A three part series from Pandemic Pods, Workplace Flexibility, Co-Parenting Gameplans, Pandemic Anxiety to Worldwide Teddy Bear Hunt. Michelle Travis, award winning author, law professor, and expert on work/family integration, offers help for parents to cope and find hope in this original series for The Child Therapy List.
Part 1: Work/Family Integration & Covid-19: Blurred Boundaries and Memory Moments
Long before the pandemic, when I was returning to my “non-mom job” after my maternity leaves were ending, I searched for children’s books that would help me talk with my kids about why I would be leaving home each day. I was looking for books that would encourage my kids to be proud of the work that I do outside our home and that would help them connect my mommy identity with my professional identity.
My search came up largely empty-handed, so I decided to write a children’s book of my own—My Mom Has Two Jobs—to support other women who are seeking platforms to have work/family conversations with their kids. The book highlights a series of kids who proudly describe how their moms take care of them in a very special way, while also taking care of our world as teachers, nurses, engineers, police officers, firefighters, waitresses, dentists, doctors, lawyers, secretaries, veterinarians, pilots, and more.
I had no idea how important these conversations would become during the new normal brought on by Covid-19. As hard as it was to talk with our kids about the work/family juggle before the pandemic, it’s gotten even more challenging—and more critical—now that the lines between our jobs, roles, and responsibilities have become entirely blurred.
Many women are now doing their outside jobs from home: taking Zoom meetings from the laundry room; scheduling phone calls in-between nursing sessions; and responding to emails in the middle of the night. Many women have also added new jobs to our already full repertoire: we’ve become homeschool teachers, PE coaches, math tutors, and summer camp counselors. And many women with essential jobs are still heading out every day while their kids are without school, daycare, or camp, which adds its own set of new challenges for kids to navigate.
Embrace the Blurred Boundaries
Blurring the boundaries between our parenting and professional roles can be incredibly stressful. A quarter of women are experiencing extreme anxiety during the pandemic (along with 11% of men), and more than half of women are reporting sleep issues (along with 32% of men). Trying to keep our work and family roles separate merely adds to this stress and is simply impossible when parenting during a pandemic. So rather than trying to reclaim the lines and rebuild the barriers, it’s time to embrace the blurred boundaries of what’s truly become work/family integration. Here are two ways to start moving forward:
1. Talk with Your Kids about Your Work
For many working parents, our outside jobs used to be largely invisible to our kids as we did the bulk of our labor while they were at school, daycare, playdates, or sports practices. During the pandemic, our kids have more free time and many of us our working from home, which means that our kids may experience our outside jobs as a more direct intrusion into their lives: their lunch is delayed because we have a work deadline; their question is cut short because our boss just called; or they have to be quiet until our Zoom meeting is done.
This is a great time to explain to our kids what exactly it is we’re doing when we “have to work.” Let your kids know more about your job, why it’s important, and whom you’re helping. Ask for your kids’ advice when you’re dealing with a difficult work issue or a problematic colleague. Share your work successes so your kids can celebrate too. And encourage your kids to think about the careers they may have one day. This will help the daily trade-offs make more sense to your kids, and hopefully lead to some pretty interesting conversations as well.
2. Talk with Your Colleagues about Your Kids
Many of our work colleagues are dealing with the same work/family integration challenges that we are, but we’ve been trained to keep our work and family lives separate. So colleagues with children often struggle in silence, and colleagues without children often have no idea what the pandemic work/family juggle is like. It’s time to start talking at work about the challenges that working parents are facing at home.
Ask your colleagues who are parents how they and their kids are doing. You’re both likely to find a sounding board and an empathetic ear. Let’s also start normalizing our new work/family integration by celebrating kids’ appearances in Zoom meetings and applauding colleagues who schedule calls outside of homeschooling hours. Talking about our work/family struggles doesn’t make us any less committed workers, but it does pave the way for much-needed innovations in creating more family-friendly work environments.
Don’t Miss the Memory Moments
While embracing our blurred work/family boundaries is a healthy goal for supporting our kids, we should also recognize that the daily grind of work/family integration can take its toll. Most parents have doubled the weekly number of hours we spend on childcare, education, and household tasks—with women reporting an average increase from 35 to 60 hours and men reporting an average increase from 25 to 50 hours.
Despite the daily challenges of Covid-19 as we work, parent, educate, and shelter at home, the pandemic has also provided unique moments of deep connection with our kids. Many dads in particular are spending more time with their kids than ever before, and it’s been transformative. Sixty-eight percent of dads report feeling closer to their kids since the pandemic, and fifty-seven percent said they are appreciating their children more.
But being in work/family survival mode can often make it difficult to notice and celebrate the surprising moments of laughter and learning. It’s important for both our kids and for our own mental health to make sure that we don’t miss these opportunities for connection. Here are two tips to help us exhale enough to enjoy the ride:
1. Know that Less Structured Parenting is Perfectly OK
Here’s a wonderful fact to ease any feelings that you may be having about parenting inadequacy: moms who work outside the home today actually spend more time on direct, hands-on childcare than moms who didn’t work outside the home in 1965. That’s because our expectations of time commitments for being a successful parent have ballooned over the years.
Yet successful parenting doesn’t actually require planning engaging and educational lessons, activities, and interactions to fill every spare moment of the day. Unstructured hang-out time for you and your kids to unwind, relax, and enjoy each other’s company is effective parenting, and it’s more important than ever during the stresses and uncertainty of Covid-19.
2. Welcome Unexpected Joy
I recently got to the end of a particularly tough week of sheltering-in-place. I felt deficient both as a parent and as a professional. And of course, my house was an utter mess. My kids were exhausted from long days of unsatisfying Zoom school, and they were missing their friends. I stepped into my garage and cringed at the space where my car used to fit but that was now filled with countless bags of old cans that we can’t take to the recycle center until the pandemic is behind us. As I headed back inside to lecture my kids about spending too much time on their devices, I had a rare moment of pandemic parenting clarity.
Why not tackle the garage chaos and our pent-up frustrations at the same time? I called my kids outside and announced that it was time to learn the lost art of stomping cans—something I did as a child before recycle centers would happily take cans in their natural state. We set up rows and rows of cans on our driveway and started stomping away. It takes precision and tenacity to stomp a can into a perfectly flat circle, and it’s surprisingly satisfying to master this forgotten life skill. For over an hour, we lost track of everything around us as we stomped cans together. We laughed. We mocked each other’s miss-stomps that sent cans skittering down the road. And we cheered each other’s progress.
As memories from my own childhood flooded back, I realized that years from now, I won’t remember the squabbles with my kids over too much screen time or my interrupted Zoom work calls. I doubt that my kids will either. What I’m going to remember about parenting in a pandemic is the therapeutic art of smashing soda cans with my kids. That’s work/family integration at its finest!