When my first child was born I had cotton candy dreams of being a stay at home mom, responsible only for the care of my children and my castle.
I lasted 5 months before I decided that was devastatingly boring.
So, to shake things up a bit I decided to try my hand at one of the most difficult things you could ever do as an adult… become a work from home parent.
I’ve been extremely overwhelmed, embarrassingly unproductive, and most definitely worked in my pajamas.
Ultimately it has become my preferred way to work because of how much it has contributed to quality of life for our family and for our children.
Don’t despair, working from home doesn’t have to be a nightmare, there are 8 key things that have helped me transform it into the ideal way to work.
Working from Home with little kids
When I started working from home my son was 5 months old and I just wanted something constructive to do with my time and mental energy (physical energy was still pretty non-existent!).
But I really started trying to figure out how to actually get stuff done when one of his growth spurts had him ravenously latched and me permanently glued to the rocking chair for hours on end.
1. Wake Up Before the Baby
I needed to feel less like I had birthed a tiny dictator and more in control of my time, so I started paying attention to what time he was waking up in the morning. It was hard, but I started waking up an hour earlier, about 5:30 AM.
Once I got over the transition period of about a week, I relished my alone time with just me and my coffee mug so much that I still make sure to get up before everyone else to this day.
Even if you’re not a morning person (does having kids REALLY give you a choice in the matter?), I’m willing to bet that waking up early to a wailing little one with infinite needs makes you a lot grumpier than waking up an hour earlier will.
2. Set a Schedule
According to Cathy Guttentag, PhD, (an associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and clinical child psychologist with UT Physicians) routines and schedules provide children with a sense of stability, security, and structure that can help keep boredom and frustration to a minimum.
I’d argue they’re a lifesaver for parents too. However, the kind of schedules that have always worked for our family is more of a rhythm than a by-the-minute plan.
Having a regular schedule means you can plan ahead for work. Set up calls during nap times, catch up on email while they’re nursing, and maybe use that hour before they wake up to write your blog posts.
Make what you can control as predictable as possible so you can roll with the many things you can’t control like a growth spurt, illness or sleep regression.
I used this website https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-feeding-schedules/ for some ideas of how different schedules work for different ages.
And I also referenced this same website a lot and followed their sleep training methods to help my babies learn to put themselves to sleep but without resorting to the cry it out method, which I always hated. I never had to pay for their additional help as the free information available on their site was enough for both my kids temperaments.
3. Sticking to a Routine
What’s the difference between a schedule and a routine? A schedule relies more on coordinating with a clock, a routine is more like the laws of cause and effect.
We have used different routines throughout the day and at different ages since the kids were tiny, squishable noise machines.
Bedtime started with getting changed into jammies, with a brief pause for a little baby massage and a fun song we dubbed “babyssage”, followed by lowering the lights, a bedtime story and a feeding.
We followed this same pattern every evening so that they would know we were heading to bed and their bodies would start producing melatonin at the same time at night.
You can insert all kinds of mini-routines throughout the day’s schedule so that your kids (at all different ages) will feel like they know what’s coming next.
To help preschool and kindergarten age kids grow more independent and in charge of their own routines, this blog post is fantastic and also offers inexpensive printable cards to help kids who don’t read yet begin to follow their routines themselves. https://amotherfarfromhome.com/daily-routine-for-kids/
When you can make their days more predictable your kids feel more secure because they have a sense of what will happen next rather than facing a black hole of possibilities.
You can reduce how much they pester you to tell them what’s next when you build clues into their day that tell them what’s next instead.
4. Keep Your To Do List Short
And I mean REALLY short.
I write with a sharpie on a post it note, or stick to the “Today’s Top Three” section in my day planner (this year I’m using Day Designer – Daily/Monthly layout https://daydesigner.com/products/academic-year-2020-2021-daily-planner-rugby-stripe).
We usually overestimate how much we can get done in one day – especially as parents with the majority of our days being at the beck and call of our dependents – we need to set realistic expectations of ourselves.
Write down what you need to get done today… then chop that list AT LEAST in half. If you still only got through part of your list, chop it in half again.
Getting overwhelmed trying to get everything done is ultimately going to keep you from building the momentum of positive brain chemicals you release when you feel a sense of accomplishment.
Give yourself just one task a day that you know when you get THAT thing done you’ll feel so much better, then use that positive momentum to tackle the next thing tomorrow.
