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Things I've learned about working at home with children

If you're one of the millions of parents who has suddenly found themselves working from home at the same time as caring for their children, things could feel challenging right now. Balancing so many needs whilst dealing with the uncertainties in the world is a huge task.

Over the last few years, I've become fairly adept at working from home with my children. It's taken a lot of trial and error, and tons of frustration, guilt and all the other things that come when needs, expectations and reality clash. Right now, like so many, we are having to shift online with a lot of things we do, and learn new ways of working, so we're feeling that pressure. This has meant making new adjustments and being intuitive as to when tension is arising in the home.

I'll share here some of my lessons, all learned the hard way...

1. If possible, don't make your work schedule too strict

Strict schedules aren't necessarily the best when you're combining work and parenting at the same time. They easily create resistance, both internal and external.

For example, if a child has their heart set on something that involves me, I'd rather pay attention to that and shift my work a little. If I'm on a call or against a really tight deadline for something, then that won't be possible, but otherwise, I try to have that slack (NB, much easier when my partner is here). Equally, if there's an argument or some kind of upset that I'm trying to help with, I won't be much use if I'm feeling anxious about not being able to work.

Having a structure that's too strict can also mean that you miss out on the natural downtime that happens during the day. I hadn't planned to write right now, but everyone is quiet and busy with their own things, so I've settled down in the study with my laptop.

Maybe you have more discipline than I do, but structures that are too strict and demanding bring out the rebel in me. I need something a bit kinder.

2. But, don't make it too loose either..

Not having any structure in place may leave you either wondering where the day went, or living in a semi-permanent state of frustration. It leads easily to that exhausting space where you are constantly trying to work and be a half decent parent at the same time. Some outstanding people can manage this. I definitely can't. Well, I can pull it off for short bursts of time, but after a while, the quality of my work takes a nosedive and my children complain that I'm not listening.

3. Find your healthy, middle ground

This ground will look different for each of us. Mine involves setting boundaries around the time I need to work, but also being flexible to change, and making use of other opportunities when they arise. So, the way we've figured it out here during this lockdown is that Mariano works in the mornings and I work in the afternoons. The deal is that we support each other during those times, with the understanding that some things are also beyond our control.

This means I can steer activities that involve me to the mornings. I'm naturally an early riser and I have a lot of energy in the morning, whereas, in the afternoons, I'm happy to curl up with my computer and my thoughts. So my schedule suits my energy levels.

4. Try working in 90-minute chunks

It's been shown that our brains can function optimally for just 90 minutes. After that, we need a break of at least 20 minutes to get back into gear. Dividing your work into chunks of an hour and a half can make it much easier to manage work alongside children. No one will need to wait too long for your attention, and you don't waste time fighting a tired brain. Have a go at splitting your work time up into these chunks and see if it feels different.

5. Set realistic expectations and plan around them

Expectations are everything, so have a realistic plan for each day. Figure out what you need to do and how long it will take, before you get to work. You may need to factor in some interruptions. Don't set out to do more than you plan, unless some quiet time naturally arises and you get extra time. If you do less than you had planned, work out how you could shift things a little to be more productive the next time. Or, perhaps the plan just wasn't realistic. In which case, is there anything you can do to adjust the expectations?

6. If you're with your partner, try to work together

Being in competition with your partner for 'work time' is going to be really stressful for everyone. If you're finding it hard to carve out your time and/or put boundaries around it, then you need to have that conversation. How can you help each other? What can shift in order for everyone to have their needs met right now?

7. If you can, work around the natural rhythms of the family

This is where flexibility is so valuable. The more you are able to adjust to the general energy level in the house, the better it all feels. There are times here when the house feels lively and busy, or when there's just more need for being present with whatever is (or isn't) going on. On other days, the energy is calmer and self-contained, and there's a sense of spaciousness. On those days, I find it easier to work and I probably won't be much missed.

8. Invest some time in your children before you start work

Before you get to work, check in with each child in whatever way is nourishing to you both. Let them know that you'll be working and for how long. See if they need a snack, have a hug, a little chat, or whatever may be important to that child. Making sure they're all okay allows me to relax into my work.

9. Build up the trust

When I really need to concentrate, I close the door to the study. When I am doing something less challenging, I open the door. I only realised I do this when I started writing this post. What happens is that the children rarely come in when the door is closed (and if they do, they knock gently in case I'm on a call), but they feel the invitation to pop in from time to time when it's open. I feel like there's a lot of mutual trust at work. Maybe you can find a non-verbal sign like this to express how much concentration you need. See how they respond to that trust.

10. Don't be worried about blurring the lines when it works

Sometimes, if my daughter wants my company, I'll sit on her bed and work while she plays. Other times, someone will sit in the study with me on their computer or tablet. Often, I'll make us both a cup of tea and we'll enjoy the quiet togetherness of the moment. If it feels good, it is good!

11. Don't let thoughts of work overshadow the rest of your time

It can be hard, particularly right now, but try not to let thoughts of work overshadow the time that you're not working. Once you've fulfilled the plan you set for that day, put your phone and laptop away, and just be with your children. Have fun, be silly, snuggle, bake, watch a film, sing... Do whatever it takes to give yourself a break.

12. Be kind to yourself

Whatever your circumstances right now, it's hard. So, above all, be gentle to yourself. If tensions arise, as they certainly will, don't be triggered into thinking you're not doing this well enough. Give yourself a big virtual hug. You deserve it.

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