Home office and childcare: How to have it all (at 80%) using your skills
We don’t have a printer at home. This has never been a problem because I only ever need to print when it’s something that needs my signature. I can print at work or ask my neighbours. Then suddenly, work shifted to my home desk and my five-year-old daughter, whom I’d like to call Clara on this blog, was out of colouring pages. How could she have run out of that huge pile of colouring pages? What used to be unimaginable happened so fast without me looking-literally.
As working parents, you cannot have 100%
Unless you are, for example, a mum blogger whose role as a parent is well integrated into your work life, working full-time and raising your children is like juggling three balls while jumping over a fence. My husband and I follow a dual-career approach where both of us push our careers equally. Jennifer Petriglieri of INSEAD calls this the ‘double primary’ model, something I would like to dive deeper into in a different post. What this means for us here is that each of us has to give up something to make it work for both, keeping up with both of our careers and both of our duties in childcare and housework. It’s a compromise. But for us, this is 80% of the perfection we both strive for. Our children are happy at kindergarten, yet emotionally close to us as their parents and role models. Both are considered extremely well-adjusted by all their nursery teachers, doctors, our families and friends. So we lived in our perfect little 80% world-until the first lockdown came during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Granted, we have it easier than many other families. We have safe office jobs which we can easily take home, we have each other, we have children who do not have special needs. Among our friends and colleagues, there are single parents, nurses, restaurant owners and families with low income and flexibility, all with their own individual struggles that I have great respect for. But for those who, like us, work full-time from home with both children present, the shift from office to home is also a great challenge.
When you work at home with two children, a pre-schooler and a toddler, you no longer see 80% success, you only see failures. When you’re in a call, you suddenly see the grinning (or crying) face of your child in the camera. When you’re working on a presentation, a small hand appears and hits ‘delete’ on the current slide. And even when you’re finally on your own because you take turns with your partner, you are not entirely free of small interruptions (“Mum, where’s my book on fairies? Dad doesn’t know!”). Worse still, there is that small voice in the back of your mind telling you how awful you are as a parent, prioritizing your work over caring for them. Then you decide to take the kids out for a walk or to the playground, and that other voice tells you that you’re not going to be able to keep the next deadline at work. Something is always tugging at you, trying to push you into the exact opposite direction, like your children fighting over a colouring paper and ending up tearing it apart.
Oh yes, the colouring papers. So suddenly I was at home, with unkempt hair, too many deadlines, a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen that hadn’t even made their way into the dishwasher, a crying little girl who didn’t want any other activity-and no printer. Nothing was right. I could have given Clara some media usage time (read: put her in front of the TV or tablet), but I didn’t want to. I wanted my 80/20 life back. Even at home, I would get my work done and her creativity supported.
Rediscovering and repurposing skills for childcare
Sketching and illustrating are passions I had long abandoned back when I was eighteen and started studying business administration. All those years, I had been too busy to keep up with them even as a hobby. But when my little girl told me that she desperately needed another image of a princess to colour, I reckoned I might as well take a white sheet of paper and draw one myself. It took a break of just two to three minutes per drawing, hoping Clara might leave me to my work for at least the same amount of time.
I had one full hour of peace with just a few of those drawings. No interruptions, no crying, no TV ogling, no guilty conscience on my part. When I discovered that this worked, I tried it again. And again. I never spent a lot of time on a single picture because I was drawing for a child: Clara needed simple and bold outlines and not the next Picasso piece. It was very different from how and what I had used to draw, but at the same time very easy to repurpose my drawing skills with the goal so clear. Naturally, I was asked to draw many different princesses, but also animals, trees with branches and feathers. When my daughter discovered that she could have any image she wanted, her creative mind practically exploded.
We continued with another idea that involved drawing: I sketched full-body pictures of girls in underwear, totally flawed in my self-critical eyes, but much more innocent than the full-bosomed Barbie dolls in Clara’s collection. Then we decided together what clothing pieces I would draw, each on a separate sheet of paper: a long flowery dress, a pair of high heels, a mermaid’s tail, several different tiaras, small necklaces and bracelets. I stayed with my 80/20 rule that every piece had to be done quickly, no fussing over details that a child’s eyes would be unable to criticize, so that it took just 20% of my effort to draw it just 80% right. Clara took every piece, coloured them diligently, cut them out with care and then used them as dress-up dolls. But they were all made of paper, her doll collection forgotten. Whenever she wanted a new piece of clothing, I could produce it immediately with little effort.
We have since found tons of other things that could be made out of paper. We built a small forest with a paper hut, paper trees, paper grass and paper animals. A bit of research using a search engine (“paper house templates”) helped. It took longer than the paper dolls did, certainly, but it gave Clara more room for her role-playing activities. We also crafted paper glasses, a paper tiara and a paper mask for her to use. None of those were new ideas, but they were all done by me instead of printing templates from the web. And I would have never drawn anything like that if I had done it just for myself, helping me open my views for entirely different motifs, drawing styles and visual presentations. I was working from home with children around me, but I suddenly had an old hobby back.
