Happy families? how to blend children and work and find time for you!
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Many moons ago I found myself working from home, with my partner who was also working from home, with two children under four. The experience has stayed with me and I have a huge respect for any one working from home with young children. Our four walls are going to seem pretty limiting if we're not careful, so am hoping that this post gives some hope.
There are a number of strategies I've suggested below and not all will be suitable, in fact, you might have your own, so do feel free to get in touch and I can edit this piece and add your name with your suggestion. Or comment underneath?
For most people, this bombshell has been dropped with little or no chance to plan. This is really significant and means we need to first take stock. Get our heads round it. Acknowledgement and acceptance will follow shock, anger and frustration, and they won't appear at the same time for everyone.
Perhaps you were working from home for a few days before your children joined you and so you had a chance to get your ‘work space’ sorted? If not that will be a priority. Perhaps one of you is expecting/needing to work and the other not so much. Either way, a place you can work or be away from everyone else for some time everyday, if at all possible, will be essential.
Life might be feeling a bit like this at the moment, so I hope some of these ideas help.
Agreeing the ground rules and the boundaries.
If you want to get the most from this time, for you, your other half, your children and your sanity, some clear and honest conversation is necessary. If you are wondering how you are going to survive if your relationship was not altogether fulfilling before this happened, you have my complete sympathy. Many cohabiting arrangements work BECAUSE we are apart five days out of seven. So extra care is going to be needed, especially patience and tolerance at levels we've never experienced before.
The conversation where you discuss your hopes and fears and your own particular needs may take some time, which I know is not easily available with two young children, but it’s worth persevering. If you don't have this conversation (and it might be more than one, there will be some negotiation most likely) then you are leaving yourself open to some pretty tricky times.
The first thing to appreciate is that while we’re used to being on the hamster wheel of life, wired to be ‘on’ all the time, this does not have to be the case now. It will take some adjustment. I know I am finding it hard. The opportunities for writing features like this has increased exponentially and with a partner who is semi retired, and winding down in many ways, this causes it’s own conflicts. Which I shall probably write about soon!
Getting your heads around some major equality issues will be even more important than it was pre Corona virus. It’s not unusual for each partner to think that their job is ‘more important’. Whereas in reality, each job is just as important, if not in terms of materialistic outcomes, ie salary, then it is in other ways, certainly in terms of mental health and the need for each person to feel relevant, valued and productive.
We have to peel back our carefully constructed and honed layers of ‘busy distractions’ to uncover our new priorities. We need to get back to the essence of life. This is a real chance to bond with our children and other half like no other time in our lives. We all remember Christmas breaks where we’re usually pretty home bound with poor weather, and you know how difficult it can be. But, you also know it will be over and we’ll ‘get back to normal’ soon, so we didn’t really make many adjustments to our mindset.
All change. This however is completely different. We have to consider this new life pattern for the next three or so months. At least the weather is going to be getting better!
This is our new normal. So we have to really think about what we want the outcomes to be. I read a report that after the Chinese lockdown was relaxed there was an unprecedented number of divorces filed.
I can completely understand this, and my wholehearted sympathies go to anyone who was considering a break up prior to this situation arising. I am also doing a piece on compassion, mediation and also one on re building a broken relationship. So keep an eye on my blog if this is of interest to you!
It's not going to be easy and it's not going to be possible for everyone to emerge unscathed from this experience, but hopefully some of these ideas will be useful to someone reading.
Let’s start with your practical arrangements.
1. We’re going to need routines that everyone understands and can agree on.
· First thing, hours of ‘operation’! I found that getting my children into an expectation of not leaving their bedroom before a certain time to ‘find you’ in the morning works well. Seven seems reasonable- most young children can get clocks understood with a sticker next to the seven and the twelve and a set bed time, of say, seven/eight again, worked for me.
And while we’re on this topic, please take it in turns to get up with the children, for that wilderness time between 6am (for most babies, let’s face it) and 8/9 am when 'normal life' starts. Or agree two days on two days off, or whatever suits you best.
It might however, be a lot less stressful if we get to bed at a decent hour, so we’re not walking around shattered all the time. Which is another aspect that aggravates fraying tempers.
