A three part series from Pandemic Pods, Workplace Flexibility, Co-Parenting Gameplans, Pandemic Anxiety to Worldwide Teddy Bear Hunt. Michelle Travis, award winning author, law professor, and expert on work/family integration, offers help for parents to cope and find hope in this original series for The Child Therapy List.
Part 1: Work/Family Integration & Covid-19: Blurred Boundaries and Memory Moments
Long before the pandemic, when I was returning to my “non-mom job” after my maternity leaves were ending, I searched for children’s books that would help me talk with my kids about why I would be leaving home each day. I was looking for books that would encourage my kids to be proud of the work that I do outside our home and that would help them connect my mommy identity with my professional identity.
My search came up largely empty-handed, so I decided to write a children’s book of my own—My Mom Has Two Jobs—to support other women who are seeking platforms to have work/family conversations with their kids. The book highlights a series of kids who proudly describe how their moms take care of them in a very special way, while also taking care of our world as teachers, nurses, engineers, police officers, firefighters, waitresses, dentists, doctors, lawyers, secretaries, veterinarians, pilots, and more.
I had no idea how important these conversations would become during the new normal brought on by Covid-19. As hard as it was to talk with our kids about the work/family juggle before the pandemic, it’s gotten even more challenging—and more critical—now that the lines between our jobs, roles, and responsibilities have become entirely blurred.
Many women are now doing their outside jobs from home: taking Zoom meetings from the laundry room; scheduling phone calls in-between nursing sessions; and responding to emails in the middle of the night. Many women have also added new jobs to our already full repertoire: we’ve become homeschool teachers, PE coaches, math tutors, and summer camp counselors. And many women with essential jobs are still heading out every day while their kids are without school, daycare, or camp, which adds its own set of new challenges for kids to navigate.
Embrace the Blurred Boundaries
Blurring the boundaries between our parenting and professional roles can be incredibly stressful. A quarter of women are experiencing extreme anxiety during the pandemic (along with 11% of men), and more than half of women are reporting sleep issues (along with 32% of men). Trying to keep our work and family roles separate merely adds to this stress and is simply impossible when parenting during a pandemic. So rather than trying to reclaim the lines and rebuild the barriers, it’s time to embrace the blurred boundaries of what’s truly become work/family integration. Here are two ways to start moving forward:
1. Talk with Your Kids about Your Work
For many working parents, our outside jobs used to be largely invisible to our kids as we did the bulk of our labor while they were at school, daycare, playdates, or sports practices. During the pandemic, our kids have more free time and many of us our working from home, which means that our kids may experience our outside jobs as a more direct intrusion into their lives: their lunch is delayed because we have a work deadline; their question is cut short because our boss just called; or they have to be quiet until our Zoom meeting is done.
This is a great time to explain to our kids what exactly it is we’re doing when we “have to work.” Let your kids know more about your job, why it’s important, and whom you’re helping. Ask for your kids’ advice when you’re dealing with a difficult work issue or a problematic colleague. Share your work successes so your kids can celebrate too. And encourage your kids to think about the careers they may have one day. This will help the daily trade-offs make more sense to your kids, and hopefully lead to some pretty interesting conversations as well.
2. Talk with Your Colleagues about Your Kids
Many of our work colleagues are dealing with the same work/family integration challenges that we are, but we’ve been trained to keep our work and family lives separate. So colleagues with children often struggle in silence, and colleagues without children often have no idea what the pandemic work/family juggle is like. It’s time to start talking at work about the challenges that working parents are facing at home.
Ask your colleagues who are parents how they and their kids are doing. You’re both likely to find a sounding board and an empathetic ear. Let’s also start normalizing our new work/family integration by celebrating kids’ appearances in Zoom meetings and applauding colleagues who schedule calls outside of homeschooling hours. Talking about our work/family struggles doesn’t make us any less committed workers, but it does pave the way for much-needed innovations in creating more family-friendly work environments.
Don’t Miss the Memory Moments
While embracing our blurred work/family boundaries is a healthy goal for supporting our kids, we should also recognize that the daily grind of work/family integration can take its toll. Most parents have doubled the weekly number of hours we spend on childcare, education, and household tasks—with women reporting an average increase from 35 to 60 hours and men reporting an average increase from 25 to 50 hours.
