What I Wish School Staff Knew About Remote Working Parents

Photo by Emma Bauso from Pexels

Yesterday I nearly forgot to pick up my kids from school. My only excuse is that it was their first full day back. I had finished work for my day job and was deciding between writing or practicing my guitar when I remembered that I had somewhere to be. 

Technically, I could have waited a little longer before driving to the kids’ school, but I knew that if I left home early enough I could write in the pick up line while I waited. The plan would have worked perfectly, too, if it hadn’t been for those dang kids. My son was on the playground and he saw me drive in. At that point he and his friend spent a good two minutes trying to get my attention before the supervision aide told them to “let your mom chillax in the car!” 

While I appreciate the sentiment, that innocent comment reminded me of all the assumptions school staff make about parents generally and remote workers in particular. We may look like we’re all scrolling through social media in the car, but the truth is a little more nuanced. If you work at a school and want to get more participation from the remote working parents, then here are some things you should know.

Summers Are Stressful 

We remote workers usually have more flexible jobs than our office-based spouses. This usually means we’re the ones who’ve spent the summer attempting to work while the kids are home. It’s tempting to say that teachers work surrounded by children all the time and seem to do okay. However, children are the work in this case, so the comparison isn’t a good one. Picture holding a sensitive parent/teacher conference in the middle of a classroom while surrounded by all the other children in the class. Now picture doing so for 8 hours a day for 40 days. Summers aren’t restful. 

School staff will have a better chance of getting remote workers involved in school activities if they assume we’re exhausted and behind at work. We do want to meet our children’s teachers and school staff. We don’t want to come to multiple events scheduled closely together. Instead of holding a meet the teacher event one week and a back to school BBQ the next, combined those two events into one meet the teacher BBQ. Please and thank you.

Our Remote Jobs Are Real Jobs

I no longer tell my children’s teachers that I work from home. I used to, but I had one particular teacher who took this as a euphemism for ‘unemployed and available for last minute requests’. Now I tell them that I work full time and leave it at that. 

This is a lost partnership opportunity both for me and for any school who has parents that work remotely. We remote workers can flex our schedules around to a greater or lesser extent. Give us enough notice, ask respectfully, and many of us will move things around to help you out. We know that schools are under funded and rely on parent participation to get work done. Some of us chose remote work in order to get more involved with our children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can drop everything to attend a field trip with 48 hours notice. 

Be Strategic with Your Requests

Personally, I either need to work late into the night or use a vacation day to make room in my schedule for you. Other remote workers might have to work on the weekend or take a pay hit. There is always a cost. The shorter the notice, the higher the cost. We’re much more likely to volunteer if we can trust that you will minimize that pain for us. 

You’ll Get A Faster Response From Us If You Go Digital

Not everyone has access to the internet at home. I am not suggesting that digital communication replace paper communication. Rather, give us the option to choose electronic communication over paper. Someone creates 90% of those forms on a computer anyway. Send them to us via email or upload them to the school website. 

100% of my children have lost paper permission slips. I think their back packs eat them. It would be really great if six year olds could responsibly manage their own paperwork and day planners. But even some university students can’t do that consistently and they have a much better grasp on reality. My kids don’t always know what day it is. Once, when my son was six, I interrupted him in the middle of tying a jump rope around his neck. The other half was already tied to the stair railing. He thought this was a great way to jump off of the top of the stairs without killing himself. Teaching my kid to give me notices is a lower priority than keeping him from dying. There are only so many hours in the day. 

That may look like an ordinary back pack, but it’s really where permission slips go to die. This is also the only first day of school picture my kids allowed me to share on the internet.

Digital Payments Are a Thing

Last year my children’s school gave us the option to pay for school expenses online. It’s wonderful. Now I get an email when I need to pay something, and I go in and do so. This cuts down on the number of phone calls I get from the school asking if I will allow my daughter to go on the field trip I didn’t even know about. Canadians are indeed a polite people, but they can weaponize that politeness like you wouldn’t believe. I only wish the website came with the ability to sign permission slips, too. A woman can dream. 

