Since becoming a mother, I have experienced various work-vs-home scenarios. One of the most manageable arrangements, though, was the one we had settled into in late 2019 in which my husband was employed full-time and I worked from home as a part-time freelance writer, doing only as much work as I could comfortably handle while taking care of our two young kids (one of whom was finally old enough to attend pre-K five days a week). It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was the closest I’ve ever been to obtaining that oh-so-elusive work-life balance.
Fast forward to March 2020 when schools shut down, my husband, a sommelier and educator, went from working two jobs to none, and my writing became our sole source of income. Suddenly, our day-to-day lives were unrecognizable, and we were all lamenting the loss of structure that school and out-of-the-home employment had provided. It has now been nine months since the pandemic upended the normal order of things, and the challenges just keep coming. Like many other parents, my husband and I have now added remote learning to the list of responsibilities we must juggle and let me tell you, friends, my life is an absolute circus. (The kind you only find mildly entertaining at the right moment…you know, like, never?)
There’s been adrenaline and guilt (a familiar cocktail I sometimes refer to as parenting fuel) along with frustration, newly complicated relationship dynamics and constant scheduling conflicts. Oh, and let’s not forget the countless tears shed over technology fails—primarily due to the fact that our overpriced Wi-Fi has a tendency to underperform, and the two heads of household never thought to invest in a printer. (Confession: We bought a printer two weeks ago and the original packaging has not yet been breached.) Suffice it to say, it has been a doozy. Nevertheless, I am constantly in awe of my kids, who have adapted to the bizarre new conditions (no more playdates! Put your mask on!) without batting an eye. The one exception? Homeschooling.
Alas, my kindergartener (who loves attending school in-person) is not too keen on distance learning. I’m fairly certain she could watch three hours of Octonauts if I let her, but 90 minutes in a Zoom classroom is torture for her. On some days she sucks it up, but on others just the sound of her little brother laughing in the next room fills her with FOMO. The end result? A painful power struggle that leaves all parties exhausted before lunchtime. The hardest part of these battles is that I actually understand her position completely—I loathe video platforms. As an introvert, it feels like I’m living with a strange roommate whenever she’s learning and I confess that I time my trips to the fridge so that I sneak by her Zoom class unseen as one might avoid the burden of small-talk at the end of a long day.
Most days, my kindergartener can only go about 30 minutes into her online schooling before the first interruption—usually just as I’ve gotten into some momentum in my own work. Sometimes I’m lucky and I get a bit longer, but inevitably there comes a moment when my 3-year-old starts screaming about a fallen block tower and my 5-year-old busts into my “office” (aka, the bedroom) demanding to know what happened to the dry erase marker I had prominently placed in her station. My husband, who was just washing dishes, gently escorts them out of the room because mama needs to work…and you’re still in school! At this point, both children are liable to get bent out of shape about being touched by my husband’s wet hands, which is when I get to make the single most important decision of my day—namely, whether I choose to find the chaos infuriating or hilarious. Sometimes, all it takes is for one adult to choose the former and then, well, let’s just say that I feel bad for our neighbors. (This scenario is made even worse by the fact that we can never be sure whether or not Ramona is on mute.) Alas, when this happens, I usually go to sleep feeling frustrated only with myself and—you guessed it—terribly guilty. What good am I to them when I can’t be engaged?
For obvious reasons, all of these obstacles make homeschooling while working from home feel like an exacerbation of the classic work-life balance dilemma. (It’s a lot easier to say goodbye to your kids when your boss is expecting you to show up at a certain time and you’ve got a train to catch; it’s a lot easier for them to say goodbye to you when the front door closes and the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon comes into play.) Mothers who work from home or parents who homeschool must be whizzes at managing their own time and setting boundaries, but personally, I struggle.
The truth is that a lot of emotional labor goes into being a mother and that workload sees an exponential increase when the work of learning, parenting and making money must be conducted out of a single physical space. For working parents, punching in at a separate office space is an emotional hardship, at times, but it’s also a luxury because it affords us a critical coping mechanism: The ability to compartmentalize. There’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s no harm in going without it—but when shifting from one model to the other, the adjustment period is pretty rough for everyone. Having done it professionally, I’ve come to realize the work is front-loaded and it all comes down to boundary-setting—a skill I now understand to be critical to success in all things interpersonal (i.e., everything).
As such, it shouldn’t have shocked me that my kindergartener might have a hard time learning out of our kitchen—hearing her little brother playing gleefully with a parent in the next room and, occasionally, the sounds of a late breakfast being prepared on the stove a mere 10 feet away. My daughter dreams of a classroom the way I dream of an office space. That said, as soon as my husband and I focused on creating the right conditions for my kindergartener, distance learning did get a little easier. Now, on days that my daughter attends a remote classroom, our kitchen table transforms into a proper desk; she has all her supplies within reach; we no longer let our three-year-old watch T.V. during this period, lest our student travel from her learning space to the living room like a moth to the flame; and we make ourselves scarce. That last one was the hardest to implement, since some part of me felt it was wrong to be so uninvolved. As it turns out, that’s precisely what she needs.
I guess you could say I’m past the adjustment period and yet, every day is truly still a crapshoot. There are days the stars have aligned for my family: I emerge from my bedroom/office beaming, just as my kindergartener has finished her synchronized learning—both of us ready to interact and engage. Other days, I spend the entire remote learning period thwarting my youngest’s attempts to destroy an expensive piece of technology, whilst neurotically reminding my oldest to stay on mute as much as possible and eat her fried egg off-screen. Consistency is still a pipe dream at this point, but we do get a taste of success when we commit to keeping some structure in place.
For what it’s worth, I have also learned a couple of valuable things about myself from all this. First, I don’t need to ask forgiveness for being present, while not being engaged: My kids take comfort in my physical presence—and that’s especially important, considering that they’re learning about autonomy by watching me assert my own. (I also firmly believe that my daughter has what it takes to find a dry erase marker for herself.) As for those moments when forgiveness is on the table—when I fall short of the sensitivity I aspire to and do a less-than-perfect job at this juggling act—I can feel good about owning up to it. After all, love and authenticity are everything…and there are far worse fates than knowing your mother is a human being, right? I guess what I’m saying is that my biggest accomplishment to date is that I have learned to embrace being a good enough mother.
Does any of that fall into the category of indispensable parenting wisdom? Nope. It’s just a set of affirmations, courtesy of a totally not-chill parent—and truth be told, it still is a tremendous struggle to manage work and homeschooling in our oh-so-cozy pad. But as for the guilt, I’m learning to live without it.