Despite the daily challenges of Covid-19 as we work, parent, educate, and shelter at home, the pandemic has also provided unique moments of deep connection with our kids. Many dads in particular are spending more time with their kids than ever before, and it’s been transformative. Sixty-eight percent of dads report feeling closer to their kids since the pandemic, and fifty-seven percent said they are appreciating their children more.
But being in work/family survival mode can often make it difficult to notice and celebrate the surprising moments of laughter and learning. It’s important for both our kids and for our own mental health to make sure that we don’t miss these opportunities for connection. Here are two tips to help us exhale enough to enjoy the ride:
1. Know that Less Structured Parenting is Perfectly OK
Here’s a wonderful fact to ease any feelings that you may be having about parenting inadequacy: moms who work outside the home today actually spend more time on direct, hands-on childcare than moms who didn’t work outside the home in 1965. That’s because our expectations of time commitments for being a successful parent have ballooned over the years.
Yet successful parenting doesn’t actually require planning engaging and educational lessons, activities, and interactions to fill every spare moment of the day. Unstructured hang-out time for you and your kids to unwind, relax, and enjoy each other’s company is effective parenting, and it’s more important than ever during the stresses and uncertainty of Covid-19.
2. Welcome Unexpected Joy
I recently got to the end of a particularly tough week of sheltering-in-place. I felt deficient both as a parent and as a professional. And of course, my house was an utter mess. My kids were exhausted from long days of unsatisfying Zoom school, and they were missing their friends. I stepped into my garage and cringed at the space where my car used to fit but that was now filled with countless bags of old cans that we can’t take to the recycle center until the pandemic is behind us. As I headed back inside to lecture my kids about spending too much time on their devices, I had a rare moment of pandemic parenting clarity.
Why not tackle the garage chaos and our pent-up frustrations at the same time? I called my kids outside and announced that it was time to learn the lost art of stomping cans—something I did as a child before recycle centers would happily take cans in their natural state. We set up rows and rows of cans on our driveway and started stomping away. It takes precision and tenacity to stomp a can into a perfectly flat circle, and it’s surprisingly satisfying to master this forgotten life skill. For over an hour, we lost track of everything around us as we stomped cans together. We laughed. We mocked each other’s miss-stomps that sent cans skittering down the road. And we cheered each other’s progress.
As memories from my own childhood flooded back, I realized that years from now, I won’t remember the squabbles with my kids over too much screen time or my interrupted Zoom work calls. I doubt that my kids will either. What I’m going to remember about parenting in a pandemic is the therapeutic art of smashing soda cans with my kids. That’s work/family integration at its finest!
Part 2: Work/Family Integration & Covid-19: Thriving in Transitions
This is a back-to-school season like none other. For most, it’s back to the kitchen table for online classes or homeschooling, or it’s back to driving by shuttered schools to pick-up and drop-off assignments. For a few, it’s back to class with masks, without friends’ hugs or high-fives, and probably with quite a bit of fear. And for far too many, there’s no “back to” at all—childcare centers nationwide are operating at less than 50% capacity, and we’re facing an estimated permanent loss of nearly 4.5 million child care slots.
As a researcher whose been studying work/family issues for two decades, I’ve never seen such daunting challenges. But I’ve also never seen such resilience, creativity, tenacity, and resourcefulness.
Author Rebecca Solnit has studied the human response to a wide array of natural disasters—earthquakes, fires, floods, bombings—and she’s discovered that we always rise to the occasion. Not only do people become “urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them,” but we become tremendously creative when disasters strike. “It is when people deviate from the script,” say Solnit, “that exciting things happen.” It turns out that parents in a pandemic are no exception.
Thriving in Transitions
In the midst of our exhaustion and worry, I find myself taking inspiration from parents’ crisis-borne creativity. Here are just a few of the resourceful things that parents are doing—and sharing with the rest of us who want to rise to the occasion as well.
1. Microschools and Learning Pods
Many resilient parents—particularly working parents—have creatively reinvented the one-room schoolhouse by joining forces with other neighborhood families to form learning pods. These family groups hire educators to form microschools in someone’s backyard, garage, or a nearby park.
Microschools (sometimes known as “pandemic pods”) are giving children a way to feel connected to the learning process again. They’re allowing parents to meet the demands of their own jobs. And they’re offering rewarding and safe places for many out-of-work teachers to do what they do best. They’re even giving new start-up companies, like Weekdays, a way to use their entrepreneurial skills to support families by connecting pods with educators, offering training, and providing curriculum.
