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Lockdown Blues

Working from home with a toddler in tow is doing my head in.

Victoria has been in Stage 4 lockdown for about three-and-a-half centuries now and we have been working from home for about a millennium. Or so it feels.

I am a lucky parent in a lucky household. My wife and I both have relatively secure jobs and we can both work from home. Unfortunately we also have to live with a toddler and that is where things have become incredibly challenging.

Last week, Australia entered a recession for the first time in 29 years. Many people are losing jobs. Many, many more are really only sustaining employment because the Commonwealth is subsidising them through JobKeeper. Swathes of small business owners are at risk of losing all their hard work because of the severe economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Life isn’t good for many and here I come along with the temerity to complain about my own situation. Sheesh!

That said, one person’s crisis does not invalidate another’s difficulties and I am certainly suffering some difficulties at the moment. I acknowledge that it could be so much worse, but nevertheless it’s becoming a struggle. Here is my reality, for what it’s worth:

Toddlers Need Attention

My girl is 16 months old, which makes her a toddler. Toddlers have a maximum attention span of about 5 minutes if you’re lucky. That means that if you find an activity that is engaging and interesting, you may be able to expect up to 300 seconds of peace in one go. Then you need to find something else, or otherwise provide direct engagement. Think about it: across the working day that’s more than 90 interruptions, plus nappy changes, meals, toilet breaks et cetera. It’s horrendous.

Toddlers are hard work at the best of times, let along when trying to work from home.

One easy option is to dump the toddler in front of a small screen and work. In the short term, it seems like a (guilty) stroke of genius: Voila! Two hours of productivity time magically appears. But what the screen giveths, the screen takeths away in the form of a much shorter afternoon nap and often bad behaviour too. I have found that 30 minutes of Play School seems to be a good trade off, but two hours of screen time just backfires horribly. And I need my girl to take that afternoon nap for her sanity and mine, so nothing I do will jeopardise that. Nothing.

These days, I do a lot of programming work in my job, so I try to cram that hard into the 1.5 hour nap time mid-afternoon and then do all the admin parts of my job in the mornings when the interruptions are rife. I also try to start work at 5am to get a couple of clear hours at dawn. It’s not a good balance but it’s the best I can do.

All the while I experience strong feelings of guilty neglect. Am I neglecting my job and my family? Frankly, I feel like I am failing at both most days – trying to do two jobs at once and succeeding well at neither. Water is sinking the boat and all I have is a children’s beach bucket to overcome the inundation. Overcoming those feelings can be very difficult at times.

Babysitting is Cancelled

One of the most useless pieces of advice that comes from “helpful websites” and even “helpful people” is for working parents to consider hiring a nanny. Ha! Not in lockdown. And in any case, that’s only an option for wealthy families in Australia.

We were fortunate insofar as both pairs of grandparents were able to look after our daughter during the working week, but once Victoria moved to Stage 2 and the Chief Health Officer recommended that people over 70 start isolating, we effectively lost our child care and were on our own.

Remarkably, people would keep asking me “Why don’t you just get your parents to look after your daughter?” (note use of the word just). Who in their right mind would subject their parents to additional risk of infection when they are in one of the riskiest age groups? That always felt like a very selfish choice to me.

Then there was the other response: “Why don’t you just send her to child care?” (There’s that word just again. It’s all so easy isn’t it?) Pre-Covid, it had never been part of our plan to send our daughter to child care. What everyone tells me is that once a child goes to child care for the first time, they pick up every single children’s disease going around and then bring it home to the parents and infect them too. If we did that, we’d all have to take sick leave and that would make the whole manouvre counterproductive as well as disruptive.

In one sense, the announcement of a period of free child care by the Commonwealth only made matters worse in terms of pressure, but child care is for children what nursing homes are for the elderly; we all have certain views about their suitability depending on circumstances. Unfortunately many people don’t respect a parent’s decision not to want to send their child to child care. In their eyes, it’s an “easy fix” that is being refused.

In the end, child care centres were closed-down anyway so that option was eliminated.

Work colleagues have a blind spot

In some ways, the most challenging aspect to all of this is the attitude of certain work colleagues who either have adult children or no children at all and therefore seem to have either forgotten what it’s like to manage a toddler or have no real experience of it. For these people, work-from-home is a relatively comfortable arrangement and there seems to be a blind spot when it comes to identifying why employees with small children may not be able to turn that non-urgent report around in 24 hours or can’t attend that impromptu Zoom meeting.

