For many families, the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic were all about stopgap measures and short-term fixes. One day, it was business as usual, and the next, going to work and attending school or daycare in person were no longer safe. Back in the early days, simply surviving from March to the end of the school year was a feat all its own—so parents focused on survival tactics for juggling remote work with distance learning and no childcare.
“In the spring, everyone thought this was a weeks-to-just-a-few-months problem and it would be resolved by fall,” says Gwen Montoya, a single, homeschooling mom of two and CMO at the MOB Nation (as in mom-owned business). “Since it isn't, it is time for parents to look at ways to protect their work time and work mindset as much as possible.”
A full school year during a pandemic is a whole different struggle. Working parents are reckoning with a new normal: the dance of remote work and distance learning for the indefinite future. And those survival strategies you cobbled together last spring (Paw Patrol on an endless loop, squeezing in your “focus time” between midnight and 2 AM) may not be sustainable (or effective) in the long term.
The new normal requires its own strategies—practical tweaks to your routine and mindset that will make the school year easier for everyone. “People need to evolve and upgrade their approach now,” says Daisy Dowling, Founder and CEO of Workparent, a consulting, training, and research firm that focuses on working parents. If spring was “working parenthood during the pandemic 1.0,” she says, it’s time for 2.0.
Here are 11 long-term solutions you can try to help you get there.
1. Change the Way You Think About Deep Work
Some tasks require more brainpower and focus than others, and it’s frustrating to face constant interruptions when you’re trying to put your head down and concentrate.
Most parents probably discovered early on that it’s a good idea to try planning to do your most important work when you’re least distracted—scheduling blocks of time to work on significant, complex projects when your kids are asleep or entertained. That might’ve meant waking up early or carving out time after your kids go to bed, depending on when you’re most creative and motivated.
But staying up late into the night trying to do deep-focus work before waking up to start another long day isn’t sustainable for months on end. To avoid burnout, Dowling recommends thinking about your deep work in smaller segments. “In a pre-pandemic world or earlier on, we could think about setting aside long stretches of time,” she says, maybe three or even eight hours. But now, “if we’re waiting around for those stretches of time to come to us or trying to find them very late at night it’s going to actually backfire,” she adds. “One of the things that I encourage parents to do is to learn to sprint and recover as opposed to [running] long distance.”
That means you should be ready to find something you can engage with and make an impact on even if you only have 25 or even 15 minutes while your child is focused on a game or toy. For example, you might write the first draft of a really important email, then go back to spending time with your kid, and then review and revise it during another chunk of time.
“It’s basically a different way of thinking about using your deep work,” Dowling says, “doing it throughout the day as opposed to hoarding it all for nighttime when you’re exhausted and you’re not going to be your best.”
2. Plan Your Breaks and Stick to Them
Planning time ahead to spend with your kids gives everyone something to look forward to, which can prevent interruptions and antsiness. So for your sake and your kids’, make sure to set aside breaks for family time. Treat them like any other meeting, Dowling says. Assign them deliberately, block them off on your calendar as times you can’t be interrupted for anything else, and stick to them. In other words, your 10 AM might be with the sales team but your 11 AM is with your 4 year old.
If you can align these with your kids’ recess or lunch, that’s great. But don’t worry if that’s not possible. The goal is to designate pockets of time—wherever works with your schedule—when you can focus on nothing but parenting (and ideally some pockets where you can focus on nothing but yourself).
“For years and years all of us have been encouraged to view work-life integration as the holy grail,” Dowling says. “Now we’re in a position where we’ve over-integrated, basically, where there is no boundary or delineation between work and non-work.” She recommends trying to segregate the two, so that you’re not keeping an eye on email during your family time but giving them your undivided attention. “You feel crummy when you’re giving 50% to each,” she says. Better to focus fully on one thing and then do the same for something else.
3. Work on Faster, Smoother Pivots
If you’re trying to split up deep work into shorter segments and taking breaks to focus 100% on family, you’ll also benefit from quicker transitions between work and family time. Back when you went into an office, you had commute time built into your day to allow for some mental decompression in both directions. Now, “in order to draw those boundaries successfully, you also need to learn to pivot well and quickly,” Dowling says.
“It’s really really hard for people to feel like they’re top of game and really performing when three seconds prior to dialing into a Zoom call they were changing a diaper...or arguing with a teenager,” Dowling adds.
In order to feel like your “full, capable, confident, professional self,” she recommends adopting your version of an athlete or performer’s pre-game ritual. “Think about what small technique that’s no more than 10-15 seconds to get you into the mindset of, ‘I’m really good at what I do,’” she says. If you were a tennis player, this might mean bouncing the ball three times before a serve to get into the zone. As a professional, it might mean closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths before clicking into that Zoom call.
You can also create a symbolic ritual for the reverse transition. One of Dowling’s clients keeps a small piece of artwork on his desk (courtesy of one of the kids) that he touches when he’s pivoting from his professional self to his dad self, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
These routines may seem silly, but they can help you move more nimbly at a time when you don’t have the luxury of focusing on work for eight hours and then home for the rest of the day.
