The Juggling Act: Working from Home with Children
Aiming for excellence in business, while being a model parent is a noble goal, but achieving it under the best of circumstances is easier said than done – at least not without sacrificing your own health in the process. Working from home with your children around you is an additional challenge which, for many of us, can simply feel impossible.
I’ve been working from home for thirteen years while building a million-dollar business, and have raised two young children during that time. Working from home with children is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. With so many people suddenly finding themselves working from home with their children due to the Covid-19 restrictions, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons I’ve learned during my time juggling children while working from home.
Every minute counts
There was a time when just getting more than a couple of hours sleep each night was a luxury for me. I had a baby that I was breastfeeding through the night, a child in prep, and a rapidly growing business that needed a lot of my time and attention. This meant that when my baby was awake, my time needed to be with him, and when my baby was asleep, I was working. I pressed on each night until I was so tired that I could no longer see my computer screen. Then I would sleep for a few hours before starting again the next day. My health was starting to suffer. I had dark circles under my eyes. I was getting dizzy, and I was battling a constant headache.
I was lying in bed one night and thinking to myself that I simply couldn’t go on like that. Something had to change. But what? As I lay there in the dark staring at the ceiling, I thought about all the things that I was doing each day, and wondered if I could somehow buy back some of my time. I couldn’t just stop washing the dishes each day, or doing the laundry. Turning into a family of smelly ferals, was not my ideal plan (although I do admit that there were plenty of times over the years where this was a temporary necessity just to get by). I was determined to buy back time in my day, but I couldn’t find any way to get a big win. It seemed hopeless. So, I started looking at it from a different angle. Would it make any difference if I could save just a few minutes here and there each day? I did some quick math, and realised that if I could save just one minute each day on one task, over a year that would add up to six hours. Boy oh boy, what I could do with that six hours! Multiply that out by all the little chores I did each day, and now I had something to work with.
That was a turning point for me. I began to go through each day looking for all the ways that I could save ‘just one minute’. I started using machine washable covers for my son’s highchair – that saved me just one minute of wiping down the highchair. I switched to an integrated washer and drier, that saved me just one minute of taking the washing out of the washing machine and putting it into the drier. I started using pods in the dishwasher that saved me just one minute of measuring out the powder each time. I invested in a robotic mop – that saved me countless minutes. I started ordering home delivery for everything that I could instead of driving to the shop. On I went through every daily task eliminating everything that wasn’t necessary, and optimising everything else. I was absolutely relentless in saving every single minute that I could. In so doing, I slowly clawed back the time in my day, and got myself the sleep, and showers, and time to relax that I desperately needed.
If you find yourself pushed to the limit, and unable to find time for the basic necessities of your own health and well-being, think about how you might be able to save ‘just one minute’ here and there. You might be surprised with how much of a difference you can make.me goals with your work. Love your kids, and find some time in there to look after yourself as well. You’ve got this!
Decisions take time and focus
Observing my daily routine with a new lens revealed something that I had never considered. When I started to look for the minutes of time saving, instead of the hours, it was surprising how much time I spent each day making decisions: what to prepare for dinner, what to wear, what to buy from the supermarket, what to pack in the lunchbox, or whether a sale included something that I should buy. I wasn’t spending a lot of time on each of these tasks, but I realised that decision making was a key area where I could save ‘just a minute’ on a regular basis. It was also a great way to free up my mental focus to more important decision making. After that, I committed myself to make inconsequential decisions more quickly, and leverage routines more.
I had heard that routines were beneficial for children, so since my children were babies, I had been diligent in keeping a consistent bed time routine. Routines, are a remarkable time saving tool for a parent. When I tell my children to get ready for bed, they know they will need to have a shower or bath, get in their pyjamas, and brush their teeth. I simply need to tell them ‘Go and get ready for bed’ and they scurry off and run through the procedure. The consistency of doing the same thing every night means that there is no time wasted negotiating or explaining whether or why they need to do each step, and they rush about doing these chores so that they can be ready for bed in time for a ‘tuck in’ which consists of a story and some one on one time.
Now, the bedtime routine doesn’t happen smoothly simply because my children just happen to be angelic and well-behaved. When it comes to doing things that are not routine, asking my children to do something often results in a variety of reactions:
- What! Why?!
- Do we HAVE to?
- Can we do it later?
- That’s so unfair!
