Every parent’s worst nightmare? Or the best thing you’ve ever done?
When we were told in March 2020 to work from home, my husband and I breathed a sigh of relief as we contemplated a short term future without long commutes, crammed into public transport or bumper to bumper in traffic jams. We embarked upon a week of blissful homeworking, side by side, making coffees for one another, ticking off our to-do lists and smugly acing working-parenthood. Our son was happily attending school and the full gambit of available wrap-around care. We had a nine-hour child-free window in our days. Life was breezy.
Then the schools closed.
Our smugness turned to panic as we realised the immense responsibility of being parent, teacher, friend, colleague and co-worker all at once, with no outside help.
The first two weeks went badly. Our to-do lists became unmanageable and we were berated for being bad teachers with no patience. Worse still, we found we had no time, motivation or inclination to engage in the imaginative creative play a six-year old so badly needs. We beat ourselves up, shouted, slammed, wrote curt emails and hissed at one another. Something had to change, but what? What can you do to balance parenting, home-schooling and working? Here are my hard-won tips for doing just that:
Be honest with everyone about what you can achieve, especially yourself. Work hard to manage expectations (your own especially) and try to forge understanding on all sides. If you can reduce your workload, do so, but if not, at least engage in a realistic conversation about capabilities and productivity.
Schedule, schedule, schedule.
Work out what needs to be done by whom and when. Then create a schedule setting out when you will be available for your child and your employer respectively and share these with both. Be clear with your employer about what you can achieve whilst home-schooling, and block out times in your calendar when you won’t be able to do more than absentmindedly keep an eye on emails (certainly not attend meetings). Create a schedule for your children setting out times for their subjects as well as PE, lunchtime, breaktime and playtime. Create structure, then stick to it.
Set some boundaries for your work and home life. Say what is on and what is off limits and reinforce regularly. For example – do not interrupt mummy when she is on the phone in meetings, do not play with mummy’s laptop or work phone and do not call me between [x] and [y]. Ground rules keep everybody in the game, so long as they play fairly.
Reap the rewards.
Giving kids something to aim to, and setting clear rules how to achieve it, really works. We implemented a bead system. Each example of good behaviour earned a bead, and with each example of bad behaviour, a bead was taken. We set out the parameters of what was good and bad together. Working hard at planning, delivering or doing your lessons, and listening to each other constituted good behaviour. Answering back or, for the parents, shouting or losing your temper, lost you beads. There was a nomination and seconding system; with big rewards at the end of each week in a ‘golden ceremony’ for the winner of the most beads. Sufficed to say, I always lost more than I won.
Take a break.
You will need to work doubly hard at both being a co-worker and being a parent. Now is not the time to slack off. But you will need breaks throughout the day and they should be in the fresh air if possible. You will also need downtimes at the weekend or in the evenings, to recharge in whatever way you do best. Finally, should you have annual leave and other leave entitlements (including parental leave) available to give you a break from work, at least, use them.
Leverage your network.
Even if your child can’t see family members or friends face to face, they can see them virtually. If possible, build in regular slots when family/friends can virtually take over childcaring responsibilities. During lockdown, we had an aunty doing guided reading, an uncle doing art, and a grandparent doing science lessons. Also, schedule adult only virtual catch-ups to check in with those who care about you to help you recharge your batteries.
There was so much out there to occupy our son when we were both unavoidably busy, we just had to research it, identify it and vet it for suitability and safety. This took effort, especially at the beginning. We collated lists of all the websites and resources that the school and friends and the media suggested, and we found a few of our own. We tried them and tested them. When school started setting tasks for us using its app, things did get easier, but even before then, we were reliant on a short list of ‘digital babysitters’ to pass the time and give structure to the day: ipad apps (maths, coding, language), interactive Twinkl resources, BBC Bitesized videos, virtual classes from extra-curricular groups and YouTube. Some things needed more supervision than others, so we used what worked best based on the needs at the time.
Work It Out.
It goes without saying but exercise is a great stress reliever. It is also a brilliant way to bond with those who do it with you. During lockdown, PE with Joe Wicks was a standing engagement every day for my son and me, and we did it whilst connecting with friends of ours over WhatsApp. We built stronger muscles, stronger friendships and a stronger and better relationship between the two of us and we got our daily endorphin dose to get us through tougher moments.
Revel in the positives.
As time went on and we got into our flow, all three of us started to realise that there were far more positives for us than negatives coming out of the lockdown situation. We were closer, healthier and more rested than we had been in ages. We spent more time together and understood each other’s stresses more. We were eating together as a family and exercising together more regularly and we were all sleeping longer and more deeply (due to the lack of a commute and increase in fresh air). Although juggling home-schooling and homeworking remained hard until the moment the kids went back to school, the positives became easier to identify and the memories we hold of our lockdown lives are fond ones. We know now that if we need to do it all again, we have the structures and experience in place to do it better and more confidently than we did the first time around.
Guest blogger – Gillian Bradbury, Solicitor