How working parents can communicate their needs during COVID
What to say to your colleagues, your partner, and your children.
Now that it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to restructure and reshape the majority of 2020, parents who had hoped for a more typical fall are having to replan their lives around a very unusual school year. Your children might be attending school just a few days each week; they might be preparing for another few months of remote learning; you might be teaming up with other parents to share tutors or form a learning pod.
If you’re fortunate enough to be working from home during the pandemic, you’re probably doing all of this planning while actively parenting, tackling at least some of the housework and figuring out what to do with that sourdough starter you started in March. You’re probably also asking yourself how this fall can be better than this spring — how you and your partner can more equitably balance the parenting load, how you can help your children get what they need while also making time for yourself, and how to talk to your employer about creating a work-from-home schedule that works for both of you.
We reached out to three parenting and remote work experts to learn how they suggest you communicate your needs — to your boss, to your spouse or co-parent, and to your children. If you have no idea how you and your family are going to handle a COVID autumn, here are some actionable tips that you can start putting in place today.
In this article:
Work with your employer to develop a plan
If you’re having trouble working from home and parenting simultaneously, it’s time to start separating those two jobs into two distinct workloads — and to talk to your employer about what you need to work and parent effectively.
Tomi Akitunde, founder and editor-in-chief of Mater Mea, advises parents to start by asking themselves what’s actually preventing them from getting their work done. “Before you have the conversation with your employer, outline what issues are affecting your productivity. Is it that the standing meeting at 2 is during your kids’ snack time? Is it that your kids’ virtual learning is from 9-3, and you need to be right next to them to keep them on task? Once you have an idea of the specific problems, now you can start creating plans to solve them.”
Don’t set up the virtual meeting with your boss until you are ready to present a plan of action — and make sure to present the plan in a way that makes clear how it will benefit your employer just as much as it benefits you. “Frame these solutions in a way that they see the benefit for themselves,” Akitunde says. “This is especially helpful in work cultures where expressing feelings of overwhelm aren’t tolerated.”
Brie Weiler Reynolds, Career Development Manager and Coach at FlexJobs, has a script you can use to start the conversation: “Some variations of this line during the meeting request can help set the tone: ‘I want to share my current reality to give you a good understanding and try to stay ahead of any potential problems.’”
Once you and your employer come up with a workable plan, have a second plan in place for accountability. “Make sure to have regular conversations to check in and see how the proposed arrangement works for everyone,” Akitunde advises. Weiler Reynolds suggests using FlexJobs’ email template for updating your boss not only on your work, but any adjustments that may need to be made as you continue to work from home.
Meredith Bodgas, editor-in-chief of Working Mother magazine and WorkingMother.com, believes that today’s employers should be well prepared to make these kinds of accommodations. “If moms show their managers that, despite the extraordinary task of working from home with their kids, they have a plan to do what is reasonably expected, managers should treat them like the adults they are and let them enact that plan.”
Talk to your partner about sharing the parenting load
After you have the work-life balance conversation with your boss, it might be time to have a similar conversation with your partner. “Parents must come up with a mutually agreeable plan based on their workloads,” Bodgas explains. “Is it that they each take a relatively consistent chunk of time out of the day for work while the other parent is on kid duty? Is it that they do as much work as possible at the same time while switching off who tends to the kids when they need them?”
Some parents initially agree to switch off “kid duty” times, only to realize that the bulk of the parenting load tends to fall towards mothers no matter which parent is on duty. “There are a lot of gendered expectations put on moms that keep a truly equitable parenting dynamic from happening,” Akitunde says. “There’s an expectation that mom knows where everything is, mom is who you go to when you have an ouchie or need help, mom does the lionshare of the active parenting. It doesn’t set anyone up for success.”
What should you do if you find yourself doing the majority of the parenting — even after you thought you had created an equitable arrangement with your spouse or partner? It all comes down to honest, focused communication. Our experts gave us a three-step guide to having this kind of difficult conversation:
First, acknowledge that your partner might not be aware of the imbalance. “Our partners aren’t mind readers, and we can’t hold them accountable to expectations they’re not aware they’re falling short of,” Akitunde explains.
Next, make a specific, achievable request. Bodgas offers the following script: “I’ve only gotten three kid-free hours the past few days to your daily five. How can we make this even? Can you wake up earlier to take the kids so I can start my work earlier?”
