What’s a Working Parent to Do When the Office Opens but School/Camp Doesn’t?

The consensus is clear: working parents are OVER IT. As the working mom of a 5 month old and 2.5 year old, I can join this chorus. Right now, with lockdown orders still in place around much of the country, parents and non-parents are staying home. However, offices in many cities will begin to reopen in the near term even while schools are waffling about whether or not fall classes will be in person. Currently, daycare centers are only open to the children of essential workers in many major metro areas. How can working parents (those deemed non-essential though we are all working two exhausting jobs at once) manage when our offices beckon us back? How do parents avoid becoming an underclass of employees? (This piece is premised on the presence of two working parents – those who are single parents are not contemplated and certainly have more challenges).

Be firm:

Of the friends and colleagues I’ve talked to – law firm associates, data engineers, non-profit employees, vice presidents at publicly traded companies – the ones who are managing to stay afloat at work are the ones who have clearly defined schedules. If you have two working parents, I advise having one work the early shift and one work the late shift. This may mean a schedule of 6AM-noon for parent A and noon-6PM for parent B, with both also working after bedtime. Is this restful? Absolutely not. But it seems to be working better than a patchwork of parents tagging in and out on an hourly basis. You’ll need to communicate this very clearly to your colleagues, clients, and employers. Block your calendar in black. You’re just not available. It’s better than being half-focused on a call and saying the wrong thing. In my opinion, this is the best way to be truly present when you’re working, and truly present with your kids when you’re not.

Be permissive:

My 2.5 year old had basically never seen a screen before Covid was part of our vocabulary. Now he spends at least 2 hours a day with Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, and his pals on Sesame Street. I bent like a reed to the siren call of a kid’s Kindle and I haven’t looked back. Do I love it? I hate it. But it’s where we are, and for the rest of his waking hours he’s engineering impressive Magnatile towers and being read to and chasing lizards and learning his ABCs. He’s fine. He’ll BE fine. Let yourself off the hook. This isn’t the kind of parenting any of us contemplated when our kids were born.

Cut as many corners as you can:

Delivery pizza again? Absolutely. The pressure to somehow become a domestic god/goddess during this time is laughable to the working parent. Bake bread? I can literally think of 100 other things I need to do before I could begin to imagine having time to do that. Working parents are simply not similarly situated to those who do not have children at home, so back away from people’s Instagrams of their sourdough starters, and order your dinner if that’s accessible to you. Frozen foods are your friends. My son has a newly discovered love for chicken nuggets, a food he had never contemplated before March. Do what you need to do.

Use the weekend:

I have to spend time on the weekend to catch up on the work I can’t manage before Friday ends. I hate it, but that’s where we are right now. Remind yourself that you have two full-time jobs, and they simply don’t fit into a 5 day week. This won’t be forever, but it might be for a while so do what you can to set realistic expectations for yourself. I find it makes it easier. To be fair, weekends haven’t been the same since my first was born, so it’s less of an adjustment. But give yourself at least 2 hours over the weekend to work if you can. It makes the week much less overwhelming (which is to say, it’s still totally overwhelming).

Weigh the risks:

You may have every reason to stay working from home and not engaging childcare – you or another household member may be immunocompromised or have a preexisting condition. Your city may have been hit especially hard. But there may come a time when you decide that your company has taken enough precautions (rotating a cohort of employees on a weekly basis, regular testing, temperature checks…) that it’s time to go back in. Can you locate a childcare provider who feels safe to you? Is that person being appropriately socially distant? Can you afford it? Every family will have to weigh this for themselves, and will make their own decision. There is no right answer, which for those of us who research everything is incredibly frustrating.

This is hard. We are all doing hard things right now. I think the most important way to survive after offices reopen but childcare does not is to set limits at work, and build in realistic expectations for yourself about how you are able to parent right now. I’d love to hear any hacks you’ve discovered in the comments. I stand in solidarity, spit up, screens and exhaustion with you.

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