Even in ordinary times, many people struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. Parents often feel guilty if work prevents them from spending as much time with their children as they would like. And parents often struggle to keep up at work when they are drawn away by family obligations, like caring for a sick child or an aging relative.
These struggles have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic—even though the boundaries between work and home life were already blurring. For example, a Gallop poll of working adults in all 50 states showed that the number of days adults reported working from home doubled compared with before the pandemic, and one in four adults reported working entirely from home.
The majority of American children are still learning entirely remotely or are back in school in person only part of the time. For parents who are not able to work from home, having children schooling from home raises a whole different set of concerns about childcare.
Compounding the challenges of having work and education moved to the home is evidence published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this summer. A study of more than 3 million workers in 16 cities in North America, Europe, and the Middle East found that employees who are able to work from home are averaging 48.5 minutes more of work per day now than prior to the pandemic.
Add in the new requirements of being a chef, maid, teacher, and counselor. BRB, must go make something.
How can parents balance their conflicting and sometimes overwhelming responsibilities?
1. Try to set boundaries.
At the end of a day working from home, turn off the computer to reduce the temptation to keep checking email during family time. If space within the home allows, have a designated workplace, ideally with a door that closes, so family members know that work is in progress. The exact nature of these boundaries will depend on your own logistics, but the goal is to avoid feeling like you’re always working or that you can’t find uninterrupted time to work.
2. Prioritize self-care.
Parents experiencing higher levels of stress are more likely to behave inconsistently (e.g., threaten a consequence for misbehavior but not follow through) and treat their children harshly (e.g., yelling or spanking) than are parents with lower levels of stress. Making time for self-care in the form of exercise, socializing safely with friends, or engaging in hobbies that are relaxing and enjoyable is important for parents’ well-being, and, in turn, their children’s well-being.
It can be hard for parents to feel justified in making time for themselves when work and family obligations feel pressing, but self-care is important both for work performance and for family relationships.
3. Reshuffle family expectations.
Household labor can be renegotiated to fit changing circumstances. Even young children are able to help with simple household chores, such as feeding pets and setting the table. Older children and adolescents can take on even more responsibility, including preparing meals and doing laundry.
As long as these expectations are not excessive, contributing to the family’s well-being can be a source of pride for children and can give them beneficial life skills, not only in terms of household chores but also in terms of taking care of others’ needs.
4. Say no.
Be realistic about what can be accomplished on both the work and home fronts. Of course, it is impossible to say no to carrying out key work or family responsibilities, but it might be possible to say no to more peripheral requests.
5. Mobilize support networks.
Having social support is one of the best predictors of individuals’ well-being in the face of stress. Support can take the form of tangible tasks, like taking turns with a friend or neighbor supervising children’s remote learning, within health and safety guidelines. Support can also be emotional, such as simply sharing highs and lows with a trusted confidante.
Strategies for balancing work and family responsibilities have been important in the past and will continue to be important in the future. But they’re especially important now, when the pandemic has blurred our boundaries.
Jennifer E. Lansford, Ph.D. for Psychology Today