Advantages of repurposing your skills for childcare
All this talk about drawing is just one example of why it is important, healthy and satisfying to bring yourself into the picture when finding activities for your children, especially in these taxing times where work and childcare are no longer separated. I could have simply bought a printer and shortened the story to, “…and then I printed out a million new colouring papers and my daughter was really happy.” But there are so many advantages to involving yourself and your own skills, whatever those skills may be:
You and your children are a team: Draw a mask, let them colour and then wear it. We contribute to the fun what we can!
- Uniqueness. I believe a reason why Clara spends much more time colouring my drawings rather than the printed colouring papers is the realization that whatever I draw, it exists only once, and only for her. She recognizes the effort that is put into a single picture and treats it with equal care. I see the difference when she gets a pile of printed colouring images and starts to colour something, then gets bored of it, throws the paper aside and starts on another. Whenever we clean up her desk and throw away old pictures, she insists on keeping the ones I draw for her.
- Save time. This might be a little counterintuitive at first: After all, a printer is much faster than my hands could ever be. But looking at my point above, your children will spend more time with individual drawings and crafts than they would with downloaded or purchased activities. More time for you and your home office!
- Learning effect. When Clara wonders how to draw something, she comes to me and asks me to show her. Sometimes, she looks at her surroundings and tries to sketch what she sees because she has seen me doing it. You are your children’s biggest influence and they learn so much from you when they are given enough exposure of your skills.
- Emotional bonding. This should be obvious, but anything you do for your child is caring for your child and showing your love, even if it’s just a few minutes every time. Your children see the effort you put into something. They are also more deeply involved themselves, with the ability to decide certain details and a larger impact on the end result of your activity. You will find yourself more strongly connected and alert, as you will be putting yourself into it instead of half-heartedly helping with puzzles for the 100th time. (Idea: Create your own puzzles!)
- Reconnect to yourself. Somewhere between being a child and growing up into a busy adult, part of you gets lost or changes. This happens naturally as you, your skills and your way of thinking evolve over time and no reason to be sad. Yet I doubt any of us live without certain regrets. We often have to sacrifice or at least greatly reduce one thing to have another. And this may be your chance to bring together your interests and your children, in a setting that requires you to focus on work and neglect both.
Ways to put your own skills into good use
I had it very easy with my example, because drawing is arguably one of the main activities of every child below the age of six. Even though it doesn’t take much skill or talent to draw for your children, it might not be something you like to do. But that shouldn’t stop you from bringing yourself into the picture.
- Give your children tasks. Regardless of the activity, you need to have a common goal, something that feels like a big success when achieved. If you’re good at singing or playing an instrument, find a suitable song and ask your children to learn its melody or, if older, the lyrics. If you’re good at dancing, create a choreography of your own, film yourself and ask your children to learn it. You can then perform together.
- Think outside of the box. You don’t think you are creative? That’s no problem, virtually all skills are useful. You might be a good runner and wondering how that could be useful at home. Do you track your steps? Show them to your children. Give them something to track with (a smartphone, carefully tucked into a children’s backpack, does the trick) and see if they can beat your score. At home! Or even better: Do it together and get fit while you’re at it.
- Involve your children in your profession. No, I don’t mean to have them jump into your camera and interrupt your meetings. If you are, for example, a coder whose day is filled with nothing else, you can use what you have to create activities for your kids. Take a page of code and ask them how often they can find a certain letter, number, or snippet. If the count is correct, they get points. It would be even better if you showed them what a piece of code actually does, depending on your chosen field. Children are always eager to learn, they just need the right method.
Life is never at 100%, but it can be perfect at 80%
I have since extended our activities at home, mostly on weekends, because the children do not have to be at home exclusively anymore (phew). But what had started as a drawing session due to lacking a printer is now part of our family time: We have added cooking, yoga, piano playing, cleaning (yes!) and Clara imitating my phone calls with colleagues. Like many parents, I do some additional work late in the evening when my kids are asleep. But that’s fine. Life is at 80% again, my own perfect little world. I still do not own a printer, by the way.
Juggling work, household and childcare will remain a challenge, even without an on-going pandemic. You will definitely not push your career to its highest potential without sacrificing quality time with your family. You can’t have 100%, despite what successful people would like to make you believe. (Ask their nannies.) But you can have a successful career, quality time with your family, stay fit and have a cozy home, all on a level that will most likely make you happy enough to stay on the path you’ve taken. And to achieve all of this with as little effort as possible, you should use the source that is most readily available: yourself and your skills.
Are any of the above insights useful to you? Do let me know!