When the pandemic started and my (pre-pandemic) article about what you need to know about working remotely got a second life, the number one response I got was: but how do you do it with kids around?
Prior to this brave new world we are living in, my answer was: I don’t. You see, although I’ve worked 100% remotely for the last 4 years, and for the better part of the 3 1/2 years before that, I had childcare 99% of the time until 2020. My 3-year-old son was in excellent hands with caregivers who loved and educated him while I was able to focus and work in a quiet, serene house. It was a well-oiled machine and it worked. But, like I said, that was before 2020.
But when the ‘vid hit and the country effectively shut down, despite already having a remote work job, I was forced to make a huge adjustment to working while parenting. And what an adjustment it was. Fortunately, neither my husband nor I were furloughed – but that meant suddenly trying to figure out how to simultaneously work full time, parent full time, and – oh yes, did I mention? – pack and coordinate a move in the middle of a global pandemic and local shelter-in-place order.
We got through it and, like many working parents of young children, just when we thought the worst was behind us and we could breathe a sigh of relief… Omicron hit and daycares and schools shut down after the holidays. Babysitters and nannies are in short supply and even if you have one already, they’re people too and can get sick.
Here we parents are again, juggling work with the most transmissible strain, and most unpredictable childcare situations yet. I don’t know about you but it feels like we have to re-learn how to survive the frequent and unpredictable school closures, quarantine periods, and day-to-day uncertainty of parenting while staying as consistent as possible at work.
Here are the strategies I’ve developed over the last couple of years – and before that, even – for working from home with kids. As work-at-home jobs become the new normal, I thought this might be helpful for some of you.
Make an Adult Schedule – and Communicate the Plan
Staying organized is the most important element of making multitasking work for you. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take a step back at the beginning of each day (or the end of the previous one), and map out your needs, your child’s needs, your partner’s needs, and designate time to get it all done.
Getting everyone on the same page, right from the start, is the other piece of the puzzle. If you have a plan for the day, but no one else knows what you need to navigate around, you may as well not have one at all.
Bryan and I sit down either in the evening or first thing in the morning, look at our work schedules, and identify the critical aspects of the day that everything else needs to revolve around during work hours.
We start by arranging coverage during each others’ respective meetings, and schedule each of us to be on Kid Duty at certain times of day so that the other can have some dedicated work time. Then, we block out time for each of us to get the work done that has to be delivered during the day (again, alternating, while the other person is on Kid Duty). We slot everything else in around that.
And – this is important – whoever is on Kid Duty is ON KID DUTY. There will have to be a few exceptions, but unless it is absolutely urgent, you can’t try to work during this time (answering slack messages is fine, trying to focus on a spreadsheet is not), and unless something is literally on fire, you can’t duck out and expect your working partner to step in.
Finally, I’m sure this goes without saying, but if your kids still nap, take full advantage of that. Don’t get distracted or make dinner; try to use every minute of nap time to get your work done.
Make a Kid Schedule
Yes, you need a separate schedule for your child/ren’s day. Why? Because I don’t know about your kids, but mine is not too enthusiastic about sitting around until I’m done with my work.
Giving your kids the advantage of an organized day in which they know what to expect, are consistently engaged, and are given adequate attention (easier said than done, I KNOW) makes the day go much smoother, and prevents unnecessary conflicts and meltdowns.
And, if nothing else, writing it down ensures your kids get meals and snacks on a set schedule because you know what happens if anyone gets too hangry. And don’t forget to incorporate nap time or quiet time (for older children) into the day. It is beneficial for everyone to have a break from one another, and provides an almost-guaranteed window of time in the day for the adults to focus on work without noise and distractions.
What, exactly, your schedule looks like is up to you. You can create it from scratch, use a template (Here is one example, but there are dozens out there! If your kids are pre-literate, creating a graphic schedule is preferable. Here is one example.), or tweak a pre-made schedule (like this one) to fit your family’s needs.
Or, you don’t even have to be that fancy. We use either a magnetic whiteboard (affiliate link) on the fridge or a chalkboard easel (affiliate link) to write out the plan for the day, even on weekends.
