Wow – how things have changed lately. Without going on too much about all the negative things about COVID-19 – I know we all know it by now! – what it means for a lot of people is that we are working from home… and many of us with children home too.
For me, having to stay home with the kids because of coronavirus doesn’t really feel like a huge change or adjustment, more like a sort of resigned return to the familiar. I’ve worked from home for ten years now, and five of those have been with kids. So lately life sort of feels like a surreal version of school summer holidays, one without playdates and play centres and playgrounds and outings and the usual distractions I would ordinarily try to busy our days with.
Both kids have been coping better than I had thought they would (so far). Little Nerd, who is almost five, was disappointed when I said he wouldn’t be going to pre-school any more, which he loves, but he’s been good.
It was harder with Miss Nerd – but more for us than for her, I think. She is 21 months old now, and she had FINALLY got a two-day-a-week place in daycare two months ago. We were loving having more structure and kid-free time in our routine (me especially, as it made work so much easier) and then she finally got to that sweet spot where those heart-wrenching teary drop-offs were subsiding. She started to get excited about going and now she’s not going any more – that is hard. It’s a bummer but it is what it is. I’ve been trying to look on the bright side of the situation, because what else can you do? I think about things I’m grateful for – how lucky are we to have a big, messy garden (I’ve never been so grateful for all these weeds to pull up before!) our cubby house, two happy healthy kids, nice weather, things to paint, nature reserves to walk the dog, birds (little things can be big things). Working from home.
I’ve worked from home since I ‘fell into’ freelance when I was 23. I had a job at a couple of magazines, which I initially loved, then began to hate. I felt really depressed there and had already been job-hunting for a couple of months. I was going to wait to leave until I had something else to move onto, but then one day I ended up snapping at the CEO and quit on the spot without giving it more than about two seconds thought other than knowing I was done. It felt like the BIGGEST weight off my shoulders. I was already freelancing on the side while I worked at the magazines, and decided to pick up more freelance feature writing while I continued to look for another full-time job. I got so much freelance work that I realised I could write full-time. A year later, I backpacked around Europe with my best friend and then I bought the house.
Sometimes I think ‘Ten years of freelance… that’s embarrassing.’ That’s a lot of alone time and conversations with my dog that I often muse have probably stunted my emotional maturity and made me (more) weird. But the introverted part of me really enjoys working from home and the quiet. I like the work-life balance, not being stuck in traffic, the flexibility working from home affords. There are cons, but there are so many pros.
For a good few years, my daily freelance schedule would usually go like this: I’d wake at 7.30, perhaps 8. I’d make my bed, breakfast and coffee, and shuffle to my desk overlooking the garden, where I’d sip coffee and answer emails in my pyjamas, then shower and get ready for my morning house walkthrough, if I had an appointments day. To avoid getting stuck in morning traffic, I’d only time all my appointments to be from 10am onwards. If I had a writing day, I’d write stories until 11am, then change into my exercise clothes and take Nala for a run. Come home, shower, make lunch. Evening – knock off at 5.30, take Nala to the dog park. Come home, cook dinner and watch a movie with Mr Nerd. Or I’d get ready to go out for dinner and a drink with a friend, then do a little bit more writing before bed. Or I’d go to indoor beach volleyball, or perhaps a Zumba class. The evening was my oyster.
And then I had kids.
Working from home with little kids is possibly one of the biggest PAINS IN THE ARSE you could experience. (I try not to swear on my blog, otherwise I would have used a choice swear word there).
But trying to be productive and lucrative while you have a really small, irritating version of yourself glued to your side asking inane questions or deleting all your unread emails can be almost impossible.
I think most parents will understand that feeling when they’ve finally settled the baby down for a nap and thought, “Right! Now I can quickly get to x,” only to have the baby declare catnapping is trendy and wake just 20 minutes later, spoiling all your plans. Or maybe you’ve felt the fatigue as you’re typing a Very Important Email while gritting your teeth at the 498th, “Hey, Mummy…?” of the day. Or perhaps you could just about cry because it seems like your children are diabolical, deliberately trying to sabotage your career… surprisingly, they’re not. But it feels like they are.