Digital Communication is Also a Thing

And speaking of dreams, many of us would love to sign up for things like parent/teacher conferences electronically. Please don’t make us sign a paper taped to the classroom door. Trying to find a parking space at the school during pick up or drop off time is like going to fight club. I have seen people pull up onto the sidewalk right in front of small children, or speed the wrong way down the two lane road, just to grab the last spot in the loading zone. Don’t make me leave the car protecting me from those people. 

I would love to tell my children’s teachers that I have a flexible work schedule. Remote work provides greater opportunity for parental involvement at school. Maybe some day things will change. However, that can only happen if there is respectful, efficient communication between school staff and parents. That sort of healthy relationship starts with a few tweaks to existing assumptions about remote workers. School staff should plan school events strategically. They should provide a variety of options to communicate, pay for items, and sign up for events. If they do so, they may find that more parents—not just remote workers—become more involved in school activities, to the benefit of the children. 

Drummer Boy

My son has a drum kit and lessons. I hope our neighbours keep speaking to us.

My son had no idea he was a drummer until last week. I knew. He hears music in everyday things. As a toddler he moved to the music that the wind made as it rattled through the autumn leaves. As a preschooler he boogied to the beat of the dishwasher.

I didn’t do anything about it because drums are really loud and our home is pretty small. He’s young and clearly had no idea he was missing something. But I knew. I knew and a part of me has been on the lookout for when I would have to do something about it.

The breaking point came in the Vancouver airport. There we were, waiting for our flight to California, munching on breakfast sandwiches from Tim’s and trying to stay awake, when the boy started grooving to a beat only he heard.

“Someone’s playing music,” he said, his eyes watching me, waiting to see if I could find the beat he heard.

It took a while. It was early and I was tired and the airport people were paging a long list of passengers who were about to miss their flight to Seattle. They had been paging the people off and on for half an hour and the kids and I heartily wished they would just give up and let the people miss their flight already.

Eventually I heard it. He was bopping to the beat that the printer made as it printed out boarding passes. I bopped along to the beat with him, as I always do, and he went back to playing Minecraft.

I thought, He has no idea. As far as my boy knew, everyone heard the music in ordinary things. And I suddenly couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the thought of keeping him from a piece of himself just because I didn’t want noise in the house. It took until middle school for me to figure out that not everyone could write stories. I wanted him to meet the other piece of himself now.

Taking it to the Street

You can find anything if you know enough people. A few of my neighbours recommended a good place for drum lessons, and I took the kids there without telling them where we were going. I only planned to sign the boy up for lessons, but I ended up coming home with a used drum kit too. In my defence it was a used kit that came in that morning, and I paid half of what it costs new.

So now we have this drum kit in the living room, because that’s the only place it fits. And my boy took his first drum lesson and his teacher says he’s incredible.

All I can say is that it’s awesome watching him with his drum. He’s inspirational. I’m learning guitar so we can form our own band. No one tells me I sound incredible. That’s okay. And we may be wearing noise cancelling headphones in our living room for the next fifteen years, but I don’t mind that either. The boy found his thing. I can’t wait to see where it takes him.

Remote Work and Motherhood, the Canadian Springtime Edition

What’s it like parenting in the same place where I work? There is no easy answer.

Photo by Michal Mrozek on Unsplash

It’s almost time to break out the eye masks. The clock on the dresser says 5:30, and bright, buttery light is already streaming through my window. Pretty soon I will have to start using my eye mask if I want to sleep in past 5am, but not yet. It’s early May in Canada and the light feels like a gift after months of short dark days. Not yet. I’ll put up with being tired a little longer.

Everybody is up earlier. I start work at 6:30 so I can get some work under my belt before the children wake up, but the light drives them out of bed at 6:40. My early morning financial analysis now happens while I field requests for cuddles, breakfast, and chat. This is my quiet time to work while you are asleep, I say, and the kids are old enough to understand that means ‘leave mom alone.’