Sometimes deadlines don’t give us the luxury of being able to pace ourselves – in that case, there are many Virtual Assistant services out there. From one off tasks through sites like Fiverr (https://www.fiverr.com/) or subscriptions like Fancy Hands (https://www.fancyhands.com/), you can find help you need for specific and simple tasks that just suck away too much time.
You can also find dedicated Virtual Assistants online if you find that you are constantly needing help every week and you’d like them to get to know your needs and work with you more closely. Here’s a list of the top Virtual Assistant companies and how they work (https://biz30.timedoctor.com/virtual-assistant-companies/)
5. Evolve Your Schedule and Routine
Babies and Toddlers change. A LOT.
Your family schedule and routine will have to as well.
Just because your schedule will have to evolve is not a reason not to have one. I’ve seen many parents who find themselves burnt out because they work in every 5 minute window they can grab.
You still need to have a schedule, but expect that that glorious two naps a day period is going to end.
Your two year old might decide they’re done with naps COMPLETELY one day like mine did!
But if you have a schedule in place already you can evolve pieces of it rather than having to start from scratch every time they change it up on you.
Nap times became quiet time with books in his crib.
Quiet time in the crib became quiet activities time every afternoon.
It’s easier to evolve through each stage of their rapid growth than to reinvent the wheel every time (and it’s so… so… so often) that your kids go through a major milestone.
6. When You Should Have a Dedicated Office Space and When You Shouldn’t
I’ve done both, and both have been what I needed at the time.
When my kids were babies, I had a small desk in the living area where I could keep an eye on them playing while I got some stuff done.
Other times, being more mobile and working off the couch, dining table or even just on my phone from the bathroom meant I got some tasks done.
However, one day, both children became fully mobile.
The moment I decided I had to do something drastically different, I had two toddlers (my kids are 17 months apart) crawling over my shoulders and trying to sit on my head while I worked.
We were in a two bedroom apartment and at the time there was no obvious space for me to work behind a door.
My husband was also working remotely, so we talked and decided he could work in the evenings and I would work during the day so we could avoid having half our income swallowed by childcare.
He took the day shift with the kids and I managed the evening shift.
For a while I worked out of a neighborhood coffee shop and then eventually moved to a co-working space to make it easier to take calls.
Eventually this brief stint away from home began to wear on me.
I was hyper-aware of how much time I was spending commuting across town, and then when parking grew even more scarce at the co-working space I talked with my husband again about what we could do so that I could work from home again.
We decided to divide our living space and move our bed out from the 2nd bedroom allowing me to use it as an office (with the very important door) which I could lock if I was on a call and the kids kept sneaking away from daddy to get to me.
Overall, I’ve found that different systems have worked very well for me at certain times and stopped working completely at other times.
Stay adaptable and pay attention to whether your current system is working for you.
Sometimes what you can get done on your phone while glued to the rocking chair is all the office you’ll have for the day.
Toddlers who like to sit on your head while you try to answer emails? You might need a door… with a lock.
7. Don’t Split Your Attention
You won’t be able to do either the parenting or the working very well if you multitask too often.
The kids will give you more time to yourself if you give them dedicated quality time where they have 100% of your attention.
Put the phone on airplane mode and leave it on the top of the fridge (ever had a toddler steal your phone and dunk it in applesauce? Put that sucker out of reach!) for half an hour while you play with them.
That playtime really will earn you at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to think about what you need to do next.
I’ve tested this multiple times and it has remained true.
If I push them away to get work done I get less work done than if I had just set aside a little time to give them my undivided and enthusiastic attention.
8. Ask for Help
Asking for help is still hard for me. But it’s gotten a little easier.
Collaborate with your spouse and ask their advice on how you both can combine forces to make sure both your jobs and your kids are taken care of.
Pay a niece/nephew or other trustworthy youth to play with the kids in the living room while you get some work done sitting on your bed for a couple of hours.
Do a playdate with a fellow working mom so the kids can entertain one another.
Trade babysitting with a fellow working mom a couple days a week.
There’s a reason why the saying, “It takes a village” still holds true. You don’t have to do it all, nor should you expect yourself to be able to.
Find What Works for You
Our family needs have changed just within the 5 years that we’ve been parents. We’ve had job changes, moved across states and started a business.
These keys can adapt and work for you to feel productive and even prefer working from home.
If you’re only working from home temporarily some bigger changes (like rearranging your entire house to make room for a dedicated office) might not make sense.
Even if working from home is temporary but longer than a couple of weeks you might want to ask yourself, “how easy would it be to return things to normal?” if it would really make your temporary routines easier on a day to day basis.