Family Management: Meet the Parents

KEVIN EVERS: What do you want?

MAISIE: To play Verandah Santa.

KEVIN: You want to play Verandah Santa? I just have to do a little more work though, OK?

MAISIE: No.

KEVIN: I’m Kevin, and that’s my four-year old, Maisie. Are you licking a plate? What are you doing? Don’t do that.

MAISIE: That has peanut butter on it.

KEVIN: Aw, I know. But I have to do a little more work, OK?

MAISIE: But I want to do it now.

KEVIN: I know you want to do it right now, but it’s not time to play right now.

MAISIE: Why?

KEVIN: Oh, because Willie’s not home. Let’s wait until Willie gets home. It’s not, Daddy’s not done working yet. It’s not five yet. Willie is Maisie’s little brother. He’s one, and he requires a lot of attention. He gets home from daycare at five, which is why up until that moment I scramble to get as much work done as possible.

MAISIE: But five takes too long.

KEVIN: It’s in seven minutes.

MAISIE: Whines

CLAIRE: You miss me, or you love your work?

ERICA TRUXLER: I’m Erica, and that’s my three-year-old, Claire. She really knows how to pull at my heartstrings. Oh, Claire bug, I always miss you, but I also like work. I like both.

CLAIRE: No, Mama. No, Mommy, only one choice.

ERICA: Only one choice? What are you saying? In the eyes of a toddler, life is pretty black and white. Here’s another of Claire’s favorite questions, which usually comes right as I say goodnight.

CLAIRE: Mommy?

ERICA: Yes, love?

CLAIRE: Tomorrow is a work day or a weekend day?

ERICA: Work day or a weekend day? Tomorrow is a weekend day!

CLAIRE: Sunday?

ERICA: Yes! It’s Sunday! Exactly! Exactly, yes.

CLAIRE: Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

ERICA: But when I tell her tomorrow is a work day, she often throws a tantrum until, like, 10 o’clock. The next morning she’s all, When will you come down, Mommy? I don’t want you to leave Mommy. I don’t like work days, Mommy. Sometimes, when I head upstairs to my bedroom to work, Claire gives me a high five, a “funny high five,” as she calls it, and a hug and kiss. Other times she screams for me, for what feels like hours.

Claire’s goodbye sets the tone for my workday. I’m either feeling confident, like I can do this, or the guilt creeps in.

Being a working parent is hard under normal circumstances. Bring in a global pandemic, unpredictable childcare, school closures, and home schooling — and I think it’s safe to say, parents have hit a wall.

KEVIN: We have.

ERICA: I still think back to when I got the call from Claire’s daycare that they were closing for two weeks. Two weeks, I thought, How am I going to get through two weeks with my toddler at home, my husband, Rob, at home working full time and myself working from home, while seven months pregnant? And now here I am, over a year later.

KEVIN: Over a year. It seems like five.

ERICA: Yeah, no, exactly. Thankfully we didn’t know what was coming. Because I really believe if we had, there would have been, like, collective, just, like, panic among all working parents worldwide.

KEVIN: Oh my god, could you imagine —

ERICA: No.

KEVIN: If someone came to you, Hey, for a year

ERICA: Yes.

KEVIN: You’re going to have the kids. You’re going to be homeschooling your kids —

ERICA: Yes.

KEVIN: Doing your work, and trying to manage that all at once.

ERICA: No. Laughs Thank god we didn’t know.

KEVIN: I know, yeah, I’m really grateful we didn’t know. Two weeks, I can do this. And it seemed like, oh, we can do it for two more weeks, two more weeks, two more weeks.

ERICA: Yes.

KEVIN: And now here we are.

ERICA: Right. Exactly.

[Short musical interlude]

KEVIN: So, the last time we saw each other, I think it was February, 2020, late February. I think your doctor said you couldn’t work in the office anymore. You had to work from home. And then a few weeks later, of course, we had a national shutdown. I moved in with my mother, with my two kids. Willie was four months old at the time. So, I had a newborn baby, and you were expecting your second at the time.

