Frustrated by childcare fits and starts these days? We all are! Read on for some thoughts on both the logistics and how to re-orient our mental states.
Question from a Working Mama: Do you have any advice for working parents who are juggling intermittent closures and reopenings of daycares? The constant back-and-forth of handling potential COVID exposures when you’ve had a brief return to school has been a real wrench in our momentum. And since all colleagues aren’t experiencing the same closures at the same time, it’s even harder to manage.
Mindful Return: This is THE theme I am hearing from parents all over the country. School opened and was going fine, then a teacher tested positive for COVID. And the entire school suddenly shut down for 2 weeks. A child in the daycare class had a fever, and now the entire class is quarantined.
This whole thing is one giant herky-jerky mess.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject, particularly as I’ve experienced it for myself over the past few weeks. My kids are still in 100% virtual school here in DC, but the tutor we’ve hired to help our kids during the school day has had to call in sick a number of times, leaving us with abruptly changed schedules.
For Parents, Fits and Starts Aren’t New…But Now They’re On Steroids
Any parent of any child knows that the unexpected is part of what we all signed up for. Kids are petri dishes and get sick often in those early years. We’ve all been through the experience of going to bed at night thinking we’re going to work the next day, only to wake up to find that our little cherubs have disrupted those plans.
Usually, the disruption would last for a day or two, though. And then we’d be back in business. My husband and I used to also “plan for the unexpected” during our Saturday meetings. When our kids were really little, we would plan out for the entire upcoming week who would be on point on a given day if a child got sick.
But planning just isn’t as helpful as it used to be, is it? It’s nearly impossible to plan for a 2-week spontaneous shutdown. None of us envisioned life this way. And I dare anyone to tell me how to plan for the whims of a global pandemic.
Fits and Starts: Practical Tips
When an abrupt closure happens, I think the paramount skill to draw on is communication. First, communication within your household. Then, communication with your work team.
If you have a partner at home, draw your swords – I mean your calendars – and get ready to duel – I mean, negotiate – over who will cover what. (Dads in particular, NOW is the time to step up and negotiate for more flexibility in your jobs. Don’t believe me? – take my husband’s word for it.) Note: Sword-fighting references here were meant to be humorous, in a world where we could all use more of laughs.
Instead of dueling, enter the negotiation from a spirit of no one’s being at fault. You are both trying to come up with equitable solutions that allow everyone to work for some amount of time, even if not the ideal amount.
Then, once you have your situation largely sorted out on the home front, work on negotiating with your work team. In the Mindful Return course (next session starts this Monday, November 2!), we have a lesson specifically around managing the unexpected. One of the mamas in our last cohort offered a really helpful framework for this communication, which I’ve elaborated on a bit below. In communicating with relevant stakeholders, spell out:
- What’s happening. With this level of chaos, they probably do need to know details like “my child’s daycare class shut down because of a COVID case and will not reopen until X date.”
- How you plan to address the situation. Communicate that you’ve started to think through what this means to your work schedule and what your initial plan is.
- Explain where you have flexibility. It may be that there are certain things you can move around or swap with a partner. Identify those areas of flexibility to show you’re not locked into one single way of managing this crisis.
- Explain where you don’t have flexibility. Maybe having a school-aged child at home again means you now need to upload all your child’s assignments into a learning platform from 2:45-3pm every day, so you can’t do a work call then. Explain where you have constraints beyond your control.
- Provide some problem-solving suggestions. Perhaps you have ideas on who might be a good back-up for certain projects. Or you have thoughts on how to problem-solve a timeline issue to be able to manage a project next week instead of this week. Offer ideas to help steer the team toward a solutions-oriented problem solving approach.
Fits and Starts: Our Mental State
My most stressful days as a parent have been those when I have truly felt the need to be in precisely two places at precisely the same time. Okay, so pretty much the entire pandemic. In addition to all sick and snow days. Ever.
Some of these days I’m able to cope better than others. Those days that tend to go better for me usually come with a song or mantra, like “one foot in front of the other,” or “it’s not you, it’s the pandemic.” Today, our tutor canceled, and I simply decided to sing “The World Turned Upside Down” from Hamilton to myself all day.
I truly and deeply believe that the only “solution” to all of these fits and starts is radical acceptance of what is. The faster I can get to the state of saying “okay, here’s where we are today,” the less depressed I get about the many, many expectations I’ve had to re-set. Drawing on a daily gratitude practice is also proving key to my sanity.
Mama, I feel you. This is HARD, and I know that as humans we are all truly craving stability and predictability right now. You mentioned this situation’s throwing a “wrench in your momentum,” and I get that. I feel it too. Perhaps for this year, or this pandemic, though, we should ditch the word “momentum.” Survival and presence are where we must sit (not run from) right now, I’m afraid.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave
We’ve had a couple situations like this lately and for my situation, I’ve drawn on the strength of knowing that we’ve made it through periods before where we were juggling both work and childcare, and that the shutdown is temporary and not never-ending like it seemed in March. We had my son home with us for several months while working, and then brought him back to daycare. Since then, there have been a couple instances where we have had to bring him home because of COVID. Knowing that we made it through March-June juggling both, and knowing that these setbacks are at most 2 weeks has helped.
March-June also helped me and my husband hone our negotiation skills over work, and stand tough when our project or meeting (or our own doctor’s appointment!) was truly important. We try to put everyone’s health first, and know that doctor’s appointments for all are a priority, as is keeping ourselves and our son safe.
It also helps to plan some alone time after that 2 week period to recoup your energy. I have taken naps or asked for my 2 hours of “me time” the weekend following a COVID shutdown, and that helps to know there’s something to look forward to at the end of the long juggle.