Thursday, March 26, 2020

Working From Home With Kids

Balancing a laptop and a sleeping newborn in my lap

With many people working from home and a more general acceptance of employees being full human beings with families and personal interests, I’d like to discuss my experience working at home with young kids.

“The ability to work with young children at home is zero,” claims a popular tweet posted a couple weeks ago as many companies and institutions in the United States temporarily shifted to encouraged or mandatory work-at-home status for many of their employees.

I assure you, it’s not zero. I’ve been working at home with young children for 4 years. In this time, I’ve created and run a small business, traveled for conferences and other business trips, helped organize conferences and events, taken on additional pro bono work, written and published a book, and cared for two young children. Without childcare or local family to assist.

Here are my tips to help with working from home with kids, which may or may not resonate with you:

  • Embrace the flexibility of working from home.
  • Embrace kid interruptions.
  • Encourage your kids to become independent.
  • Take advantage of quieter times.
  • Accept help if you can.
  • Accept that some days are really, really hard.
  • Have fun!

Embrace the flexibility of working from home

So many work-from-home guides encourage keeping a strict office schedule, only working in a home office, avoiding house chores during the day, and other strategies to emulate the office environment at home. That seems to work for many people. That does not work for me.

I proudly defy most conventional work-from-home advice. I encourage you to embrace the flexibility working at home offers. You can work from anywhere. Any piece of furniture or even standing up or walking. From any device or platform (desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, even a pen and paper if that’s your thing). In any room. Even outside in your yard or out-and-about. A working environment does not need to be constrained by the office life you’re used to.

Most of the time, you can also work when you want. There may be immovable telecons, phone calls, deadlines, and others’ schedules. But outside of those constraints, your time is yours to plan the way you’d like. If you’re a morning person, embrace the quiet still of the morning and be productive at 5 AM. If you’re a night owl like me who sleeps in as much as motherhood allows, embrace the quiet still of the night. Some days, I’m in the zone at midnight and can work for a couple hours at home at a time not conventionally seen as a time to work in an office.

Flexibility of schedule also means you can break up your day as you please. In an office, you may take breaks to grab a snack, use the bathroom, strike up a conversation with a coworker, take a walk, and whatever else you need to do to recharge. At home, you have even more flexibility to take a breather during the day when you need to. Don’t feel guilty for not working 8 hours straight at home; you’re a human, not a machine. Life is more than just working.

Embrace kid interruptions

Young kids will need you. Depending on the child, the situation, and the home environment, some kids are more in need of help and attention than others. This may seem incompatable with work, but with practice, you can work around these interruptions. See above: your time is flexible. A coworker may interrupt you at any time in an office setting. Your kids are your coworkers and they provide you with breaks from work throughout the day.

My 2-year-old is still in diapers so I expect breaks for multiple diaper changes throughout the day, usually not on my schedule. The kids need to eat, so I feed them when I eat: breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks throughout the day. My 4-year-old usually fetches her own snacks when she’s hungry. I also provide them with drinks throughout the day.

When they need me, depending on the nature of the need and what I’m currently working on, I either pause work immediately to care for them or find a good time to pause my work before caring for them. Coincidentally, I was in the middle of writing the previous sentence when my 2-year-old asked me for a drink refill. It’s not an urgent need, so I will pause my writing to refill all our drinks at the end of this paragraph, so, now.

Breaks can also be for fun rather than for need. Enjoy time with your kids. Give them your attention when you can. Play with them. It doesn’t need to be long, just a few minutes. Or perhaps you can spare an hour to do an activity with them or to take a full afternoon off. Even just a few minutes here and there helps to reconnect throughout the day.

Encourage your kids to become independent

The ability for your kids to occupy themselves independent of you depends on their age, their personality, and your home environment. Where at all possible and safe, allow your kids to play or work independently while you work. Depending on their age and inclination to get in trouble, you can be in the room with them or allow them to be elsewhere without you.