Doing a job with kids at home is bloody HARD. No matter how organised I try to be, every day, there are still tasks I need to do, emails to be answered or calls to return, that require focused time at my desk, ideally without bloodcurdling screams and wails in the background. My husband is often on work trips, so I’ve always been extremely grateful to my mum, who helps me out a LOT with the kids, not to mention family, aunties and aunty-figures who also give me a hand. I have a lot of help. I also have a lot of wine 😉 Because juggling a job and trying to be a good parent can be really hard. I try not to think about the latest reports that we might be in lockdown for up to six months – I try to take it day by day and get through each day as best as we can.
And now let’s move on to how we can manage it and try to make working at home with children work for us.
I’m going to use this highly idealised photo of me and Little Nerd that was taken for an online magazine a few years ago to illustrate this. IT’S NOT LIKE THIS AT ALL NOW I HAVE TWO KIDS so this pic makes me laugh.
Work in nap times.
I know this is so obvious that it probably doesn’t need stating, but if your little one has nap time, you get your coffee and you work. Don’t procrastinate and do household tasks. I know it’s SO tempting to tidy up the house first, maybe dawdle a little, check Instagram… don’t. Look, I am a Virgo, and a procrastinating one at that. NO-ONE understands the NEED to have a neatly colour-coordinated sock drawer before addressing that urgent deadline due at 5pm more than me. It’s very tempting to have a perfectly tidied, clean house before you sit down to work and to get that done while the baby is asleep, but I have lost count of the number of times I have thought, “I’ll just tidy up the kitchen…” and you’ve only just settled into your desk chair and the baby rouses and it’s game over. I try to do as much ‘brainless’ stuff as I can (like cleaning and folding laundry) when the kids are awake.
If you have toddlers, give up on the idea that you can do your best focused, productive work while they are awake.
Look, I know some people can do it – I don’t know how – but personally I find it SUPER difficult to try to get any REALLY focused work while the kids are with me. I can’t write while someone is yapping in my ear. So I don’t. Little Nerd is 4, and not SO bad, but at one-and-a-half, Miss Nerd is definitely too young to understand. I very rarely try to work while I’m looking after them. They’re not happy, I end up snipping at them, I can’t give my all to my work either, and I hate myself for being a snappy parent. I only jump onto my computer while they’re awake if I absolutely HAVE to. I just give in to spending time with them and busying ourselves while they are awake.
Plus, I think you will get MUCH more done in one hour of truly focused time than you can in four hours of trying to work while the kids are clawing at you and you want to rip your hair out.
See if you can tag-team.
If your partner is also working from home, perhaps you can work out a routine so you each get focused time to work while the other distracts the kids.
Be nice to yourself.
“Be gentle to yourself”. “You are enough”. “You got this Mama”. Sometimes the clichéd Instagrammy affirmations make me vomit in my mouth a little, sometimes they make me burst into tears (this REALLY depends on what kind of week with the kids I’m having) but it is important to be kind to yourself, don’t stress the small stuff so much. When you’re upset, ask yourself, will this matter in a year? Probably not. You’ll have good days and bad days, but on the plus side, thousands of people are in the exact same boat as you.
Get outdoors and get fresh air every day – you and the kids.
Yes, even if it’s cold. (Although, we seem to be having the longest summer EVER in Perth, and it’s still not cold). This is the German side of me speaking. German people know the value of sun and fresh air, even when it’s freezing.
My mum, who hails from a tiny country town south of Bremen, always told me about how in Germany people bundle up the babies snug and warm in their prams and take them for a walk or just pop them out by the front door. “And at crèche, even when it’s cold, they put the thick jackets on and the boots and the hats on the kids, and they send them out to play in the woods,” my mum says sagely, and I’m like nodding enthusiastically about this slightly disconcerting woodland daycare: “YES, YES. PUT THE LITTLE BABIES IN THE WOODS.” Ok, I sound psychotic, but I am a freak about fresh air and some sun. It’s good for everyone, they’ll sleep better, you’ll sleep better and you’ll ALL feel better and less cabin-fever-y every day if you can get outside every day as much as you can.