This all began with a few caring parents who got resourceful when their childcare and school options disappeared. A few of those tenacious parents launched a facebook group on pandemic pods, which now has over 40,000 members sharing advice, resources, and support with one another.
2. Using Tech to Build Human Connections
As parents, many of us are worried about the increased screen time that our kids are spending during the Covid-19 lockdown, and how that might affect our kids’ mental health. Kids have increased their screen time by 50-60% during the pandemic, which means that kids aged 12 and under are often spending over 5 hours on screens per day. But resourceful parents have recognized that not all screen time is created equal. Technology can actually be a pathway to the human connections that kids are missing so much during this isolating time.
Thanks to some very industrious parents in my community, my daughter has had Zoom socials that have gotten her off the couch, interacting, learning, and laughing along the way. My favorite has been the Sunday afternoon baking playdates. On Sundays, the kids join a Zoom call, and one child leads the others by reading a recipe and instructions, while they all hone their craft in their respective kitchens. The sessions usually end with bragging rights for whoever made the gooiest brownies or the most beautiful lemon cake.
My daughter’s favorite Zoom-connecting activity has been a scavenger hunt. All of her friends gathered on zoom to receive a list of random items that one creative parent had compiled—a ping pong ball, a rubik’s cube, a pair of orange pants, a birdfeeder, a map, a piece of art they created as a toddler, and a spider’s web, just to name a few. Each child had an hour to locate as many items as they could—which meant an hour running around their own homes, yards, and neighborhoods taking photos of their discoveries. Then they gathered back on Zoom to share their findings and declare a proud winner.
Resilient parents are sharing ideas for online and virtual playdates, social games, sleepovers, birthday parties, grandparent storytime, and many other ways for us to use screen time to combat isolation rather than contribute to it.
3. Back To Basics
Another pandemic trend that is bringing me joy is resourceful parents’ back-to-basics approach. With so many scheduled activities, lessons, sports practices, and other gatherings cancelled, parents are recalling the simple but rewarding ways that we used to fill our own days as kids.
During the early weeks of the pandemic, sales of sidewalk chalk rose by 56%—and our neighborhoods have never been so colorful. Sales of jigsaw puzzles and board games have skyrocketed, and the demand for arts and crafts supplies is through the roof—including a 313% increase in sales of finger paints. Even MadLibs and water balloons are making a comeback. Many kids are also being introduced to the therapeutic joys of gardening, which has had an enormous pandemic resurgence.
In all of these trends, we’ve seen generations connecting in new ways, parents reliving a piece of their own childhoods, and kids finding joy in simple pleasures that I thought had become a thing of the past.
4. A Worldwide Teddy Bear Hunt
The pandemic has not only connected families and neighborhoods, but also parents around the world who are facing the same challenges. As parents started realizing that our only outings of the day are socially-distanced stroller walks and family bike rides, word spread that we could help each other by making these outings more fun for one another.
Suddenly, stuffed teddy bears started popping up in windows and yards, and on porches and trees around the country, turning mundane family walks into exciting “bear hunts.” Kids have begun keeping a tally of their bear sightings, and sharing them with other kids on the internet. To date, teddy bears have been spotted in 13 different countries—including Australia, Japan, Germany, and Scotland—and in all 50 U.S. states.
This worldwide support system—parents uplifting parents around the globe—happened without dictates, laws, or official sanction. It happened out of the innate caring and creativity that parents are sharing with one another during this extraordinary time. On difficult days of juggling work and family, worry and fear, and a whole lot of exhaustion, it’s this generous spirt borne of parenting during a pandemic that gives me hope.
Part 3: Work/Family Integration & Covid-19: Silver Linings
I’ve been studying work/family issues as a researcher for two decades—and I’ve been living work/family issues as a mom of two teen daughters for nearly as long. When I first started my research many years ago, I used the phrase “work/family balance” to describe my endeavor. I’ll admit that the phrase always left me feeling frustrated. But it took me awhile to figure out exactly why.
Parenting in a pandemic has crystalized for me why I no longer think about “work/family balance,” but instead focus on “work/family integration.” Our quest is not to achieve perfect equipoise between our work and family roles and responsibilities—a quest that we’re doomed to fail. Our journey is about finding ways to weave together all of the aspects of our lives to allow both ourselves and our children to grow and thrive. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from our pandemic parenting experience.