4. Designate a “Parent in Charge”
Pinpointing a “contact” for school help (or snacks) can prevent interruptions and frustration for you and your kids. Donna McCloskey, a professor of management at Widener University, recommends designating a “parent in charge” at any given moment. “If I have an important Zoom meeting 9-11 AM, my husband will try not to schedule anything critical during that time,” she says. “A note hangs on my closed office door letting kids know dad is PIC until 11.”
Even better, try to collaborate with your partner or anyone else you share childcare duties with to create a predictable structure, Dowling suggests, so you don’t feel “as if you are in constant improvisation mode.” Instead of playing it by ear and constantly having to make split-second (and stressful) decisions about who’s in charge, make a plan.
It might mean one adult is always in charge of breakfast and the other takes dinners. If every day is so different that a set pattern isn’t realistic, sit down together and look at the upcoming calendar to identify important deadlines, meetings, and other pressure points, and then plan your “PIC” schedule accordingly. Or swap work calendars so you’re aware of what everyone has coming up.
The goal is to reduce some of the stress of constant juggling and uncertainty and to avoid last-minute emergencies that might arise because you didn’t realize your major deadline conflicted with a partner’s important presentation and your kid’s big math test.
5. Make Reviewing the Family Schedule Part of Your Routine
While it can help to schedule your breaks and otherwise plan out your day, you can make an even bigger difference by ensuring everyone knows what the plan is.
Try documenting “family time” on the fridge or on a calendar if you have older kids, and use this time to let your kids ask you for help with schoolwork. “This way, kids will look forward to spending time with their parents,” says Marie Buharin, a hiring manager in the medical device industry and career development writer.
Dowling also recommends setting aside a few minutes every night or every morning (or even both) to go over the family’s detailed schedule for the coming day. While it may not be feasible for those with babies or very young toddlers, it can help with slightly older kids to lay out exactly when each grownup will be on a conference call and when someone will be 100% available to help with homework or practice spelling.
Your kids are still going to come to you and require your attention, to be sure, but giving them this preview every day might help nip one or two or three interruptions in the bud, Dowling says. “While it doesn’t feel like that’s such a huge lift to you...that’s one interruption in the morning and one in the afternoon you don’t have to deal with, you can keep focusing” she says.
Plus, this regular routine “takes a lot of the drama, interruptions, and negative feelings out of the equation,” she says. And it’ll make your kids feel better knowing you’ve put dedicated times on your calendar “when you’re all about your child, when he or she doesn’t have to compete with your job.” (Just remember to stick to those breaks!)
6. Cowork With Your Kids
Work boundaries can increase focus, but it could also be helpful to set aside chunks of time to work together with your kids. Productivity coach and business consultant Tatiana Belim suggests creating a “study group” where one parent supervises over Zoom or in person, which allows the other adults to work uninterrupted. (You can do this on a small scale just within your family unit or try to create a larger setup with families you’ve decided to pod with.)
You can also set up a “coworking” space, separate from your dedicated work space. “Kids get excited about working alongside the parents, which can work while the kids are in lessons,” Belim says. To make the setup as effective as possible, “I highly recommend everyone gets headphones so they can focus while they’re working.”
Depending on the nature of your work, you can also involve your child. Breanna Gunn, who runs her own online business, says she regularly allows her nine-year-old son to help. “He regularly hops in on client Zoom calls to say hi and gives advice to my Facebook audience during live Q&As,” she says. “Other working parents are often thankful and relieved because they can stop worrying about keeping their kids entertained during a conference call.”
7. Foster Your Kids’ Independence
The more your kids can do on their own, the less likely they’ll be to interrupt you for help. Plus, achieving new things promotes a sense of mastery, which boosts kids’ self-esteem (and empowers them to accomplish more on their own in the long run).
Ava Diamond, director of wellness and counseling at The Elisabeth Morrow School in New Jersey, recommends parents encourage their kids to choose one independent living skill to learn and practice—ideally, a chore that allows them to feel capable of independence and is one less thing on your own neverending to-do list. For example, you could teach your older kids how to do their laundry or cook a meal and younger kids how to clean up their toys or feed a pet. (Yes, this might mean a time investment up front, but it can pay off in the long run.)
Also, make solo play easy and enticing by paying attention to (and capitalizing on) your kids’ hobbies. Crafts and other activities can keep kids entertained for hours if they’re genuinely fascinated, says Ty Stewart, a father and President and CEO of Simple Life Insure. If your kid is into art, stock up on coloring supplies they can pull out and use on their own. Load up your home library with books for readers and invest in some sports equipment for kids who like to kick a ball around outside.
