Another day, another virus and once again I find myself having to juggle entertaining a poorly child and making sure I have done enough work for my self-employed job to at least cover the bill for the childcare I am currently not using. It’s a struggle that many work from home parents know all too well.
You might have thought before you had children that the opportunity to work from home as a parent would be the ideal situation. You would get to earn money and save money on childcare. Perhaps you thought it would be easy, since babies just sleep all the time and older children can entertain themselves through play. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and I certainly would not have been able to do my job whilst looking after my children full time. My first child never slept and my second child is only happy when she’s attached to some part of my body. It’s surprisingly difficult to work on a laptop when a four year old is trying to sit on your lap at the same time.
That’s why I spend around half my earnings on childcare and it’s worth every penny. However, thanks to the ability of children to spread germs at a rapid rate, at least once a month I will need to spend one of my allocated work days tending to a sick child. That being said, it’s not entirely impossible to work from home without childcare. But you do need to engage a little forward planning and be prepared with plenty of distraction techniques.
I have seen several posts online from expectant mothers asking if it would be possible for them to return to a full time work from home job just three months after giving birth. Such a scenario might be possible if you lucked out with an easy baby but you have to be prepared for the possibility that you might also have a high needs baby who wants to cling to you constantly and will cry for hours.
If you are planning on working from home with children then you have to be realistic about what is achievable. You will almost certainly be unable to get through the same volume of work that you did before you had kids or whilst your children were in childcare. Children are unpredictable. One day your three month old baby will sleep quite happily for two hours during the day, the next day a new tooth starts coming through and you’re faced with weeks of disturbed sleep and tears.
One day your 7 year old might be perfectly happy playing Roblox for two hours while you catch up on email. The next day he might suddenly develop an interest in any board game that involves you playing with him and will pester constantly for your attention. If you are self-employed you may have to accept a drop in income and if you work for a company you may need to negotiate a reduced workload.
Accepting A Sudden Change Of Plans
One thing that I have consistently struggled with is the sudden adjustments to plans that are regularly needed when it comes to being a work from home parent. I’m a big planner, so I’ll often think about my work day the night before and have a list of tasks that I plan on completing. All good, till one of the kids throws a curve ball and suddenly just ten minutes into my work day I’m heading back out to school to pick up a child with suspected concussion after a fall in the playground.
For parents who are working with children at home, sudden adjustments are part of the package deal. You might think that your baby will nap for the next 30 minutes giving you enough time to respond to some emails, and then teething pain kicks in and instead of getting on with work you are trying to soothe an upset child. It can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening. As I write this, I’m on the third week in a row where I have been unable to fully utilise my scheduled childcare days, thanks to a series of winter illnesses that have spread through the household. Accepting that I am not fully in control of my ability to complete my work is something that I have struggled with, but after a number of years I have finally learnt not to be disappointed. It’s certainly something that takes practice, but eventually you will learn to work around it, and enjoy the extra time with your child in that moment.
Prioritise Important Tasks
It sounds obvious, but prioritising important tasks is essential when it comes to working from home with children. You never know when you may have to stop working to attend to your children, so start each week with a list of tasks that need completing and start with the most urgent or important.
If you have a deadline, then try to remove as many distractions as possible, including your phone, the television (unless you are using it to keep the kids quiet!) and resist the urge to do a quick tidy before you start work. You have to think of yourself as being in an office at a place of employment, rather than at home where it’s tempting to stop work for five minutes to put another load in the washing machine.
Plan Activities For Your Child
My seven-year-old would happily play on his iPad all day if I let him, but that wasn’t always the case and he used to need constant interaction. My four-year-old is a little more independent than the eldest was at the same age, but she will generally only occupy herself with a task for 20-30 minutes at a time – often less. So, when she is too contagious for nursery but well enough to be dancing around the house, I find it helpful to have a metaphorical toolbox of activities to keep her entertained. However, you do have to be prepared for the fact that each activity may only give you a limited amount of time.
Simple Activities That Will Occupy Your Children
With young children in particular, you will probably find it helpful to have activities that can take place in the same room as you but won’t result in lots of mess that you will need to carefully supervise. So, poster paints are out, but play-dough is in. Ask your child if they could try and make the longest play-dough sausage in the world, get them to practice cutting it with play scissors, or see if they can completely bury a small toy and then dig it out again.
