Making Working at Home Work

Published on April 29, 2020

by Ellen Galinsky

Forever Memories emerge during unexpected times, times that herald a change—where the “after” is not the same as the “before,” and times that challenge us to adapt. Most of us will have forever memories of COVID 19, similar to the kind of memories we have for events like 9/11 or when President Kennedy was shot. Given the stress everyone is under, it would be easy for us to lose sight of the kind of memories we want to create for our children and ourselves. That’s why I am sharing stories from families who are thinking intentionally about this. These stories can inspire us all.

Working at home during the pandemic has been called flexible work.

“Flexible? “Really?” Jen, a developmental psychologist asked when she began working at home after the university where she is a faculty member suspended all on-campus activities on March 19th.

“There was no flex in our schedules at all,” she told me. “It was non-stop:”

My husband and I were working full-time and caring for our children full-time, both under 3, in a very small apartment. We were always, always, always working and caring for our children. There was no space for anything else.

She counts herself as very lucky, especially when her talks with her friends. She and her husband have jobs at a time when others have lost theirs. She and her husband are economically stable when others are very worried about their financial futures. Her family is healthy when others aren’t.

But Jen and her husband also knew that if they were going to make their lives work during the pandemic, they were going to have to make some changes.

The first change they made was to bring in a trusted person who has done child care for them. So, after this person self-quarantined, she came to work with them for four hours during weekday mornings. Jen says:

This has been an absolute sanity saver.

Then they set up a schedule. The morning is time for Jen and her husband to do their concentrated work. Their child care ends at lunch time, and after the children nap, they trade-off childcare depending on that day’s scheduling needs. Jen usually does more of the afternoon childcare because her husband has meetings that that are uninterruptable and it’s okay if Jen’s children interrupt her meetings. They both often catch up on work in the evenings.

Jen has had to change her expectations about what she was going to accomplish at work. She says:

At first, it felt like I was not getting as much work done. I had to shift to take care of the most essential things. Now, I am still not getting everything done but by focusing on what matters most, it is manageable.

Jen also stays on top of her preschool daughter’s therapies:

She’s disabled and has therapists she sees. We aren’t shuttling her around but we are doing video therapy appointments. We have to make sure she doesn’t have too much back-sliding.

And then there is cooking and cleaning that they both do on what feels like an always-on basis in their small apartment.

We clean constantly!

Another change they made was to use their apartment differently:

First thing in the mornings, the children play in their room. Now that the weather is nice outside, they can go outside with their child care provider each morning. That time outside has been extraordinarily beneficial – especially for my son, who is very active. In the afternoons, they play in the living room. There are different toys in each room so that keeps it interesting.

An additional change was to make sure Jen takes them outside during the afternoons too. They live on the university campus, which is pretty empty now. But it wasn’t enough. Jen realized that she needed to exercise too:

My husband and I both get up at 5 to exercise—before the kids wake up. It helps to manage the stress. That was always something we wanted to make a part of our routine but it has become more compulsory for us during quarantine.

One of the internal stresses was feeling like she should be her children’s teachers and therapist. She ended up concluding she couldn’t create an educational curriculum, nor should she. That was an unrealistic expectation.

I realized that the most important things for them is to have predictability, a mother who isn’t all stressed out and one-on-one sustained attention. That’s what matters.

Some “cool things” have begun to happen, which are becoming Jen’s forever memories:

I have seen my kids change a lot. My son started walking and talking. My daughter is blind and she has started to use her cane.

My kids have also gotten closer. She was irritated with him the first six months he existed and never wanted to be with him. She doesn’t know it’s a pandemic; she only knows that he’s the only peer she now has. She’s beginning to see some good in him.

Working at home came with no flex in it at first. Jen and her husband had to create the bits of flexibility they need. The changes they made were both logistical and psychological because they involved changing their expectations to be more realistic.

As one friend said to me, “It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t have a choice.”

In my book, The Six Stages of Parenthood, I found that growth in parenthood emerges from conflict and turmoil. Our expectations don’t meet reality.At that point, we have a choice. We can hold onto our expectations and continue to feel angry, sad, depressed; we can stay stuck. Or conversely, we can decide our expectations are realistic and try to live up to them or we can change our expectations to be in keeping with reality. When we change our behavior or our expectations, we grow as parents. That’s what parental growth is all about!