During a virtual meeting with a patient this week, I couldn't help but be distracted by crashing sounds overhead. I had headed to the basement after settling my kids in front of the television. My 9-year-old had been given strict instructions to keep the programs coming so his 7- and 3-year-old brothers would remain quiet for the hour of uninterrupted time I needed. But all of my scheming to get work done under quarantine conditions proved to be no match for the unrelenting energy of three small bodies.
Creating space and time for both our parenting and professional roles has always been the big challenge for working parents. But nothing could have prepared us for the stress of these roles colliding under quarantine conditions. Now we aren't just parents who work, we are balancing multiple full-time roles—parent, employee, educator. Even if you're fortunate enough to be able to work from home right now, the stakes have never felt higher. We aren't just employees doing a job, we're also shouldering the responsibility of managing entirely new ways of working and communicating with colleagues—all under the shadow of intense fear of job loss.
So how do we get through these days of intense parenting while learning to work in totally new ways—all while under health and financial threat?
Our meetings get interrupted by the 3-year-old needing a bottom wiped, we fall into regular partner fights over whose meeting will take precedence and who will preside over the schoolwork, and we find ourselves bone-tired every night as we realize we still need to prepare for tomorrow's meeting and print out the worksheets for the kids' morning learning. None of us can avoid these realities right now, but we can get clever in how we respond to them.
First of all, let's just acknowledge the obvious: There's no such thing as "just taking a break" right now, not for parents. Taking a walk, calling a friend or hopping in a bubble bath is not always the solution.
That bone tiredness, the stress accumulation, and the millimeter long fuses we all have? That's partly the result of the breaks we simply can't access right now. The importance of taking restorative breaks from demanding roles, otherwise known as psychological detachment, has been shown in study after study. One fascinating and paradigm-shifting study followed Israeli reservists being called away from their regular jobs to engage in active duty. Amazingly, reservists going on duty were found to experience a significant decrease in work-related stress and work burnout. You read that right: Going to war acted as a vacation from work! Making a full transition away from any demanding role offers a powerfully restorative break for that role.
The trouble with being quarantined is that you can't access full, restorative detachment from kids while you're all trapped in the same house. And you can't exactly leave an office that is built into a house you are required to remain inside of. We need to consider how we can most effectively create detachment opportunities, to prevent large-scale burnout as stay-at-home recommendations continue.
So when you need a break and you can't have one, here are some ideas to try.
1. Where and when you can, create clear transitions between roles.
Having a clearer sense of being in one role—and therefore not in the other—gives a sense of a break from whatever role you (are attempting to) step away from.
To create a clearer sense of psychological detachment, develop transition rituals for switching between roles. This cues your mind and body to "switch off" of one role, and "switch on" to another. For example:
- Use a morning meeting to initiate your role as educator with your kids.
- Give a kiss to your children before you "go to work" in your bedroom to indicate turning on your work self.
- Choose a specific TV show for your kids to notify them that it is now leave-your-parent-alone time.
These behavioral cues help your mind and body make the transition more fully, and they (may?) help your children build realistic expectations of which role you are on duty for.
2. Amplify the impact of small breaks.
Whether it's relishing a moment of satisfying work absorption, taking advantage of the time after your kids go to bed, or waking up early to have a cup of coffee in silence, be intentional about savoring time away from your children. Similarly, use the time you spend parenting and educating your children to appreciate a break from virtual work meetings.
According to psychologists, we can best savor experiences when we use our five senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell) to mindfully immerse ourselves in a moment. You can also amplify these kinds of experiences by expressing gratitude, either writing it down or saying it aloud. So text a friend or comment aloud to your partner how much you appreciate those few minutes spent apart from the fellow captives in your house or away from the grind of online meetings.
You'll also get more out of your breaks if you set your expectations as realistically as possible. A few minutes can go far if you are intentional about enjoying them.
3. Engage your self-compassion.
According to psychology researchers, self-compassion consists of three core components: mindful awareness, self-kindness and common humanity. Self-compassion offers a raft in the rough waters of life because it bolsters our resilience, reduces anxiety and depression and helps us make choices that are value-centered.
To engage self-compassion, build awareness of when you're getting to the boiling point with your children, and when you are in need of moving your stiff body after a several hour-long virtual meeting with colleagues. When you need to push through discomforts, direct towards yourself the sort of kindness you might offer to someone you care about who is struggling—rather than dismissing your feelings outright. Finally, connect your experience of struggle to that of the larger world of working parents living through these totally unprecedented circumstances—we are all in this together.
It's challenging to be a working parent under quarantine. Practically speaking, you can't take a full step away from your most important life roles. But you can be strategic in finding time and space to take small and meaningful breaks. And you can engage self-compassion whenever the small bodies you care for find ways to overthrow every one of your brilliant working parent plans.