With the implementation of social distancing, many businesses have implemented a telecommuting operational structure. The move is understandable and affords many professionals the opportunity to maintain their sources of income. But the new remote work environment falls short in fostering the health and well-being of working parents like me.
For working parents without nannies, especially single ones, having to work from home under the 6-foot social rule means I now have two full time jobs with competing demands: Consultant and home school teacher/day care provider. I fear the stress of this increased demand on my capacity will make me more susceptible to getting sick, stress my family relationships and lower my working productivity. I know I’m not alone.
When a friend of mine, who is also a single mother, raised some of these concerns with her boss, his response was that she could work a flex schedule. Sounds reasonable and accommodating right? It would be if it were just for a brief sick child episode. But the COVID-19 isolation is different. It’s going to go on indefinitely.
Many parents working from home are expected to work at full capacity, while acting as the single point of contact for healthy, active kids in a confined space. Children require meals, homework help, fresh air and exercise, entertainment and activities, supervision, attention, cleaning up after and in some cases sick care. Those are typical kids.
Special needs kids require much higher levels of care and attention, as well as greater academic supports. I am not equipped to provide this under the best conditions, let alone while trying to provide excellent customer service via my cell phone.
Compounding the situation is the fact that previously available respites are no longer available. No more soccer practice or play dates to count on for that hour of “me” time.
While childless teleworkers can potentially spend the day in pajamas taking full advantage of a fluid work schedule that fosters well-being, I’m busy multi-tasking from the crack of dawn until bedtime. Neither my children nor my clients are very satisfied with this division of labor because I’m not fully present in either capacity. I’m not satisfied because I don’t really exist in this equation. I’ve been subsumed by my role as a parent-worker robot.
The scheduling flexibility my friend’s boss offered her really means she can now feel free to work both her paid and parenting jobs during the day, plus nights and weekends if that’s what it takes to ensure her proposals are submitted on time. Working nights after everyone is asleep is the only way she can get the long stretches of writing in required to meet her bosses deadlines. She and I both use weekends to make up any paid time we lost during the week. Time spent providing extra academic instruction or standing in the toilet paper line at Costco for instance.
Meeting these new demands doesn’t leave anything left for my own self care. If I work from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on child care tasks, and four to six hours of paid work as well during these hours, then at 8:00 p.m. I still have a minimum of four more hours of paid work to do. This schedule allows for eight hours of rest, but little else.
I haven’t watched a Netflix movie or taken 20 minutes to meditate in two weeks, and I’m exhausted. While I imagine telecommuting workers without kids can potentially maintain standard levels of productivity and remain healthy and strong, my friend and I are struggling to keep up. We are overextending ourselves.
This is not a lifestyle choice, it is the price of being able to provide for our families right now. So if health is the goal of closing offices and schools, then working parents from home under these conditions is oxymoronic. A more sound approach and one that reflects real compassion in these complicated circumstances, would be for businesses to adjust their expectations for productivity instead.
M. Elston (WhiptailConsulting@gmail.com) is a government contracting consultant at Whiptail Solutions LLC in Silver Spring.