· I feel now more than ever before, that getting to bed and having the right amount of sleep that we each need might be possible as we’re not going out, getting back late or being over stimulated by banter from friends. We can still have an evening together (which is why it’s important that children are in their rooms) and bond as a couple and still get to bed at a decent time. ‘Netflix and chill’ has never been so relevant!
· At the end of the day, try to have your meal at a regular time, maybe eating all together (consider involving the children in preparing it?) have a bath/shower routine between six and seven, this can be relaxed family time, just sitting and chatting while the children play, which helps everyone wind down. I would strongly recommend this.
· This might end up being the single most memorable thing your children recount in years to come. You could take it in turns to read a story or perhaps with a two character story, both read to the children. How lovely does that sound? Something we don’t usually have time to do, but would really be a great investment.
· It’s in doing things together that you bond as a couple. Seeing each other in a different light to usual. Admiring how well your other half gets on with the mundane things, laughing at a funny accent they come out with reading a book, giggling with the children over something silly.
· The danger with the situation we find ourselves in is that adults might isolate further, to get some ‘space’ and those times when we come together might be fraught with frustration at not ‘getting enough done’.
So this leads to another very important point.
2. Lower the bar
· Down size your expectations of what you’ll get done in a day. We don’t hear that much do we?! But now it’s critical.
This relates as much to your expectations of yourself, your work output, your time with the children, your interactions with each other and getting stuff done around the house.
We have such high expectations of ourselves and prior to this, they were usually not achieved. Because they were impossible. The moment we dropped a ball we were in meltdown. Annoyed at ourselves and irrationally annoyed with the person who had inadvertently triggered this ‘disruption’ to our carefully laid plans.
· You don’t need me to tell you that we’re in uncharted waters so the rules are going to need to be rewritten and to do that there’s a lot of ‘sucking it and seeing’ to be had. We MUST relax our personal standards at this time if we’re to cope with this and come out the other end smiling.
Plan A has not worked through no fault of our own and we've got to work out a plan B!
3. Abandon the guilt
· Don’t assume you’ve got to spend all your time with your children. You have needs. As do they, don’t continue to carry around this guilt you might have/develop if you don’t spend all your time with your children. You are helping them more if you let them make some decisions for themselves. And make up games to entertain themselves too. You remember how you loved to make camps out of cushions and blankets? Just try to relax the rules regarding mess. In this brave new world you’ll have plenty of time to clear up!
· Micro management is never a good idea. At least not for long. People need to learn to entertain themselves, make their own decisions and become independent. This applies just as much to children as it does to adults! Having some unstructured play in a ‘safe’ environment is going to be vital for their personal confidence later on.
4. Childcare and roles
· If there’s two of you working/living in the home you need to carve your day up fairly. So that at any one time, one of you is responsible for the children (as opposed to a vague plan for both of you to be, which will result in recriminations and chaos). If you are working from home and you are the sole carer, this is a different situation entirely and I will be adding a blog post about this too. If you are working from home without children, you might find this blog post more relevant.
· Equally sharing child care responsibilities should be a default. Resentment will very easily grow if one does not have the same ‘free or working’ time as the other. And it must not be judged in terms of ‘you’re not doing work, you’re scrolling/reading a book’. We NEED to have some self determined time to unwind, like we would at work, at the coffee machine, chatting to a colleague, or if we were at home and the children were at school. How you use that time you’ve agreed with your spouse is up to you. I would say it’s sacrosanct.
· This is not 'one size fits all' so of course, you feel that one parent would prefer to do more childcare and that is agreeable all round, do what feels right for your family circumstances.
· Consider having an hour overlap in the day, where you are all together. This COULD be meal times but playing as a family is also actually really nice and can help cement all of your relationships.
· Co create the solutions. You’re in this together. Try to avoid one parent taking over.
· The parent who does not usually look after the children is going to be the fish out of water here. And probably slightly uncomfortable with the arrangement, until they get in their stride.
· I would suggest that you sit down and share knowledge. Have a chat about what the child likes doing when they are at home, which the other parent might not realise. This is not a time for playing hard ball or withholding information. If both parents worked it’s possible that your weekend routine might come in handy BUT with the distraction of outdoor entertainments and socialising removed, we are going to need to be inventive.
