Over the past month, normal life as a working parent has completely and unequivocally changed. The Coronavirus outbreak has forced us to leave our regular routines and everyday comforts. School, nursery, childminders, nannies – the people and places who have helped facilitate our lives as working parents have all disappeared. The sanctity of our working hours and time away from home has vanished. And, we’re all losing our minds a little!
My husband and I are both working parents. Our nearly 3 year old daughter usually goes to nursery four days a week while we enjoy fulfilling careers that allow us to provide a financially secure home environment for our little life barnacle. It’s not without its challenges. I suffer almost constantly with so-called ‘mum guilt’, always questioning whether I’m selfish for choosing to juggle a career with the responsibilities of a parent. I question whether all this time at nursery is going to cause our daughter to grow up feeling anxious or overstimulated. And, sometimes I feel guilty that being a stay at home parent isn’t fulfilling enough for me.
But, on the whole, things were great in our ‘old life’ and we enjoyed our balance between the routine of the weekday and the well deserved rest of the weekend.
Then Coronavirus hit.
Almost overnight, our entire lifestyle changed. Our daughter’s nursery was closed and we were instructed to stay at home. As people who spend a great deal of our lives socialising with friends and other parents, this was a shock to the system. At first, we were lost. We hadn’t spent this much time together since our daughter was a newborn. And back then, we had maternity and paternity leave so could focus entirely on our little bundle of joy. Now, we needed to do that…and continue to work…and not go out…and somehow convince a headstrong toddler to wash her hands.
The first few weeks were hell. I run my own business, so I was convinced my clients were going to cancel and all the hard work I’d invested in setting up my company would be for nothing. My husband’s job grew even more intense as his employer looked to find ways of staying afloat during the crisis. We were worried about our financial security, so were desperate to keep working as much as possible. But we also had a toddler to look after. We tried to set up variable work and parenting shifts in the day, which was tricky for two reasons:
- Pretty much all of my husband’s work day is taken up by meetings. So he needed to be available at certain times
- Toddlers aren’t great at entertaining themselves – well, ours certainly isn’t – so we needed to be hands on with the parenting bit
We argued a lot about whose turn it was to work/parent and who was getting away with more work hours than the other. My husband hates working from home. He misses his commute and the cut off between giving his all at work, downing tools at 5pm and coming home to give his all to us. Now, there was no switch off and certainly no mental transition from the work day to home life. I was fortunate that I work from home anyway, so in this respect remote working didn’t affect me. However, we needed to find ways to keep our daughter entertained, mentally stimulated, fit, healthy, happy and…well, alive. We weren’t prepared to glue her to the TV all day so we could get through our work. But the situation wasn’t working – something needed to give.
The first big change we made was switching to the same fixed hours each day for work and childcare. By setting this out upfront, we knew exactly who was working when and what to expect. This made a difference to our attitudes – and our relationship.
Then, we needed to adjust our expectations with regard to output. We simply couldn’t fit in our regular hours without suffering significant mental strain and complete exhaustion. So, we worked out what we thought was reasonable and informed our employers and clients of what to expect. They were supportive and we realised that a lot of the pressure we’d been feeling was self-inflicted…nobody was expecting us to stick to our regular working hours!
Then, the childcare part. Because we have set working and childcare hours now, we’ve started really immersing ourselves in both. Each day we plan out a few activities to do with our daughter individually that are focused on learning, exercise and fun. We also include downtime in front of the telly within the plan, and this benefits us and her. We sit down for lunch together every day and try to go for a walk as a family for the 15 minutes or so that are left after lunch. It doesn’t sound like much but, to us, it’s a treat.
And it’s working better now.
We are relishing the time spent with our daughter and enjoying taking on activities that our ‘old life’ meant we never had the energy or inclination to do at the end of a busy work week. We’re enjoying eating together more as a family, focusing on potty training and all learning new skills every day without trying (my husband made a car for my daughter’s toys out of a tissue box and some masking tape last week and I’ve never seen him look more elated!) We’ve found that ordinary tasks like handwashing or household chores can become fun adventures for a toddler when treated with enthusiasm and a bit of creativity.
It’s really hard though.
Our backs are aching from an uncomfortable makeshift desk and the strain of lifting a toddler more than our muscles are used to. We’re suffering from anxiety that’s become a constant physical feature. We’ve struck the balance on working and parenting for the time being but we’re knackered constantly and it’s not sustainable. Our daughter misses her friends at nursery and is upset that she’s not allowed in the playground because “they’re cleaning it for us”. We fall into bed at 9pm every night, absolutely exhausted. But our mindset means we feel less like we’re failing constantly and more like we’re doing our best given the circumstances. These are first-world problems, I know.
I used to feel envious of my non working parent, childless friends on lockdown; those who talked about using this time to take up new hobbies, read loads of books and watch Games of Thrones again from the beginning. But I know that this lockdown is just as difficult for them. Mental health issues, loneliness and hectic work schedules are all common amongst friends who don’t have kids.
Our daughter gives us a reason to get up each day, stay positive, keep motivated and feel focused. She makes us laugh all the time and we go out of our way to do the same for her. We’ve realised that she picks up on our moods and absorbs these into her own, so we have a powerful incentive to stay upbeat. But she sees us cry with frustration or exhaustion sometimes too and we hope she’s learning compassion and realism from this. She keeps us so busy that the days fly by and she astounds us with her knowledge, kindness, energy and the ability to talk non-stop about everything from the weather to her favourite foods, books and toys. It’s like living with a miniature David Attenborough who is passionate about absolutely everything she sees!
We’ve learned how to slow down and appreciate our safe home and solid family unit. And gained a new appreciation of what really matters when balancing work and family – that there can be a place for both. But we need to stop putting so much pressure on ourselves.
The Coronavirus situation is scary, uncertain and completely unprecedented. But with any luck, we’ll come out of this as a kinder, grateful, more present working parent with realistic expectations on ourselves. And we’ll be absolute pros at washing our hands!