The New Self-Help

The Hidden Struggles of Working Parents Are Now Live in Video Chat

It’s time to stop pretending our kids don’t exist

Book jacket cover of Expecting Better by Emily Oster

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

A few days ago, not long after my co-workers and I were banned from the office because of the coronavirus pandemic, I was in a faculty meeting on Zoom when one of my colleagues appeared on the screen holding their eight-month-old. They texted me later: “Sorry the baby was naked; diaper blowout right before the meeting.”

There was nothing to apologize for. Right now, all of us with kids are parenting out in the open like never before. And in the coming weeks and months, it’s something we’re going to be witnessing more and more.

Last year, I wrote a piece called “End the Plague of Secret Parenting,” which called on everyone to make their parenting more visible at work, to acknowledge their dual role as employee and parent. Put up kid pictures, sure, but also be honest about having to leave at 5 p.m. to see your kids, about sometimes needing to take them to the doctor, or go to a baseball game. I called on employers to acknowledge the schedule constraints parents face, and think about how to work around them.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this in my dual role as economics professor and mom, and here’s my argument: It makes economic sense for employers to support this kind of parenting. Lack of flexibility, or a culture that doesn’t give employees the space to acknowledge family obligations, pushes people to quit. That’s not good for anyone.

Now, with Covid-19, parents don’t have a choice: We are now all parenting in the open. Like, really, really open. And on top of this, most of us are now trying to not only be good employees and good parents, but also good teachers. The challenges of juggling all these roles at once are tremendous.

One of the biggest things I’m feeling right now — one thing all of us are feeling — is uncertainty about what society will look like on the other side of this. But when we do come out on the other side, we’ll be confronted with the opportunity to figure out how we can make more open parenting easier for all.

The workplace has been changed forever

It may not be visible, but for most parents, kid logistics are in play even when working out of an office. I’m getting a call from the school that my kid fell down, and I have to get on the phone with her to make sure she is okay. I’m fielding an email about a missing violin bow. I’m texting the babysitter about pickup time. Usually, I’m doing that without others knowing and, as a result, it’s easy to feel like I’m the only one who’s struggling to juggle parenting and work at the same time.

That isn’t going to be true anymore. Working from home with young children, every Zoom meeting I’m on is going to overlap with my kids. You’re going to hear about the absent violin bow, or the hole in the sock, or the fact that this new app requires a password and approval to spend $43 on gems. (Don’t judge me.)

Employers are simply going to be forced to work around these constraints. In a world with offices, it is possible to tell people, “Work out your child care, leave it at home, don’t tell me about it. The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m.” I’m not suggesting that’s a nice way to treat your employees, but it is possible to do it.

But for most people, working from home with schools canceled, this goes from being kind of mean to untenable. Employers are going to have to figure out how to work meetings around morning naps, around scheduled screen time, around their employee’s partner’s work schedule. There will simply be no choice. If these restrictions last through the summer or beyond, there will be a radical reshaping of how we think about the boundaries of work and home.

Parents have some changes to make, too

There are also lessons to those of us who are trying to combine parenting and work. I cannot be alone in the feeling that I’m constantly trying to give my attention to both my kids and my job at the same time (and not only because a good portion of my job is writing about parenting). This is possible during my normal life in part because I’m not usually trying to accomplish something (like school) with the kids, and also because my job enforces some focused time (like when I’m teaching or in meetings).

But it isn’t going to be possible in this era. I’m going to need to shut down work for the kid time, and I’m going to need to figure out a way to shut down my parenting duties for some work time. I still have to teach a class and I cannot do that while also monitoring homework. Something about the approach I’m using has to give.

In the end, as a parent, I think the biggest change is going to be in how much independence I need to ask for from my children. At the moment, when I’m home, I try to be attentive. And I rarely, if ever, tell my kids that my work takes precedence over what they need. If they want help with homework, I help. This is going to have to change at least a bit. As a family, we are going to have to adapt.

So what does this mean, practically for parents? Here’s what we’re all going to have to do:

Make one big schedule for everything and everyone. A lot of people have posted their homeschool schedules. That’s great! In my family, this is going up alongside our work schedules. Mom “Work Time” is on the calendar too. Yes, things will go off the rails. But without a plan, we cannot even hope to bring them back.

Call on every person in the family to step up and take more responsibility for their own activities. In normal times, it’s easy for me to be the reminder record. I talk all the time when my kids are getting ready for school: “Breakfast is over, take your plate to the sink, did you brush your teeth, why aren’t your socks on, did you wear underwear?” In my current form of our family schedule (which I am drafting now), this “school setup” time is going to be my work time. So, I will be working. With my earbuds in, playing white noise. My husband will be cleaning breakfast dishes. The kids are going to have to do this alone. Not alone with me talking. Alone.

Give up control. If you read my books, you will know I’m extremely neurotic. Sometimes people think the fact that I say you can eat sushi and drink wine during pregnancy means I’m relaxed, but please remember I’m the person who chose to write an entire book about these restrictions. I crave this control in my parenting, and also my work.

The fact is, I am also going to need to adapt. There is going to be more screen time. Work is going to be more haphazard. I am going to need to accept this is okay. It is.

And on the other side, how will things look? I’d bet our colleagues will know a lot more about our families, and be more aware of the challenges we all face. And our families are going to know a lot more about our jobs and what it takes to do them. Parenting in the open, yes. But working in the open, too.

Professor of Economics, Brown University. Author: Expecting Better and CRIBSHEET (April 2019). Goal: creating a world of more relaxed pregnant women and parents

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