· When you actually sit down and think about it, without the pressure of getting the next report done for work (for example), there’s quite a lot we can do with children of all ages, and quite a lot they can do on their own, or with less direct supervision.
‘Government Health Warning’: it’s likely that we will all be liable to irrational and perhaps extreme outbursts of emotion which might surprise us. Please side step and let them go where possible. We’ve all got to adjust and the adults need to set the example here or the stress will be picked up by the children. Compassion and kindness, to ourselves as well as our families, is going to be more important than ever.
5. Entertaining the children (and yourself!) - variety really is the spice of life
· Within the period of time you are ‘responsible’ for your children, try to build a number of things into the mix so are all getting what you need.
· Consider asking your children too, depending on what age they are obviously.
· Resist the temptation to ‘plug them in’ to a DVD or tv immediately. It really should be used as an emergency occupation, last resort. Otherwise they will go stir crazy and drive you mad!
· So, within a say, four hour period that you a responsible for your children(which might be continuous or might be 2 x 2 hour sessions for example), build in some varied activities.
· Might be best to create a list of options as a group and have them under various headings.
Here’s some off the top of my head, but there are many, many more. You might find that even writing the list might be a great fun thing to do and fill everyone with optimism?
Ideas to get you thinking about your activity planning options:
a. Games involving movement – jumping on the spot – who can reach the highest up the door frame, skipping competitions, passing a ball without dropping it, hide and seek with handicaps...and of course, getting the children to be involved in keeping the house relatively tidy and relatively clean is always a good idea!
b. Making things, drawing/colouring/painting, even simple doodles coloured in together can be a really restful enjoyable activity where conversation can flow naturally with the ‘paper ‘ as the focus to limit awkwardness
c. Building things like Lego/marble runs, all those time consuming and ‘big’ activities you’ve not usually got time to do –Think of variations, having competitions to see who’s lego creation will roll the fastest, can be dropped from the highest point without breaking, is the biggest (you get the idea - thanks to my daughter for that one, we played it for hours at Christmas – and she’s 24!),
d. Mind and memory games, the simpler the better... 'John went to the shop and he bought...', I spy, paper based games, hangman, ‘squares’, making paper aeroplanes, simple board games/hungry hippo type thing (as far away as possible from the working parent for this one!),
e. Outdoor activities – gardening/seed planting, bug hunting, butterfly spotting, ‘running races’, trampolining, if you’ve still got one, cooking (simple but often takes ages, so perfect !), there’s really so many things when you think about it.
f. Learning new skills and ‘home education’ in general – might be an instrument you’ve got knocking around which was getting dusty in the corner rebuking you whenever you glimpsed it. Lessons are now popping up from many displaced teachers for all kinds of skills on the internet. Languages, home education lessons, cooking, PE lessons, there’s all sorts out there if you google it.
g. Group activities – set up a slack/ zoom channel or equivalent and have some interactive fun with friends. Choirs are setting up for example and i don’t see why there can’t be orchestras. I suppose synchronised swimming might be a stretch but you’d be surprised at how creative people are being with what they are offering online.
Within the family, perhaps consider handheld console gaming tournaments, especially fun when children teach hapless parents what to do, it's a nice turn of the tables and can be quite a laugh
h. Express yourself! Singing along to karaoke tracks on youtube, learning poetry to recite out loud, acting out plays, or even writing them yourself with the children. Put your thinking cap on and I am sure you'll have loads of ideas really quickly! And then, when you need a break, stick on the TV or let them play on hand held devices if they have one.
6. Talking is more important than ever
With the absence of external stimulus one to one and chat with friends and teachers at school, conversational skills will need to be developed by you, the parents.
In the past it might have been that there was little time for ‘talking about ‘nothing’’ but now, it’s all up for grabs. Which I think is very exciting. There’s so many opportunities we can take to make this a really significant time in our children’s personal skills development.
Confidence given to children by parents demonstrating that they believe their children are capable of anything is one of the most fundamental gifts you can give them. There’s many ways to do this, and here is not the place, but simply avoiding negative talk and negative assumptions will go a long way towards achieving this holy grail. I will be compiling my thoughts and suggestions on this soon.