Something that works really well with my two children is getting them to create a new car mat. Most of us are familiar with the rug that has the road and buildings on that can be used with toy cars for role-play, but it’s even more fun if the children can design their own. You can pick up a roll of wallpaper lining from Wilkos for around £3. It’s thicker than regular paper and is therefore ideal for drawing on when placed on the floor. You can un-roll a couple of lengths and stick them together with Sellotape to create one large sheet. Your child may want you to draw the initial outline of the roads to start with, but then they can have great fun adding houses and other buildings, along with people and the occasional dinosaur.
You will probably have your own ideas about what keeps your child entertained, but other things that I have found to work well include:
- Building a Sofa Fort – My kids love getting free reign in the living room to pull off all the cushions on the sofas and making a giant den with blankets and cushions.
- Poking Holes in a Large Cardboard Box – I have no idea what the appeal of this is, but they will literally sit inside a large cardboard box for ages and poke holes through the sides with a pencil.
- Drawing Challenges – I sometimes ask them to draw a portrait of me whilst I work. You do have to have thick skin for this one though for when they draw you with a giant tummy.
- Lego – Both of my children love playing with Lego, and if they are stuck for ideas then I can ask them to build something like a car to race, a moon-base, or even just a really tall tower.
- Laundry – This one is better for younger children, as my eldest has cottoned onto this being more of a “chore” than play, but when he was younger he certainly enjoyed sorting out the laundry. If you have a big pile ask your child to find everything that belongs to them, then to you, etc.
Of course, in an ideal world, you would simply tell your children to entertain themselves for the morning and get on with your work. With older children that is pretty easy, but younger children need to learn how to self-occupy. In fact, learning to get over boredom is a fundamental life skill, and whilst it’s something that does take a while to master, you can certainly help them along the way.
One thing that I have found that helps is to have a mini craft station set up in one room, with paper, pens, glue sticks, and safety scissors. The kids know they can access this at any point. I have also found that being firm works well, as long as it’s followed up with a promise, i.e. “I need you to play by yourself for fifteen minutes whilst I do this work, but then I will play a game with you. The more you pester me, the longer it’s going to take me to do my job.”
Use Nap Times Wisely
If you have a young child then it can be tempting to use those nap times as a chance to catch up on sleep yourself, or the latest episode of your favourite TV show. However, working from home requires a lot of discipline, so it’s best to use those nap times wisely. Of course, you can’t rely on them to be able to complete your tasks, since children have an annoying habit of waking up before you want them to, which is why prioritising tasks to complete during nap time is key.
For me, the days of naps are long gone, with both my children being early rejectors of the concept (my eldest chose to drop his naps just when I was pregnant with my second and needed those breaks the most… I have almost forgiven him), but I can still use the time when they sleep pretty effectively. I have had to be quite firm when it comes to bedtime (no, I can’t sit with you whilst you spend three hours fidgeting before going to sleep, I need to go and work) but it does mean that I can normally get two or three hours of work completed in the evening.
I’m still waiting for the day when my children discover the joys of lie-ins, but for parents who are lucky to have children that do sleep beyond 6am, it can be beneficial to set that alarm and get in an hour of work before the children wake up. Many people find those early morning hours the most productive. I’m lucky in that, whilst my children do wake very early, they are also happy to snuggle up in our bed and watch cartoons, and I’ve occasionally be known to work in bed on the laptop after a particularly bad run of illness and nursery / school absence.
Do Give Special Time To Your Child
If you are trying to work from home with a child, it can be easy for tempers to fray as your child craves your attention. Your child may start to feel rejected and develop the belief that your work is more important than they are in your world. If your child is not going into childcare because of illness then there is a good chance that they are craving attention from you even more. It’s tough to strike a balance and it’s a big blow to the idea that working parents can have it all. You will constantly feel pulled in different directions.
For this reason, it can be really helpful to devote special time to your child throughout the day. For example, you could aim to work for an hour and then take a 15-minute break. During that break your phone should be out of reach, your television off, and your laptop firmly closed. You can then use that time to really engage with your child, whether it be playing a game with them, reading a story, or just chatting to them about something that interests them.
You could also use that time to take them for a run around outside. Never underestimate the power of playing outdoors to turn your little ball of energy into a chilled out sloth who will then happily sit quietly with a book for half an hour afterwards.