By Annie Garrett, PEPS Contributor (Estimated reading time: 11 minutes)
From the outside looking in, you might have thought that Seattle mother of two, Margot, had it made during the 2020 pandemic. The 35-year-old educator was able to work from home (WFH) in Beacon Hill, allowing her to spend more time with her one and three-year-old children. Her partner, Chris, also able to work from home, was fully present as a parent and partner. To top it off, her employer offered a temporary part-time option, and she was fortunate to have the financial ability to take them up on it. But it didn’t take Margot long to realize that “I never want to work from home again.” Chris, on the other hand, had a rather different reaction. The architect, 40, now prefers a hybrid work arrangement, saying, “My cons were frankly limited.”
How could two people living under the same roof have such different outcomes? For many parents, the past year has comprised a grand social experiment in simultaneously working and parenting from home. In the aftermath of crisis, survivors are presented with the opportunity to rebuild anew. Many new parents, myself included, have long wished to spend more time with their baby and spend less money on childcare, without sacrificing their careers.
Unprecedented numbers of new parents had a chance at this over the past year, which brings forth the question: are we now one step closer to work-life balance? As the story of Chris and Margot suggests, it’s complicated. Hoping to make sense of it all, I interviewed seven Seattle-area parents about their experiences. Here’s what I learned.
Seattle dad Chris, 40, participates in a remote work meeting on his phone while caring for sons Tai (3), who is sitting on his lap, and Liu (3 months), who sleeps in a bouncer, during the 2020 coronavirus shutdown. His family spent most of the past year juggling both full-time work and childcare from their Beacon Hill home.
The nature of your job matters. A lot.
A recent study found that 6 out of 10 jobs aren’t suited for work from home, and there is a clear class divide between those who have such jobs and those who do not. While the parents I surveyed were fortunate to have the option, some fared better than others in the months they did double duty with working and parenting.
Those who needed to be available to large numbers of clients or students had a more difficult time than those whose work is more project-oriented or can be done at odd hours. This was a central factor in Margot and Chris’s distinct outcomes: “For me, as someone who works in an elementary school,” said Margot, “being back in a school building and actually seeing kids and connecting with them again was absolutely the best…But I think [my partner] Chris, as someone who works in an office setting, is hopeful that he will continue working sort of half and half in the office and from home for the foreseeable future.” Chris agreed, explaining. “I think my overall job responsibilities made multitasking easier.” Sentiments like these were echoed throughout interviews, with most parents finding that one parent’s job was more compatible with WFH than the other.
Your gender may impact your experience.
It’s no secret that the pandemic hit working women harder than working men. Coined “the first female recession in 50 years,” women were more likely to be laid off, leave their jobs, and supervise kids. Chris and Margot found that gender likewise played a role in their experience of working from home: “One of the main differences in my WFH [work from home] experience is rooted in me being a male,” said Chris. “Pre-pandemic, when I would go to the grocery store with our oldest, I would routinely get compliments about what a good dad I was… Early in the stay-at-home orders, I would routinely be taking calls from the park… Similar to the grocery store pre-pandemic, I was routinely complimented for balancing both parenting and working in a way I am not sure most mothers were.”
Margot added another layer to the analysis of their differing outcomes of working from home, sharing how the gender-wage gap influenced the family’s decisions: “[E]ven with Chris as the most supportive, feminist partner I think a cis man could possibly be…he absolutely pulls his weight in childcare and chores…I still raged at the gender dynamics of being a mom during this time — like I was working part-time because I had a lower salary job which I think is completely connected to teaching being a less-valued job because it is primarily done by women…”
While other interviewees did not explicitly mention gender, one mom explained that her camera was often off due to nursing during Zoom meetings, and two parents lamented that things felt “out of balance” or “really hard” in situations where dads were providing more daytime care than the moms.
The logistics of your arrangement matter.
All parents surveyed were intentional about alternating parental leave with their partners. Those who could avoid or minimize double duty had a much less stressful experience. Abbey, a 40-year-old university administrator from Central Tacoma, was grateful that her family’s 11 combined months of leave allowed them to keep their infant home for her first year, and that the shutdown allowed her to see her daughter more than she would have if she’d been in the office. However, she admits, “I honestly would have struggled with it if I would have had caretaking responsibilities during my workday. As it was, I could help out during my husband’s parental leave when I had the bandwidth, but it wasn’t expected.”
New dad Jarrod, on the other hand, was in a very different situation. His partner, a veterinarian, was required to be at the clinic, while his company went completely remote in 2020. This meant Jarrod found himself both working and parenting full time 3-4 days per week from his home in West Seattle. The 42-year-old instructional designer concluded, “It is incredibly hard. Working from home is hard. Figuring out how to care for your first child is hard. Living through a period of existential dread [COVID-19] was hard. Working from home while figuring out how to care for your first child while going through a period of existential dread has been incredibly hard. There is a constant battle between his need for attention and my need to work.”