Both my kids have been very independent from a young age. I’d even call my 4-year-old fiercely independent. Neither has ever had any problems entertaining themselves. Whether this is innate within their personalities or just how I raised them, I’m not sure. But it sure helps to get work done when I don’t need to divide my attention too much.

This doesn’t mean I work as if my kids don’t exist. I almost always work in the same room where my 2-year-old is playing. I keep an eye on him with my laptop in front of me. I prefer to watch both my kids in the same room, but this usually isn’t the case. My 4-year-old, as independent as she is roaming the house, is also endlessly curious and very clever with a tendency to get into things she shouldn’t, so I take breaks to check up on her frequently.

How would this work if my kids were older? Your parenting styles and education philosophies likely differ from mine, but I’ll offer my viewpoint anyway: we embrace adult-facilitated student-directed home education, often called unschooling. Home education does not need to look like school at home. Trust that your kids are learning all the times and especially learning when they are self-directed and engaged in an activity or topic that is interesting to them. Under normal circumstances, we take our kids out into the world to learn from the world and from other people. But even at home, we have books, toys, iPads, TVs, activities, and the endless resources of the internet.

Babies are understandably the most in need of your time and attention. Maternity leave is truly needed after a baby is born. I do not expect to get much work done in August when my third baby is expected. Parents with young babies need to be the most gentle with themselves about how much work they can realistically accomplish. Some babies sleep long stretches or are content to exist without much direct attention. Neither of my babies were like this. My babies were constantly attached to me. In those early months, I used voice diction or typed with one hand, used my phone more than my laptop, warned people about my baby-in-arms during calls, napped throughout the day, and set low expectations for my own productivity.

Take advantage of quieter times

When my kids were younger, they used to nap more frequently. There were times I struck gold and both napped simultaneously! I took advantage of those quieter times to really focus on work that needed my undivided attention.

More often, I find the quiet freedom of late nights when I’m still awake and can work while activity in my house has stopped and activity online (email and social media) is minimal. My husband, for the same reason, works his side project in the very early morning hours before the sun has risen and the hustle of the day has begun.

Accept help if you can

Many work-from-home parents have spouses, other family members, babysitters, or other childcare options they can take advantage of to give them more time for focused attention on work. If you have someone who can help you watch the kids, for your own sanity, I encourage you to accept.

Because of the circumstances of our family, only my husband and I watch our kids. Usually he works from home on Wednesdays which gives me a little more freedom to step away to be by myself on Wednesdays. Currently, he’s working from home indefinitely, which allows us to share parenting responsibilities even more than usual. There have been times when I’ve needed to leave him with the kids in the evenings or on weekends for an hour or two while I go off to another area of the house to work.

Accept that some days are really, really hard

This is not easy. This is seemingly impossible when you’re first thrown into it. I had the advantage of working from home before I had kids so I could set my own routine and slowly figure things out as my first child grew. For parents abruptly put in the position of caring for kids while working from home during a stressful time, this is going to be a very difficult transition. Don’t beat yourself up.

Even for an experienced work-from-home mom, some days are about survival. I had a challenging first couple of months this year with my 4-year-old. Some days all I could do was the bare minimum of work while I tried to keep my sanity. That’s okay. Be patient with yourself.

But some days just fly by in a zone of low turbulence, checking one task off the list after another, making extensive progress on a project, and keeping the kids and myself alive and happy. Those are the days when I know I can do this. And you can too. Maybe not now, under the current circumstances. But maybe one day.

Have fun

My favorite work-from-home memories of last year were watching the kids play in the backyard in the warm months of the summer and early autumn while I wrote my book using voice dictation on my phone.

Yesterday, with business slow and my mind distracted with the troubles of the world, I took some hours “off” in the afternoon to garden in the backyard with my 4-year-old. I checked email on my phone every so often, but mostly, I was out enjoying nature with my daughter.

I watch rocket launch livestreams with my kids nearby (who often aren’t interested, but I try) and talk with them about my work frequently. I truly enjoy being with my kids every day and I enjoy building a business in the career I love.

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to work from home with my kids. I wish everyone could experience this in a positive way as I’ve been able to.

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