I often say that working from home with kids is one of the most difficult things I do. The push-pull of competing needs from both colleagues and kids stirs up a steady stream of stress and guilt. Add to that being the only parent, and there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day or enough of me to go around.
Since becoming a single parent of three kids (now aged 14, 10 and 6) several years ago, I've developed a lot of experience in working from home with them. Mitel's technology and work culture provide the flexibility to do everything I do at the office at home, so that wasn't a problem. The challenge has been in managing the needs of my kids while achieving my responsibilities at work. When COVID-19 hit and the schools closed, I knew this challenge would be amplified tenfold.
I continue to work full time at an average eight-hour workday that includes four video calls and dedicated time to focus on writing and content management. Although Zoom calls are not in the curriculum for our schools in Ontario, Canada, older children are required to hand in assignments online. And younger children still need to be entertained, stimulated and educated. These are in addition to the usual need to prepare healthy meals, tend to little people plagued with big emotions about even bigger global issues ("I miss my friends", "when will the virus be over?"), and keep my house in a state that resembles cleanliness.
In the past several months, I've often been asked how I'm handling it on my own. The answer is, not perfectly. Let's get this straight: I'm not a Pinterest mom. Or even an Instagram mom. I'm an imperfect person who happens to be "adulting" on a regular basis for an audience of three very independent kids. The ultimate goal: keep them alive and thriving. During the pandemic, this has the added challenge of doing it with no outside support while locked in with each other indefinitely. No problem, right?
And yet the interesting thing about a crisis is that it often becomes the catalyst for transformation. With day after day of our family in lockdown, let me tell ya: a transformation was definitely necessary! Luckily, I had a strong incentive to find ways to make it work.
Here are some of the principles I've found are helping me manage things better during the pandemic:
1. Be a Student of the Spontaneous
As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And as every parent who's had a toddler melt down in a store knows, it helps to have a plan B (or a plan C, D, and E).
One of the first lessons I had to learn after becoming a single parent was to hold my well-laid plans with open fingers. I found it difficult to accept that planning out everything carefully didn't guarantee success. Kids haven't yet learned to respect boundaries, and they often have needs that supersede mine. Eventually I had to adopt more spontaneity into our life. And, in a way, that's helped keep things real during this pandemic.
In the everyday home life, being flexible tends to look like cereal or frozen pizza for dinner on the nights when I'm too exhausted to cook and do dishes. Or excusing myself during a video call while I handle a sibling squabble. Or working evenings when the daytime hours have been taken over by other appointments or a family distraction. It seems the more I accept going with the flow, the easier my day is.
2. Make Every Moment Count
When the distraction factor is in high gear, getting undivided time is a golden ticket. And distraction is a given when you're all packed into the house week after week. Before COVID-19, I'd gotten better at producing things in a short amount of time. I figured out how to shop quickly—just in and out with no browsing—and I have a serious repertoire of 15-minute meals that can stretch over into lunches for the next day (pita pizzas, anyone?). Every effort counts and can make a difference.
A few years ago, a mentor gave me a valuable perspective on time. After her father had passed away, her mother had been left to raise four children on her own. She worked several jobs and didn't have a lot of dedicated time with them. And yet much of her daughter's memories were of her mother's wise words and steady example. She told me, it wasn't the endless hours of time with her mother that mattered, but how her mother showed up in the little bits of time they had together.
For my family, those moments have become dinner at the table every night. Special uninterrupted time to read a story and cuddle at bedtime. Weekend "dates" with my daughters where we watch a movie or play a game. Even using time between meetings to run upstairs and tend to a child, make a quick lunch or snack, or give a hug.
For work that's meant taking steps to be more present, like using a Pomodoro timer to break my tasks into doable chunks. Trying not to multitask during meetings. Asking my colleagues how they're doing and really listening.
Being present for myself means taking a half hour after work to walk the puppy and move my body before I go into shift #2 on the home front. Or taking Sunday "off" from chores to focus on rest.
Although these are things we had in place before the pandemic, they've become even more meaningful as we adjust to this new blended life extreme.
3. Find and Keep Your Balance
Speaking of an extremely blended life, while we're all on this extended staycation at home, it can be a lot easier to let routines slide. Without the need to rush to the bus in the morning, the kids have started to treat this time like an extended vacation, going to bed later and getting up later. With me, working from home eliminates commute time and daycare pickups, making it easier to keep going well past the usual work hours.
But I'm learning (still) that I can't be present or flexible when I'm tapped out physically, mentally or emotionally. Structure during the day helps preserve time for nurturing both my needs and that of the kids.
