Four weeks ago I was aware I was working too hard – doing more than the 36 hours a week I was paid for, answering “busy” when asked how I was, and realising that I could either attend meetings, or answer emails or do work – but certainly not all three. I was fitting in regular business travel as well – long hours and time away from home. This was not a temporary thing, nor was it desirable. Many friends were worried about me and were, perhaps, unaware that I was actually making big steps towards changing this all – steps that weren’t yet ready to come to the surface but which are now bearing fruits – at just the time they are most needed.
Two weeks ago I was ill. My work didn’t neatly transition – I was simply too ill to come into work one day, nor to work for the next 5 days. I had just got to the point where I could work again, when my sons were sent home from school – indefinitely and full time (with my symptoms they had to self isolate earlier than others, but now the whole country is experiencing this).
In the first few days with my children at home I threw my energy into it – I tried to do 7 hours of work, 4 hours of homeschooling and to cook meals with an ever-dwindling supply of ingredients. My husband was also trying the 7 hours of work, 4 hours of homeschooling and where I did cooking, he was doing the laundry. I burnt out. On the third day I realised this was impossible.
Unsurprisingly, the day I collapsed was the day that the school started sending work. Now, I’m not surprised – I assume the teachers were all told individually to set work with almost no warning and almost no coordination and they did what they could. They were also, rightly, probably more concerned about the GCSE year. But for me on the receiving end of the emails it felt endless, confusing and complicated – work was being set on multiple online platforms, with no master list to tick off, and work was appearing all the time – each time we logged on there were another 5 tasks and one more platform. I couldn’t get my head round it, let alone be able to advise a now-sulking teenager how to manage his time while simultaneously keeping his younger brother occupied, fielding multiple work teleconferences and incoming emails and trying to finish a paper – all before supper time.
Now I realise my problems are nothing compared to the family that cannot afford to buy 2 weeks’ food in one go, or the family whose incomes have been lost, or those whose family members have lost lives. Nor are they as complicated as those of a single mum with toddlers. But difficulties are not competitive and I was struggling – as are many in situations similar to mine.
What I have needed to do (within my constraints and with my advantages) is to reframe the questions I have in three ways.
- First I need to move from a question of “productivity” to one of “fruitfulness” and
- Second I have had to think not in terms of “hours worked” but “value added” and
- Third I have had to think about the network and team I have around me and be willing to ask for – and offer – help.
Let us look at these reframing first from the point of view of parenting and then from the point of view of working.
The children’s schools have provided work. When I asked for clarification, I learnt that they recognise that not every family will be able to keep on top of the work they are setting. Amazingly, they said that some families were asking them to set more work (?!), but they weren’t going to enforce delivery of it all.
If we move from a productivity mindset (time management, rigid daily timetables and ticking off tasks) to a fruitfulness mindset, we can treat the school work as a guideline. Think of a gardener working a garden – they may have a basic schedule for planting, pruning etc, but they have to vary that depending on the weather, the plant itself, its location etc.
Yesterday my younger son sobbed desperately when I told him he couldn’t play in the communal garden with the boy next door. The sobbing was despair – as deep as his brother’s despair the day he was diagnosed with diabetes (that’s the last time I have seen sobs like that). This is life changing in the same way and his normal stress relief – playing imaginative rough-and-tumble games with his friends – is not available. That’s the storm day – you don’t plant your peas on the day there is thunder and lightning, whatever your schedule says. At that moment my son needed my love to hold his pain – unconditionally and without false reassurances. (see “How to talk so kid’s will listen“)
My role right now is first and foremost to be my children’s mother. That includes (importantly but not exclusively!) educating them. Some of that education will be semi-formal and structured and guided – but not controlled – by the school curriculum. Some of the education will be what he’s interested in, especially when it’s beyond the curriculum. And some will be life education – not least the emotional intelligence to weather a crisis, but also cooking with limited ingredients, how to clean a house and how to manage your time fruitfully. It also is about playing with them and being there for them.
How can I add value to this process? If I do the thinking for them, I don’t add value. But if I coach them to prioritise and organise their thinking and planning and help engage them in activities and give them space to do their own thinking, then I add value. If I prioritise activities for physical and mental well-being in my own schedule and model that with them, I add value. With my younger son I will probably have to spend more time sitting beside him, talking him through his activities but my older son also probably needs more of that than he’ll admit to.