When you’re making your schedule, assume you have about half the hours during the day that you usually do, at best. So, be very honest with yourself about what has to get done, and what would be nice to get done. Prioritize accordingly.
Remember: you only have time for what absolutely has to get done.
Keep your Coworkers in the Loop
You’re going to be yo-yo-ing between work and childcare all day, so you need to make sure that your colleagues know what’s going on, and where and when they can find you if they need something. I also advocate transparency about what you need to make this work. For example, you may need to let people know that you’ll need a bit more of a flexible schedule than usual. Or, if you don’t have a home office or other dedicated workspace in your house, let coworkers know upfront that they may see kids walking through the background of video calls, or hear them in the background of phone calls.
I also like to keep workers in the loop in real time as my availability changes throughout the day. For example, if I need to step away for a bit, I put up an away message on Slack and DM anyone who might need something from me to let them know. If we have a conference call, especially with a client, I let whoever is leading the call know my kids are around and that I will be on mute for most of the meeting.
No one is expecting you to work the way you did before you were working remotely while simultaneously parenting, but problems will arise if you end up holding up other people from doing their work, or disappearing during the day.
Start With Your Kids, Not With Work
If you’re (understandably) panicked about getting your work done, you may be tempted to dive in first thing in the morning. This will backfire when your kid feels startled and neglected, and responds by clinging to you and acting out for the rest of the day.
Do both of you a favor: start the morning by spending some time 100% invested in your child(ren). Eat breakfast with them, have a discussion with them, play with them. I’m talking about sacrificing maybe 20-30 minutes of your work day in order to establish a sort of secure base for the day.
I’ve heard this described as “filling up your child’s cup” first thing in the morning, so that they are able to do their thing a little more easily throughout the day.
I can’t speak for all kids, but resisting the urge to dive into work in favor of a little bit of totally-focused quality time with my son makes the day go so much more smoothly.
Lower Your Standards
Yes, I am talking about Screen Time (how else do you think everyone keeps their jobs when Bryan and I have two conflicting work obligations?). And household cleanliness. Back in the old days (pre-COVID-19) we did not allow screen time on weekdays, laundry was neatly folded and put away in a timely manner, and we put toys away and tidied up the house every night. Dinners were planned (and occasionally prepped) the weekend before, and groceries were carefully purchased. Work-life balance existed.
Now we live amongst dirty burp cloths, sinks full of dishes, and small trucks e.v.er.y.where. I’m winging it with dinners and cooking from what we have in our well-stocked freezer, rather than shopping for (or even ordering) groceries each week. And guess what? We’re all surviving.
Two things we don’t lower our standards on, ever? Hand washing and masking. Everything else doesn’t matter as much anymore.
Get Outside (Or, at Least, Stay Active)
If you can, safely, while maintaining distance from others, make time to go outside for some playtime. The health benefits of fresh air, movement, and sunshine are well documented but, let’s be real, the goal here is to burn off as much of that kid energy as you can outside the four walls of your house, so that they don’t end up bouncing off those walls.
For us, when we’re pulling double duty with no childcare, a long walk right after breakfast and a shorter one, or a scooter ride, right before dinner, has worked well for our work schedules and energy levels.
If you can’t get outside, find ways to burn energy inside. Dance parties, indoor obstacle courses, yoga (Cosmic Kids is a great, and free, option. They do Yoga and Dancing videos, which you can view on YouTube. We also use the Peloton app through our Roku box), or even just doing some jumping jacks will work. A couple of months ago I set up a play area in the basement for more energetic play, but before we had that, in moments of desperation, we loaded up the stroller with heavy stuff and my son pushed it around our basement for about 20 minutes. Whatever works.
Build Time-Consuming Games into the Day
Back when we found out we had a little more than a day to pack up our whole apartment to move on short notice, we had to get creative to get all the packing done.
The best solution, given that everything was in total disarray anyway, was to play endless games of hide and seek and create scavenger hunts. You would be surprised how much you can get done while counting to 10, or while your kid scours the hours for a pink shoe.
And on that note, you should keep an eye out for, and bookmark, any and all ideas you come across. Games, art, apps, you name it. I have a list a mile long.
