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Work and parenting in a pandemic

This article ‘The parents are not all right’ by Medium has gained a lot of comment and clearly resonates with what many parents are experiencing right now. The author acknowledges that she is talking from a position of privilege – both parents working from home with no immediate financial worries, so the concerns raised may be particular to people in that situation. Yet in every household, the COVID crisis is raising tensions, be they emotional, financial or physical that are exacerbated when trying to combine the dual roles of carer and employee.

What struck me in the article is the spiraling sense of hopelessness and loss felt by the author, unable (in their own eyes) to meet the needs of either their child or their employer. For them, each additional week of lockdown brings no feeling of settling into a new rhythm, just an exacerbated sense of failure and exhaustion at trying to do two full-time jobs.

I thought by the fourth week of social distancing we would have all settled into the new norm a bit. But for my family (and others I’ve spoken to) that is not the case — things are harder than they were at the beginning. Harder because we’ve all accrued anxiety, stress, and sadness over this period. My to-do list is longer and further untouched; my guilt and anxiety for the ways my son is not being engaged enough is greater;

So, how do we help parents (and those with other caring responsibilities) feel better able to cope with the enormity of the current situation? I think the answer lies with both employers and employees temporarily shifting their expectations. I keep coming back to a Tweet I saw last week, ‘you are not working from home, you are at home during a crisis trying to work’ and think this is perhaps fundamental to shifting our expectations at this time. Things are not normal and the key to us all coping is for parents and their employers to recognise this and adjust accordingly.

My sense is that many parents are understandably worrying about the long term – “will my child’s education and my career suffer?” Conversely, many employers are thinking short term about what is being delivered today to help their business survive the economic shock of the pandemic. During this crisis, there needs to be a complete reversal and an acceptance that, for the long-term benefit of all, the priorities of employees and employers may be temporarily out of kilter.

Parents need to try and live in the moment – focus on what can they do today to make this OK, rather than fretting too much about what comes next when so much is out of their control.   Employers need to take a longer-term view, worrying less about what employees can deliver today and more about the longer-term health of the business and the people that work for it. The high performers who are trying to continue doing everything to their usual standard are perhaps the people most at risk of burnout now, yet these are the very employees businesses will need in the post-COVID 19 world.

Many employers have shifted rapidly to a model of remote and flexible working, yet for parents, this probably doesn’t go far enough. Even the most flexible of arrangements that in normal times would enable working parents to thrive probably isn’t going cut it right now. The reality is that parents are attempting to do 2 full-time jobs and that is impossible to sustain, regardless of how flexibly you can do them.

There needs to be an acknowledgment that people with caring responsibilities can’t work at 100% for 100% of their usual workday and they need permission from their organisations not to. Telling parents to lower their expectations of themselves without shifting the deliverables at work will just lead to more stress. Diligent employees care about how they deliver their work, so unless employers give them explicit permission to drop some of it, they are unlikely to do so without feeling like they are failing. This challenge is potentially being exacerbated by feelings of guilt. Parents know that their employers are bending over backward to be as flexible as possible so feel a strong sense of loyalty and duty to try and do a great job.  Ultimately however flexibility without some temporary reduction in the amount of work will only go part way to helping parents right now.

The sense of helplessness felt in this article is real, there will be days when parents really aren’t all right, and this is OK.  It would be astonishing if anyone, parent, or not didn’t have days that were very far from OK. However, without some kind of temporary realignment of workloads from employers and parents reassessing pressures they put upon themselves to perform as though it is business as usual, none of us will find a new rhythm that helps make the ‘not OK days’ less frequent and less intense when they do happen. As parents we need to make a choice – do we take responsibility for doing the best we can with what we’ve got right now, accepting this is a situation that has many elements out of our control or do we plough on, sinking into victimhood as we judge ourselves against standards that are impossible to meet?

Virginia Herlihy

CEO and Founder, How Do You Do It

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