Coronavirus life: Working from home with kids

Greetings from (checking a calendar) Thursday, March 19, 2020. It’s Day 4 of no school during the Coronavirus pandemic. I am at home with our two school-age daughters—grade 6 (age 12, otherwise known as “you don’t know anything, mom”) and grade 4 (age 10, also called the age of dragons, unicorns, pajamas, and fart humor)—and two dogs. You’re all at home too. Isn’t this a scream?

I’ve been working remotely from a home office since 2015, so I jotted down a few thoughts in case I can help shed some light on how to balance working from home while wrangling kids and critters. Most of the advice centers around kids because the dogs are the best behaved beings in my house—and this includes the 5-month-old puppy who regularly pees on the floor.

This is a picture of how one of my “coworkers” tries to get my attention while I’m working.

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Let’s get started.

Set standards but keep them low

Most work days I get dressed, put on deodorant, brush my hair, and apply light makeup. This is me. This is what I do. You don’t have to do this. But it helps me feel human and slightly polished. On the days when I haven’t done this my mood feels a little sour. I keep a cute cardigan and scarf on the back of my office chair and a tube of lipstick near my keyboard in the event of a spontaneous video call—Surprise! You’re on camera!

I shower at least every other day. I’ve talked with other chronic work-from-homers who push the envelope on this (you know who you are) and their spouses can tell when working conditions are a little too ripe.

This applies to our kids, too. We’re keeping our kids’ bathing and bedtime routines the same. Speaking of schedules…

Make a skeleton schedule and stick to it loosely

Routine is critical in our family. Even before COVID-19 (my daughters call it The Rona or The Rona Lisa) I made a daily schedule divided between to-do items and a general order of the day. One of our daughters needs to know what’s happening or she’s untethered, adrift.

Keep it simple

Do not be ambitious. These are unprecedented times. Years ago I decided on a few basic items that are musts. The others are extras. Here are the have-to items for the morning (by 9 a.m.):

  • Get dressed
  • Make your bed
  • Brush your hair
  • Eat breakfast
  • Take your medication

That’s it. That’s the list. Anything more than that and they feel overwhelmed.

Keep it fun

A couple summers ago we discovered the National Day Calendar. Today happens to be National Chocolate Caramel Day so we’re making caramels from scratch. Who knows how it’ll turn out—even if we just get caramel sauce at least we can drizzle it over our ice cream. (Spoiler—they turned out ok and now we have emergency caramels for sad days). It’s also Let’s Laugh Day so we’ll watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and Mary Poppins for the laughing scene. And, because it’s National Poultry Day, I decided to make homemade chicken pot pie for dinner. No matter what, it’s one way I’ve found of entertaining our family in a somewhat structured way.

Plan ahead and set timers

Every morning I look at my work calendar to see when I have scheduled conference calls. That’s an automatic screen time block for us. Today, they get screen time from 10:30-11, 11:30-1, and 2:30-3. For us, we define screen time as tablets, computers, and phones—those devices tend to be more addictive for our kids. We place TV and movies in a separate category because they don’t have the same hypnotic sway over our kids.

Before I start a meeting, I distribute snacks (they’re happier when they’re not hangry), take the dogs out for a bathroom break, and set a timer. Our house runs on timers. It’s a way for me to set a clear expectation on when I’ll emerge from my office and when they need to plug their devices at the charging station. Does it always work? NOPE. But it’s part of our routine and I estimate this works 75% of the time.

In order to earn additional screen time they need to read or draw for at least 30 minutes. So I add screen-free blocks into the schedule. This helps when they ask for their phone or tablet. It gives me an easy way to say, “Sure. You can have it after you read or draw for 30 minutes.” Or, I can say, “Let’s see what’s on the schedule.” If the day is already written down I can point to it like an impartial arbiter. It removes me as the mean parent and helps them feel a little bit more in control of when they can liquefy their brains on Roblox or Pinterest.

Separate and mute

I’m lucky in that I have a separate office space with a door. Unfortunately, my door is a glass door without a lock. If my door is shut, my “coworkers” have to knock before entering. If I’m on a call and they can see my headset on my noggin, they have to submit any requests in writing by slipping a note under the door. Most of the time the notes read something like “Mom, can I have marshmallows?” To which I scribble back, “No.” And then the child writes back, “Too late.” And grins through the door with a mouth full of marshmallows.

I’m now a pro at using the mute features on Webex/Zoom meetings. When I’m confident that the phone is muted I feel empowered to do more than just give the kid a vicious stare. I’ve learned that it’s OK to step away from a call to mediate disputes. On that note, I have a code word with my manager (COCONUT) that I can quickly type in a chat window. COCONUT means—disaster has struck, I have to deal with it or face lasting consequences, and I’ll return to my keyboard as soon as humanly possible.

Share the responsibility of clean up

We have a few general clean up rules.

