Valley Parents: Essay: Supporting working parents

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/20/2020 5:10:22 PM
Modified: 8/20/2020 5:10:10 PM

One mid-July day this summer, my husband left to go get groceries. Like many families, we’re doing grocery pick-up these days because of the pandemic, but he had a few other errands to run while he was out. “Leave the baby,” I told him, referring to our 2-year-old.

While our older daughter can wear a mask and follow precautions, the toddler can’t. I figured the baby would nap, I could do my interviews for the day, and my husband would return with food: win, win, win.

Not half an hour later, I heard the sounds of little feet in the kitchen. “I wake up,” my daughter said, looking very much like she hadn’t ever fallen asleep. I frantically tried to get her to go back to bed before my first interview of the afternoon, but it was hopeless. For the next three hours I spoke with sources, recording the conversations for transcription later, while toggling the mute/unmute switch, bribing my daughter with popsicles and letting her run amok through her sister’s room.

I’ve been working from home for six years, so balancing kids and work is nothing new. But for the first time, last month, I felt comfortable being upfront about it with the people I was talking to.

“You might hear some background noise,” I warned them, relaying the story of a nap-time run to the grocery store and a little rebel refusing to sleep.

Everyone was understanding — one dad told me, laughing, that he had just banished his kids outside during our interview, but they could come bursting back in at any minute.

During COVID-19, even families who weren’t used to working at home were suddenly doing so. Without childcare, parents and employers alike have had to accept that kids might make an appearance during a Zoom session or that a sibling argument could interrupt a conference call.

For me, being open about the blurred lines between work and family has been a relief. In an ideal world, I complete my work when my kids aren’t around, but any modern parent knows that’s not always possible. In the past, I’ve felt pressure to keep my kids totally quiet during calls, even when that mission becomes even more distracting than just popping my daughter onto my lap and continuing my conversation. With more grace extended to working parents during quarantine, I’m less stressed and better able to handle those interruptions quickly and effectively when they do happen.

Most of us have seen the video of the now-famous “BBC Dad” (if you haven’t, go find it online right now). A scholar is in a live interview with the BBC when his two children — a toddler and a baby in a walker — burst into his home office. A moment later the children’s mother, pants still unbuttoned from trying to pee in peace for once, sprints into the room, grabs the children and scurries out, all while the dad tries desperately to ignore the whole situation.

It’s comedic gold, and it’s no wonder that the video was trending again during COVID. After it was posted, most parents laughed appreciatively, but some criticized the dad: Why didn’t he just pick up his kids and keep talking? Unfortunately, our society hasn’t been that understanding of working parents in the past, and the dad no doubt worried that his role as a parent would detract from his role as a professional.

I’ve certainly had the same concerns as I quickly shush a clingy child and run away to take a call, hoping to maintain the illusion that I’m working from an office outside my home.

This summer I reported on a New Hampshire utility that had switched its call-center to fully remote work during the pandemic. With employees working at home, the utility added a line to its recorded greeting, telling callers that they might hear kids, dogs or other family members — and asking for their understanding and patience. Seeing a big company make that switch made me smile.

When and if we get back to traditional roles for work and school, many parents will breathe a sigh of relief (our kids probably will, too). But I hope that the understanding of working parents and the challenges they face will continue. Extending compassion to working parents — a huge chunk of the workforce — makes us better professionals and better parents.

Kelly Burch, of Wilmont, N.H., is a freelance journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Boston Magazine, Cosmopolitan and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @writingburch.

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