With schools closing, many parents shifting to working from home, and social distancing limiting child-care options, juggling kids and work is becoming a new reality for many people. I’ve worked from home for more than six years—as long as I’ve been a parent. During that time, I’ve weathered my daughter’s day care suddenly closing, worked when my girls were both struck down for a week with hand-foot-and-mouth disease, and worked through dozens of snow and sick days with one or both of them at home. These periods have felt like both a marathon and a sprint. The days can feel endless, yet I’ve often needed to blast through work in short bursts between managing the kids.
Working with kids at home isn’t ideal, but over the years I’ve landed on some strategies that make it easier. They’re what I’m turning to for the coming weeks with both my preschooler and first-grader at home. If you want even more ideas, check out our earlier coverage on staying sane while working from home with kids.
Set an agenda for the day
It’s probably not realistic that you’ll be a master homeschooler. After all, you are literally doing two jobs at once! (And there’s probably a reason you haven’t chosen to homeschool in the first place.) But giving your family a list of activities sets a direction and pace for the day, and it means you don’t have to wonder what to do with your little monsters next. I try to model the day after the routine my kids have at school (and if your child’s school is closed, you may have already been sent areas of study to focus on). For my 4-year-old and 6-year-old, that generally means some reading time, art time, choice time, a trip outside, and lunch. Then I leave the afternoons for more free time, screen time, or listening to podcasts. I’ve used an IKEA easel to write the agenda for the day for everyone to see, like they do in my daughter’s preschool—but honestly, you don’t have to get overly complicated. I’ve found a simple list with rough timelines very helpful. (If you need more guidance on how to structure a school day at home, this article offers advice.)
If you have two adults at home right now, you can tag-team; one person can oversee the agenda while the other works. If you’re the only one home (my current situation), try getting the kids started on the agenda early, so you can log in to work. You’re guaranteed to be interrupted! Just do your best to juggle these interruptions and get the kids back on track with their activities. But be easy on yourself: If you need to focus—and letting the kids have screen time will help with this—just do it (see below). For instance, as I write this, independent reading time had to shift to an audiobook.
Get outside, if you can
Kids cooped up become crazy kids. When I’ve been deep in a work project and neglected taking my daughters outside, I’ve paid for it later with cranky, overactive kids in the afternoon. You’ll likely buy yourself time later in the day if you build in an early, get-your-ya-yas-out break. There’s a reason day-care centers and schools do recess in the morning. Getting outside, especially in a green space, can also help you deal with your own anxiety levels. Of course, follow the most current safety advice. That likely means staying away from public spaces and playgrounds, where kids will be too inclined to touch surfaces that others have recently touched. You may need to get creative: Take the kids out for a bike or scooter ride away from other people; if you have a yard or deck, consider a hula-hoop or jump-rope session.
Strategize screen time
Let’s be real, your kids will likely watch shows or play games on the iPad, especially if you don’t have anyone else at home to help. I’ve found it best to schedule that screen time for when I’m on video calls or when I need to focus with less distraction. It takes a little effort to curate your kids’ playlist toward shows that have more substance, but I’ve found it makes me feel much better about the time they do spend using screens. I’d much rather that they watch an Odd Squad marathon than endless episodes of Barbie or Victorious. I also subscribe to Epic!, which streams audiobooks and educational videos. Wirecutter’s educational and learning apps guide recommends a bunch of great math, coding, and science apps. If you live in a small space, or you don’t have a separate office with a door, kids headphones, like the Puro BT2200, can be an invaluable way to give you quiet while the kids watch or listen to programs.
Take breaks with your kids
My mom once told me that taking intermittent five-minute breaks to read a book with my daughter during the workday is sometimes enough to let her know that I love her, and to recharge her batteries to go off and play by herself. I’ve found this to be true over the years. Read a book with your kid, sit down for lunch with them, or whatever else you can fit in. Try not to check your phone, social media, or emails during that time.
Be kind to yourself and your kids
This is an unprecedented situation. No one is going to be perfect. Try to keep the vibe at home calm, and avoid bingeing on coronavirus news (consider removing tempting social media apps from your phone, or just banish your phone to a drawer!). You are very likely not going to get everything on your list done. Your home may become a wreck. That’s just a reality when you’re working two jobs! If you don’t get to something in the day and it can wait, great. If it needs to get done, then try to get your kids in a calm state of mind so they can handle it when you really need to focus on something else.
For many of us, this is an anxious time. Both your parenting and your own work will benefit when you take time to center yourself—whatever that means for you. If that’s exercise or meditation, great. At Wirecutter, many of my coworkers who are parents are fans of meditation apps, like Headspace and Calm. Try to do one of these when you can get away from your kids—even if it’s just for five or 10 minutes. There are lots of great streaming options for working out at home (I prefer Glo for yoga and pilates, and Fitness Blender for HIIT and weight training), which means you can work out when you’re solo parenting. (We also have some more ideas for de-stressing.) Days feel more chaotic when I don’t take “me time” in the morning. But it might work better for you at the end of the day or midday, if you’ve got someone at home to help.
Taking care of your mental and physical health can really help in challenging times like this, when you have to draw upon extra reserves deep down to get through it. And you can. Good luck!