Here are some sources of novel games, crafts, and other activities:
Pinterest: the holy grail! Use the search function, or peruse this board for babies, this board for toddlers, this board for slightly older kids, and this board for recipes (not to eat, but to play with), where my friend has been collecting ideas for her kids and has graciously offered to share!
Google: Just search [age]+[topic]+[type of activity]: “4 year old counting project”, “toddler craft ideas”, “Preschool homeschooling worksheets”, “dinosaur coloring page” etc.
Instagram and TikTok: so many influencers have great, and attainable, ideas for activities, crafts, upcycling, science experiments, and other amusements. Some of my favorite accounts for entertainment-at-home ideas are Busy Toddler, Days with Grey, and The Lean Green Bean (all on Instagram).
Facebook Mom Groups: I don’t know about you but my local moms group on FB has been positively exploding with ideas to share since the beginning of this phase of our lives. I use the search bar to find what I’m looking for in historical posts.
Free or low-cost online classes and events: These were a lot more prevalent at the beginning of the pandemic, but with some Googling or YouTube searching, you can find plenty of free classes, story times, dance or physical activity classes, and more.
If you have a small budget, I highly recommend Outschool. You can find a class about almost anything you can imagine on that site, which we have been using throughout the whole pandemic, and it’s great for keeping your kid’s attention while you work for a half our or so. Additionally, Outschool is one of the resources that can match you with a tutor if you need a little assistance supervising your child’s schoolwork. Use this link to sign up for $20 off of your first classes on Outschool! #notsponsored
Homeschooling websites and blogs: I am not an expert on homeschooling. Google can point you in the right direction for your child’s age. These sites are a treasure trove of activities that you may not have thought of on your own. I especially like choosing a theme for a week and then searching Google, Pinterest, and homeschooling sites for activities and worksheets related to that theme. If you have a small budget, you can find some wonderful ready-made homeschool activities and curricula on Etsy.
The app store: Screen time doesn’t just have to be tolerated, it can also be beneficial right now. Here are some of the apps that we’ve used and loved:
- The Cat in the Hat Builds That
- Khan Academy Kids
- Play and Learn Science
- Duolingo for Kids
- Scratch Jr.
- Not on the app store: PBS Kids games (on the PBS.org site) are fun and free!
Facetime and Zoom: I’ve heard of lots of creative ways to use these services, including grandparents (or other family members) “babysitting”, or at least distracting the kids, through the app while the parents work in the next room.
I don’t think there is a kid on earth for whom something new isn’t more fun than something they’re familiar with. That does not mean you need to spend an arm and a leg on new toys. Here are some ways to introduce “new” toys into the play routine without spending anything.
Cull your child’s toys and hide half or more of them. Then, every couple of weeks, rotate toys in and out.
If you have kept old toys from previous ages, bring out a few, even if they are supposed to be too young for your child. My 5YO has had a blast playing with toddler toys lately, just because he doesn’t remember them so they seem new.
Join a Freecycling Facebook group in your area or set up an alert on Facebook Marketplace. You won’t believe what people are willing to gift their neighbors, just to get it out of your house (likewise, this is a great way to get rid of the clutter that is making your house feel more cooped up that it needs to be!)
If there are similar-age kids in your neighborhood, set up a temporary or permanent toy exchange
Ask around if anyone is cleaning out their basement or attic of outgrown toys, activity books, or equipment, and offer to take some off their hands.
Finally, if you do have a small budget, watch flash sales and Amazon lightening and warehouse deals. Last year, I ended up getting a Buzz Lightyear space ship toy for something like 80% off of the MSRP on Amazon lightening deal.
I wish there were a way around this, but you are going to be multitasking a lot as we go through the next few months of (likely) frequent school closures and quarantines, at least in my area. When you go into it mentally prepared, knowing you won’t have a lot of time to focus, you’re going to just get buy rather than thrive in this period of your life, and you’re really going to focus on what is essential and nothing more, it is much easier to handle.
Look out for your mental health by getting enough sleep and eating healthy meals as much as possible, and carving out small breaks where you can, even if only on weekends and by employing way too much screen time.
Finally, let perfectionism go, and focus on what you’re able to achieve in this absolutely impossible situation, rather than what you’re not able to do.
You got this. ❤️