Negotiating these responses takes time even if it’s just a minute, and adds unnecessary friction to my day. Leveraging routines eliminates a lot of this wasted time throughout your day, and helps keep your stress levels to a minimum. For example, my children are schooling from home at the moment due to the coronavirus restrictions. I’m a single parent and have to work myself during the day, so I have been very careful to maintain the same routine as the children follow at school including breaktimes. This saves me from continual ‘are we there yet’ type questions, and removes a great deal of explanation and negotiation from the day. If the lunch break always finishes at 12.30pm and mum always insists that you return to your schoolwork at 12.30pm each day, you learn very quickly there’s no point in asking whether you can play for another half hour. Day one of this routine was a test of my mental fortitude, and by 9.15am, my youngest was in tears insisting that he had done enough school work for the day and should be allowed to watch TV now. I knew that the upfront investment in setting the routine would pay off long term, so I stuck to it. By day three no one questioned the timetable, and the children started following the routine with only minimal prompting. This means that I have more time and predictability for my work, and my children are continuing to get a full school day of education during the coronavirus restrictions.
Routines are also an excellent way to anchor rewards, goals, and healthy habits. E.g. Your child might have a routine such that after eating breakfast and getting themselves dressed each day, they may have 30 minutes of screen time before school. Perhaps your family might take a bike ride or a walk together when school or work finishes each day.
By setting and keeping routines each day, even very small children can learn what to expect next, and this can save you a great deal of time and frustration when working from home.
Teach your children to fish
A wise person once said that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. Some would argue that if you teach a man to fish, he will sit in a boat drinking beer all day. Jokes aside, when it comes to children, investing in teaching them how to do things independently, can pay off big returns in saving you time and reducing your workload.
When the Covid-19 restrictions came in, and we had our first week of schooling from home, my child in year one needed a lot of time and attention to help him with his schoolwork. It was very tempting to do a lot of the organisational tasks for him: printing worksheets, finding the scissors and colouring pencils, and navigating through online educational portals. Certainly, for the first couple of days I did a lot of this for him, but then I started to take my hands off, and teach him to navigate his schooling himself. I did this by helping him with my voice only. I would sit with him and guide him by showing him what to click on to print a worksheet. He even learned how to load paper into the printer. I made bookmarks for him so that he can easily login to the laptop and navigate to his schooling.
All of this took a bit more time than just doing it for him, but the investment has already made a substantial return. Now he knows how to check his routine for the day, and work through each activity independently. He still needs help now and again, but we’re well beyond the first few days of continual cries of “Muuuummm! I need help.” And, let’s face it, there’s a limit to the number of times any person can hear that phrase during their workday before they start to feel far less like Mary Poppins, and much more like the This is Fine Dog.
It is surprising how much many children enjoy being able to do certain tasks independently. When my daughter was in year two, I created a set menu for her school lunches. I printed out the menu and stuck it to the inside of the pantry door. I then packaged up each item ahead of time and put them in a clear, and accessible spot in the pantry, fridge, and freezer. Each day my daughter would check the menu and pick out the individual items for that day. I was also sure to include a couple of ‘choices’ so she could feel like she was in control of the whole lunch affair – for example, she had to pack a piece of fruit, but she could choose which type of fruit. Similarly, I filled a white basket in the pantry with a variety of items. She was allowed to pick any one of these to pack each day. It saved me quite a bit of time in the morning, and she loved having the independence to pack her own lunch.
It takes time, patience and planning, but investing into routines and teaching your kids to do tasks independently can help you gain back the time that you need to look after your own health, and be the calm, loving parent, that your children need, while also juggling the demands of your work.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of managing children and work at the same time, is the need to be able to rapidly switch focus. It may be tempting to try to give your work your full focus for long periods of time, and brush aside your children to be dealt with at some later point in the day. I would caution you not to do that. I have personally found that when I am unable to give my children full focus when they call for my attention, that can often be the trigger that leads to a more unmanageable situation.
For example, if I am on a business call, and my child approaches me with a question, I have a few choices: I can ignore them and press on with my phone call, I can acknowledge them and tell them to wait, or I can pause my phone call, answer their question, and return to the call. Over 13 years, you can imagine that I’ve tried all of these options in a variety of forms to mixed results. However, one thing I have found to be a certainty: if I choose to ignore my children repeatedly when I’m on the phone, they will eventually react as if I’ve erected a neon sign that says “Mummy doesn’t love you anymore and you have permission to do any activity you feel like doing right now.” Clearly, that doesn’t end well for anyone involved.
I’ve learned that taking a moment to interrupt my phone call is an investment that will pay big returns! Just 30 seconds of calm, and friendly explanation to my child can save me 30 minutes of clean up time, not to mention avoiding a motherload of stress and the time to mend broken hearts.