ERICA: Yes. Yep.

KEVIN: And so you were pregnant, and you gave birth during a pandemic.

ERICA: I did.

KEVIN: What was that like?

ERICA: I was scared. To be completely frank, I was really scared. I didn’t leave the house. Nobody knew how Covid was spread. So, I was very nervous, and we really did not leave the house at all. We were those people cleaning every bag of Doritos in the house. We were taking it all really, really seriously. So, yeah, my last trimester was home with Claire, without daycare. So, Claire was around full time, working full time. My husband was working full time. He was in the travel industry, so you can imagine how that went. So, he was also dealing with a lot of work stress at the time. And Mark, my little baby now who’s about eight months old, came into the world super quickly. Got to the hospital, had him very fast.

KEVIN: Oh wow. It was a quick one.

ERICA: It was a quick one. To be fair, I was really anxious about having to give birth with a mask on and Rob not being able to come into the room with me. The anxiety of knowing that I was going to have to do this mostly by myself, with a mask, made me want to stay home for as long as possible. So, that’s what I did. I basically stayed home almost too long. The baby was born basically two hours after I entered the hospital. So, it was intense, but he came and he’s lovely! Laughs.

KEVIN: Wow. That all sounds very stressful.

ERICA: Yes. It’s been exhausting.

KEVIN: Yeah, that’s a good word for it. Exhausting. There’s probably another word for it that just doesn’t exist in the English language that we just, someone needs to coin a phrase for the exhaustion of parenting during the pandemic.

It’s, it’s been really challenging. And I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. And there’s been times where I felt really good and really resilient. In the beginning I felt, I felt pretty good. I felt like I was protecting my family by going to my mom’s house because there’s really no way that Julie and I would have been able to get all our work done, especially with a newborn. And, I also felt good because my mom lives alone, and I thought it was really good for her not to be socially isolated. And so that was great and I felt this urge to get a lot of things done, but the struggle was there were times when I just felt like I was failing at both roles. Like in dramatic ways.

And I remember one event very clearly. I had multiple deadlines and people were emailing me and slacking me to see where things were things were. And Maisie was laying at my feet in her Peppa Pig pajamas, whimpering and she had this five-mile stare. She looked legitimately depressed. I had never seen her like this. She never stops talking. She never stops moving. She’s very histrionic. If she’s upset, then you really know about it, and she was nearly silent. So, my poor little girl’s laying at my feet and I had these deadlines and I had to, I was sending out emails. I was responding to people on Slack and trying to get things done, but I felt like I wasn’t assuming my role as a dad in that moment when she really needed me the most. But of course there were people at work that really needed me to show up in that moment too. And it was just a torrent of emotions. It was anger and guilt and I think we talk a lot about work life balance or work life integration. So, whatever term you want to use, but in those moments it just felt like a work life car crash.

ERICA: Yeah. Yeah, I know that is heartbreaking because I feel like I can, I can picture it. I can picture it your daughter right underneath your desk on your, next to your feet just wanting attention and you not being able to give it to her and that pull, the heartstring pull, I feel like we’re home. We’re able to work from home, so we’re home. And our children are seeing us work and because of that they have this sense of — what I’m constantly struggling with is, Why aren’t you spending time with me instead? If you love me why don’t you spend time with me instead?

And Claire, she’s going strong. We’re a year into this and she’s still perseverating on the fact that I’m not downstairs and playing. And why do I have to do this? And what you’re describing it’s like, amplified the normal feelings that working parents have. We’d go into work and in some ways that was such a clear boundary. I would put on my work shoes, I would leave the house, and I would feel like my professional identity would begin the minute I got in my car in some ways. And now it’s just not there. And I still really struggle with the same feeling of, how do you do both when you are so, like, everything’s happening at the same time. Right?

KEVIN: Totally.

[Short musical interlude]

Next up, our latest challenges and the strategies we’re using to deal with them. Hopefully, they’ll be useful to you too.