I know I’m not the only one who often finds themselves having a bad day, but then you get outside in the fresh air and start moving and automatically you start to feel better. The staying at home rules have clamped down recently but at least in WA we are still allowed outside to walk the dog, run or ride bikes – make the most of it and do it every day, at least once a day. The moment you start you’ll feel so much better.
This won’t suit everyone – you need to figure out what works for you – but I try to herd my two outside EVERY morning immediately after breakfast for at least two hours. For us I find it burns off a bit of their steam and kind of puts them both in a calm, happy mindframe (and me too because I love being out in the garden) which sets us up better for the rest of the day. Then after morning tea, Miss Nerd goes down for her nap and I work while Little Nerd does his home school stuff.
Take care of your mental health.
Binge on Netflix. Do puzzles. Read. Work on projects around the house. Garden. Go for a run and have a kebab. Whatever it is you like to do that takes your mind off all your corona worries. Even juggling work at home, you can still ‘make the most of’ the time we’re having at home; and your mental wellbeing is paramount right now. If you have little kids at home and you’re still trying to juggle your own job, don’t stress too much about giving them this perfect, highly creative home schooling experience right now. I feel like there’s so much ‘social expectancy’ right now on often already-stressed out, anxious parents to be filling their kids’ days with all kinds of creative and fun and interesting educational activities while juggling their own jobs too. I’m impressed by people who can do it, but give yourself a break. All the kids will be fine.
A loose routine can be a good idea for your sanity – also, always try to start your day on a good note.
At this point I feel like I’m getting wary of sounding like another one of those bossy people saying, “WHAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW” because we all have enough on our plates right now. We don’t need more worry about what we “should” be doing (other than staying home as much as possible). So, you only need to heed this if you feel like you are struggling to manage the chaos of working from home with kids. I’ve always been one of those frenetic, “I MUST BE DOING THINGS, the house must be reasonably tidy or I’m going to scream” people and so for me ‘doing things’ is my way of feeling ok. It might not be yours and that’s ok.
You don’t need to have a super-strict routine in place (unless this suits you and you enjoy it). But getting into a loose routine can be a good idea and for me anyway, I’ve always found it eases some of my stress, because then I can plan at least a little and know when I can get my work done. Like these days, I KNOW that when the baby naps at about 11am I will be able to head to my desk and get some work done and I should have at least two hours of focused time, and that makes me feel more in control.
Also, try to set yourself up to win. Do little things all the time rather than letting them pile up too much. With my hubby away quite a lot for work I’m often on my own with the kids. When he’s away every night I clean up the kitchen and try to do a quick tidy up and wipe down before I go to bed – no matter how tired I am. I am NOT a morning person, so the idea of doing this in the morning, with the kids yapping at me, makes me even more grumpy. Plus, I’m slow and stupid first thing in the morning, much more likely to break my favourite mug as I’m packing it into the dishwasher – or my ‘mother elixir goblet’ (*cough wine glass*). Do a load of laundry every day. Every time you leave a room take one piece of random crap with you and put it away. Have them do their schoolwork at the kitchen bench while you clean up and talk to them at whatever time in the day. Look for these small things that you can do so you don’t feel like you’re losing your mind.
Remember the dog rule – a tired dog is a happy dog.
One of my mates (hi Gabby!) runs her own business from home and juggles this around two little boys. I still remember her telling me, when I was pregnant with Miss Nerd, that the trick to managing two little kids is to treat them like dogs. “You need to run them hard, TWICE A DAY.”
“The playground twice a day?” I groaned.
“Every day,” said Gabby sagely.