‘Alone’ is a relative term that usually means ‘go lay in mom’s bed and read while waiting for a cuddle.’ By the time 7:10 rolls around, my husband is downstairs making the kids’ lunches, and the entire house smells like his breakfast sausage. Soon he will leave for work.

Outside the sky is as bright as afternoon. I can hear the complaining cries of the eagle chicks in the Douglas Fir tree across the street, and I look up in time to see the Bald Eagle parent leave again to look for food. It’s 7:30 and I need to go make something for my own chicks. I swoop in to give them their daily cuddle, my mind already on my morning latte.

I don’t really believe in aiming for a work-life blend. That sounds like what happens when someone turns on a blender before putting on the lid. I like to keep guard rails around my family and work time, enforcing a separation between the two so I’m not pulled to pieces trying to cover too much.

If I had to pick a metaphor, I’m aiming for something like Butchart Gardens-a full lush life with little green breathing spaces between the various things. In the morning, though, it feels like I hop over fences at high speed, switching between co-parent and employee in a way that is both intense and routine.

I wonder if work/life blend believes in me, even if I don’t believe in it, I think, back at my desk after dropping off the kids at school. My latte is still warm and tastes like ginger and cloves. Or maybe the different parts of my life are like the oregano in my community garden–if given sun and good soil, they will try to spread out and colonize all available space. Some days I resent how often I have to trim the oregano back to keep it from overrunning everything else in my garden. Most days I’m grateful for it’s abundance.

And that, perhaps, summarizes the way I feel about working in the same space as I parent. Both my children and my work want my attention. Neither really likes to share. The only boundaries they recognize are the ones I enforce. And yet, like the light on a Canadian Spring day, this particular time with the children is fleeting. I can put up with being tired a little longer. I sit here in front of my spreadsheet, latte in hand and the memory of childish kisses warm on my cheeks, I am grateful for the abundance.

Spring Break Baller

Life in the (Not So Fast) Lane

Life in the fast lane.
Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

I’ve been looking forward to this week of vacation since mid-February. It’s the busy season at work, and between that and additional work responsibilities, I’ve spent the last few months rushing from task to task in an effort to keep things from crashing to the ground.

I can go into hyper-drive and get an amazing amount of work done in a short amount of time–I am both a mother and a project manager, which is the same as saying I am magic–but I can only do it for so long before I run out of gas. I passed that point at the end of February. Since then, I’ve used chocolate and caffeine to prop me up until I could take a break.

This week is my break. And yet, even knowing that I need a break, I’ve been tempted to fill the free time with all of the things I’ve neglected while work has been busy. And I don’t mean cleaning. That’s pretty easy to ignore.

It’s the fun stuff that’s calling to me. The kids and I should explore Vancouver! I should go back to learning the ukulele! I should write all the things! I should make time to exercise every day, and maybe cook better, more elaborate meals. I want to film a really fun idea I have for a social media video for my book, and go on a reading binge, and start my kids on 5k run training, and sew a shirt for me and a skirt for my daughter, and…you get the picture.

The kids are cautiously optimistic about their ability to walk a 5k

I am a goal-driven person, and I like getting stuff done, but even I knew that cramming all of this stuff into my week would send me on a one way trip to insanity-land. And my kids (who are on spring break) would be miserable.

Manufacturing misery seemed like a poor way to spend my vacation, so I settled on a loose plan of exercising for 15 minutes in the morning, and writing for 30 minutes or so before my kids got up. I would then take my children to one kid-friendly activity out of the house. The rest of the time would be free for whatever floated our boat.

Cinnamon rolls definitely float our boat.

On Monday we walked on the beach. On Tuesday we played at the pool for hours. On Wednesday we had cinnamon rolls, and found new books to read at the bookstore. Today we’re going to Science World, and Friday we might try our hand at making soap. I’ve knit a lot, read some, and neglected the morning exercise in favor of reading in bed. In short, I’ve spent the better part of my week well rested and unstressed.

