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I spent the twelve years since my oldest daughter was born as a stay-at-home dad and homemaker, and—during that time—periods like winter break when the kids are home from school were busy but manageable. But this year’s winter break marks a big change for me—it’s the first one where I’ll be juggling a job on top of childcare. The kids and I made it through my first working summer—barely—but the summer was regimented enough with activities like camp that it was similar to the school year. The intense two weeks of winter break are a different ballgame, though—too short to really schedule a routine, but long enough to create all kinds of productivity pitfalls.
In hopes of avoiding those snags, I wanted to get ahead of the curve and go into this winter break with a solid plan. I know what will happen if I don’t, and it’s not pretty—by the end of the break my two daughters and I will be rocking back and forth, feral, snarling, and blinded by the light of day when we finally emerge from the house, and my coworkers will have sent a search party. I figured there’s got to be a better way, so I reached out to a group of work-from-home parents, hoping to learn their strategies for transforming winter break into the holly, jolly time of year we’ve all heard rumors about.
Get Ahead of It With Workarounds, Co-Working, and Working With Others
Although winter break is listed on school district calendars months in advance, it’s easy to be so caught up in the minutiae of the day-to-day that its arrival turns us into wild-eyed reactionaries. But, according to Lindsay Nash, Marketing Manager at Waldo Photos, with just a little bit of pre-planning we can meet those two weeks with a proactive, cool head instead. Start that planning as soon as possible (like now).
Remote work typically comes with a certain level of flexibility—half the time your colleagues aren’t even in the same time zone, so there’s leeway for scheduling meetings and deadlines— and winter break is a key time to use this to your advantage. Nash—an American expat who works remotely in South Korea—always makes sure to schedule winter break meetings and conference calls when her kids are either asleep or out of the house. In her case, her employer and team are open to working with her timeframe, but even if you’re working in a less forgiving environment, a little bit of creative planning can keep your kids and conference calls separated. Nash suggests looking to nap times, early mornings, late evenings, or even taking your laptop and heading out of the house to a park or coffee shop for uninterrupted meetings.
On the other hand, Nash says you could flip the script entirely and keep your kids close. Nash’s kids are curious about everything she’s up to—whether she’s working at her desk or trying to take a trip to the bathroom—so one of her strategies is to simply include them in her work. Nash sets up a desk near hers and provides “work” activities (coloring sheets, math problems, and puzzles), allowing them to be co-workers with her. Even if it only lasts a little while, kids will feel like they’re “in” on the action, which means you can take the moment to get some work done sans interruption. You may still be followed to the bathroom, however.
Set Boundaries Around Lunch Breaks, Blood, and Fire
With your kids are running around the house while you try to answer emails, boundaries are more critical than ever. During the weeks that his kids are home, Paul Dessert, Web Developer at Airbus Defense and Space, sets aside his lunch hour as a time to visit with them, and he preemptively steps out of his office for a few minutes each hour that he’s working to check in. When it’s time for him to buckle down, though, he closes and locks his office door and enters “Do Not Disturb” mode. By being accessible to his kids on a regular basis during the breaks it makes it easier for them to recognize and understand the times when he can’t be interrupted.
Making clear what counts as an emergency is key, and Joshua Peskay, VP of Technology Strategy at RoundTable Technology—sets up winter break boundaries in living color by instating a “RAG” (red, amber, green) status system in his home office. Green means that Peskay’s working, but it’s fine for the kids to come in if they need something or want to talk, amber or yellow denotes that if it’s important, it’s okay to interrupt, and red means that if the kids aren’t on fire or bleeding, don’t come in. A system like this further codifies and regiments boundaries, removing the ambiguity that can quickly lead to irritation and bickering when the kids are expected to read your mind. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course.
Hire Yourself Some Temporary Childcare and Housework Help
After spending so many years as a homemaker before doing paid work from home, outsourcing domestic chores doesn’t come naturally to me—I fear that if I hired someone to clean my house, I’d spend a week cleaning it myself in preparation. But when I add up the amount of time I already spend on housework and parenting when I have the benefit of having my kids at school all day, I know I’ll need to call in reinforcements when they’re home for winter break.