My managers have been fantastic (as has my employer) but some of the requests from colleagues have been absurd. For instance, the last thing I want to do is waste a good half-an-hour having a “virtual morning tea” with co-workers. Why, you may ask. Because, a “virtual morning tea” is consuming valuable time that I could be using to actually get my work done and there’s no way I’d willingly squander that precious resource. It’s not as if these things are occasional either. Perhaps my introverted nature hardens my resistance to such time-wasting social activities but they really can’t be justified in this climate.

My day is so frequently interrupted that each work meeting needs to be “arranged” with my wife (who also works from home but has less flexibility) so we can actually ensure that the online meeting is quiet and orderly at our end. That said, I have had to resort to having a child on my knee for some of these meetings and whilst no-one has ever complained, I have heard the groans from the other end when I have had to briefly depart to retrieve a toy that’s wedged under the couch or investigate what that unnerving crash sound was in the other room.

Officially in no-man’s land

It seems that the media, the government and everyone else in the world has been acutely aware of the struggles many working parents have had home-schooling their children. I have no doubt that home-schooling is tough, although there is a small suspicion in the back of my mind that it can’t surely be quite so difficult as minding a toddler and working full-time. (As the son of a teacher, “schooling” a child doesn’t seem particularly daunting, just hard work).

At least a school-age child can be asked to sit and undertake an activity for a period of time. It may not be long, especially for the young ones, but it’s more than you can ask a toddler to do.

But all of the support, both emotional and practical, has been directed to people with school-age children. I’ll admit that I started to feel a small, deep anger building up inside of me with every additional corporate email sent out with sympathies for “parents with school-age children”.

“Helpful” Advice That Isn’t

Lockdown can be such an isolating experience. Naturally, one starts to fossick around the internet in search of helpful advice for parents working-from-home with toddlers. We all need guidance at some point.

The best article I found – in fact the only one that seemed to reflect reality – was published in the Washington Post by Katherine Courage. The best quote of all was by Harvey Karp, a paediatrician in Los Angeles:

Toddlers are non-stop losers. They just want to win a few.

Harvey Karp, 28 April 2020

This is so true and helps to explain the sometimes awful behaviour. But the article also addressed the conflict between work and family as well as the feelings of guilt and neglect. It has clearly been written by someone with experience (or excellent research skills).

So many articles are really addressed for older children and suggest activities that a child can undertake solo (no, I can’t leave the 16-month-old with some sheets of paper and some textas). The challenging part is that I can offer almost no supervision at all if I am to work at the same time, so whatever the activity is, it needs to be super-safe. That rules out an awful lot.

Getting Through the Workday

My days start at 5am, which gives me 2.5 hours of uninterrupted concentration time. I have two big breaks during the day where I spend time with my daughter exclusively; usually around 11:15am and then again at 4:30pm. These include a bigger activity such as a walk up the street, a run around the backyard, a trip to the park or reading some books if the weather is bad. In-between, I let my daughter look through books (she loves them and has shown herself to be careful with the pages) or play with toys in the family room or her bedroom and when that all fails either sit her on my knee for a time or let her watch something on ABC iView. My wife helps out too, where she can.

I have had to be frank with colleagues about my availability during these times. I have had to shun all “social”-type activities with work and focus on what’s most important. I have had to remind people to email me as a first preference rather than calling me on Zoom. I have learned to cope with frequent interruptions and loud noises. Most importantly, I have also had to accept that I can’t do everything and that I have to make compromises and adjustments with my work, my parenting, my family and my lifestyle.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic. No-one can expect 100% productivity or perfection. We all have to make-do and get on as best we can in these difficult times.

If others were a little more understanding or compassionate, it would make life easier for everyone.



One response to “Lockdown Blues”

On 16 September 2020, James wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Though I don’t have young children, I can appreciate your situation. I work with a number of women and men with young children. They’ve all spoken about the challenges of having these competing demands. A few of them have taken annual leave during this period so they can reset on some things. I’ve also been drilling down on my annual leave, so I can more clearly delineate between work and home. Yesterday a few of us went into the office and had lunch together. It was an absolute joy to see my colleagues, and we took pleasure in the little things: wearing a collared shirt, wearing lipstick, wearing high-heels!!

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