It’s glorious. I hope to hang on to this feeling when I go back to work next week. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have enough energy at the end of the work day to pick up the ol’ uke again.

Morning Cuddle

Yesterday I had to tell the kids that today’s morning cuddle needed to happen an hour earlier than usual. I had a meeting with someone who works on Eastern time, and that meant an early start for my Pacific time zone self.

I promised my son that I would wake him up in time to cuddle. If I didn’t, the boy would be up at 1am, checking to see if it was time yet, and nobody wanted that.

I woke my son and daughter at the appointed time, and they followed me back to bed, still half asleep. My son was quite annoyed at the way work encroached on our family time. He’s never quite given up hoping that his father will take over my job so I can take care of him full time. He figures that if I just stopped taking video calls, no one would ever know the difference.

I transitioned to remote work while 7 months pregnant with my second child. I’ve had to take the occasional business trip, but for most of his life I’ve worked in the next room. I am at home when the kids leave for school. I am home when they come back again. During school vacations I am still there, doggedly trying to work as the kids stampede through the house and argue about who’s turn it is to play Minecraft.

My work/life situation is neither idyllic or horrific. I get to see my kids more than I would if I worked in a traditional office. I am happy for the opportunity, and aggravated at how often random people assume that working from home means they can give me things to do.

Of all the opportunities remote work bestows upon me, the morning cuddle is by far the most luxurious. It’s a little (okay a lot) squishy. The bed hasn’t grown the way our children have, so somebody is always balanced on the edge. My husband gets kneed in the back more often than anyone should have to deal with.

And yet I remember dropping off my infant daughter at daycare in the early morning dark, and picking her up again in the evening twilight, already nodding off to sleep. I hold a child in each arm, and I am grateful. Grateful that I replaced a morning commute with fighting over blankets and talking about weird dreams. Grateful that we can spend most mornings cuddled up together for a few minutes before we scatter to our various responsibilities. I hope my kids remember these times fondly.

I already do.

Do the Kids Even Know that I Work?

If you work from home, do your kids register you as a working parent? And other concerns.

How do I model my professional status when I work from a home office?

Mother-daughter selfie

Sometimes I wonder what my kids think of their remote-working mother. They must know I work—I feel like I spend 90% of their summer vacation ordering them out of my home office—and yet they will bypass their dad to interrupt me because he’s “busy.” Is this because of deep-seated gendered biases that they have absorbed from our culture? Is it because they think I’m a softer mark? It’s hard to tell.

Remote work has given me more freedom to choose the type of mother I want to be. Before my daughter was born I decided I would be the mother who cooks. I am also the mother who works full time, but that was a given. I prefer to keep my family in rent and groceries. Ergo, I work full time. Cooking from scratch is my choice. I grew up in a family that showed love through good food. As an adult I equate simple ingredients with health. And so I make time before work, on my lunch breaks, and after work, to do things like make bread or simmer chili. Instead of commuting to work I make waffles.

I love that I can be the mother I want to be. I also worry that my kids think I’m doing it all. Or that they discount the outside work I do because I perform it inside the home. My daughter in particular is trying to show maturity by taking on the domestic tasks that I normally perform. She spent this weekend making salsa and baking bread. She also tries to soothe her little brother when he gets hurt and help him with his homework. I am both flattered that she wants to emulate me and worried that she assumes this is what women do.

I want both of my children to learn to cook good food. I consider it a life skill. But I also want them to know that they can choose what they’re known for. Cooking does not define me, but it is part of the complicated definition of me. I cook because I want to, because I enjoy it, and because I think it’s important, not because it’s expected of me. And so I talk about why I cook, and I also talk about the things I do for work.

The nine-year-old’s first independent cupcake attempt. She says the frosting looks like poo.