7. Practical arrangements for working
· If you are both working from home, you both need somewhere to work. However if space is limited, it may be that you ‘hot desk’ and take it in turns to spend time with the children between (say) 9 and 6. It may be that you end up with more work done with fewer distractions in less time than you would need in the office. (Can always hope!)
· Please try to find somewhere where you can shut the door and be able to concentrate if possible. Somewhere ideally where you can keep your work stuff out rather than clear it away at the end of the day. Ideally not your bedroom, but this might be the only option. If it is, make sure you stop working a good few hours before you go to bed and turn off all your EMF radiating devices and get some fresh air in the room before you go to bed.
· Have a break in the evening if you can. Many people working from home prior to this, worked in the evening to make up for lost time during the day. If you are employed I feel that this is counter productive at this time. The key will be to agree your goals and manage your time. More of that below.
Most people who were working 'all the hours' before this happened would have been self employed, rather than employed. People who don’t currently have a safety net of any real value.
However, I would say that given the ‘life raft’ to businesses which has just been announced, whereby all employers of any size will get a grant – ie free money, no strings, no repayment – of 80% of their wage bill for each person up to £2500 per month, per person, that most business will be keeping going. If you'd like to keep up to date, we've got all the information in one place here relating to small businesses.
And perhaps that will mean they will keep spending something on outsourced services and products. Converting telephone enquiries is going to be more important than ever. You might want to read my piece on that by clicking here, if this applies to you.
Make sure you know exactly what is expected of you. And if you think it’s unrealistic, speak up. It may be that you don’t know what you will be able to deliver at the beginning but as time goes on, you feel you are struggling. So don’t be afraid to have that conversation.
Ideally have some contact with your line manager every day. Sometimes finding out more about a task, given we might be doing things which are not routinely expected in our new roles, can help you understand it better. Sometimes finding out how your manager would approach a task or even start it, is very helpful. Here’s more information on ‘self management’.
9. What is enough!?
Ask enough questions so that you are clear about what you need to do to ‘succeed’ at work, on a daily and weekly or project basis. To do what’s necessary, the essentials. Being a super hero at this time is going to impact on your children and/or your other half. Now is the time to do enough to keep the wheels on the bus. Not design a new one! With everything else up in the air, we need to hang on to the things which are achievable. So we can generate small wins each day. And feel that we have some control over our lives and a sense of forward momentum, while creating better bonds with our children and other halves, which really have the potential to last a lifetime.
10.How are we doing?
Consider having a daily catch up to see how you’re all doing. A conversation where you have some ‘rules of engagement!’
For example an agreement could incorporate these elements:
- everyone has five minutes each to say what they want, without interruption before anyone else cuts in or disagrees
- turns are taken on this as necessary until everything has been expressed
- voices should not be raised if at all possible, so that the person talking feels respected and heard.
- Interruptions are not allowed - these are the most common cause of communication problems and might need continual (but gentle) reminders from everyone at the ‘table’!
Sometimes it’s only a matter of showing you’ve heard, sometimes that is enough. Perhaps we know there’s no solution but simply letting off steam is vital.
You might be able to look for solutions if they relate to the home environment so make sure you talk to find out exactly what the issue is.
The ‘presenting’ problem is not always the thing which needs sorting. Be vigilant and look for clues in body language and tone and if things don’t add up/ don’t make sense. Keep probing gently til you are comfortable you’ve got to the bottom of it.
Overall, tolerance and patience are going to be the kindest, most important values which we are all going to have to draw on at this time.
If you’re interested in using compassion to deal with difficult conversations, please have a click on this video of myself and my OH on a radio show (so a bit of banter too) which includes three simple steps which apply to nearly every situation.
11. Encourage positive thinking and gratitude.
I know this is overplayed in all the memes but it’s worth considering what we have to be grateful for, and this again is something that can be done with children. Even really young ones.
If you adopt the habit of going round the table after the 'heart sharing' and once you’ve got over the whole ‘oversharing’ awkwardness in the evening, you might find that everyone gets into it and actually thinks about this during the day, to present in the evening. I would say it’s a far better preoccupation that worrying about the future!
