“Mummy, is that my friend?” Our 3-year-old daughter is bounding towards me as I attempt to interview someone over the phone for a piece I’m writing, a sensitive conversation that requires some time and space. I did sneak off to make the call upstairs, but she’s followed me. “Is that my friend?” She’s excited because the day before she spoke to her best friend from nursery via video for the first time since it was closed over the coronavirus outbreak; they showed each other their paintings and modelled their Elsa dresses.
It’s a confusing time to be a youngster. Just a couple of weeks ago, she was happily seeing her mates at preschool and going to the park at the weekend (but not the big slide, that’s too scary). Now she’s pretty much confined to the house, constantly being told to play nicely with her 18-month-old sister and watching Frozen on repeat despite our feeble attempts to stop her. The novelty of isolation is wearing off fast for all of us.
Like so many families around the world, my husband and I are trying to balance our full-time jobs with full-time childcare in the age of the coronavirus. Schools, colleges and nurseries across the UK were ordered to shut their doors two weeks ago, to all but the most vulnerable and the children of key workers. The country is now in lockdown, with households forced together all day long as we do our bit to slow down the spread of the disease.
We can’t think about how long it will take for things to get back to normal and for the kids’ nursery to reopen; all we can do, for the sake of our sanity, is take it day by day. And wow, are they long days.
As an aside here, I know how lucky we are to be able to work our jobs from home — and that we still have jobs at all in this terrifying economy. We know that and we count our blessings every day. Sometimes it can be hard to see the big picture and remember why we’re all at home, and I do have to remind myself of that.
Every child has their challenges, whatever age they may be, and we are yet to encounter the joys of school-age children and teenagers. Trying to combine work with the responsibilities of homeschooling must be incredibly gruelling.
For very little ones though, we have learned the hard way that nothing holds their attention for very long. You may have grand plans of doing fun crafts together, completing a puzzle, setting up a treasure hunt. Most of the time, they’re bored within 10 minutes. This may just be our children.
The other problem is the age gap; maybe this time next year, I keep telling myself, they will play together in harmony! I will be able to leave them for long stretches and they’ll be playing a happy game together. That doesn’t really help us now, when we’re stuck in the house together all day every day and they’re at completely different developmental stages. The 3-year-old loves nothing more than a jigsaw, but as soon as the little one sees it, it’s destroyed within seconds. She doesn’t mean to ruin her fun; she just wants to play too.
Setting up the little table for a joint painting session usually ends in tears a few minutes later when the toddler gets frustrated that she’s not allowed to suck the paintbrushes and our eldest announces she just wants to do “something else”. Meanwhile, I’ve got half an eye on the clock because in an hour my husband will relieve me (he better had do anyway), and I can take my turn at the desk that’s been hastily put up in the cot room and try to do some work.
We are yet to find a routine that works and not convinced that one exists. Both our jobs are full-on, particularly so in the past few weeks, and we both feel we haven’t got enough time in the day to get it all done. We’re acutely aware that childcare shouldn’t be an afterthought and that the kids shouldn’t come second to our work; I don’t want to be glancing at my phone while I’m playing with the girls, they need some proper attention. In reality though, it’s hard to switch off during the workday (especially as a journalist), and I know they deserve more from us.
That’s the overwhelming feeling at the moment: guilt. Guilt that you’re not doing enough for your children, and guilt that you’re not doing your job properly. All the time. I don’t think we’re alone in this. Over the past week or so, I’ve been speaking to a number of parents with young children — all trying to do the best they can as they navigate this strange new world, many feeling shell-shocked after the reality of the first week at home together.
Every family has their different schedules and ways of dividing up time, but all of the parents said they now had very little time for themselves, if any. Evenings are now used for catching up on work while the kids are in bed (one dad told me how he sometimes works until 1am). Employers are generally supportive, with many (like mine!) taking the time to check in with working parents and make sure they don’t get burned out. But that doesn’t stop you feeling pretty despondent about not being able to dedicate as much time to your job as normal.
For now, though, we have tried to come up with some kind of daily plan that gives each of us at least some work time. This hasn’t worked brilliantly for me so far, I have to say, because the girls do tend to seek me out as soon as they realise I’ve left the room. My colleagues have got very used to seeing their little faces on video conference calls, as I try to remember the important thing I was going to say while simultaneously wiping their noses.
The first week they were home, we tried to split the day in two: I did the morning, my husband did the afternoon, and we swapped the next day. We found this just didn’t work because it was too long a time to be away from the desk — now we tend to do the day in two-hour shifts depending on what each of us has planned in terms of calls and meetings. Once the girls are in bed, we’re back on our laptops trying to salvage something of the workday.
We go to bed later too these days; partly that’s because we’re doing work and partly it’s because we can’t bring ourselves to go to sleep and start the day all over again. We cling to that child-free time like a life ring — but know deep down we’re only making it worse by not getting a proper night’s sleep.
Friends have different routines: one couple with two young sons say a mixture of one-hour and 90-minute slots works best; they take it in turns to sit upstairs and make sure the stair-gate is in place so they can frantically get some work done in peace before the shift is up.
Another parent tells how he and his wife initially drew up an epic timetable for their three girls, complete with schoolwork, arts and crafts, cookery, and exercise. This went out of the window on day one when they realised unscheduled client calls and work deadlines were getting in the way. Now they sit down every evening and try and figure out the next day from scratch. If they are both overwhelmed with work, one lets the other off the hook for a good three-hour chunk to get things done and then they swap.
The word that often comes up in these conversations is “relentless”. I had to type one-handed while messaging with my editor about the copy for this story, because the toddler demanded to be carried. Going to the office for work at least allows some variety (I miss meeting new people, lunches out, even the commute); working from home while looking after children is endlessly tiring and dull.
One friend says she used to love going for a run but has stopped now because she feels she should either be looking after the kids or working. “Then you go to sleep and wake up and do the same thing all over again,” she sighs.
Part of the problem is that we’re just not used to working from home for long periods, with or without children. The temptation is to work much longer hours because the laptop is just sitting there on the kitchen table, staring at you. There is always something you could work on. It’s a lot easier to separate work and home life when you can walk away from the office.
There have been some positives though: our girls are spending more time together than ever before (they’re usually in separate rooms at nursery) and occasionally I glimpse them having a cuddle or making each other laugh and it’s really lovely. The 18-month-old has suddenly got very talkative and will come out with a new word when you least expect it; I wouldn’t get to see that if I was at work. Our eldest loves nothing more now than to have long chats about the characters in her books — often I just watch her and think Woah, she’s growing up fast.
And the main thing to remember — and I often have to tell myself this when I worry their day hasn’t been stimulating enough — is that all they really want at this stage of their life is love and attention. I know they’re thrilled that we’re around all day, even if we are a bit distracted. This strange period of our lives will one day end, and I wonder if I’ll look back on it very differently to how I’m experiencing it right now.