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A Manifesto against Multitasking

seated mom with infant on lap while typing on laptop

This advice might run counter to everything you hear and think about remote work, but in my experience, there is no quicker road to burnout than constantly trying to work and parent simultaneously. Obviously, this advice changes depending on the age of your children. With older kids, it might be possible; but with children under the age of six, I have found that trying to focus on work and the kids at the same time is, in fact, counterproductive. I don’t mean that you can’t try to get some work time in during an episode of Sesame Street or that you can’t answer e-mails while your kid is playing independently for a bit. But for me, trying to accomplish larger tasks—tasks that require more than superficial thinking—while watching children affects the quantity and quality of my work; it impeded my ability to engage with my children on a meaningful level, which increased all of our stress levels; and it significantly detracted from my emotional and mental well-being.

I recognize that this advice is probably going to elicit a lot of sighs of frustration, but here it is: whenever possible, avoid multitasking with parenting and work activities. It seems like it will be a good idea. It might even be doable, but there is inevitably a cost involved—and the biggest one is your mental and emotional health. In my experience, there is nothing more frazzling than doing two things at once and failing at both of them because of a split-attention problem.

While I do not recommend trying to work while watching children all day, I do think these two activities can be juggled with great success—if alternated. A few options are as follows:

  • Hire full-time care so that you can create firm boundaries around your workday and spend time with your children in off hours.

  • Hire part-time care with a set schedule so that you can complete tasks during those dedicated work times and then focus 100% on your children when you’re with them. This might mean having a sitter or daycare arrangement for two full days while you parent the other three full days in the “work week.” Or it might mean that you have a sitter for two to three hours Monday through Friday and then parent in the afternoons. But I do highly recommend setting an established childcare schedule so that you can ease into a work and parenting rhythm and plan for the work tasks, like conference calls, that require uninterrupted time.

  • If you are okay getting up early and working at night or blending weekend work time with some odd-hours work, or if you have a partner who’s able to cover some parenting shifts, then you might be able to work without any external childcare at all. The sample work schedule mapped out below provides an example of what this might look like. But not everyone can—or should—sacrifice sleep and leisure time. Sometimes you have to recognize that putting your child in daycare will be the best thing for everyone emotionally. Children feel your tension, and if you’re constantly tense while you’re with them because you’re worried about deadlines, then they’re absorbing that tension and, very likely, manifesting it somehow.

  • 4:00 a.m. | Wake up and read while drinking my morning coffee

  • 4:30–7:00 a.m. | Peak work time

  • 7:00–7:45 a.m. | Get the kids fed, washed up, and dressed

  • 7:45–8:15 a.m. | Work out in the basement/playroom while the kids play together or take them outside for a run in the double jogging stroller, depending on the weather

  • 8:15–8:45 a.m. | Shower and get dressed

  • 8:45–9:45 a.m. | Do a learning activity or play with the kids

  • 10:00–11:15 a.m. | Work while the kids watch TV or color (gasp, I know—screen time)

  • 11:15 a.m.–12:15 p.m. | Prepare lunch and feed everyone, including my husband, who comes from work on his lunch hour (though now he’s home all the time because of COVID)

  • 12:15–1:30 p.m. | Play with kids until they’re ready for their rest time—in the summer, we usually jog over to one of the many nearby parks

  • 1:30–3:30 p.m. | Lights out for the kids, work time for mama

  • 3:30–4:30 p.m. | Get the kids up from their rest time and do household chores: put away laundry, water plants, etc. I let my daughter help with things she can, and we’re all in the same room regardless. If we finish early, we sneak in some extra play time.

  • 4:30–5:30 p.m. | Prepare dinner

  • 5:30–8:00 p.m. | Eat dinner, clean up, bedtime routines for the kids

  • 8:00–9:30 p.m. | Work time on the couch, while my husband watches TV or catches up on work e-mails himself

  • 9:30–10:00 p.m. | Watch TV with my husband and wind down and go to bed

I came to a point where I had to face the reality that I could not parent the way I wanted to with only part-time childcare. I could have juggled the two responsibilities if I had set firm enough boundaries between work and parenting time during the day, but it was ultimately too difficult for me. When my daughter began acting out, I knew that something was off-kilter at home, and after a long, hard assessment of the situation, I recognized that I needed more help than I had. I experienced the same sort of revelation that Elizabeth Willard Thames, author of Meet the Frugalwoods (affiliate link), writes about having on Frugalwoods.com: “After…the curtain of self-doubt, remorse, and anger [lifted], I was like, ‘Oh! I think I’d be a better mom, a better human, if I had some time to myself to work every week. Let’s make that happen!”

Remember: your emotional health is the most important thing in this scenario. You cannot be an effective worker or an attentive parent if you are not able to take care of yourself psychologically and emotionally. And for me, splitting my focus between parenting and working for long periods of time sent me into a dark period in my life—one that resurfaced lately during the pandemic, with increased childcare/homeschool responsibilities.

How do you feel about multitasking with parenting and working? Have you figured out a good way to juggle both activities simultaneously? What childcare arrangement works best for you? Please share below!