Now you might be thinking to yourself that being interrupted every two minutes is just not a feasible way to work, and if you’re like me, constant interruptions are enough to raise your stress levels off the charts. I’ve found it helpful to explain to my kids when I can be interrupted, and when I need to focus, but even still, when they inevitably do interrupt me during those times that I need to focus, I force myself to stop what I’m doing, turn my body towards them, make eye contact and listen to them briefly; I respond calmly and enthusiastically, but firmly explain that I need to keep doing my work. “Oh, I would love to do that with you, that sounds really fun, but I have to do my work right now. Let’s do that together at 5pm. I’d love it if you could draw me a picture of us doing that together. Can you draw me a picture?”.
Have you ever worried that it might make you look unprofessional if you’re taking the time to respond to your children while on a business call? Be aware that trying to ignore the situation that you’ve got going on might make you more stressed and think less clearly. The person on the other end of the call might detect your emotional state in your voice and without the context of what it is that you’re dealing with, they may misinterpret the reasons behind your emotional state. Perhaps they will wonder if you are anxious about the topic of the phone call. Owning the situation that you are in, and acknowledging that you are juggling children, makes a strong statement about your authenticity. This is important, because being authentic, open, and honest might be interpreted as indicators of your trustworthiness, and trust underpins virtually all of our relationships in business. It’s a good idea to announce at the start of the meeting that you have your children around and might have some interruptions, so that it doesn’t come as an unexpected surprise.
You will need to balance the needs of all stakeholders, and if continuous interruptions are disrupting an important meeting, or if your children are in need of help, it might be better to reschedule the meeting. One trick I find useful is to limit the amount of screen time my children get, and then let them watch TV when I have my most important business meetings. During the school from home period, I’ve been arranging my most important meetings for when the kids take their lunch break, or after school time.
Manage stress levels
I’ve found that my kids’ emotional state will often mimic my own, and as my stress levels rise, so does my work load increase in terms of needing to respond to their interruptions, tears, frustrations etc. When they believe that everything is ‘chill’ with mum, they often entertain themselves and are calm and happy themselves. If, on the other hand, I am clearly stressed, it seems like they need to try to connect with me more, and that means more interruptions.
Of course, if you’re on a hard deadline, or you’ve been interrupted a bunch of times already, staying calm and connected with your children is easier said than done.
Managing your stress levels and staying calm with children takes practice and self-awareness. If you feel your stress levels getting off the charts, take five minutes to bring your stress levels back down again. It might help you to refocus on your work and return to productivity. Here are some of the things I do for a quick fix to lower my stress, and re-energise during the work day:
- Get a drink, and no I don’t mean a glass of wine! The ritual of making a cup of tea can be a good trigger to take a couple of minutes of calm breathing and reset your mental state.
- Do some housework. You can talk to your children while you do it, or ask them to help you. The act of completing a very simple, achievable goal such as putting on a load of washing or unstacking the dishwasher, can be a great way to break out of an overwhelmed mental state, and back into a state of mind of ‘I can do this’.
- Spend a couple of minutes cuddling, or just sitting beside your child without suggesting an activity. My children love this, they will often show me something or suggest something to do together. The children feel loved and gain connection with me. Spending time relaxing with the kids often lowers my stress levels, and as a bonus, it usually buys me a good period of uninterrupted work time afterwards as the children happily continue on with their activity.
- Pop outside to check the mailbox, or water the garden – being outside in nature can be very uplifting even if it’s just for a minute or two. Pause to appreciate the moment and put things in perspective.
Sometimes, the pressure of working from home with children will get to you, and it’s difficult not to lose your cool, but trust me on this one, you’ll have less work on your plate, and less worries on your mind if you can manage to keep calm and patient with your kids. I would strongly encourage you to go through your day finding opportunities to save ‘just a minute’ here and there, and spend those precious minutes looking after your health and connecting with your children. After all, is any of what you’re doing so important that it’s worth risking the mental health of your children, and your long-term relationship with them? Probably not.
Some days are challenging days, other days are even more challenging, but keep on aiming high. When the Winter comes and the trees lose their leaves, we know that it’s just temporary. When the Summer comes, the leaves will regrow and everything will be beautiful again. You are going to have days when everything feels like it’s falling apart, and that’s OK. One day you will look back on this time, and marvel at how well you did. Your children might not appreciate everything that you are doing now, but as they get older, they will probably start to realise the effort that you put in. Even if they don’t, you’ll know that you tried your best every day. So, go kick some goals with your work. Love your kids, and find some time in there to look after yourself as well. You’ve got this!
This article was brought to you by Sunshine Women in Business
ATech is pleased to be delivering the Sunshine Women in Business program, proudly supported, and funded by the Queensland Government. Intended to support Women in, or those starting a Business throughout Queensland, the program will deliver throughout 2020, a range of educational content, resources, events and provide the opportunity for five people to gain access to professional mentoring.