“It’s hard,” says Emily Spain, who is chief of staff for Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and has a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old at home. “It’s unlike any challenge I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Her husband owns a public affairs consulting business, so they have both been “working around-the-clock and adjusting to the new ‘abnormal,’ " she says. Between their jobs, it’s not possible for them to trade off chunks of time working and being the main caretaker. “There is no going dark — even for an hour at a time,” she says.
Their 2-year-old, who would otherwise be with their nanny, can’t understand why her parents are there but often aren’t playing with her. “You are — as a parent and a professional — in this really difficult spot, where you’re being forced to choose between two priorities,” Spain says. “And no one wants to feel like it’s a zero-sum game.”
Spain is not alone. Nearly 12 million U.S. households have children 0 to 2 years old, according to census data, and many of these now include parents who are trying to work from home without child-care help.
Claire Lerner, a clinical social worker specializing in child development and parent guidance in Washington, agrees. “It’s a totally impossible situation to be a [work-from-home] parent of a very young child who cannot be expected to take care of themselves in any shape or form or play independently for any length of time,” she says.
And that sets up families for failure. Many parents are used to being able to have 15, 30 or even 60 minutes of uninterrupted work time, and their jobs might require it. But with a child under 2 at home, that usually isn’t possible.
Find small solutions
Although there might not be any way to get large blocks of uninterrupted work time with a baby or young toddler at home, there are ways to maximize kids’ good will and occupied attention.
Karp recommends spending spurts of focused time with them as you can throughout the day — a tactic he refers to as “filling [their] meter.” This can help them be more content during other periods, paying time dividends for you.
He also suggests sprinkling in “easy wins” for them. “Toddlers are nonstop losers,” he says. “They just want to win a few.” So to let them feel less discouraged, he says, play small games (such as moving items from one container to another) and let them win, or pretend to fall down when they playfully hit you with a pillow. “If you give your child 10 times of winning a day, they automatically want to behave better,” Karp says.
The key, Lerner notes, is to pick a sensory-rich activity that minimizes intervention. She loves water-based ones, such as splashing or pouring with cups. (Keep an eye on your child, she says, but spread a shower curtain on the floor so “no matter how much they spill, it’s okay.”) Save novel and engaging activities for when you will need to have your most focused chunks of time.
When your attention is divided, it is especially important to make sure your child is going to be — and feel — safe. Lerner suggests considering a play yard. “If that’s a safe, loving place with a lot of interesting objects,” it can be a great asset right now, she says. “You can’t expect an 18-month-old to understand: ‘You’re going to stay here while Mommy goes over here and talks on the phone.’ Your child might be distressed for a few minutes, but they’re not being harmed. … It’s much more loving to put them in a safe pack-and-play or crib instead of getting in a back-and-forth power struggle [with] them” trying to make them give you space otherwise.
This gets at one of Lerner’s key messages: “You can’t control your child,” she says. “You can’t make them not have a tantrum, not cry, not scream. What you can control is the situation. … If a parent doesn’t feel like they have control over a situation, that’s where things fall apart.”
Try new approaches, but maintain limits
And things will, of course, fall apart sometimes. But one thing to try when things do get tense, Karp says, is reworking your communication style.
Rather than trying to reason with a baby or young toddler when they are upset, he suggests using your face, gestures and tone of voice to show them empathy instead. His prescription is threefold: talk in short phrases, use repetition and mirror their emotion (but reduced to about 33 percent of their wattage). “It’s exactly what you would expect from your best friend,” he says. “You want to help them get over their emotions so they can move onto the next thing.”
For toddlers who are starting to understand more language, you can also try “gossiping,” Karp says. Let your child overhear you talking to your partner, a friend on the telephone or a stuffed animal praising something great your child did — or noting a behavior that could have been better.
And don’t forget to focus attention on your child when they behave well. This can be hard to do when time feels in such short supply and any moment a child is contented feels like a chance to write an overdue email. But, Karp says, positive attention is important. “A child would rather be yelled at than ignored,” he says. And if they feel ignored, “they will end up misbehaving more just to be interacting with you.”
Even at a young age, children pick up on patterns of your attention and actions. As Karp notes: “They have to learn that crying doesn’t manipulate you.” Attend to their important needs, but also help them start to learn what is important by adjusting your response based on the situation. Are they crying because they need to eat — or because they decided they “need” the phone you’re using?
In that vein, having predictable boundaries and expectations helps young children feel comfortable, Lerner says. That can take some forethought — which many parents might not feel they have the reserves for right now. “Making the decision [about limits] is so important,” she says. “You want to be able to say to yourself, ‘No matter what pushback I get from my children, I will stay the course and feel comfortable.’ ”
For example, if you’ve decided it’s time to take a short break outside with your 13-month-old and they protest, acknowledge their feelings, but calmly proceed with the activity, Lerner says. “If you approach it with clarity and empathy and calm, they are much better able to adapt — even when they are unhappy that you are unable to meet their every ‘need,’ ” she adds.
Perhaps the most important takeaway for parents of young children right now is to calibrate expectations.
“It’s an unrealistic expectation that an 18-month-old is going to have any modicum of self-regulation,” Lerner says. They cannot understand that their parent is on a work call and they need to play quietly for 15 minutes. Even “most 4- and 5-year-olds have a hard time with that,” she says. So parents — and their employers — need to figure out a way to work around what is realistic.
It is also important to adjust for temperament. “The kids that are super easygoing by nature, … they’re better able to deal in moments like this,” she says. “But there are other children who are wired to be more sensitive and thus more reactive. And they tend to be a little more clingy and have a harder time playing independently.”
The trick is to find the small things that can help get everyone through the day, parents included. And maybe that means introducing more screen time sooner than planned. “You’re not turning their brains to mush,” Karp says. “Not every second has to be filled with 100-percent, grade-A educational material. You’re just trying to get by here.”
Katherine Harmon Courage is the author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome” (Avery/Penguin Random House). Follow her on Twitter at @KHCourage, on Instagram at @KatherineCourage or at katherinecourage.com.