I work from home in an office in my basement. Five seconds after I started writing the pitch that became this story, the younger of my two kids started howling from the kitchen. She was loading the dishwasher and hit her eye on it. How, I have no idea. I hate to say it, but I was working and I didn’t have time to find out.
Screaming kid, don’t care: Parent of the Year!
Don’t judge, dear reader, for you’re going to win your own nomination for such awards soon. This week promises to be the most unusual in the history of American work. If, like millions of Americans, your office is closed and so is your kids’ school because of coronavirus, you will be in a work environment you have never experienced. You will try to work from home with the kids there.
To all of you I say, welcome to my world. My wife homeschools our kids, and we both work from home (she works part time). The unholy miasma of work, play, lunch-making and blowing-off-a-deadline-to-play-dolls you are about to embark upon has been our life for seven years. We have juggled parenting and homework and travel and piano lessons and meals and (brain explodes) and somehow, we’ve made it work.
Somehow, you can, too.
Somehow, you’ll be fine.
It depends, really, upon your answer to one very important question: Do you have pads on your dishwasher?
Right now, the kids are upstairs, eating lunch. The face-to-the-dishwasher crying is a distant memory. At quiet moments like this, I consider the time I have spent working from home with kids here to be one of the singular blessings of my life. The joy I get from seeing them hour after hour, day after day far outweighs the distractions they turn out to be.
Yes, dear reader, those distractions are often hugely annoying. Your kids will ask you 89 billion questions as you try to type one email. They will interrupt phone calls, they will tug on your shirt as you try to think, they will make you yearn for a screaming boss just to get some peace and quiet.
And yet, to be present as my 13-year-old has progressed from seemingly random plinks of the piano keys to playing “One Day More” from Les Misérables makes me never want to leave the house, lest I miss something. My 10-year-old and I are in the midst of a years-long game of Uno to 10,000. She keeps score in a notebook. To flip through the pages and see her handwriting improve is to watch her grow and mature. We’ve laughed through hundreds of games while other dads are commuting or sitting through meetings or whatever the poor schlubs who go to offices every day do.
Sometimes I sneak upstairs when my wife is reading to them. She is a masterful reader-out-louder, and I’ve learned to discern by her cadence what book she’s reading. Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, has an unmistakable rhythm.
I hope, dear reader, that you can find time this week, and next, and for however long this coronavirus quarantine lasts, to soak up moments like that. The stress, the anxiety, the worry, they are profound, I know. I hope that some joy from seeing your kids in new and different ways permeates that barrier.
Having said all that: You have a job. You have to get some work done, and those brilliant pianists and charming Uno companions will eventually morph into ankle-biting, fight-picking, bank-account dwindling noise machines.
Your kid will hit her face on the dishwasher, or the lot of them will sound like tap-dancing elephants, or in some other way I can’t even imagine—and after seven years of this, I can imagine A LOT—they will make it impossible to get anything done.
I’ve got you covered.
Did you get those pads for the dishwasher yet?
These seven years of working in a crowded house have not been easy, on any of us, including the kids. But over the years, my wife and I have learned valuable lessons about balancing work, parenting and school.
1. Set reasonable expectations for you and for them.
This is not normal. Don’t act like it is. It’s not reasonable to expect to sell this week what you sold this week last year. Today is not the day, this week is not the week, and this month is not the month, to be consumed with productivity. Give yourself grace. Give your kids more. This applies all the time if you work from home with kids there.
If you’re a person who loves strict schedules and builds your color-coded calendar in 15-minute increments, I’ve got news for you: None of that is going to happen with kids in the house. And if that calendar is hard copy, it’s going to be covered in oatmeal, chocolate milk and applesauce by noon.
3. Netflix and iPads are not babysitters, but you might have to use them in a pinch.
I hate this idea so much it makes me mad to type it, and I sincerely hope you don’t need this tip. But if I’m being honest, sometimes we use devices to distract our kids when we both need to work. Same goes for books, puzzles, games, etc. My kids are voracious readers and that has been an enormous help.
4. Take turns.
My wife stays up all hours working on motions. On the weekends, I often take the kids to the park or the pool or on some other activity so she can have alone time. Given current restrictions about public gatherings, you probably can’t take the kids out, but you can work in shifts, you can squeeze in time over the weekend, you can work at night, etc.
5. Ear plugs.
My friend Pat has “worked from homeschool” for 20 years, and when I asked him for tips, those were the first two words out of his mouth.
6. Buy an electric griddle and occasionally make grilled ham and cheese sandwiches for everyone.
You’ll be a hero. Plus, it will offset the times lunch will be a spoonful of hummus and a handful of crackers eaten over the sink.
7. Be sneaky.
My youngest daughter and I play a game we call Restaurant. Together we plot breakfast. She grabs paper and pencil and creates menus for everybody. As she makes them, I grab my computer or phone and write quick emails or texts, or make a to-do list, or anything that I can do fast. With any luck, she won’t notice I’m working (pro tip: don’t get caught working during play time). Then we cook breakfast together.
8. Find unique places to work.
My basement office is hot in the summer and cold in the winter and ugly year-round, so I leave it as often as possible. If you don’t usually work from home, you might not have a home office, and you’ll have to find a place to work. The kitchen table is OK if you like working inside a tornado. Your bedroom is OK if you think resting your eyes for five minutes and opening them two hours later is OK. Your couch is OK if by “working on the couch” you mean “watching a Harry Potter marathon.” Wherever you work, I recommend having a door to close. I also recommend telling the kids there is a rule against barging in without knocking and HA HA HA, that rule will never, ever, ever, not in a million billion trillion years, be followed.
In regular times, I take my kids to the park and/or pool and work on my laptop there. Sometimes I do phone interviews. Added bonus: I get to play with them, which makes up for not caring when they hit their face on the dishwasher.
Right now, you can’t take your kids to the park or the pool. But you can take them to your backyard and let them kick around a soccer ball while you sit in a lawn chair and work on mindless tasks—deleting old emails, filling out expense reports, cleaning the mess off of your color-coded calendar, etc. Those effortless things are good to do when you have to keep an eye on your kids so that your spouse can have his or her “deep work” time.
Sometimes the best way to work from home is not to work from home. Granted, this is harder now than ever. But I have a trick that I used pre-coronavirus that still works today, even while following aggressive social distancing guidelines. When I have a problem to think through or brainstorming to do, I cram a lunch and laptop into my backpack, strap a camping chair to the outside of it and head to the nearest trailhead. Hiking allows me to think deeply without being distracted. I do some of my best writing out there.
11. Be flexible.
I saved the most important one for last. Boo-boos need kissing, socks need finding, the end of Harry Potter needs watching, preferably while cuddling. All of those are more important than the TPS report you are working on. Put another way, if my daughter challenges me to a game of Uno while I’m in the middle of finishing this story, I will stop typing immedi—
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