Wednesday, March 11th was a typical day. I left my school counseling office around 4 pm and picked up my two-year-old from daycare. We ate dinner, enjoyed some playtime, and went to bed. By 6 am the next morning, our lives had drastically changed. COVID-19 was officially here with new social distancing recommendations put forth by the CDC. Suddenly, I was tasked with the nearly impossible demand of figuring out how to work from home with a toddler.
What?! This couldn’t be real. The majority of working toddler parents have found themselves in the same unexpected circumstances. So, how can we fulfill our work responsibilities while also giving our little ones the love, attention, and learning opportunities they deserve?
The Unique Challenges of Working From Home with a Toddler
Truth be told, I was thrilled to have the extra time with my little guy. But let’s be serious, he barely tolerated me placing an online grocery order pre-coronavirus! How was this going to be possible? If you are trying to balance Zoom meetings and emails with tantrums and toilet-training, you are not alone!
The struggle is real for all parents, but toddler parents face a unique set of challenges. Our little ones are not only high energy but require a high level of attention and supervision. They thrive on routine and consistency. Toddlers have unique developmental needs to consider while social distancing.
I first want to note that you have somehow found time to seek out and open this article as a work-from-home parent. Please go ahead and give yourself a huge pat on the back… seriously! Your intentional approach to work and family is a huge asset to both your employer and children during this difficult time. Working and parenting are ever-evolving processes in our new world of social distancing. The more we learn, the more we can grow. So, let’s get right into it and discuss how to work from home with a toddler with 5 simple tips.
How to Work From Home With a Toddler: 5 Ways to Make Life Easier
Tip #1: Be strategic & intentional about when you play together.
A tremendous source of stress when figuring out how to work from home with a toddler is video conferencing. You know, the times that others depend on us to be 100% engaged in our work! We cross our fingers that our children will stay-put and remain entertained through an independent activity. And if…okay when they do venture in front of the camera, we can only hope for the best and pray we remembered to mute our microphones!
When a toddler’s “attention tank” is running on empty, we can surely bet they seek out mom or dad as soon as that camera turns on. And when mom or dad can’t provide the attention they are looking for that moment.. well, things can get a bit dicey. You don’t need me to tell you!
It’s actually the 20 minutes before these critical meetings that matter most. When possible, try to set aside some time for your toddler just before your most essential work obligations. Put screens away (if possible), get on their level, and just have fun actively playing. (Bonus: Many toddler activities such as molding play-doh or building Legos can actually help relieve stress!) When your toddler’s attention tank has filled up from this playtime, you should begin to see them venture off a bit on their own, leaving you in the dust. Well done! Your toddler now feels seen and heard and might just let you make that Zoom debut.
Tip #2: Provide your toddler with something special to play with only during essential calls and meetings.
If your child has ever been around your Tupperware collection or a giant cardboard box, you’ve likely uttered the phrase, “Why do we even buy toys?!” Most toddlers are not going to want to engage with their same old toys in solitude during your big meeting. But don’t worry, the solution is not buying more toys!
Children between the ages of 18 and 36 months are incredibly eager to gain autonomy. They want nothing more than to complete tasks without our help. They are naturally drawn to the items they see us use day in and day out. Allow them to play with some of your special “tools” (just the safe ones of course). Reserve them for only your most essential work obligations to keep things new and exciting. If your toddler has watched you use these items for some time, they will likely jump at the chance to engage independently. A few examples:
- Add some of your own mixing bowls, spatulas, and measuring cups into your child’s play kitchen.
- Allow your toddler to play “dress up” with mommy or daddy’s wardrobe accessories (e.g., hats, gloves, slippers).
- Fill a “mystery bag” (I like to use an old gift bag) with random household treasures to explore (e.g., a stress ball, sticky notes, colored ribbons, cotton balls… the possibilities are endless!)
Tip #3: Make housework a family activity.
Like many full-time working parents, I used to reserve weekly meal prep, laundry and cleaning for nap-times and bedtime. My intention was to make the most of every moment I had with my son each week. In the era of social distancing and working from home, I’ve completely flipped the script. The key is, involving your toddler in the housework and making it a quality time activity. It’s not only helpful for work productivity but for toddlers’ sense of self-efficacy (a key developmental milestone for this stage!). Many toddlers can:
- Move laundry in and out of the dryer.
- Help you press the start buttons on the washing machine, dishwasher, or microwave.
- Hand you non-breakables out of the dishwasher.
- Assist with measuring and pouring ingredients.
- “Clean” surfaces with an unused duster or dry cloth.
Taking care of household duties while your child is awake can free up some significant time for long-term projects or solo work responsibilities. For me, telecommuting as a school counselor means recording weekly classroom lessons for my students. I must say, it is much less stressful to record these after my son’s bedtime!
Tip #4: Collaborate & communicate with your partner to develop a family calendar.
Perhaps your significant other is also tackling the new venture of working from home, or maybe they are coming and going as an essential worker like my husband. If you have a co-pilot during these uncertain times, communication is vital no matter their work setting. A few suggestions:
- Create a visual family calendar for the week. Keep it posted in a common area, such as on the refrigerator, to help everyone stay on the same page. Unless it’s in writing, don’t assume your partner will remember your big meeting times. Our memories often fail us during times of stress!
- Identify your most vital work commitments ahead of time (e.g., every Sunday) and compare schedules for the week.
- Provide your partner with support during the times they need it most (e.g., spend one-on-one time with your toddler during their Zoom meetings or allow essential workers the chance to catch up on sleep after a long night).
- Kindly ask for assistance from your partner during your critical work obligations (when possible) and show gratitude for any support they can provide.
- Maintain realistic expectations. Your schedules won’t always fit perfectly together and it’s not anyone’s fault. There will be times that major work commitments overlap. You are not alone and you will get through this!
Tip #5: Be upfront with your employer and brainstorm solutions.
Being honest with your employer about any challenges you are facing during the pandemic might feel uncomfortable, but can be incredibly helpful. Chances are, your supervisors are facing a similar set of obstacles. Let them know what you are already doing to try to overcome these barriers. They might just provide you with a little more understanding, or even some flexibility. Here are a few examples:
- “I’m going to ask my partner if he/she can be available during next week’s meeting. If not, I wanted to let you know ahead of time I’ll be doing my very best to ensure my toddler is occupied.”
- “Before we begin this meeting, I need to let you know I’m the only one home and my toddler is napping. If he/she wakes, I will need to step away for a quick minute but will be right back. I really appreciate your understanding and flexibility!”
The last thing you need to know about how to work from home with a toddler
Most sane people would never voluntarily work a 9-5 with a one, two, or three-year-old in tow. It’s stressful, unpredictable, and in some moments just downright impossible.
The most important thing to remember is to go easy on yourself. Some days you may not feel like you have given your best as an employee or a parent. You’re not alone. But, we are doing both jobs, simultaneously, and there is something to be said for that!
Kudos to you for going the extra mile and seeking out solutions on how to work from home with a toddler. I truly hope these tips make things a bit easier for you. You’ve earned it and you deserve it. Be proud, you are modeling resilience for your little one. You’ve got this!