Doing Our Best Cooped Up at Home

If you have to sit at your kitchen table, take extra stretch breaks. Your back will thank you later. Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

On Tuesday I was making lunch for my kids when the song We Speak No Americano came on, and we had to pause lunch to hold a dance party. It wasn’t a planned thing. I just started grooving while putting mayonnaise on bread, and glanced at the children to see that they were also dancing. Nobody was fighting or complaining. We didn’t even say anything to each other. We just danced.

It was a perfect moment in a week that’s had it’s ups and downs. At one point this week I shouted “No I’m not making cookies! I realize I make this whole working and parenting thing look easy, but it’s not!” It was not my finest moment. I made up for it a day later by teaching the kids to make apple pie.

These are stressful times, and we’re all going to say or do something we wish we hadn’t. All we can do is pick ourselves back up again and try to do better. I find that it’s a lot easier to be patient if I find small ways to recharge. I thought I would share some of the things I do when I need a break. After that I’ll share some of the articles I wrote to help you if you find yourself working at home for the first time.

Ways to Recharge

Craft. Long time readers of this blog know I like to knit. There’s something life affirming about creating an object stitch by stitch when the world seems to be unraveling. Some people stress bake. I stress knit. I once knit an entire sweater in three weeks because doing so kept me from saying some truly unfortunate things.

If knitting isn’t your thing, try something else. Many people swear by drawing or sewing or painting. If you don’t know how to do any of these things, you can find lessons on You Tube. Now is a great time to pick up a new skill.

Workout. I love to run. Not everybody does, and some of us can’t leave our homes right now. There are a lot of exercise apps out there that can help you break a sweat and work through corona-angst. I can’t do HIIT or I get injured, so I focus on stretching and strengthening when I work out indoors. There are a lot of folks streaming exercise routines over the internet. Try a few things until you find the activity that works for you.

Connect. I said this last week but it bears repeating. Find people to call or text. Talking to others gets you out of your own head. Humans are social creatures, and you need to feed the beast.

But please, for the sake of everyone, don’t feed the beast by yelling at people online. Instead, look for ways to help. Serving others is empowering during a time when many of us are feeling a little powerless.

I try to help by writing how-to articles. And I’ve been on a writing bender because giving people tips they can use helps me cope. Here are some of the things I’ve written, or interviews I’ve given, to try and help ease the shock of working from home unexpectedly.

If Your’re Working From Home Unexpectedly, This Might help

Last night I published Tips for Managing Temporary Remote Teams in The Startup on Medium. I published it there instead of here because more people will see it if they need it. In that article I talk about management do’s and don’ts, and what you should think about when transitioning to remote work.

Tuesday The Muse ran my article 7 Tips for Working From Home With Kids When Coronavirus Has Shut Everything Down. One of the tips in there is to use noise cancelling headphones if you can’t work in a separate space. I wrote much of that article while wearing noise cancelling headphones, my 9 year old son playing Minecraft at my side. They work.

The New York Post quoted me in two different articles. I liked the reporters’ takes in both Here’s How To Cope If You Need to Work From Home and Everything You Need to Know About Working From Home During Coronavirus because they focused on people living in small spaces, who don’t have a lot of money to spend.

There are more things waiting in the wings, including a very exciting announcement that I’m not supposed to talk about yet. I can’t wait to share it with you though. More on that soon.

That’s it for this week. I hope you and yours stay safe and well.

Breathing Spaces, Not Resolutions

Everything feels better on the beach.

Somehow September turned into New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2. I thought this was a parent-specific thing, but I know childless people who are caught up in the ‘new school year, new you’ craziness. According to my inbox, now is the perfect time to reset my diet, take up an exercise challenge, read the latest books by my favourite authors, and start that Coursera course someone picked just for me. It’s like everyone’s high on Pumpkin Spice latte fumes.

