Whoever said “the days are long, but the years are short,” never lived through a year like this one. Right now, it all feels long—the days, the weeks, the months, the year 🙃 Many are trying to educate, nurture, play, work, cook, and clean without much of a break. Attending to the demands of a career right now can feel pretty challenging.
A Washington Post experiment found that for one family, the average amount of time either parent was able to spend on uninterrupted work was 3 minutes and 24 seconds. No stretch was longer than 20 minutes.
Personal space, if we ever had it, is gone. We meet with colleagues and clients in the most intimate spaces of our homes, our children wandering in and out of the camera frame. Many parents and caregivers have found moments of love and connection in this time, but working while parenting—or parenting while working—sometimes feels a little bit impossible.
Here are a few ways to cope with the realities of working and parenting during COVID-19:
Be kind to yourself
Remember, there are no mentors for our current scenario. There’s no one to talk to about the last pandemic they lived through, no scholarly studies on how to navigate this new normal. The Spanish flu was over a century ago, when the working world bore little resemblance to today’s environment. This means that we’re left with doing the best we can, even when our best doesn’t feel like enough.
Acknowledging and comforting others who are in pain can come more naturally than doing the same for ourselves. Psychologist Chris Germer says “since compassion is omnidirectional, we are just adding ourselves—just a little person in the corner of the picture, me too. And it’s life-changing.”
Treating ourselves with compassion is rarely easy—and it certainly isn’t now—but being kind to yourself can really make a difference. This doesn’t have to mean a grand gesture, monologue to yourself in the mirror, or major change to your behavior. Even a small, consistent mantra, like I’m doing my best, and that’s good enough can provide a small but significant boost from time to time.
Play the long game
There’s more to balance right now than just work and parenting; you’re also taking care of yourself. You’re managing relationships, attending to the responsibilities of being an adult, and perhaps trying to find some time to just be you. This is already difficult without a pandemic—a 2019 study on stress found that working mothers were 40% more stressed than their childless counterparts in the workforce.
Now might be a good time to start playing a long game when it comes to fulfilling obligations and responsibilities. Stress tends to beget more stress, but reframing what absolutely needs to get done and when can take some of the pressure off. Maybe a couple of the daily tasks you typically do can be done every other day, or a weekly routine can become biweekly— even monthly. Get in that special one-on-one time with each member of the family over the course of a week, even two weeks, instead of the usual daily ritual. The goal is to get everything done, right? But that doesn’t mean you have to get everything done today ❤️
Know the realities of multitasking
The research is clear on multitasking, and it doesn’t bode well for our attempts to parent and work at the same time. Performance tends to be worse on each activity we try to multitask than it would be if we focused on each separately.
“There’s a small number of people who are decent multitaskers—this concept of a ‘supertasker’—but at best, it’s maybe 10 percent of the population, so chances are, you’re not one of them,” says Arthur Markman, Psychology Professor at the University of Texas at Austin,
What does this mean for the current situation? You may have to rethink how you’re getting through your day. Doing several things at the same time may seem more efficient, but it isn’t, really, if you’re only a little bit present for each task. For example, instead of trying to soothe your upset toddler in the middle of a work meeting, consider excusing yourself so you can devote your full attention to your child for a few minutes.
Being able to fully attend to several things at once is superhuman; most of us just aren’t wired to do it. Try to separate out your tasks so you can focus on one at a time, be kind to yourself, and allow for mistakes. Everyone is making a lot of those these days—even your boss 😉
Parenting during COVID is an exercise in setting boundaries. It’s really difficult for many of us to say “no” to anything, whether it’s a work request, an invitation to an event, or a child’s demand. Why do we avoid the word? Psychology professor Hank Davis says “one benefit it provides is that everybody gets to save face and, most of all, everyone is saved from the dreaded “C word”—Conflict.”
However we feel about conflict, surviving a lockdown with children, jobs, and busy lives may require us to stretch our ability to refuse, to (gracefully) decline. Whether our boss has asked us to take on extra work, Grandma & Grandpa are asking for daily video chats, or a friend wants a regular socially-distanced walk around the neighborhood, now may be a good time to practice saying “no”: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to be able to manage that.” Offer a reason if you’re so compelled, but know that you’re justified in keeping your “no” simple and to the point.
Find small rituals
Telling a parent that all they have to do is make it to their 4:00 ice cream bar in front of the television can feel patronizing. Still, self-care rituals can remind us of our personhood, even if they don’t solve the larger issue of how to manage life. A morning mocha, a brisk walk with the dog, a few minutes of meditation, an ice cream bar and 30 minutes of guilty pleasure TV—these kinds of small, regular routines can be grounding during a time when so many of us feel untethered.
If there was ever a time to let our children start learning how to handle boredom, it’s now. We parents often believe we must also be entertainers, and there are limits to how much space we can reasonably give a small child, but we don’t have to attend to them every minute. Child Psychologist Vanessa Lapointe says, “children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves.”
It’s often during those moments of boredom—when children aren’t being entertained—that their minds slow down enough to kick their imagination and creativity into gear. The world may not always get quiet enough for boredom to take root and blossom into something productive, creative, or otherwise beneficial, but it doesn’t have to. “Boredom” can just as easily be called “daydreaming” or “wandering,” and it’s healthy for brain development.
Try offering your toddler a carton of q-tips and let them investigate and play with them on their own. They may scatter them on the floor, put them back in their container, or leave them and come back to them later. In the end, that may be the silver lining to this singular moment in our history: there’s no rush ❤️
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