I think some of the meta message must be getting through. Grandma recently sent both kids a sum of money. My daughter approached me this weekend with a plan to use that money to start a baking business. Did she approach me because I’m the softer mark? Or did she correctly identify the parent with the business background? It’s hard to tell. All I know is that it’s her choice, and I’ll be supporting her startup any way I can.

Home for the Holidays

Trying to juggle unexpected childcare can be stressful. Here are some tips to ease the stress.

What to Do When Your Childcare Falls Through

The holidays are nearly upon us, and all across the land, children will soon begin winter break. This presents particular problems for remote working parents whose home office is suddenly overrun by small people.

In our book ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce,’ my coauthors and I discuss ways to minimize child intrusions and manage work expectations. That discussion assumes you have some form of childcare. But what do you do if your childcare falls through during the holidays? Here are some tips for when you can’t just take a vacation day.

Have a preemptive conversation with your boss. It’s easier to get the flexibility you need if you’ve prepared your manager for the possibility. I usually say something like ‘As a reminder, my children will be home during the day for winter break. I have childcare, but if those plans fall through I’ll need to talk to you about my backup plan to get my work done on time.’

Bank time. Unlike sickness, you know when winter break starts and stops. If you can, preemptively work a little later the week before so you can have an hour or so available to focus on the children.

Work early or late. Or both. Most remote jobs have some flexibility build in to them. Some work tasks can be done at any time of the day or night, while others can be done during someone else’s time zone. Most of my coworkers are on East Coast Time, so I’ll drag my myself out of bed early and work for a few hours before my children wake up. This gives me some flex time during the day when I may need it. And if I don’t need it, I now have an excuse for a long lunchtime run. Woo hoo!

Invite more children over. This may seem counter intuitive, but inviting your child’s friend over for a visit can keep both children occupied and out of your hair. Your house may be trashed afterwards but at least you can work in (relative) peace. Obviously this only works if the children are old enough not to put weird things in their mouth.   

Trying to juggle unexpected childcare can be both tricky and stressful. This is doubly true during the holidays, when backup childcare options are limited. Building in flex hours ahead of time is one way to get ahead of the stress. Do you have other tips that work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Hives

Step away from the face paint.

Definition: Hives is an allergic reaction characterized by localized redness, itchiness and swelling.

My kid has allergies. After several months of back and forth with doctors and a visit to the allergist, we discovered that dust mites were to blame for most of her issues. The hives, though, had no explanation. I was advised to observe her carefully and try to see if there were any patterns to when she gets them.

As far as I can tell, this is the list of activities that can potentially cause hives in my kid:

  • excessive cold
  • excessive heat
  • excessive excessiveness
  • face paint
  • Thursday
  • homework
  • bacon
  • parents who Just Don’t Understand What I’m Saying

Once you compile your list of triggers, it is best to avoid them whenever possible–unless, of course, your seven year old decides to wipe face paint all over her face on a Thursday just before doing her homework, all the while complaining that you don’t understand what she’s talking about. In that case, you might as well pull out the bacon and give up because you’re totally hosed.

 

The Five Stages of (Sickness) Grief

Kids. Cesspools of disease in a small package.

Denial
No, I can’t be getting sick. I was just sick a month ago. I’m supposed to go knit night tomorrow. It’s allergies. It’s lack of sleep. I am definitely not getting sick again.

Anger
This never would have happened if my kid hadn’t coughed in my mouth. Little viral cesspool. Why don’t they teach hygiene in school? What are my tax dollars paying for over there? Either he learns to cover his mouth when he coughs, or he has to stay in his room for the entire month of March.

Bargaining
I will take ALL of the Vitamin C. Zinc. If I take zinc right now it will head this thing off. If I can just stay well enough until the weekend, I’ll go get a flu shot.

Sadness
I’m going to be sick for the rest of my life. No one will ever invite me over again because I carry the plague. I will lose all of my friends and die alone, surrounded by used tissue.

Acceptance
Well crap. Time to mix a DayQuil martini for one.