Finally, how do I engage a team to support me and to be supported by me? My inner team is my family themselves – my husband and my children. It’s important that I don’t fall into the pattern of solving all the problems, cooking all the meals, organising all the arrangements. There has to be space for other people’s creative solutions. Last year I read an exceptional book called Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu and it’s all about learning to let go of controlling your household. Now more than ever we need that wisdom.
But beyond that inner team I have an outer team – a network of bright, energetic and lovely friends and family (and they all are, perhaps especially those who don’t feel bright, energetic and lovely right now). I wonder how much we can share? Right now there’s a bit of a plethora of sharing going on with lots of groups and guidance being written about “how to homeschool your children”. Those lists are feeling a bit overwhelming right now too. But they are written with love and sharing and caring – and I think in small swap groups of say 3-5 families, we can share time and ideas. Perhaps I can teach your children about climate change science over some online capability, and you could talk to my children about their art work or talk to them in Spanish or we could jointly have a bake off in real time – balancing our phones above the mixing bowl? Can one teenager teach another to do a Rubik’s cube or play a piece on the piano and the other teach the first how to code in Python? All these things can be done online. Maybe we can use this technology to let our 8 year olds talk directly to their friends and show each other their houses? Can my flatblock start a communal vegetable plot without actually any two families being out working on it at the same time? Can we make art works for elderly relatives?
If we stop thinking in terms of what we have to do, stop trying to be productive and instead try to plant, tend and support growing seeds of education in our children. And stop trying to find a solution from a huge list with hundreds of families, but partner up with our children’s existing best friends – maybe we can find our way through this.
In the olden days most people worked in factories. The concepts of “productivity” and earning “by the hour” come from those days. You were paid for your time and your time had to reach a minimum standard of productivity – gizmos per hour. Work turned time into money.
As we’ve moved into a different world, most of us are not really paid for our hours, but for the value we add to the company. We may add that value through our creativity, our service offering to our company’s customers or our knowledge accrued. And yet, companies still expect us to fill in time sheets and work by the hour. I think that will have to change – that that is changing – in this crisis.
I have contacted my work to say that I can only put in about 4-5 hours a day at the moment because of my parenting responsibilities, but that I want to make those 4-5 hours add as much value to the company as possible. I even wonder if I strip out the inessential, whether I can be just as valuable on the shorter hours as I can in the longer ones (but we’ll see about that – we haven’t really got into this yet).
What does “fruitfulness” mean for my type of work (scientific research) at this time? For me it is about planting the seeds that others can help grow. It’s about doing the work that will bear fruits in the autumn. It’s about pruning the work that won’t. It is probably about training up staff around me so that they can do more, and training myself so I can. It is about prioritising recruitment – because when this is all over I need a stronger team. In one project it might be about getting a paper written (harvesting the fruit of work previously done). In another project it might be about getting a new graduate started on a small task that will build up to something bigger.
I think at this stage in my career I can add most value not by “doing” but by coaching others to do. Perhaps even by coaching others to supervise others to do. I have made the slightly scary decision (watch this space) to stop trying to deliver anything myself in the next 12 weeks, but instead to spend almost all my time doing what is needed to enable others to either do the work or to enable others to supervise someone doing the work. While I have less time, other colleagues – without children and without a commute, have more. Still others, in other parts of the organisation, cannot do their current day job because they don’t have a laboratory. If I train them up to support my work, they will learn new skills and my work will get done (perhaps more slowly, but it will happen). There’s a strong network of others around me who can help me with my work. Now is the time to use them – and maybe what I can offer in return is some training and an interesting activity to get involved in.
I do have a team member who won’t get any work done at all in the next while. Her own parenting responsibilities are more complicated than mine. I’m going to ensure that we continue to stay in touch, that she is still included in the work as far as possible – even if that’s only at a 20 minute meeting while her children have screen time, and that her work too is passed on to others for the moment.
Many of the ideas here have been developing from a lot of work I’ve done in the last couple of years. A particularly valuable community and resource is the One of Many Community which is all about a more feminine style of leadership focussed on fruitfulness rather than productivity. They have a Facebook group here.
These are hard times for us all. I know I’m much more fortunate than others and perhaps these suggestions seem hollow in your situation. If that’s the case then I can only offer my love and care. There are communities that can help you out there – keep looking.
And if you – or your children – are feeling anxiety at this time please get professional help – it exists for you and you are worth their time.