I’ve worked from home since 2009 when the economy collapsed and my kids were only 3 and 5. Let’s just say this is the kind of déjà vu I do not enjoy. But now is the perfect moment to pause and send up a prayer of gratitude to your God, your Antichrist, or at the very least your boss, to be thankful you have the option to earn money while inside your house. For those of us who find ourselves in this fortunate (and yet still potentially hellish) position, this is what I can tell you: I know panic, I know what it’s like to try to figure out your universe from scratch, and here’s another thing I know — you can do this. You just aren’t going to do it well. But that’s okay, none of us are.
Staring down the barrel of weeks if not months with my kids out of school while I both work and write a book, I’m tempted to tell them to do what I did when I was a teenager: Take up smoking and head into the woods to hit things with sticks, be back in time for a dinner of Minute Rice and butter in front of the TV around 6. Although those are not the times we’re currently living in (and also a fantastic way to get me arrested), there’s one thing we can all take away from the benevolently negligent heroes who raised Gen X:
Set the bar low.
Hello, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic with a global workforce with kids who’ve been raised to communicate with their friends via 15-second videos posted on global platforms. This isn’t a situation that lends itself to instantaneous platinum level Little House on the Prairie–ing.
It’s Not About Thriving, It’s About Surviving
Now is the time to embrace what work-from-home parents learned long ago — it’s not about winning; it’s about striving for the bronze. This is a perfect time to finally recognize how much you’ve been trained to perform parenting. To design a cozy little reading nook so your Instagram followers can see it and grudgingly approve. To bake your vegan muffins (and take a photo) or pack your kids’ bento boxes (and take a photo) or set out art supplies in a scattered but not too scattered way, if you catch my drift (and then definitely take a photo). To head into the woods and make flower crowns or whatever the fuck it is you’ve been doing out there. Give. It. All. Up. It’s time to take this parade float and strip it down to four wheels, a floor, and a functioning steering wheel. It’s time to be basic.
Create a Realistic Schedule
I homeschooled one of my kids for a year, and let me tell you something, I feel your Big Color Coded Schedule Energy. Mine lasted for all of 20 minutes and a single Facebook post. I think I had seen too many teachers-as-heroes movies because I fully expected my first-grader to prop his adorable chin on his adorable hands and soften his eyes at me as if to say, “Mama, tell me more about the food pyramid. You are wise and what am I even here for if not to learn?” That is … not what happened. Instead, on day one, he threw his head back and sighed to the ceiling like he couldn’t believe this was happening. He was being taken out of public school for this shit?
Depending on your kid’s age, the support their school is able to provide, and what your kid can reasonably tolerate or do on their own, make a basic, uncomplicated schedule you all can follow (because it’s not just their schedule now, it’s yours, too). Base it on when your kid typically has good focus or energy versus when they’re typically exhausted or riled up. Gang up hard-to-focus-on subjects during times when they’re at their best. Don’t disrupt those golden stretches with physical activity or screen time. You need those in your back pocket for when things get difficult. Kick dealer’s choice screen time as far down the schedule as you can. That’s Miller Time. Bottom line: You are not a real school. No one expects you to be a real school. The best you can aim for is your kid having something somewhat educational or interesting to do on the days you work. My homeschool “days” were more like a few hours. I repeat: This is not real school. You can’t replicate a real school. Stop trying.
Food, Water, Fresh Air
The most crucial items on that schedule are activities that seem extremely duh but are absolutely critical and somehow also easy to blow off, at least for you. It took me an embarrassingly long time — years — to realize that while I would make sure my kids were fed or they went outside to play, I would be having coffee for meals while hunched over my screen for hours on end like a pale marketing witch. Then, not at all surprisingly, I’d completely blow my stack at my kids by 11 a.m. if not much, much sooner. To update that sage newborn advice about sleeping — eat when they eat, drink when they drink, open the windows and inhale fresh air when they do. Eating can be a snack, a drink can be water, outside time can be walking the dog (as long as you stay far away from others when you venture out). You might think you can’t afford the time to do those three things, but I’m here to tell you, you can’t afford not to.
Your Brain Also Needs Breaks
If you take away nothing else about working from home (with or without kids) let it be this — your brain really needs breaks to work well. I had intense full-time jobs since I graduated from college — 17 years straight — before I was laid off in 2009. On my first unemployed morning, I went for a walk after dropping one kid off at kindergarten and the other at the preschool we had already paid for that month. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last glimpse I’d ever have at a life structured around a full-time job. I felt completely unmoored from routine and blinked into the sun as if I had forgotten what it was for. We learn over time to feel like we must be in front of a screen grinding and grinding and grinding in order to do our jobs well. But that is bullshit.
We don’t realize that office jobs actually have some breaks built in, even if they don’t feel like breaks. A co-worker swings by to chat, you run out to pick up lunch, even meetings take you away (for better or worse) from having a sustained focus. When we’re home we try to replicate what we believe is the nonstop focus we have at work (again: we don’t) and wonder why it doesn’t, well, work. It’s because it’s impossible and bad. So instead of thinking of helping your kids or making them a snack as taking time away from your own work-related tasks, recognize these moments as brief breaks that will allow your brain to reset, and will ultimately make your work time a bit more productive once you get back to it. (Sometimes. No guarantees.)
The Ticking Screen Time Bomb
Anyone who has a screen-sensitive kid — one that makes you weigh, “Is having them occupied and quiet for three hours straight worth the one to 1.5 hours of nuclear behavioral fallout that will follow?” — feels this particular dilemma hard. Only you can determine what’s right for both your kid and the emotional dead place you’ll need to retreat to when it all goes to shit. My vote is for pulling out screens when (1) things are so hopelessly off the rails that everyone could benefit from some family-member distancing, and (2) you are about to be on a call so important that hellfire will rain down upon everyone’s heads if your kids interrupt or are otherwise out of control in the background.
Be realistic about how easy (or not) it is to wrap up screen time. Some kids can be told a time when screens will be done and at that allotted time they’ll shrug and go do something else. Other kids will implode and trash the place like Keith Richards at the tender age of 105 once the iPad is removed from their sweaty little grips. If it’s the latter, consider waiting until later in the afternoon when you have long since passed the I Give a Shit How Today Goes stage.
So Many People in the Same Boat
Unlike everyone who’s been working from home all along and has been straining valiantly to appear like everything is very professional and extremely chill, you’re benefiting from a time when so many others are experiencing more or less the same level of disruption. Everyone has kids peeking in on their video calls. Everyone’s dogs are barking maniacally in the background. That’s why we have those microphone off, camera off buttons. Look, we all know what’s up. We all know work is going to suffer and parenting is going to suffer and we are going to suffer, too. There is no award ceremony at the end of this. Unlike the running joke that every working parent, single parent, or stay-at-home parent has uttered at some point, that “everyone was alive” at the end of the day, that is actually the real job we all have right now. Trying to keep people alive. Even people we don’t know and can’t see, at the end of the day, every day, until this thing is done.
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