Let me tell you. My biggest problem right now is getting through the witching hours. So that’s between, I’d say, 5 and 7:30 Children’s laughter. When the kids are both home from daycare and preschool, to the time that they go to sleep.

MAISIE: I want to do it now. Now, now, now!

KEVIN: So, I’m an introvert, which means I can thrive in social situations, but I usually need a nap afterwards. And so after a really busy day at work, and going through meetings, and talking to a lot of people, I usually need 10 or 15 minutes just to decompress. But the problem is, and anyone who has kids know this, usually at night they’re at their craziest. Children stomping, shouting. When I need some alone time and some quiet time, my kids come through the door, it’s like they’ve downed 10 shots of espresso and have a days’ worth of grievances and traumas to work through. And it can be really hard because I’m over stimulated. And, it’s insanity. It can be a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong. So, if I’m in a good mindset, I have a lot of fun, and it’s the reason why I get so much joy out of my kids. They’re jumping on the beds and we have dance parties, and all that fun stuff. But, if I’m over stimulated, oh, I mean just the sound of their laughter sometimes can sound like nails on a chalkboard. Child screeching. It’s just like a crescendo of chaos. It starts off OK, and then it just keeps going and going and going and going and going. And then finally, it just ends in a chorus of cries. Children wailing.

MAISIE: Mommy, you’re my best friend.

JULIE: I love you, Maisie. Children crying. It’s gonna be OK.

ERICA: Kevin, so how do you deal with that?

KEVIN: Yeah, it’s, um — I have a few strategies. So, the first thing that I do is, I know that I need to take time for myself during the day, where I can get that quiet time. So, even though my wife and I are alone in the apartment for most of the day, I need to make sure that I’m taking breaks. Because I’ve gotten into this habit during the pandemic of just feeling like time is incredibly scare. So, from the moment the kids are out of the house, I’m just frantically trying to get work done until they come back. But I’m definitely overstimulated when I do that kind of stuff and I’m really tired by the time five comes. So, I just make sure that I take breaks.

But one of the major things I’m doing right now, and this is advice from Daisy Dowling. She wrote this great book called, Workparent that’s coming out in May. And she talks about establishing a point of control. And a point of control can be anything. It can be a habit. It can be a ritual. It can be an activity. It’s just one thing that you own that no one else owns and that you do frequently, away from your kids, or away from someone else. And so, what I’ve been doing is on the days I pick up Willie from daycare at 4:30, I leave a little early. I get in my car, and I listen to sports radio. I’ll do it for 15 or 20 minutes. And I don’t even like sports radio to be honest. It’s like I don’t care about their hot takes, about Tom Brady and whatnot. But it just puts me in a good mindset because I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m just listening to these hot takes on sports. They’re inconsequential. They don’t mean anything, but it’s a good way for me to just reset myself and then I go in, I pick him up from daycare, and then I come home, and I feel like I have that nice transition period between work and home.

ERICA: I love that. I love that piece of advice because, having that moment of respite, we all need it.

KEVIN: Right. So, Erica, I know you still have both kids at home during the day. What are you struggling with right now?

ERICA: Yes. The idea of getting in a car sounds heavenly. I do drive around to nowhere sometimes. Laughs. So, yes, I have my eight-month-old and my three-year-old at home with a fulltime nanny, so I’m just so grateful for that. That said, I still feel like I’m always on. You know, like you described, if you have childcare, every minute of that is now work time. It’s like this sacred time where you have someone taking care of your children, and you have no time for breaks. You have no time really to do anything other than work. And so, I’m constantly feeling like I’m on. I come upstairs to my bedroom. I’m in there basically for eight, nine hours while we have the nanny here. And I don’t take breaks, and I know I need to get better about this, but other than lunch, which sounds like a break, but that’s when I’m on parenting duty.

CLAIRE: When’s Mommy coming down, Daddy?

ROB: I think she’ll be down soon.

