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Illustration of a mother working from home and her kids

Ask Lauren

Working From Home With Kids

In her second column, Lauren Smith Brody tackles our new reality of working from home with littles in tow.

Written By Lauren Smith Brody
Illustration Maria-Ines Gul

About a month ago, which now feels like a decade ago, my editor and I emailed back and forth: “How about if we do a column answering questions about flexibility and working from home?” And then, suddenly, that “special circumstance” became everyone’s immediate and urgent reality. Now almost all of us are working from home (or trying to) without school or childcare while also doing things like washing out used Ziplocs so we don’t ever have to buy any more, and staring into a future that seems to change by the hour.

First of all, please know that you are heroic in this moment, whether you’ve got the color-coded homeschooling chart thing going on, or are just keeping it together with simple carbs and screen time. Even if you’re not feeling particularly in control at all (me!) that’s okay too. Because ultimately we are showing our children that it’s okay to be scared and to manage those feelings.

Second—and I say this as someone who has become a housewife overnight as my husband is a doctor who is on the front lines right now—there will be some silver linings that come out of this, most notably: 1) All of the invisible work that moms have been doing in the home is now incredibly visible: Yes, the baby really does need that many diaper changes a day. That’s going to even things out for the long term, and 2) While all of this remote working is a pain, it’s also much more possible than many workplaces ever imagined. From now on, that flexibility won’t easily be denied to any working parent who needs it.

Okay, over to your questions about working from home:

Q: How can I deal with a micro-manager right now? I’m having to field his video check-ins from 8 to 5 knowing that I'll be working late at night after the kids are asleep too.

A: I think it’s great that you can see that this behavior is due to his personality, not your effort or work. So let’s start there. You’re never going to change his need to feel in control (which honestly must be a nightmare for him right now). So, instead, be proactive and give him extreme dependability—but on your exact terms.

Try something like this: “I have come up with a plan to help us all feel confident in our productivity right now. This is more than I would share if we were working together in person because you would be there to see it. But for the sake of transparency, here’s how I’m working now: I will be reading all email/Slack. For anything that requires a thoughtful response, I will have two chunks of time when I do that, TIME A and TIME B. Additionally, meeting face to face on video can save us both time if we use it for problem solving and not just check-ins. So let’s schedule a daily call at TIME C. I may have my daughter on my lap while we are talking, but I will reliably be available at that time.” Seems like a bit much, I know, but this is a person who appreciates a bit muchness, and managing up is the key to being out of sight...and trusted.

Q: My husband and I have worked out a work/parenting schedule, but my toddler keeps running to me every time! How can I make things more equal?

A: Tough love answer: Ask yourself if, a little bit, you kind of want it that way. That’s okay, and I relate. But it’s an important factor in how you deal with it. If you want your kiddo to go to your husband just as often, you need to set some physical boundaries (ie work from a room with the door closed, if you can) that keep you out of sight (and mind) for the chunks of the day when your husband is on duty, as well as some family rule boundaries (“ask your nearest parent” is a long-standing rule in our home). But just as important, you need to look at who does the bath, the feeding, the changing, the bedtime, and all of the routines you guys have established up to this point and divide those equally too because that’s where she’s getting her sense of what’s normal. It’s a lot to deal with in an already stressful time, I know, but the payoff will last a lifetime.

Q: How the hell to do this with a first responder husband? I'm drowning!!

A: Solidarity and all love to you. If your life looks like mine right now, your husband is working 14 hour days, and you’re entirely on duty at home while also doing everything you can to be emotionally supportive to him when he gets home wired and tired and in need of decontamination and decompression. I’ve gone from professional gender equality expert to someone who packs a lunch for her husband and washes his pants daily. I’m only 11 days in, but here’s what’s helping:

For essential work (paid work or housework or whatever), do it in scheduled bursts at the times of day when you know that you can be most productive. Use good rules of efficiency like doing the hardest thing on your list first.

If your kids are big enough, enlist them in helping and planning. My boys learned to clean the bathroom this week, and I hope it’s a life skill they keep forever. It’s also physical activity, which they need. Engaging your kids just looks different now, and most activities at home can serve some family-supporting purpose. Cooking absolutely counts as science. Organizing a bookshelf by color or size is just as good as doing a puzzle.

Screens: YES.

Who do you know who is retired and loves your kids? Make a set video chat time when they can read to your kids or teach them a lesson to give you some free time.

If all else fails, please know that YOU are not a failure if you need to take a break from paid work right now entirely to protect the future of your family. The Families First Corona Virus Response Act, passed on March 18, isn’t perfect, but it may help you take paid leave.

And a big PS here: This kind of inequality isn’t limited to couples in which one partner is a first responder or essential employee. Any couple in which one person out-earns the other is bound to feel pressure for the less “valuable” parent to be the one facilitating remote learning and cleaning the cereal bowls. I can’t tell you what degree of equity makes sense for you now, but I can tell you that it’s important to look past the current moment and think long-term. If you deliberately discuss it and plan it out together, you’ll be less resentful.

Q: How to do this with a baby?! I’m seeing lots of advice for activities and screen time suggestions for older kids.

A: Here’s just one more item on a very long list called Things My Mom Was Right About That I Fought Her On: playpens. Your only job right now with your baby is to keep him safe. If that means putting him in a contained space with some toys so you can function, wonderful.

And please don’t feel guilty. All of the research shows that the very best thing you can do for a baby’s development is talk to/around him. No one has proven that that can’t include your Zoom of the hour with your colleagues. So put that playpen (or exersaucer, or pack n play, or puppy gate) close to where you’re working. And go ahead and tell your coworkers about it to manage expectations. We are living in a brave new world of seeing our colleagues as actual whole people with complicated and precious lives. Ultimately, eventually, quickly that’s going to be a good thing.

Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.