that right now when my toddler says “screen time,” I say, “how much?” While I try to be thoughtful about the programs he consumes, I’d be lying if I said we haven’t watched Frozen II more than five times since Disney+ released it early.
It won’t be like this forever, and while he’s getting more TV time than normal, he’s still getting plenty of old-fashioned book reading, coloring, and exercise. We’ve just loosened our grip on limiting screen time. And that’s OK … for now.
5. Inviting participation
Speaking of exercise, I consider it necessary for my own sanity. I usually get an hour to myself a few days a week at an early morning workout class. Guess what I’m doing in my basement now a few mornings before signing on for work?
It’s no longer an hour to myself, but an hour for my toddler to join and run and jump and kick to his heart’s desire. The more energy he expends, the better.
Another fun “game” we’re playing? The Office. It’s definitely not as fun as binge-watching The Office, but when I need to get things done, I give my toddler a pretend work assignment, and he sits at his little toddler table “working” in the same room as me. If only my work included coloring books, Play-Doh, and conference calls with Mickey Mouse.
Of course, inviting a baby to participate looks a little different. Basically, this one is simple: babywearing. When she gets sick of the confines of her yes space, she rides around in her Ergobaby carrier while I work at my standing desk. And by standing desk, I mean my kitchen island.
Here’s to hoping this is all soon a distant memory.