Finally, stick to what’s happening right now and how you can fix it. “Keep it focused on the task at hand: equally balancing the load,” Weiler Reynolds says. “Even if you feel like you’ve always been carrying too much of the parenting load, now is the time to focus on the situation in front of you and how to remedy that, rather than hashing out longer-held frustrations.”
Divide the day into work time and family time
If you and your spouse, partner or co-parent agree that the best way to balance the load is to divide the day into work time, parenting time and family time, here are some tips to help you make the transition:
Develop a schedule that works for both parents. “Would having one solid block of time each day for both of you to focus on work while the other watches the kids do the trick?” Weiler Reynolds asks. “Or do you need to alternate every hour or two?” Don’t assume your work-parenting-family schedule has to look like anyone else’s.
Set up a weekly planning meeting. “One Mater Mea mom has a weekly meeting with her husband on Sunday, before the week starts, to plot out what’s on their family’s agenda: kids’ activities, their work meetings, engagements, everything,” Akitunde explains. “Then they decide on a plan for how to tackle the laundry list of things that need to get done, together.”
Use calendars to help you communicate. “Parents should go over the next day’s schedules together at least every night and send invites to block off each other’s work calendars as soon as meetings are booked to alert the other parent that they’ll need to be focused on the children,” Bodgas advises.
Have contingency plans in place. Bodgas suggests having clear, agreed-upon backup plans for unexpected schedule changes, overlapping meetings and so on.“When meetings overlap, have a hierarchy to decide whose work commitment takes precedence. If it’s internal vs. external, the parent on the internal call can have the kids if neither meeting can be rescheduled.”
When it’s time to work, focus on work. Joe Saul-Sehy, former financial advisor and creator of the Stacking Benjamins podcast, recently shared this insight with us: “A mentor once told me that I need to set clear boundaries around work and play times. When I’m at work, be at work. When I’m playing, be present with those around me. Don’t answer work calls during family time and don’t flip through vacation brochures while working. I violated this often early on and realized that my mentor was correct. Every time I showed up at home in the middle of the day for a family break, I conditioned the family to believe that I could be distracted from work at any time.”
Create boundaries to help your children understand when you’re working
There’s one more group of people who need to be part of the work-life balance conversation: your children. After all, any plan that you put together with your employer or your partner won’t actually work unless you can get your kids on board — and that means communication, buy-in and boundaries.
Your children will be more likely to give you time to work if you build in time to give them what they need: attention, affection and connection. “Create space where you can reaffirm your connection with your kids throughout the workday,” Akitunde suggests. “I think those moments will buy you some work time and avoid resentment brewing about your availability to your kids.”
That said, you also need to talk to your children about when you aren’t available — and create visual reminders to help your children think twice before interrupting you. “If you have a home office, maybe put up a green piece of paper for when your kids can come in, and a red piece of paper for when you’re busy,” Akitunde advises. “If your family has physical schedules on display for the kids’ schooling, you can create one for yourself as well so they know what’s going on in your day.” Bodgas and Weiler Reynolds also recommended using color-coded signs (green for available, red for busy), which can work even if your children are non-readers.
“If you have a home office, maybe put up a green piece of paper for when your kids can come in, and a red piece of paper for when you're busy.”—Tomi Akitunde, founder and editor-in-chief of Mater Mea
All visual boundaries should be accompanied by verbal boundaries — and be prepared to repeat them. “Verbal boundaries have to include an initial deeper discussion and many follow-up small discussions, expectation setting moments, and reminders,” Weiler Reynolds explains. Bodgas suggests using the following script, especially for younger children: “When Mommy has her laptop open, your job is to let her work. But if you’re hungry or hurt, you can always let her know.”
Your children are likely to test any boundaries you try to set — and, in some cases, so will your partner or your boss. This is one of these situations where you need to be both firm and flexible; to know when to stick to your plan and when to adjust it (either temporarily or permanently). If there’s one thing we know about this pandemic season, it’s that flexibility has turned out to be a valuable resource — and as you and your family prepare for an unexpected fall and a challenging school year, use these tips to help your children, your partner and your employer embrace flexibility, try new things and work together to ensure that everybody gets what they need.
About Nicole Dieker
Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.Read more by Nicole Dieker
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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.
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