Can remote work and parenting coexist?

May 15, 2024

7 mins

Can remote work and parenting coexist?

For many parents across the US, remote and hybrid work have become a part of daily life. According to a March 2023 Pew Research Center survey, around 35% of American workers with suitable jobs for remote work are now doing so full-time, with another 41% adopting a hybrid approach—a testament to the pandemic’s lasting impact on workplace norms. Yet, WFH isn’t one-size-fits-all. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 21.6% of women are navigating the remote work sphere compared to only 17.7% of men, with the scales tipping toward older workers who are more likely to work from the comfort of their homes than the younger crowd.

This shift poses distinct challenges for the 33.3 million US families with children under 18, especially in working households, where over 91% of families have at least one working parent. The scenario becomes even more complex for the 65% of married-couple families where both partners are employed, underscoring the difficulties of balancing professional obligations with child-rearing from home. With the merging of work and home life, parents continue to grapple with the challenges of remote work while managing a family. Enter the art of communication: drawing invisible lines between professional and personal, setting expectations, and building daily routines. The ultimate goal? To master the balance of meeting work demands without skipping a beat in the rhythm of family life.

Sorry, sweetie … Mommy’s working

Fatema Saifee, a DC-based early childhood educator and psychologist, says parents must “encourage open and honest dialogues with children about their thoughts and feelings regarding the changes brought about by remote work.” Saifee also advises “creating a safe and welcoming environment where kids feel comfortable expressing their concerns or anxieties.”

That’s just what one remote-working mother did. Flo Alcasas, Head of People at a mobile gaming company emphasizes the importance of including her 10-year-old daughter in the demands of her professional life. “There were moments of struggle, [but] a friend once suggested including her in my work to foster a better understanding. I took this advice, allowing [my daughter] to sit in on some work calls. This experience helped her see firsthand what my work entails, highlighting its importance and why I couldn’t be interrupted,” Alcasas explains.

“Allowing your children to be a part of your work-life positively influences their perceptions. [They] shift from seeing work as something that takes their parent away to a mysterious realm, to feeling included and special… They can get familiar with colleagues and understand what you really do… Kids are very curious and smart… They really look up to their parents, and we don’t always realize it… but they can feel very honored and privileged to be given the opportunity to step into your world of work.”

Now, Alcasas has an open-door policy with her daughter. “She’ll enter my office anytime, even during calls, and even if the door is closed. If it’s not a suitable time, I’ll subtly signal to her, and she usually understands and respects that boundary. It can be delightful and endearing when she just pops in to say hi.” However, she adds, “At other times, though, it catches me off guard, and I find myself thinking, ‘You need to leave now,’ [and] she doesn’t always catch the hint.”

“It’s about handling [the interruption] in the moment. I strive to remain calm and make it clear to her that there are times she simply can’t interrupt, [and] we talk about it afterward … expressing the need for her to respect my work time and trust in these situations.”

Strategies for work-life integration

Marcy Willard, a child psychologist, employee wellness advocate, and CEO/co-founder of Cadey App, a child psychology app for parents, says working parents need more work-life integration. “Especially for remote workers, it’s really important to be able to incorporate all of the things that you need to do into a healthy and whole life for yourself and your family.” For Willard, employee wellness starts at home. “What tends to happen, especially for the moms, is other priorities start to take the lead, pushing their own needs to the bottom of the list. Gradually, this results in burnout.” To counter this, Willard’s techniques help mothers find peace and wellness permeating home and work environments.

Setting up routines through time boundaries

Saifee stresses the importance of a well-defined daily schedule, noting that “[Families need] a consistent daily routine that includes designated times for schoolwork, play, meals, physical activity, and family bonding.” This structured approach not only helps reduce feelings of uncertainty and stress but also instills a sense of normalcy and security in times of change.

Echoing Saifee, Willard believes in having a precise and well-structured schedule, as well as emphasizing clarity and consistency to ensure that both children and parents understand their daily routines. For organizing those 15-minute play times or your kids’ afterschool homework, she suggests time boundaries where you specify particular times for family activities and work commitments.

She recommends allocating “specific periods, like 3 to 5 pm for homework and snacks. Such predictability aids everyone, particularly children with neurodiversity issues, who may struggle with unpredictable schedules … [It’s about] having certain times that are really designated for family versus times that are designated for work.” Predictable meal times and consistent routines positively impact children’s circadian rhythms, which are influenced by light, food, and noise, fostering a more structured day that children are likely to adhere to more readily.