For us, that means trying to keep as much to a normal work / school day routine as possible. We have regular wake-up and bed times. A "recess" after lunch gives everyone the predictability of time outside to play (something my son now asks for—"Mommy, is it recess yet?"). Mornings are reserved for educational activities and after recess is the daily chore then free time. I've been sitting down with my son at different intervals during the day to read a book or watch the penguins livestream at the Chicago Zoo. And the kids know they have dedicated time with me after work hours.
For my own self-care balancing act, I try to prioritize exercise, sleep, eating well and social time with friends and loved ones. When I neglect these areas, I end up feeling depleted and, dare I say, less human. To be honest, these are usually the first things to go when I'm overwhelmed. So it takes discipline (and heaps of guilt) to carve out the time, but always leaves me better off when I do.
For work, blocking time each day to write, answer emails, and plan out tasks keeps me balanced. While it's great to connect with colleagues through video conferencing, too many calls can end up infringing on time to accomplish deliverables or answer emails. I've stumbled through this, but am quickly learning that I need to balance the meetings with actual "doing". Also, keeping a start and end time to the day helps me balance work time with home time—and, frankly, to get the dinner on the table.
4. Communication & Collaboration
This isn't just for corporate managers, but for all teams everywhere. Family is a team, right? The kids and I are definitely a team. And the one thing we do maybe more than the average family is be transparent with each other, especially about what we can and can't do in a given moment. We communicate expectations, schedules, even our emotional forecast throughout the day. And we do collaborate (let's call that one "in progress") on things like daily chores and family decisions. I often rely on the older children to supervise their brother while I work, and even help with meals and bedtime routines.
At work, this means keeping open communication with managers and teammates. I've been fortunate to have a great set of managers who, over the years, have advised me through various iterations of single motherhood. And they wouldn't have been able to do that if we hadn't been transparent with each other about expectations and our personal situations. During COVID-19, this has been even more of a necessity—even a source of support—when things are abnormal all around.
5. Multifunctional Aides
No matter how normal or abnormal life is, by far my favorite tip for surviving single parenthood is to use and do things that have a dual purpose. When time and energy are precious commodities, it's important to maximize every effort. Things like educational games or programming (think Duo Lingo, LeapStart, PBS Kids) help stimulate little minds while keeping them occupied during a meeting or work hours. A 15-minute dinner (see a recipe for our favorite below) that makes leftovers can save precious time making lunch so I can be present during the weekly marketing call at work.
Lately, we've gotten really creative and started turning different school subjects into everyday play or chores. Lego became a lesson in STEM techniques. Cooking became a new science experiment—and a great way to learn math, following instructions, and home economics. Last week my 10-year-old daughter proudly presented us with a warm dessert of baked apples with cinnamon sugar topping. She still beams when remembering what she accomplished on her own.
Although they may not follow the academic curriculum of our school board, these activities do serve as learning activities that I like to think will stay with my kids throughout their lives. These are life skills that keep them off their devices for awhile and actually serve the family, while stimulating some extra brain cells.
It Can Be Done
Like I said, perfection is not the aim. These tips don't have the satisfaction of ticking off boxes throughout the day. So while I do aim for and use them, sometimes, like tip #1 says, it all gets thrown out the window. A Thursday where everyone's emotionally "done" and grumpiness is on high can become a PJ day where I let the education time go and everyone sprawls out in front of the TV. Just last week I had to step away from a work call multiple times to manage a meltdown from all three kids while they were outside. There are many days that the kids refuse to do stuff and I need to turn it into a lesson about "attitude".
Although it's not an exact science, these practices serve as a framework to help everyone in my family feel secure, in control, and able to get our needs met. At a time when things in life are feeling messy and unpredictable, that counts for a lot. And for a single parent in a pandemic, they're making a hard thing a lot easier to handle.
15-Minute Pita Pizzas
Recipe makes enough for one pizza each at dinner and lunch the next day.
- 8 whole wheat pitas
- Sliced turkey pepperoni
- Sliced olives
- Pasta or pizza sauce
- Mozzarella, shredded (or nutritional yeast for the dairy-free person in your house)
- Mushrooms, sliced
- Optional (additional toppings could include chicken and broccoli, green peppers and tomatoes—the combinations are endless!)
- Set the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil.
- Place four pitas on each baking sheet. Spread with pizza sauce.
- Add pepperoni to each pizza then additional ingredients, topping with the mozzarella cheese.
- Bake for 13 minutes, or once the cheese is starting to turn bubbly and golden.
- Cool for 5 minutes, then enjoy!