Oh, the joys of homeschooling. And working from home (if you’re lucky enough to have a job). And making three meals a day plus snacks. And entertaining youngsters. And shopping. And cleaning. And repeating this every day of the week. (By the way, what day is it today?)
At least there’s no real need to shower. Or wear clean clothes. Or commute. Or stay sane.
This past week, while another 125,000+ cases of COVID-19 cases in the United States were confirmed, bringing our total to nearly 1.5 million and the virus claimed more than 10,000 lives, increasing that staggering and heartbreaking total to 89,550 deaths,¹ millions of parents — many of them single — are doing at least quintuple duty, as they play the role of employee, parent, teacher, housekeeper, and cook. From early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. All happening in real time, all from the cozy, increasingly claustrophobic confines of their apartment or home. No meaningful breaks, no babysitters, no playdates, no escape. If this were not enough, most are faced with helping their children complete math worksheets (Does anyone really care what the area of a cone is?), do social studies projects, read and discuss literature (What was Animal Farm really about?), learn a foreign language (Latin, they’re still speaking Latin?), and/or conduct science experiments (Cellophane is made from cellulose which comes from wood or plant leaves? Who knew?). As I’ve heard on more than one occasion over the last two months, ‘Middle school was a challenge for me the first time. Now I’m the teacher? ‘I need a drink!’
New heroes emerge from every crisis. After 9/11, it was first responders — the previously-overlooked and under-appreciated firefighters, EMTs, police, military and others who ran into danger rather than running from it. Now, we can add to that list medical personnel and those who clean hospitals, plus others we have largely ignored, taken for granted and, not surprisingly, pay poorly: delivery workers, mail carriers, those who stock shelves and work cash registers, those who pick and package our food, those who cook and staff take-out-only restaurants, and those who work in food banks, among many others. In this time when the only real defense we have is staying home, physical distancing, wearing facial coverings and keeping our hands clean, where would we be without these brave, selfless and incredibly valuable people? More alone, hungrier, and short on toilet paper.
To the ever-expanding list of coronavirus heroes, let’s add parents. Their job was already the true definition of ‘essential’ and is certainly all-consuming. The pandemic and the need to provide home schooling have made it nearly beyond comprehension — especially for those with a job. Working from home — before considered a luxury — is one thing; add the need to teach while being shuttered-in-place and you have a role few would want.
Some fortunate parents can now attach yet another title to their already auspicious list: Graduation Officiant. As the school year comes (mercifully) to a close, many students will soon be completing elementary, middle or high school. Despite the pandemic — actually, because of the pandemic — graduation is that much more important to students, to teachers and, no doubt, to parents and family. Celebrate the event; honor the accomplishment. Take a long, heartfelt moment to thank teachers and others who have been instrumental in helping students reach this important milestone. Dress, make speeches, give awards, take photos. Gush with pride. This will be a graduation like none other. Make up for the lack of pomp and circumstance by showering graduates and their teachers with gratitude and love. Ensure that no one forgets this moment. Take pause in knowing that you had a critical hand in this, having gotten your graduate across the finish line.
A saving grace about these times is that we’re all in this boat together. In the distant past — say, a mere eight weeks ago — those ‘telecommuting’ would do so from their ‘home office.’ The clear expectations were that your productivity would remain high and that you had, indeed, an office at home. To be professional, your personal and family lives were kept separate, relegated to non-business hours. Kids, pets and significant others were never to be seen or heard while working from home. Wouldn’t want anyone to know we had a life, would we?
Those days, thankfully, are gone. Now, conference calls and Zoom business meetings regularly involve children and pets. The ‘home office’ euphemism has been shattered, given that the kitchen table, the couch, the bed, the floor have become the new workplace. The need to separate work and personal/family life has evaporated. Now, work and life are nearly entirely overlapping, maybe too much so. No need to attempt to balance them. Survive the overlap, perhaps, but not balance them. Another silver lining of the pandemic.
This is a new world, with opportunities to shape our future, especially at work. We should take full advantage of it. Many of us — like those at Twitter² — may never return to a central workplace. Many will no longer be required to commute. Many will have more time to spend with their children, to see them off in the morning and welcome them home when they return from school, to attend their school performances and their sports events. The work day may be less rigorously defined, allowing us to see the doctor, the dentist, the hairstylist when convenient, to do food shopping during the week. In the future, our weekends might be true weekends, not a day or two to cram in what’s mandatory to keep a household afloat. We may be able to keep the environment cleaner, the roads unclogged, our nerves less frayed. We might be trusted to do the job, even from afar, without close supervision. Imagine that.
Work should also change for those who are required to do the job onsite. More flexible scheduling; a greater ability to attend to personal needs and the needs of children; a safer and cleaner workplace; a ‘culture of health’ — in which coming to work sick is not honored or respected; an increased attention to personal growth and development; less supervision. And with fewer people needing to come to work, the commute will be easier and require less time. Benefits abound.³
We’re on this path, but it won’t just happen. It will need thoughtful planning and careful execution. It’s time to make work more family friendly, more human. Let’s finally accept that working parents — true heroes all — have at least two incredibly demanding jobs. Giving them the space, the flexibility and the trust to do both will go a long way toward making your company that much more successful, their lives and the lives of their children that much more rewarding. They’ve earned respect. It’s time to give it to them.
¹ As of 8:45 p.m., ET, May 17; https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus-us-maps-and-cases/