At present, we can’t go to the playground, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get them tired in the garden – send them off on their scooters or bikes, put on the sprinklers, have a scavenger hunt through the house and make them find things of different colours, put washi tape on the floor through the house and have them do an obstacle course around the house, or play a fun game where they climb onto and jump off their toy trunk 35 times while you shout, “AGAIN” like a deranged ringmaster (not that I’ve done that).
Work off somatic anxiety.
If I’m trying to work but I’m finding in one of those edgy, anxious moods and not really getting any writing of substance done – I don’t fight it. I stop and do something else. Honestly, sometimes it’s just NOT going to work, you’re not going to be in the right headspace, sometimes everything I try to write is complete shit. Rather than trying to force it, take a break (if you can).
I either do ‘admin’ with my brainless time – I send out invoices or answer emails. Or I give up on work entirely and go for a run to clear my head or I clean up, do household tasks or start dinner – basically anything that keeps you busy so you get rid of that nervous tension. You can come back to it later – often I stop and return when the kids are in bed and I feel so much better. Or make the next day your clean start.
Eat well and keep exercising.
I know this is also obvious, but I have learned, the hard way (and several times, over and over… because I clearly don’t learn lessons the first time round) to prioritise my own health and fitness as a working parent. So many people prioritise the kids and I’m guilty of this too – for example, making them a healthy balanced meal then being so tired once they’re in bed you fall into the mistake of eating crap . But when you are healthy and mentally you’re in a good place, you can look after your kids better. YOU are number one.
Resist the lure of the couch!
The kids are down, you’ve closed their bedroom doors and breathed a sigh of exhausted relief – now I know you’re tired and that it’s SO tempting to collapse on the couch and watch something mindless on Netflix while simultaneously scrolling and messaging friends, but once you do that, it’s going to be even harder to prise your butt off the couch and go to your desk. Trust me – I’ve made that mistake many, many times.
Don’t sit there! If you are really knackered, go to bed (I have to admit this is what my husband is always telling me, “Just go to bed! You can do it tomorrow when you’re fresh!”) but if you have some energy left and you know you could get a bit of your work done, you might feel better for it tomorrow. I know it’s not what we really want to be doing, but I often get a lot done at night when the kids are down. I used to do it a LOT when we only had one kid, but I find having two kids so much more exhausting than one, so I don’t as much any more (and I don’t really like to) but sometimes it’s the only way. You might only need to sacrifice a few nights in the week to make a dent in your work, and you can reward yourself the other nights with a Netflix binge.
To console your broken heart that really wants to be living its best iso life watching Tiger King and eating Twisties, make working at night as pleasurable as you can. Pour yourself a little wine, light a nice candle on your desk, or make yourself a cup of tea and get a chocolate-covered cookie from the secret place you’ve hidden them from your husband (please. Like I’m the only one who does this). It’s just like when you were a kid and it’s the weekend but you have a project due – you’ll feel so much better when it’s done, rather than it bugging you. Last night I knew I wouldn’t be able to work in the morning with the kids up, and I had a deadline this morning, so after the kids went to sleep, I worked til 11pm. Not what I wanted to do, ideally, but the other option would have been trying to do it in the morning with them both awake and annoying.
If your partner is also working from home, see if you can organise ‘shifts’ to swap childcare and work.
I long ago gave up on the idea of trying to get real, focused work done while I have a person under three awake and with me. Kids have a knack for just SENSING when you’re trying to do something important and will do whatever they can in their power to harangue you. I swear, I feel like mine could be happily playing some make believe game in their own little world for 40 minutes and I’ll think, “Ooh, maybe I’ll just quickly sit at my desk and sneak a little work in while they’re happy and engaged,” and the MOMENT I sit down, they both stop playing, the bigger one is asking some inane question like how many pockets does the moon have, the little one is clambering up onto my lap pretending she wants a cuddle while really she’s stealthily perma-deleting half my emails while I’m distracted by the big one asking me how many farts are in a cow’s bum.
Your kids might be old to start understanding why working, in peace, is important. I try to explain to our four year old the importance of Mummy and Daddy working because it gives us money.