All joking aside, I get it. Why not put away your bad habits AND your summer clothes all at the same time? It’s so efficient! Personally, I just spent the last two months working while the kids were on summer break. I’m tired. All I really want to do is enjoy the fact that someone else is legally obligated to provide an excellent learning environment for my children, at no extra cost to me.

Last year I fell for the Pumpkin Spice fumes. I joined a run challenge, bought cookbooks to help me make healthy dinners my kids would love, and tried to Amazon prime my way to a new life.

That didn’t turn out so well. I love running and cooking; the activities themselves weren’t the problem. The problem was that I added more stuff to my already crammed lifestyle without pausing to consider where I would fit them in.

This September I did something different.

I Took a Secret Vacation

It wasn’t a total secret. I want to stay employed, after all. My job knew I was taking time off. My family and friends did not. I love my family. I love my friends. But when they know I’m off, I tend to get asked to do laundry or go out to lunch. The whole point of this particular exercise was to side-step my routine and examine it from the outside.

So on Monday I got up at the usual time, went into my office at the usual time, and asked myself questions I haven’t asked in a while. What do I really want to do with my days? What should I do to go back to work feeling like I’d had a good time off? And then I sat back and waited.

I don’t know how the rest of you see the different facets of your personality. I think of mine as a committee. There’s my inner maker, who would love to spend an entire day making things. There’s my inner athlete, who prefers long sessions sweating in the great outdoors. My inner toddler wanted to go exploring. And my inner writer wanted to write things on a more forgiving deadline.

I like doing other things too. These were simply the activities that moved to the head of the queue when I thought about what I really wanted to do. Since the stakes were low (I only had to figure out two days) the committee vote came through pretty quickly. I would spend Monday reading and writing. Tuesday I would knit and walk on the beach. The goal for both days was to spend as much time as possible neither speaking nor being spoken to.

The Secret Vacation Backstory

I’ve taken secret vacations since my first child was an infant. We all have the right to say ‘I need breathing space,’ and expect the world to leave us alone for a bit. Unfortunately babies don’t work union hours. And mothers, in particular, aren’t supposed to want time away from their children. It’s pretty easy to get to a point where you’re too tired of fighting to fight for what you need. So we suck it up.

Until the day that I didn’t. One day I got dressed for work and dropped my daughter at daycare. Then instead of going to work I drove to the beach and called in sick. I didn’t do much. I walked for a long time. My favorite yarn store in LA was six blocks from that beach, so I went and knit at their big wood table. I bought an early dinner. And then I went back to the daycare at the usual time and took my child home.

All together I played hooky for six hours. It was life changing. I went home better able to deal with new motherhood, a demanding job, and the fallout from the 2009 recession. Best of all, I didn’t have to fight anyone for the respite because no one knew I’d taken it.

It was my little secret. And I knew I would do it again.

The Power of a Small, Sneaky Escape

Some people walk the Appalachian Trail in an effort to find themselves. But you can reap the same benefits on a smaller scale with a secret vacation. There’s something powerful about asking yourself what you really want to do with your time and waiting for the answer. It almost doesn’t matter how much time you set aside. Reserving–and enforcing–a breathing space is an empowering act.

Plus, keeping things small means you can do it more often. If it’s been a long time since you’ve done the things you really want to do, your inner committee might resemble the mob outside Walmart on Thanksgiving. Every one of your interests will try to out-shout the others when you’re starved for free time. If you plan regular escapes, the committee settles down. Your true priorities emerge. You leave your vacation time with a better sense of what recharges you. And that right there is snack-sized self reflection.

Third, sneaking out of your life prevents you from spending your free time doing the soul-sucking things you “should” do. Nobody can know you’re off. They’ll figure it out for sure if your kitchen floor goes from grimy to gleaming in an afternoon. Therefore, for operational secrecy, you need to leave that floor alone.