ERICA: Claire’s all very routine based, so at 12:30 she starts waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs and so she knows. So, that’s when time starts ticking in terms of her patience level. So, I need to get down there. And then laughs we eat lunch together and we have playtime together. And I invested in a visual timer and I have to say, people had told me about these visual timers. I was skeptical, but it’s been a game changer. I put the visual timer on. It’s essentially like a timer that’s colored, so it’s blue. So, you can see the 15-minute countdown getting smaller and smaller. So, we put our 15-minute timer on. Claire knows it. She goes, Whoa, Mommy, this is, like, a super long time and I’m like, It sure is. So, she’s excited about it. And then in that time we have lunch together, and then we have our playtime.

CLAIRE: Ladies and gentlemen, ready for a show?

ERICA: She crams in, let me tell you, as much as she can in those 15 minutes, and when she starts to see the color kind of get smaller and smaller, she just keeps wanting me to do more and more. So, I often am a student in her classroom. She loves the letter C, so she’s just drawing C’s and trying to tell me how to draw the letter C. I’m singing songs with her trains. Then I’m pretending to cry because one of her dolls is hungry and we make some special concoction with her fake green peas and her baby bottle milk. And we’re doing all of this. The timer goes off. I’m realizing OK, I’ve got a one o’clock meeting. Now, it’s time to run upstairs.

So, all of this is to say, I’m running upstairs and I am trying to role switch very quickly with no break essentially because I was a parent, and now I’m back to being an employee. And, this constant pull of never having a moment just for myself is absolutely exhausting. And, poor Mark. I haven’t even mentioned poor Mark, but he’s still nursing, so the little guy needs to eat. So, in midst of this, he’s doing really well. I can go two or three hours without feeding him, but I also nurse. So, that also is that feeling of breaking up the day. So, I really feel that all my breaks, anytime that I’m not working, I’m really putting towards childcare and taking care of my kids.

KEVIN: Oh, I related to that so much. I just remember when I was living at my mom’s house, I felt like a hostage upstairs because we had to hide away from the kids, and then when we did come downstairs it was so intense. Because they haven’t seen you for hours and so they want to make the most of it at times. So, that’s really hard.

ERICA: When the timer goes off, I never know how well the transition will go. I mean, I’d say since the nanny has started — and she’s been here a few months now — it’s gotten exponentially better. So, now I get kind of just like softer questions in terms of, like, Mommy, why do you have to work? Why aren’t you spending time with me?

KEVIN: Yeah, how do you answer those questions?

ERICA: I have to say, I mean sometimes I basically crouch down, I give her a hug and I say, Claire, I miss you too. And she then, she has her pretend phone, so she says, Mommy, I’ll send you a message if I need you. And I’m like, OK Claire. I’ll have my phone next to me too.

And I’ve also relied on a lot of advice that we have on our site as well. We have a great discussion guide called, “How to Talk to Your Kids About Work During the Pandemic.” One of the pieces of advice is to schedule family time without distractions. And for me that’s what the timer is. The timer is when I don’t have my phone on. I’m not checking Slack, and I have those 15 minutes that I am with her and she knows are only for her. So, it’s allowed me to kind of set these boundaries which I didn’t realize how much I needed.

KEVIN: Yeah, totally. I feel the same way. I’m just hoping that at the end of the pandemic I keep up those boundaries as well.

[Short musical interlude]

KEVIN: Thanks for listening to the first episode of Family Management.

ERICA: We’d love to hear what you think about the series so far. Email us at FamilyManagement@HBR.org.

KEVIN: On our next episode, I talk with leadership development coach Amy Jen Su about the importance of cultivating joy.

AMY JEN SU: Bringing some greater intentionality to noticing the small things in life can make a big difference.

ERICA: Our editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Adam Buchholz, and Rob Eckhardt. I’m Erica Truxler.

KEVIN: And I’m Kevin Evers.

ERICA: And for a list of the HBR articles and books Kevin and I mentioned, check out the show notes.

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