You might want to consider a ‘gratitude grail’, a family journal where you all add the things for which you are grateful each day, something to look back on in years to come? You will be able to laugh (I hope) at the day when you wrote ‘managed to buy a pack of toilet roll’ and this seemed like the highlight of the week.
12. All we have is right here, right now!
All we can be sure about is this moment, right now. Worrying about tomorrow or feeling bad about yesterday is only going to ruin the present.
Now more than ever, we need to try to stay in the moment and notice the things which are not terrible. I am fully aware than many people are reeling with disappointment and anger, frustration and boredom right now and this will make the current situation seem even more intolerable.
I would encourage anyone feeling this way to seek out some online counselling as there's more than usual available right now and I am sure it will be vital and helpful over the coming months.
I know this is going to seem almost impossible for some but trying to be more mindful or adopt some small meditational moments to incorporate into your day might be worth considering. I don’t see why children can’t also get involved with this. (over say three years old perhaps).
Sitting quietly for five minutes, together, will probably generate a few giggles (nothing wrong with that either) but might start a daily practice which helps them, and you, react less aggressively and be more calm and less anxious in the days ahead.
You could even take turns in reading out passages from self help books you’ve never had time to read properly, if the children are older.
In my experience, children from five and up are very interested in semi spiritual things and this could be a journey you could all take together to build your resilience as a family.
Strange times we’re living in, that’s for sure. But if we all embrace it and involve our households in our journey, we’ve got the potential to be in a much better place at the end of this particular one!
1. Lower the bar. Enough is enough! Wonderwoman or Superman can hang up their suits for a few weeks and take a break from aiming for perfection.
2. Drop the guilt. We are all trying our best. Old rules do not apply here. We’re carving out a new way of being and it’s not going to be plain sailing or be right first time. Adaptation is going to be the key word.
3. Know that compassion and kindness are going to be more important than ever. Your reserves of patience and tolerance will be needed and probably stretched to the limit. Expecting this might help!
4. Agree a plan for your day to day activities, which meet some of everyone’s needs. Some being the operative word.
5. The ‘working’ or non childcare giving parent should be able to do whatever they want in their allotted 'child free' time.
6. The parents should consider having the same number of hours of child care responsibility as each other. The times can be negotiated/be flexible for child care periods if necessary, but should not change all the time, with last minute changes as it’s important to try to have a routine so you all know where you are.
7. Use the copious online resources for ‘home educating’ your children. But don’t feel obliged to do these for hours and hours a day (unless you love teaching and they love being your pupil). Try to build play time into your plan too.
8. The parent who is working should not get interrupted. Unless one of the children starts coughing and has a temperature (!) -not being literal here but you know what I mean.
9. Have somewhere which is your work zone where you can keep your work related things and not have to put them away every day.
10. Don’t think you’ve got to spend all of your time with your school age children (babies and toddlers are slightly different obviously). Set up activities they can do at arms reach or within hearing distance. Cut some slack for everyone and try to enjoy the (unusual) moment.
11. Make a list of the activities you could draw upon, as a group. Build them into your daily plans and if they are old enough, involve them in making choices.
12. Try to eat together and involve children in making the meals. Ban all ‘devices’?
13. Carve out time as a couple where the children are safely in bed. Even if not asleep.
14. Try to notice the good times and think of things to be grateful for. Talk about them at the end of each day.
15. Consider meditation and mindfulness, as a group of solo activity. Might be time to really get to grips with all those self help books you’ve always meant to get round to reading!
16. Try to find some joy in this time of change and embrace the chance to really get to know each other! Learn to relax enough to play and have fun!
If you’ve anything to ask or add to this, please do get in touch. Thanks for reading this, if you’re still with me! Bit of a long one I know, but there’s just SO much to cover with this vitally important topic. Do keep in touch and keep an eye on my blogs. I will be writing lots of new features which directly relate to this new reality we find ourselves in. Good luck to us all!
Here's a nice image of a sunrise to cheer us all up!
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to get in touch. Would be lovely to hear from you!