Depending on your child’s age and capabilities, you can also create a sense of ownership and accountability around their schoolwork, Dowling says. Talk to them about how it’s a new situation for everyone and you’ll need their help keeping themselves “on time, on track, and organized.” Have them make suggestions for what will help them keep track of where that social studies worksheet is or what time they need to sign on for a math lesson. “Your child will typically come up with recommendations that would be useful,” Dowling says, whether it’s putting a big digital clock on their desk that they can easily read or color coding folders for different subjects.
Whereas kids might reject a system you’ve created and imposed on them, they’ll be much more likely to buy into one they helped design. When they can help they usually get on board, Dowling says.
8. Don’t Worry So Much About Screen Time
Most parents have been relying on screen time more than normal these last few months, and you’ve probably already discovered that you can use it strategically when you really need to focus on a meeting or deep work. As the pandemic continues, you may be worried about relying on it too much.
“Everybody worries about it, everybody feels guilty about it,” Dowling says. But “we need every help and resource we possibly can and we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up right now.”
That being said, you can try to upgrade the quality of the screen time your kids are getting. Fortunately, there are a number of educational (and fun) shows and computer games. Try turning on a documentary about your child’s favorite animal on YouTube Kids or investing in a game-based online learning platform like ABCMouse or Khan Academy.
Many local libraries are making lists of educational screen time options for kids based on age, Dowling says, and you can feel a bit better knowing your kid is watching someone read a book to them rather than a random show. One working parent Dowling knows stepped it up another notch when they told their child that the iPad didn’t know English, so they could use it but had to watch shows in another language.
Finally, you can avoid a free-for-all by putting some pandemic-realistic limits on when your kids are getting screen time and how much, whether that’s by designating certain times when they’re allowed to use devices, giving older kids a total number of hours for the week that they can decide how to allocate, or installing parental controls on their devices.
9. Give Yourself a Break
Now isn’t the time to hold yourself to extra-high standards at work. You’re carrying a mental load unlike ever before, so don’t expect yourself to perform the same way you did before the pandemic. That means thinking about what you’re working on, what’s going to have the highest impact, how you’re allocating your time, and what you can do less of, Dowling says. If you always wrote long detailed summaries after every client call, can you replace that with just a few concise bullet points?
Along with mentally adjusting your expectations, you may need to have an up-front conversation with your manager about what to expect from your performance and what you need in order to be more successful. For example, you might benefit from more flexible hours instead of a rigid, 9-to-5 schedule.
Remember, too, that there’s a limit to how much you can manage on the whole. “There are three things that each one of us has as a working parent as priorities right now and only three things,” Dowling says. “Those three things are the health and safety of our families, business continuity—or being able to just do our jobs, to hang on to our jobs...and then third, keeping our own personal battery high enough that tomorrow we can wake up again and deliver on numbers 1 and 2.”
That might mean pulling back from other things you used to take pride in, like keeping your home super tidy or keeping up with friends on Facebook or making sure your kids get perfect grades. “Where most working parents are having a bit of a crisis is that it feels as if [we’re] failing if we’re dropping things that were previously important to us,” Dowling says. “If I’m not the person writing long emails summarizing everything about the client calls, am I really a good professional? If I’m not helping my kid get straight A’s...am I a terrible steward of my child’s education?”
She suggests reanchoring your expectations and reminding yourself that as endless as this situation feels, it’s ultimately temporary, and you will one day be able to give your attention to all these other areas. In the meantime, it’s OK to focus on the big three priorities.
And don’t forget to actually take a break, too. You may not be planning big trips during a global pandemic, but you should still take your vacation days to step off the working-and-parenting treadmill and just parent or recharge some days.
10. Remind Yourself What You Have Accomplished
Make sure you “think not just about the endless list of things that you have to accomplish,” says Dowling, who half-jokes that her own to-do list extends across state lines from where she lives in New York into New Jersey.
She recommends that her clients keep a list of what they have done. You might write down that you got your kid through the last school year, you juggled summer vacation with work and made it to the other side, you had dinner with your family last night, you delivered some percentage of the marketing growth you did last year, or that you got good feedback on that report you submitted.
“Look back at that as a way of anchoring yourself in success, accomplishment, and commitment,” Dowling says, instead of fixating on what you’re not doing.
11. Ask for Help
Things may look a bit different this school year, but you’re not automatically on your own if your kids aren’t in childcare or in-person school. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, prioritize your mental health by finding someone you trust to help lighten the load.
Hiring a babysitter or nanny may or may not be feasible due to budget and health risks. But you can ask your child’s teacher for support or recommendations on activities to keep your child occupied or happy during the workday. Or you can consider getting a remote tutor who can teach your child from a distance or a virtual sitter. A grandparent or relative—or even a friend or neighbor—might also be willing to hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call for a digital storytime.
“It’s screen time...but they’re looking at uncle so-and-so or a favorite babysitter or grandparent or whoever, who can talk to them, who can help them with their math homework, who can read them a book, who can sing a song with them,” Dowling says. “It’s a positive way to get help that’s actually feasible right now.”
Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to reach out, because when you feel more balanced, everyone will be happier.