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Working in The Forever Now With Kids

Fiona Waters

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Before social isolation, parents had two defined worlds: the working world and the world of family life. They spent the day at the office while children either went to daycare or attended school. Then, after spending a long day separated, everyone reunited at home. Family and household responsibilities replaced concerns of filing reports and or hosting presentations. That compartmentalization is no more, however. Now with parents working from home and children attending school from home, "work mode" and "family mode" don't quite make sense anymore.

Women in particular are hit the hardest by pandemics, both because of job insecurity, but also because of societal expectations that they take care of the family and house. Now, with COVID-19, they are expected to be full-time employees and teachers on top of it.

How COVID-19 Is Affecting Working Moms

The main reason women are disproportionately affected by pandemics is that they're asked to stay home if a child needs to be cared for. Women account for 45% of the workforce, but 55% of people who depend on childcare in order to work. With childcare being limited, its absence has exacerbated a gender disparity in the US that has been chipped away at for hundreds of years.

Deb Perelman of the New York Times summarizes the issue succinctly, "In the Covid-19 economy, you're allowed only a kid or a job." Not both. "Working mothers all over the country feel that they're being pushed out of the labor force or into part-time jobs as their responsibilities at home have increased tenfold."

She theorizes that the lack of rage for this expectation of mothers is from plain exhaustion. If doing triple duty wasn't already enough, adding "organizing and participating in a political movement" to the list of responsibilities is impossible. There isn't enough time in the day. And it can be difficult to view something happening over such a long period of time as a crisis. Maybe one or two days in a row are fine, and then you're suddenly hit with 20 different things on the same day.

Women also make up 78% of healthcare workers in the US. As emergency room technicians and nurses, they are in high contact with those most seriously infected.

The effects are also more apparent for low-income families. Women have much higher poverty rates than men and those with the lowest incomes were hit hardest with layoffs in March. They can be workers in food service, in sanitation, and in grocery stores, who might interact with hundreds of customers a day. Those with low incomes also can't pay for grocery delivery, memberships to online stores, and sometimes even Internet access.

Advice From Those Living It

NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains that the best way to model appropriate behavior is through example. There's a debate about screen time, reducing distractions, and creating separate spaces for everyone in the home, but, as Noguchi writes, the bottom line is: "as parents learn to remote work, their children will also learn - by example." The rules that help guide you should also be extended to your child, and vice versa. Other advice aimed at employees offers similar tips.

Chief of Staff at Blizzard, Danielle Madison, echoes the sentiment of setting expectations for your family, but not being too hard on yourself if they don't work out. She also has school-aged children. "Kids will be having more screen time." That's just a fact. The best you can do is counteract it. "At the beginning of the week, I like to come up with a couple of creative things my kids can do when they have free time."

Michelle Thiessen, a Partner Success Manager at WITI, worked from home before March of this year and now has her three children at home. She lives in Canada, where cases of COVID-19 are much lower than in the US and the enforcement of safety precautions continues today. Social interactions have changed immensely for Thiessen and her children since the start of quarantine. "What's required is more conversations about staying engaged in the world, despite not being able to participate in their communities in the same way as they did before."

At 18, 18, and 13, they were old enough to be out of the house often before quarantine and also to assist with household duties. To Thiessen, though, parenting is more than chores. "It's important to prioritize emotional support and physical presence. Sometimes that looks like taking a break to listen to my kids or going for a bike ride [with them] on a nice day."

On the same note, Anto Colasanto, Social Media Manager for the Archdiocese of Chicago, tells parents "Enjoy your family, remember that life is beautiful, and do something that makes you or your kids smile." Pausing every once in a while to be present in the moment is crucial.

Colasanto's situation was unique in that she took maternity leave from work in April, and returned virtually a few weeks ago. Her children in 5th grade and 1st grade recently started public school online. It hasn't been easy. Colasanto, her children, and husband are in a two bedroom apartment. "We had to coordinate what devices everyone was using, where everyone was going to take calls..."

Many of her work calls rely on her newborn's schedule and the technical difficulties her children have with online school. That's another unexpected role she's taken on - IT Expert. She is considering hiring a mother's helper, but does not want to put her family's health at risk.

Parents need to remember that their best is good enough. "Caretakers need to remember that they're doing the best they can. Be forgiving, even to yourself," Madison offers. Thiessen destigmatizes the expectation of compartmentalizing work life from family life. "I'm after integration. Whether I'm a mom or an employee, I bring my same creative process and engagement."

Changes That Should Be Permanent

The unexpected switch to virtual platforms forced all kinds of organizations to create an online infrastructure. If you ever wanted to go to the doctor virtually, that's something you can do without question now. Waiting rooms are a thing of the past. Even events like broadway shows, book signings, and classes that might be cost or time prohibitive are now available as live streams for free. What things should we keep about this virtual era? And maybe, what things shouldn't we keep?

Thiessen loves having her family at home and "seeing this vulnerability in my co-workers." She also likes, "hearing the stories of organizations that are moving to more flexible policies." Like Thiessen, Colasanto admires the flexibility she has seen from bosses and leaders in this situation. If someone needs time off from virtual work for a health condition, to run an errand, to care for their children -- her boss understands. Hopefully working from home will become the new standard rather than the exception.

Technology use for business operations is another thing Madison, in a previous article, and Colasanto are enthusiastic about. Business partners can be connected from all over the world with video chats, which is easier, faster, and more cost-effective than sending someone on a business trip. With younger children, though, who often require their parents' help and attention with online classes, Colasanto is happy to get children back in school once it's safe again. "Right now," she says, "I'm happy to have them study at home to reduce risk."

While some things will certainly go back to the way they were after a vaccine is developed, it's also time to acknowledge that some changes are permanent. Employers have been pressured to be much more considerate of their employees, communities have a new appreciation for the work of teachers and childcare workers, and things that previously could have been held online will continue to be. Until a vaccine is distributed, wear a mask, wash your hands, and most importantly, be easy on yourself.

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