So you’ve finally been able to reconfigure your job to enable you to work from home. You may have thought it would automatically give you more flexibility and more time to spend with your daughters. But many parents find themselves struggling harder than ever to protect their precious quality time with their children because the same technology that gives them freedom and convenience with work also intrudes into their non-work time.
A friend and colleague, Jessica deGroot is an expert in the field of shared parental care and family/work balance. Founder and Director of Thirdpath Institute, (thirdpath.org) Jessica works with moms and dads helping them create effective ways to adjust their careers in order to achieve success at work and still create time and energy for family life and their children. Jessica says it’s all about working together as a parent team, about being intentional, and about using technology strategically.
I’m delighted to share a recent conversation I had with Jessica.
Joanne: How are parents who work from home finding ways to balance their workloads and their kids’ needs?
Jessica: First of all, you have to recognize that how parents do this depends on the ages of their children because kids’ needs change over time. If you try to get work done at home with a two year old, you’ll shoot yourself! But when they are school age, the time to focus on is that time between after school and dinner time. I have found this after school time to be key in balancing work and the needs of kids because this is a natural time when both you and your children need some breathing room from your busy days. Being available for your kids when they get home from school slows things down in a world that’s going too fast and gives you time to really connect with them. If you can create flexibility in your work, try to take a break so that you’re available when they get home. And if the nature of your work simply doesn’t allow you to take that time off every day, alternate those afternoons with your spouse, if possible, so that at least one parent is available when the kids walk through the door. After dinner when your children are busy with homework, you can take time to finish your work day if necessary.
Joanne: Surveys show that dads are becoming more involved with their children. Are you finding that in the families you work with?
Jessica: Definitely! There is a huge increase in dads’ desire to be involved with their children, and they are finding more creative and non-traditional ways for family time. Dads are cooking dinner, helping with homework and spending more time throwing balls in the backyard. Of course, there are work barriers that prevent this from happening as much as dads would like. But there are also barriers at home. Some moms think they are the “gatekeepers” and they should still do all the traditional home stuff or they aren’t good moms. For example, some moms believe that if they allow dad to go to the school events instead of them, they’re bad moms. Or if dad puts the meal on the table, mom feels that she’s failed to do what she’s supposed to do. But parents need to learn to work as a team so that they share not only the tasks but also the down times with their kids. These down times are often the times kids spill out their thoughts and their feelings, and dads want to get in on these special moments instead of just getting the summary reports later.
Joanne: When parents work at home, do the lines between work and family get too blurred to be really substantial benefit for the kids?
Jessica: You have to be very intentional to set up boundaries. Otherwise, technology—making phone calls, checking emails, surfing the net, responding on Facebook—will drag your work life subtly into your family life and destroy valuable time with your children. Depending on the nature of your work and the level of understanding of your boss, you can alternate with your spouse and start your day at 6:00 am in order to finish by the time your girls get home from school. If that kind of flexibility doesn’t work with your job, then observe the interruptions of phone calls and emails into your family time and analyze if there is a different way you can take care of these work issues. Emphasize the partnership between you and your spouse and try to find solutions that work for both of you. Realize that if you’re online or on Facebook during family time, then it gives your kids permission to go off on their own path and do the same.
Joanne: We live in a multi-tasking world where we often double and triple up on work, household chores and child care. Does it destroy the meaning of quality time when you aren’t giving your daughters your full attention?
Jessica: Yes, it most definitely does. Kids notice—and care—if you’re not giving them full attention when you tell them this is family time. You can separate your time with your kids into two categories: homework time and just-hanging-out time. When you’re in homework time, you can be doing other tasks such as talking with a client, checking emails and answering your child’s homework questions. But when you’re in just-hanging-out time, don’t do other work that takes your full attention away from your children. They can tell the difference and it feels like no attention at all. During hang-out time you can cook together, do gardening, play in the park, visit a museum or walk the dog. All of these activities allow for plenty of time and space to talk—for kids to share their day, for you to get to know what’s on their mind and for you to bond.
Joanne: What do you believe are the benefits for kids when their parents work from home and have figured out how to balance work and family?
Jessica: There are enormous benefits. First of all, it’s so important for kids not to come home to an empty house whenever possible. So if you’re home—even if you’re working—at least they can count on you being there and they’re not alone. Next, kids need time to talk about their day, so if you’re at home and available, it happens more naturally. Thirdly, you have the ability to create this space—this breathing room—in the middle of the afternoon, which allows your children to slow down, change pace, relieve stress and feel safe. Another benefit is that they can have friends over to your house and you get to know them. When they grow older and their friends have increasingly more influence over your children, you already know who these kids are because you’ve been able to make it a habit of knowing their friends. And finally, because of your ability to have their friends over to your house, you get to develop a community of families who support each other and provide back-up care.