Nancy Fulton and Mark Mazur work together from home, each owning and operating their own businesses—Fulton runs online and face-to-face events for producers and screenwriters in Hollywood and Mazur is an app developer and CTO. They’ve been at the home entrepreneurial game for over 20 years now, and in the meantime have raised three kids. With many a winter break under their belt, they’ve developed a good deal of insight into staying sane and productive with kids home and underfoot.
According to Fulton, their secret is outsourcing. As two parents with paid work (in addition to parenting responsibilities), there comes a time when you need to hire outside help, and it becomes crucial to put some of your money toward making more money without losing your mind.
Start by hiring a housekeeper or cleaning service to pick up the domestic slack—if only for the duration of the school break (this could mean somebody comes just once a week or every other week—just enough to keep the place clean but without racking up a massive bill). By paying someone to take out the trash, sterilize the bathrooms, and do dishes, you’ll be freeing up precious time that can be spent both on work and on connecting with your kids.
In addition to housekeeping, Fulton adds that hiring a nanny or babysitter to spend time with the kids during the break is another wise investment. She and her husband usually recruit students from their local junior college or university, and that having someone occupy the kids for even a few hours a day frees up precious time that might otherwise be spent refereeing sibling disputes or being nagged relentlessly to take them ice skating.
If a nanny isn’t a financially viable option, turn to your community. Nash says to remember that—despite the feelings of isolation that can creep in when you’re home with kids during winter break—you don’t have to be alone. Nash has cultivated a small community of fellow remote-working parents who take turns watching the kids. Kids get to play with friends, parents get quiet working time, and everybody’s happy. And even when it’s her turn to watch the group of kids, Nash still gets more work done than if she just had her own, since they’re all preoccupied playing with each other—so you might consider opening up your house to parents who don’t work remotely and can’t take on watching your kids, but can provide their own kids as distractions for yours.
Give Up the Fight About Screen Time
For the past few years, the major parenting debate seems to be screen time. In fact, when I made my inquiries for this story I didn’t expect to hear any shout-outs to tablets, smartphones, video game consoles, or other digital pied pipers, but several of the pros I spoke with brought up the beauty of screens.
James Pollard, Marketing Consultant at TheAdvisorCoach, says he’ll sometimes pull out an early Christmas present—particularly a video game that his kids can lose themselves in for a few days—as a winter break tactic, while Nash says that screen time is a natural part of contemporary parenthood, and sometimes ends up being her go-to for a moment of peace, quiet, and productivity.
I personally gave up the fight over screen time with my kids years ago. In fact, I never really fought it. I felt like I couldn’t regulate my children’s screen time in good faith without regulating my own, and so—whenever my kids are home—the floodgates of Minecraft, Roblox, and YouTube are wide open. But to my surprise, my kids end up regulating themselves. Both of my girls have healthy social lives, my youngest plays soccer, my oldest writes fiction, and they excel in school—all while using screens to their heart’s content. And so, like Pollard and Nash, I’m on board with a screen-friendly winter break.
Of course since they don’t have hard and fast limits, my kids get sick of their screens pretty quickly, and then we’re back to square one—the two of them irritated with me for not entertaining them, and me irritated because they’re up in my grill while I’m trying to work. And so this year—armed with the tips listed above—I’m going to get ahead of the situation! I’ll stop working in the living room with a girl on either side, and turn our storage room into an office to establish some boundaries. I’ll set aside money to pay for a housecleaner so my kids won’t grow up remembering me as the guy yelling at them to get off the couch when I’m trying to lint roll it. I’ll take advantage of my flexible remote work by shifting the bulk of my work to times when the kids aren’t around, and try to network with other parents in similar situations. And screens. Lots and lots of screens. For me, of course. I hear there’s a new Mario game out.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.