  • Take your dishes to the sink
  • Clean up one activity before you move to the next
  • Take dirty clothes to the laundry room

That said, this doesn’t always work. One child popcorns from one activity to the next leaving a wake of discarded, partially finished projects. By the end of the day it’s completely normal to have to wade through a bizarre debris field of cardboard, pipe cleaners, stickers, coloring books, tape, and markers. But, hey, I try.

On fighting and coping ahead

My kids fight. Typically, it’s verbal insults, but left unchecked things can get physical quickly. I’ve learned how to cope ahead. By now I know their triggers and (most of the time) I have a plan for how I’m going to solve disputes. We have set rules for behavior like name calling and hitting that will result in consequences such as losing devices or dessert. (Personally, I’d rather lose my phone than miss out on a bowl of ice cream, but that’s me.)

And, I have a plan for what I’m going to do when I lose my mind. Often it’s just stepping away to a different room. With dogs, I have built in excuses to take a quick walk outside. When I have lost my cool and raised my voice I apologize sincerely and we move on. If this happens in your family too, it’s normal. It’ll all be ok.

 

Reward and recognize

I try to catch the kids when they’re getting along and being as angelic as possible. I keep a stash of m&ms nearby and I hand them out here and there when I hear them compliment a sibling, let an insult slide without returning a torrent of abuse, and other things I want them to do more often.

Play to your strengths

Things I’m good at: cooking, crafting, walking the dogs, reading out loud. These are the types of activities I’m continuing to do. Sticking with what I’m good at helps me be more relaxed, which in turn, hopefully reassures my kids and keeps the house chill.

Be ok with weaknesses

I am not an educator. There is no way I am even close to an adequate replacement for my kids’ teachers. As I write this, our school district has not asked students to do distance learning. I am not doing any kind of formal instruction or enrichment. Any academic aspects of our days this week have been accidental. Following a recipe for caramels and making hand sanitizer have been decent ways to incorporate some math and life skills.

When distance learning starts I plan to give it a solid B effort. I will pick up the materials, I’ll add the lessons to the schedule, and I’ll do my best to support the girls’ as they learn. BUT my priorities are safety and sanity. If a kid melts down, pumps the breaks, and doesn’t want to learn on a particular day I’m absolutely not going to force it.

Get weird and relax some rules

Things are SO not normal. Our family has always been a bit bizarre and we’re totally embracing our quirkiness. Yesterday we spent 15 minutes seeing who could get the dogs to jump the highest by leaping. Today, my youngest decided she needed a cape—she took a fleece blanket, cut holes in the top corners, secured with a pipe cleaner, and swooshed dramatically around the house. Did I want her to cut holes in a blanket? No. Did I bat an eyelash. NOPE.

Maybe I’ll let them have dessert for breakfast on a Friday. Or maybe it would be funny to put gloves on feet and walk around like a chicken. (TIP: Do this, it’s fun.)

Don’t drink during the day

There’s a lot of “Rosé all day” and “It’s wine o’clock somewhere” merch out there. I know it’s fun to joke about drinking, but—in my opinion—booze doesn’t mix well with working from home with kids. The only thing in my tumbler is water or coffee. Apologies for clutching my pearls, but I think this isolation may last several more weeks (or months!!??). I do enjoy a nice cocktail, but I have a firm after work hours policy for when I let myself sip some wine. Real talk—if I have to drive a family member to a clinic, I need to be sober.

I wait until my spouse gets home to hit the sauce. And, I try to abstain from alcohol Monday through Thursday. That said, rules are meant to be broken. So if it’s a bad day at the office and the “coworkers” are EXTRA, I’ll enjoy a glass of wine on a Tuesday evening. But, I try to make it the exception, not the norm. It gives me something to look forward to, and perhaps I set a better example for my kids that alcohol isn’t the only way to relax. Other go-to items in my blissing out toolbox are yoga, tea, emergency chocolate, walks, bubble baths, locking myself in the bathroom, and screaming into a pillow.

Escape plans

At the moment, my spouse’s job is considered essential—he manages a manufacturing team to make soap and hand sanitizer. He’s gone from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. When he returns, we eat dinner and then I unapologetically scoot upstairs and lock myself in our bedroom to make phone calls, play Words with Friends or write this scattered blog post with excess commas (I will edit this later, I promise). Knowing how I’ll be responsibility-free is my guiding light in the chaos.

Wrapping it up

I don’t have all the answers. This is what’s worked for us as long as we’re healthy. If the Rona Lisa hits our house I do not know what will happen. I’m not sure any of us really do. So from me to you, I wish you all a safe and healthy-as-can-be evening.

P.S. Tomorrow is National Ravioli Day.

[NOTE: Some items I mention may or may not apply to your situation because our daughters have disabilities. Both our daughters are on the autism spectrum. Since their diagnoses in 2016, I have made the decision to avoid sharing  specifics on their conditions because the Internet is forever and it’s their journey, not mine. Because of their disabilities, routines are essential and we go easy on chores and other things that create anxiety. In this new normal while all outside and at-home therapy sessions have been canceled I am trying to amp up the fun and take the pressure off academics.]