There’s Too Much Chaos to Work

There’s Too Much Chaos to Work

Summer break…long, lazy days and warm nights on the porch. Things for years that I anticipated with much relish, even as an adult, knowing that students would not be crowding the streets and everything would be open a little later to accommodate the longer daylight hours.

Now, with two small children, summer means that as I work there’s a constant stream of interruptions. One left the water on in the bathroom so it overflows onto the floor, one just let himself out the door to go on an adventure (he’s 3, so maybe this still needs to be supervised). Want them to be quiet so I can have a call? Here’s some TV.

Just as when the world first locked down in response to COVID, the two children are underfoot and either demanding to be entertained or entertaining themselves in dubious fashions. And like every parent in the world, I still hop on conference calls and zoom calls apologizing in advance for possible interruptions. Once, the wonderful board I was on a zoom call with asked to see my daughter, who was 2 at the time, so I popped her onto my lap so they could coo at her and she could grin and wave. Instead, she calmly sat there and picked her nose. Yep, the world of working with kids.

So how to make it happen? Is there a secret, other than an absurd amount of television, that makes it possible? Well, I’m afraid not. And the “answer” is going to vary depending on many other factors such as family situation and kid temperament. It’ll also depend on whether they’re home for a day or a few on school break or home unexpectedly because they’re sick. But here’s what I’ve found that helps.

  1. Planning. If I know the kids will be home in-between school sessions for a week, I know that it’s not a great week for big projects. I work as hard as I can to get even regular tasks pre-done. So while things still come up and I’m checking email, the regularly reoccurring tasks are done and big projects are pushed.
  2. Headphones. Even if your kids are playing nicely, being able to block out the background noise helps. I don’t use fancy noise-canceling headphones because I do want to hear the louder explosions and crashes, I just want to block out the gentle background noise, the Octonauts theme song, and whatever nonsense they’ve talked Alexa into playing.
  3. Blocked focus time. If you have a spouse who is also working from home, blocking off who is being the primary parent and who is focusing on work helps, especially if you need and hour or two to really focus.
  4. Shift working hours. Super early or very late aren’t generally ideal hours for work, but you can make it work when needed. As the kids stay up with the later light in the summer, they also sleep in later, so I make myself wake up early to work. I also do this when we travel, waking up early to get in a few hours of work before we go play for the day. Then the rest of the day, I can just stay on top of email.
  5. Delegate. If you can, re-assess everything you do during the day and see if it’s a task you can delegate. Obviously, not everything can be delegated, but it’s a great opportunity and incentive to optimize how you’re spending your time so it’s truly on the tasks that it’s most important for you to do.
  6. Parks and playgrounds. Again, depending on the age and temperament of your kids, a location change and being outside can often be a huge help – they’re distracted and other than glancing up occasionally, you can get a few things done. I have one child this works well for and another that needs a little more attention.

It doesn’t help me at all to remember this is only a short time, really a handful of weeks, where this is actually an issue. Because that one day, when an unexpected problem occurs and the kids are melting down, I need a solution right away. So I get it. Thankfully so do most people that I work with and talk to on a regular basis. Some jobs allow more flexibility for kids than others, though, so there is no one size solution.

Someone once described childcare as a house of cards, delicately stacked, that might work for weeks or months at a time. But pull even one card and the whole thing comes tumbling down on top of the primary parent. And when that happens, you take a deep breath, solve the problem as best you can, and then spend some time thinking how to handle it better in the future, so that if the problem repeats (which is always less likely if you have a good backup plan, I think), then you’ll be ready for it.