When everyone is used to spending all day at work or school, how do you cope with all being suddenly stuck at home together? As a stay at home mum, then later as one half of a home-working couple, what most people call ‘lockdown’ has been more or less my normal for years. For those new to spending all day every day in the same house as your spouse and kids, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news is it takes some getting used to. The good news is that if you feel infuriated by your spouse, in despair at what to do with the kids or overwhelmed by trying to manage everything, you are not uniquely hopeless and nor is your family unusually dysfunctional.
When my husband and I started down the homeworking path, we found it much less idyllic than expected. In fact we very nearly split up – even without the added stress of coronavirus worries. But we worked it out. Today, it would take a lot to coax me back to an office job.
Thanks to coronavirus, millions of office-based workers suddenly find themselves in something like our situation. Like everyone else, I hope the pandemic passes soon and we can all go back to normal. But meanwhile, as the nation locks down, here are some things I learned about having home, family and workplace all in the same place without going mad or getting divorced.
If you work outside the home, having to go out in public is motivation to stay presentable. Working from home, the temptation is to treat every day like a weekend, bumbling about in your pyjamas with birds-nest hair. But stay at home mums learn quickly that being clean and presentable – even when you don’t have to – is key to feeling like a normal human being, as well as to that crucial sense of being (at least some of the time) one step ahead of your children.
The same goes for home workers – which is now, suddenly, a lot of us. These are strange and upsetting times. You have just lost most of the structures that define ‘normal’, for an indefinite duration. If you let personal hygiene go as well, you will feel like you are losing the plot. Obviously you don’t have to put on a suit, but you will feel much more yourself if you have a shower and put daytime clothes on first thing. (It also makes short notice videoconferences less stressful.)
Have a routine
Usually, people have school or office hours to give shape to their daily lives. When I started my stint as a stay at home mum, I tried doing away with all such structures. Egged on by the nocturnal food needs of a new baby, I found myself keeping increasingly strange hours. But once the fog lifted, I realised that even with no one forcing me into a daily routine, I still needed to give my days some shape.
Your office may have shut down, but your body clock has not, and nor have your kids’ body clocks. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day, and stick to regular meals. Life is weird enough right now without giving yourself jetlag as well.
Randomness also wastes energy. You are now in charge of your own daily structure, and your kids’ structure too. If you have to negotiate everything from first principles you will have no bandwidth left for anything more interesting than nagging. The more you can turn into habit, the easier it is to get mundane stuff done and still have energy for more interesting activities.
Everyone cleans and tidies every day
Most families with two working parents get by in domestic terms with a weekend effort or a weekly cleaner. I am here to tell you that is no longer enough. The difference in mess, dust and general grottiness between a family out at work or school every day, and at home all the time, is more than a weekly blitz can cope with.
This matters, because your home is now your workspace and the more of a midden it is the more miserable you will feel. The good news, though, is that you now have time. Hardly anyone really does more than five hours of productive work a day, even if they are at their desk for double that time. You no longer have to look busy in front of colleagues, so between that and your now very short commute, you just gained maybe four hours of daily free time.
When work hits a lull, use some of that time to clean the house. In my experience half an hour a day is enough to keep things under control.Getting up, moving about and watching squalor turn into order is also useful thinking time after a burst of work, not to mention better for your mental health than obsessively refreshing the coronapanic on Twitter.
Make a conscious effort to set cleaning time aside, set a timer, get the kids involved. If you find yourself just moving piles of stuff from one surface to another and prodding around with a duster without ever seeing an improvement, The Organised Mum has a brilliant system that will help you get a grip.
Split the shift
I take my hat off to all the single parents figuring out how to navigate home working with kids present. If you live with a partner, though, I recommend you split the shift. In our household, I like waking and working early, while my husband is more productive later in the day. So while schools and childminders are closed he is the childcaring parent until noon (I am usually at my desk by 5am) and I’m on duty after that.
If you do split the shift, try to be clear who is in charge of the kids and step back if it isn’t you. Don’t micromanage if the other parent is in charge. Don’t be Fun Uncle, either: if you wander in from your desk to make a coffee and end up whisking the kids off to play while your in-charge-of-the-kids-right-now spouse sits about like a lemon, they will not see it as ‘helping’. At least, don’t complain if they then leave you with the baby and go off to answer emails.
Dial back expectations
Families that only have evenings and weekends together are more likely to assume ‘quality time’ as the standard. But when you are together 24/7 you cannot keep that up. Especially resist the temptation to be constantly hands-on with the kids. Schools are sending crazy amounts of work out for distance learning but remember they are panicking too. A bit of structure is good (one friend, several weeks into lockdown in Italy, says her kids’ music practice is going great guns) but at least for young children, that structure can be mostly practical tasks and pottering about. A few weeks of Lego and helping with housework interspersed with the odd worksheet will do no harm.
As my husband and I discovered when we moved to home-working, being around your spouse 24/7 also means dialling back the intensity of your relationship and respecting each other’s headspace. If you spring a major worry or decision on your spouse who is deep in work thoughts and just came in for a snack, you are more likely to get a knock-back than the answer you need. A quick check that your other half has enough bandwidth for a chat will spare you many stupid arguments.
We make a point of eating together as a family, and making time for conversation after our daughter is asleep, but otherwise mostly act as if we are both out at work in different locations. We are lucky to have a home office each, but even if your space does not allow that, work in different rooms. If sharing a room is unavoidable, make headphones socially acceptable.
If space is very tight, former submariner Jon Bailey (who ought to know about coping with confinement) recommends timesharing the sitting room so everyone gets an hour or so alone to do as they please.
Be patient with each other
It takes practice and negotiation to manage sharing space, schedules, chores and childcare alongside work all under a single roof. Be patient with each other.
If you are usually the main caregiver and domestic organiser, you may feel invaded by all these extra bodies in your well-organised space. Try not to radiate resentment or micromanage everyone’s schedules, no matter how tempting it is. (Seriously – this nearly cost me my marriage.)
Conversely, if your spouse is usually in charge of the household, remember he or she has already put thought and effort into systems that make it run smoothly. Don’t insult him or her with your blindness to that achievement. Find out how things work and what tasks you can take on within the existing system. You may think you have a brilliant idea to improve the system, but resist the temptation to hold forth until you understand how everything fits together. Otherwise you will come across like a graduate first-jobber trying to reorganise the entire company and getting sulky when rebuffed.
Make time for meals and exercise
Making time for movement is not a waste of your working day, it is vital to your sanity. Gardening, cleaning, yoga, weights or aerobics – there are plenty of forms of physical activity compatible with the lockdown measures even if you are self-isolating. Workout apps, YouTube and the internet are your friend for low-equipment exercise ideas suitable for all ages. Likewise, cook proper food and eat together as a family as much as possible – you can go back to ignoring each other companionably in between.
Baking your own bread is easy
On a cheerier final note, baking bread is easy and makes the house smell amazing. If your poncy bakery has closed with the lockdown, this is your opportunity to fine-tune your sourdough technique and irritate everyone on social media with crumb shots. I recommend Ken Forkish’s fantastically nerdy Flour Water Salt Yeast as a foolproof primer for delicious breadmaking. Be warned though: bread is the gateway drug for a weirdly addictive (really!) world of yeast-based hobbies, and you will be brewing your own booze before you know it