“Ooooh, for more toys?”
Get a police jacket.
My husband just last night told me about a colleague who now has to work from home. The kids bugged and interrupted him so much that he bought a police-uniform-like jacket. Then he informed the kids that when he was wearing the police jacket, he was doing very IMPORTANT work and he was NOT to be interrupted. Anyway, it worked. Now they tiptoe into his office, see him in the jacket and quietly walk out, I imagine in awed, respectful silence. GENIUS.
Also see if you can set up your home office in a space where you have a door. And a lock.
Scare them, bribe them, lie to them, whatever you need to do.
Currently, the Easter Bunny is my savior for encouraging good behavior. “Remember, the Easter Bunny is watching.”(The Easter Bunny is clearly like God, or Santa Claus).
I’ve also told Little Nerd that now he is doing school from home, his teacher has asked that I text her photos and tell her what we’ve been up to through the day. This is a lie, but he’s been very well-behaved (thank you Miss Whitehouse).
The other day he got stroppy when I asked him to put his jumper on for the fifth time and I sighed and picked up my phone and he shouted, aghast, “Don’t message that to Miss Whitehouse! I’ll put my jumper on!” I wasn’t texting Miss Whitehouse, I was planning to escape to Instagram, but I went with it and sighed, “Fiiiine. I won’t text her…. THIS TIME.”
Get your kids to pitch in with household and garden tasks.
I’m totally okay with sounding like a crazy slave driver. I know that sometimes kids do such a bad job of something, or take so long, or whinge so much about being asked to do something, that it’s easier to just think, “Ugh, I’ll just do it myself”. But I think if you can do your best to get them doing things, it will pay off in the long run. It will distract them in the meantime and one day they won’t be shit at it.
Make them do things around the house to help you out. Little Nerd is four and he is perfectly capable of helping me fold and put away laundry. If he wants to watch ABC Kids, he knows he has to pick up his toys, tidy his desk and maybe help me put away some laundry first. The other day his sister was napping and he kept complaining, “What can I DO? What can I DO?” Nothing I suggested appeased him and I was becoming more and more irritated until I suggested he cleaned the windows, which he enjoyed. Did he do a perfect, completely streak-free job? No. Were they still much cleaner than they were before he started and did he not bug me for a full 15 minutes? Yes. You have to count the little wins.
His little sister is 18 months and still useless, except for that one time she put her empty chip packet in the bin.
Try to keep TV as the ultimate bribe and distraction.
Ahhh, the electronic babysitter! My dear friend.
As much as I love the first few blissful minutes of uninterruption I get from turning on ABC Kids, Mr Nerd and I have always found that TV can be a slippery slope. With our two, the less TV they get, the less they ask and whinge for it. The more TV they get, the more it seems to sort of compound. You might get that initial peace and quiet while they’re watching, but after TV they are ALMOST ALWAYS EXTRA-ANNOYING, which is when I try to herd them outside again in the hope they’ll stop killing each other. I always weigh up the butthole factor – is it worth them watching TV so I can get something done, like meet my deadline or cook dinner on a stovetop without someone attached to my leg trying to bite me through my Lorna Janes? It often is. But to keep TV feeling like ‘a special treat’, don’t have it on all day; keep it as a lifeline so that when it’s on, they are GLUED to it, which will give you hopefully 20 minutes of focused time before they inevitably start annoying you again. Also, the rule is Little Nerd has to tidy up all his stuff if he wants to watch TV, which gives me one less thing to do. Crack that whip.
I feel like right now we all need TV, so use it and don’t feel guilty. No-one needs more parental guilt, especially now when lots of us already feel edgy!
Don’t forget! This is temporary.
It’s only a stage, and if you don’t ‘master’ working at home with kids (and I STILL haven’t after FIVE years!) – that’s ok, and normal. Even if it lasts for months, this stage is only a relatively short part of your life in the whole scheme of your life. It will pass.
I hope you’re all doing ok. Maya x