Yes, there ARE bright sides…but…
All respondents had pros to mention, but most were quick to point out how those pros were mitigated. Margot of Beacon Hill observed how the experience impacted her toddler, saying, “Our younger child has had so much more time with his parents…But that time was not always high-quality… he was being held during Zoom calls several times a week (a day!) for much of his babyhood. He tries to grab the phone more now than his older brother did at this age and I worry that it may be harder to help him develop healthy tech habits as he gets older…conversely, he loves being outside so much because that’s where a lot of his playing has happened. He wakes up and grabs his shoes and bangs them on the door in the morning to tell us he wants to be outside before I’ve even gotten some coffee into my body.”
Liz, a mother of one from Leschi, found that going remote gave her a chance to get in some daytime self-care: “Being home with my baby allowed me to participate in Infant Co-Op on Zoom. It was fun and it was a relief to commiserate with other parents and think through solutions together…it rejuvenated me and made me more confident as a parent.”
Jarrod of West Seattle adds: “It’s always great to have access to a smiling face who truly appreciates me as well as a constant tangible reminder of what I’m working for…It’s always a treat for my coworkers when our son is on a call. He’s mostly good, but really wants to bang on the keyboard during a meeting.”
For the most part, parents are choosing to discontinue or significantly reduce double duty.
While there was a range of reactions to just how challenging the experience was, only 1-2 of the parents surveyed intend to sustain double duty, albeit at a reduced rate. While most of the parents do hope to have a hybrid work schedule, all have enrolled their little ones into childcare, either full or part-time.
“Working from home as a parent is great…as long as your kid isn’t there.”, says Brad, an environmental scientist from Mt Baker. The 41-year-old father of one preschooler explains, “Our daughter is now back in childcare, but because we aren’t commuting, we have so much more time with her in the mornings and evenings than we did before COVID, about 1-2 hours per day per parent.”
Margot of Beacon Hill does triple duty during the coronavirus shutdown. She sits on a chair with a laptop and notebook on the table in front of her, a toddler asleep on her lap, a baby playing on a mat at her feet, and a dog underneath the table. Says Margot, “I had a few times I was leading meetings over Zoom that either my toddler cried through the entire meeting, or my preschooler would run in and shut it off and scream that he wanted me off the computer…Going to work always gave me some balance from parenting before COVID and helped me be completely present when I was parenting.”
But what if you don’t have a choice? Or you’re determined to make it work?
While no one found nirvana, they did find creative survival tactics. Tips like “make a coworker your Zoom cohost in case you get disrupted,” “play music your kid can listen to that you can tolerate, too,” “baby carrier + standing desk will buy you time,” and “save projects that require focus for the times you can be alone” are evidence that parents can and will life hack their way through long days.
If you can enlist support, do it.
As it often goes in life, the resources we turn to most are neither hacks nor shortcuts. As soon as it was safe to do so, parents brought in part-time support from family members, neighbors, and local babysitters. While scheduling may be more complicated than a full-time childcare arrangement, and 1:1 care typically costs more on an hourly basis, parents felt that enriching the bonds with special people was worth the hassle.
And while you’re at it, ensure your creating ways to support yourself, too. Stop trying to be a perfect parent; it’s an American problem and it’s not good for kids. Being a good enough parent is much better.
If a lack of childcare is your barrier, help might be around the corner.
Affordable childcare is notoriously difficult to secure for infants. But if you have a strategy, you might find the right fit for your family. Here are five tips for finding childcare during the post-pandemic shortage.
Last but not least, WFH parents are positioned to have more community support than ever.
Baby Peppers is a continuation of PEPS for parents of children ages 5-12 months. Meet-ups are currently virtual, once a week, making them more accessible to working parents than in the past. South Seattle College and North Seattle College, among others, are running city-wide parent-child cooperative programs from infant through preschool age. In the past year, a record number of participating parents of infants were working from home as they participated in weekly virtual meet-ups.
In summary, the parents I had the chance to chat with report that working from home while parenting is hard. While research on a much larger scale is needed to draw conclusions, observation and instinct tell me that we are moving forward. Margot, Chris, and the other parents interviewed may not be sustaining drastic changes, but newfound insight and small movements toward balance – like a decreased commute and increased options – are signs of progress.
At the individual level, only you can judge if double duty might be the good kind of hard or the bad kind of hard for you. And if you do parent and work at the same time, may ingenuity, direct support, and your parenting community make your experience the best kind of hard.