People Think My Vacations Are Weird But Really They’re Awesome

I (usually) tell my husband about my secret vacations after they’re over. Mostly he’s bemused by the whole idea. Others look at me like I’m crazy when they find out. But for me, these little interludes are (metaphorically speaking) how I put the oxygen mask on my own face first before helping anyone else. On Wednesday I dove back into my usual schedule. I didn’t have a new life, but I definitely felt like a new me.

If you’re feeling like you need a change, maybe what you really need is a secret vacation. Give it a try. The sanity you save might just be your own.

Sometimes Your Inner Toddler Needs a Cookie

This was exactly my face last week. Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

I know it’s time to take a break when my inner toddler starts whining. Some people call this part of your mind the ‘lizard brain.’ But lizards don’t get petulant if they’re run too hard. They bite. Or break their tails and run away. Toddlers, on the other hand…I’m pretty sure toddlers invented petulance.

Anyway it’s been an exhausting two weeks. I love the flexibility that remote work gives me, but recently I’ve been getting up early and sacrificing all of my breathing space so I can do things for others.

There’s a lot of advice on what to do when you find yourself running on empty. People like Dr. Brene Brown encourage us to question ‘take the edge off’ culture, and work on correcting the root causes of our exhaustion instead of drinking margaritas (I’m paraphrasing here). Others quote the line from the airplane safety manual, and advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first.

This is great advice. It isn’t always applicable. Sometimes we live in dynamics that are draining but not broken. Raising kids can be like that. You can be up half the night with a feverish child, and still have to get up the next morning and feed the other kids and go to work.

In these types of situations, it absolutely pays to have some go-to tools to take the edge off. I call these cookies. They’re small, bite sized moments of pleasure that you can give to your inner toddler as a reward for wading through the hard bits. They key is to find cookies that are both delicious and good for you.

Things to Think About When Choosing Your Cookies

If You Like It, It’s a Cookie

It’s helpful to think of your back brain as a toddler because, like toddlers, it doesn’t want to wait for gratification. It also isn’t big on rationality. You can’t appease a cranky toddler with a piece of broccoli. It’s also not a good idea to give toddlers too much junk food, or they turn into toddlerzilla. The solution is to distract one with shiny things they can’t refuse.

I once went to an event with my 14 month old daughter. We were sitting behind a family with a boy who was about two, and the child was done with sitting still. He was crying and yelling, until I offered him (with his parents’ permission) a Ritz cracker. He literally went from saying “No! Nonononono” to “oh!”

Grownups aren’t much different when we’re tired and burned out. Make sure the cookies you choose are genuinely pleasurable to you.

Keep a Variety on Hand

Cookies! Photo from Pixabay on Pexels.com

Our inner toddlers are fickle beasts. What sounds fun and shiny one day may not be so exciting the next. Different situations also deplete us in different ways. If you’ve been stuck at your desk all day, you might need a cookie that gets you moving. If you’ve been out all day in the sun, it might be time for a reading or watching tv in bed session.

My go-to cookies are knitting and running. Every so often I’ll also lay in bed and read a book. This cookie is extra special, because I don’t often do it. I knit so much because I can do it while my children interrupt me approximately 400 times a minute. I haven’t mastered the art of reading while children are talking. If this isn’t possible please don’t tell me. A woman can dream.

Don’t Lie to Your Inner Toddler

This last point is just as important as choosing good cookies. If you say that you will read a trashy romance novel after you finish the task that’s burning you out, you better do it. If you don’t, the cookies stop working because your inner toddler knows you lie.

For this last bout of burnout, I had to deploy a variety of cookies. On Sunday I slept in, went for a run, knit, and went to see ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at a local theater. I also wrote the first chapter of an urban fantasy/alternative history novel that’s been kicking around in my brain rather obnoxiously asking to get out. None of this solved the crazy business I have to wade through–but it’s recharged my batteries so I can keep going until it’s done.

If you’re currently going through a hard patch–or you see one coming down the road–I hope this gives you some tools to help yourself cope. Just remember that when life feeds you lemons, throw them away and give your inner toddler a cookie.