1. “Balance” Sets Us Up For Failure
The term “work/family balance” conjures the image of a scale, with work on one side and family on the other. The problem with that image is that it suggests that we achieve success only when the scale is in perfect equilibrium. As parents (particularly in a pandemic), we know that’s virtually never the case. There are days when we feel we’ve neglected our kids to meet a work deadline; and there are days when we feel we’ve failed to impress at work because we’ve prioritized a homeschool lesson. But the sum of each of those individual days of imperfect balance can indeed be work/family success—and we need to reframe our goals to recognize that.
2. Balance Implies Only Direct Tradeoffs
The concept of a work/family “scale” is also problematic because it only allows us to think in terms of direct trade-offs: more work time means less family time, and vice versa. It doesn’t allow us to imagine the possibility of synergies between work and family. It ignores that when we feel satisfied in our careers, we can be more engaged parents. It ignores that the empathy we learn as parents can make us better leaders at work. And it ignores the times when the conflicts actually pay dividends—like when one of my husband’s work colleagues needed a new babysitter, and we wanted to find a first job to get our teenage daughter some experience.
3. Balance Ignores our Lived Experience
Most importantly, work/family integration better captures our daily lived experiences than “balance.” As much as we might strive for compartmentalization—and as much our bosses might hope for it—the work and family aspects of our lives are truly intertwined. Parenting during a pandemic has definitely highlighted that reality. But at the same time that our daily work/family integration can feel overwhelming, it’s also offering some silver linings for working parents—and for our kids—in the future.
Work/Family Silver Linings
1. Increase in Workplace Flexibility
One of the long-term benefits that we can capture from our Covid-19 experience is greater workplace flexibility in the future. By necessity, many employers were forced to experiment with work-from-home arrangements—which many working parents have been seeking for years. Employers have discovered that remote working is actually quite successful: employees are just as productive, and concerns over supervision and teamwork challenges have been thoroughly debunked. What’s more, employers have discovered that remote working saves money with less overhead costs and reduced needs for expensive office space. This has made many employers far more committed to workplace flexibility even when the pandemic is behind us.
Of course, remote working hasn’t felt like a step forward for many working parents right now, because it’s come hand-in-hand with the shut-down of schools, the loss of babysitters and other paid caregivers, and the disappearance of after-school activities, sports practices, and summer camps. But once those aspects of our children’s lives are back up-and-running, we’ll be able to reap the benefits of workplace flexibility that we’ve been seeking: including less commute time, and more ability to fit our work around our children’s needs and school hours.
2. Increase in Engaged Fatherhood and Co-Equal Parenting
The new work/family integration brought on by working and schooling from our homes has also brought many families closer to co-equal parenting goals. Many fathers are taking on more childcare and household responsibilities, and they’re feeling positive about the results. The majority of fathers report that since the start of the pandemic, they feel closer to their children, are appreciating their children more, are more attentive to their children’s feelings, and are having more meaningful conversations with their kids.
This has lead to more meaningful discussions between parents about co-parenting gameplans. Parents are having more regular conversations with one another about sharing the childcare, schooling, and household workload, which benefits everyone in the family—parents and kids alike. It also has the potential to advance gender equity at work, as more men seek long-term workplace flexibility as well.
3. Increased Conversations about Childcare and Paid Parental Leave
In addition to increasing valuable conversations within families, the pandemic experience has also increased national conversations about the need to invest in childcare and paid parental leave. The crushing impact that Covid-19 and our childcare crisis has had on working moms in particular—as well as on parents laboring in essential jobs—has renewed serious calls for policy reform. It’s time to translate the painful lessons from the pandemic into a meaningful investment into our child care and early education infrastructure and our family leave policies, which would go a long way to supporting the long-term well-being of children, parents, and our economy.
4. Increased Conversations about Children’s and Parents’ Mental Health
The pandemic’s unique form of work/family integration has also increased important conversations about both parents’ and children’s mental health. This has been an incredibly stressful time for families—a time of worry, isolation, over work, and unknown. The CDC has actually issued guidance and resources for dealing with the stresses associated with Covid-19. But the silver lining is that we’ve actually been talking about these affects, which hopefully will open up pathways to long-term attention on self-care and mental wellbeing for us all.
[First published in The Child Therapy List]