According to Alcasas, “It’s a two-way street: they learn when not to interrupt, and I ensure work doesn’t encroach on family time. A routine helps, like specific times for being together before and after work and using simple signals like a closed door to indicate work time. Regular breaks or shared activities, like lunch or school runs, reinforce this balance.” Willard recommends monitoring your child’s adjustment to the remote work environment and being flexible in making adjustments based on their responses to the boundaries set. Open communication and the willingness to tweak schedules or strategies if they prove ineffective are essential in balancing work demands and ensuring family life thrives.

What about younger kids?

Emanuela Kusi, mother of three, all under three years old, and HR Manager for USAID, has adapted routines with her little ones, well, maybe not yet with her 2-month-old, saying, “We made it a habit to communicate our work status. Whenever we began working on our laptop, we’d gently tell him, ‘Mommy (or Daddy) is working right now.’ This way, we introduced the concept of work times early on. [Now our oldest] automatically associates the morning time with laptops open as mommy or daddy working. When were in meetings, he knows to lower his voice and play quietly.”

Kusi plans her meetings around breakfast time when her kids are more occupied, or she sets up quiet games like blocks or something to watch quietly. “They’re content to engage in these activities until I finish my work, after which I play with them. I actively spend time with them, like reading or building something together, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes during breaks from meetings or between tasks. This strategy prevents them from feeling sidelined. So, whenever I or their dad want them to play independently, they’re more inclined to do so willingly because they’ve already had meaningful interaction with us.”

Should we have more kid-friendly Zoom meetings?

Professionals like Kusi and Alcasas have workplaces where a child’s presence has become commonplace rather than an exception. Kusi notes, “We were all navigating these challenges together, whether caring for an elderly parent, a young child, or a school-aged child. This shared experience meant our meetings often had our children nearby as we transitioned to more hybrid work models.”

Kusi’s workplace continues to be understanding post COVID: “In meetings, if my oldest child needs something, like a snack, and it’s a casual meeting, I can quickly mute myself to assist her. If it’s a more critical one-on-one meeting, I might need to ask for a brief pause. My colleagues have generally been understanding, recognizing that our work and home lives are intertwined, especially as we adapt to hybrid work.”

Alcasas’s daughter actively engages in some of her mom’s workplace activities, notably the pitch club, similar to a Toastmasters session, she says. Adding, “[My daughter] not only attended but has also presented and recently even hosted one. It’s truly deepened our relationship and given us something unique to connect over.”

Willard champions “time blocking” as a strategic approach to managing this integration effectively. “Not everyone has the luxury of flexible hours, but we use time blocking in our organization. We recommend parents block out the time they need during working hours for their families and be clear to their colleagues when they will be gone and available again.” Kusi, Alcasas, and the strategies suggested by Willard advocate for a workplace culture that supports the diverse needs of its workforce. Integrating family presence within the remote working model not only deepens familial bonds but also lays the groundwork for a corporate culture that embraces and adapts to the multifaceted lives of its workforce.

The final step: Embracing self-care

Willard believes that the only way to truly ensure the success of work-life integration is to emphasize your own well-being and willingness to invest in yourself. “You’re the one holding everything together. So, remember to prioritize self-care and self-improvement as they form the foundation of it all.” She says parents need to give themselves leeway: “This age of remote work offers numerous benefits, but it also brings a lot of pressure in managing a schedule filled with competing demands. So, cut yourself some slack.”

Kusi agrees, noting that “When you’re working remotely and have children at home, it’s easy to get caught up in being both a mom and an employee all day long, and then once work is done, continue being a mom. This can lead you to forget or neglect to do things for yourself, something I had to learn. [So,] take a day off using your PTO. You’ve worked hard for it; you’ve earned it.”

Communicating remote work to kids starts with opening up your world of work to them, setting clear boundaries, and establishing strict schedules. This approach fosters an inclusive environment where children feel valued and included, emphasizing the importance of self-care and personal well-being for parents. By prioritizing these elements, families can navigate the complexities of remote work with resilience and flexibility, ensuring a healthier, more integrated life for both parents and children.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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