As a working mom, I’m constantly encouraged — by friends, my loving but slightly overbearing mother, my partner, and various companies and brands — to establish and facilitate a “work/life” balance. And under the best of circumstances, heeding this well-intentioned-if-not-entirely-impossible call was, you know, difficult (unless you consider changing my 1-year-old’s soiled diaper on only three hours of sleep while on a conference call and as I shove the nearest tablet in front of my 5-year-old’s face “balance”).
But now that the country has responded to the COVID-19 crisis, and many of us (who are lucky enough to still have jobs) are working from home to slow the spread, the idea of a “work/life” balance is laughable at best. Not only are we logging work hours, we’re caring for our young children, facilitating our kids’ e-learning, cooking, cleaning, —and, let’s face it — holding our families’ lives together and without access to child care, our in-person villages, and a passing moment to ourselves. The allusion of a “work/life” balance has all but vanished.
The erosion of these boundaries and the ability to compartmentalize various aspects of our lives has taken a negative toll on our collective mental health. A reported 74% of moms living in the US say they “feel mentally worse since the pandemic began,” according to an online survey conducted by Motherly. Our children need more from us, and our jobs — be it our businesses, our employers, or our employees — need more from us, too, which means we’re being constantly pulled in a variety of directions all at once.
But as we’ve been forced to rethink how and where we work, we can also force ourselves to rethink the notion of “work/life” balance and find a way to divide our labor, both paid and unpaid, in a way that best suits us and honors the boundaries we put in place for the betterment of our mental and emotional health. And while I do not have all the answers, by any means (remember what I said about the whole changing a diaper on a conference call while my kid rots his brain in front of a Nintendo Switch thing?), having spent the majority of my career working from home and in the presence of small children I can say that I feel confident suggesting anyone working from home try the following:
1. Create a dedicated work space
Sure, the idea of “working in bed” might sound romantic and glorious in theory, and perhaps it even works for a select few, but when you work from bed — or any other common, shared space in your home where you have to, know, also “do” life — it can be that much harder to focus on anything other than your growing inbox when you’re ending your work day. Having a dedicated work space, even if it’s just a corner in your bedroom or living room, can help you leave work at work when you walk away to take care of yourself, your kids, or any of your other responsibilities and obligations.
You don’t have to spring for a fancy desk or invest in a secluded at-home office to establish a work space that is entirely yours, either. Simply letting your family know that when you’re in X spot you’re not to be bothered will help you focus on work when it’s time to work, and everything else when you’re not actively working.
2. Establish work hours and then stick to it
While the freedom to create your own working hours is objectively a positive, it also makes it easier to constantly “be on” when you’re working from home. Just like employers offering unlimited vacation days lends itself to a company culture that results in less employees taking paid time off, working when you want can makes it that much harder to actually stop working.
Establish a work schedule with either your employer or your employees, then stick with it. Let everyone who needs to know know that between the hours of X and Y, you’re available for any work-related needs. But outside of those hours, you will not be responsive and will deal with any deliverables or issues within your scheduled work hours. Not only will this safeguard you from burnout, but it will help your family (including your children!) know that when mom is working she is not to be disturbed (unless someone is bleeding, or whatever).
3. Turn off your notifications
If you use Slack, silence your notifications when you’ve finished your work day. Because while establishing set hours is step one, actually abiding by those hours and making it that much harder for you to break them is step two. Put your phone on silent, turn on push notifications for Asana, and avoid checking your email as much as possible. Whatever is chiming or beeping on your phone or computer can wait. (And if it can’t, I can assure you that the powers that be will call you.)
4. Take frequent breaks
Get up and move around! Go for a (social distance and mask-wearing) walk! Do a quick 30-minute at-home workout. Take an established lunch break! Whatever gets you up and away from your computer periodically and throughout the day, do it and bake those breaks into your work schedule. This will allow you to not only rest your work-brain, it will assuage that ever-present mom guilt that attempts to convince you that you’re not doing enough on the parenting front.
These pre-planned breaks will also help mitigate any potential meltdowns on behalf of your child. When you’re able to dedicate a few moments of focusing solely on your kid or kids, they won’t feel like they’re competing for your time (something they’re probably enjoying much more of lately). So do a silly dance with your kids and Elmo, or take advantage of a quick yoga session and purposeful meditation. How you spend these work breaks matter less than you making an effort to actually take them.
5. Take actual days off
Do you have to work the typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule? Of course not (unless your employer requires you to, that is). If you’re in the position to design your own working hours, you can decide working Sunday through Thursday, or only working four days a week, best suits you and your needs.
Just make sure you take actual days off, where you can enjoy being untethered to your computer. This will help you avoid burnout, assist you in tending to your own needs, be it physical, mental, and emotional, and allow you to spend time with your family without constantly checking your email or dialing into a conference call
6. Abandon the idea that you have to “do it all”
If you’re parenting with a partner, give them the space to take on the bulk of the parenting duties when you’re working. If they, like you, are also working from home, communicate who does what when and for how long so you both can honor the work/life boundaries you’ve set as individuals.
If you don’t have a parenting partner at home, feel free to rely on the nation’s built-in babysitters: the friendly, cuddly monsters of Sesame Street. Not only can these 50-year-old characters captivate your kids for an hour (or three!), they’ll teach them a thing or two so you don’t have to worry about the family television rotting your kids’ brains. Seriously, just abandon any screen-related shame and set your kid up with a tablet or video game. (There isn’t a mom in the country right now that has time for it.)
Whatever allows you to focus on one thing, and one thing only, while you’re working, is worth it. We’re in triage mode, dear reader: it’s alright to bend any previous rules you had regarding screens or TV time and do what you need to do to get by.
7. Wear whatever the f*ck you want
Seriously: the whole “dress up as if you were going to the office” thing? Hard pass. Wear whatever makes you comfortable and call it a day. On the other hand, if “whatever you want” means getting actually dressed in actual clothes because it makes you feel good and awake and focused, then do that, and don’t dare feel silly about not going further than your living room in your power boots and belt.