The art of winter back-up plans

I woke this morning to a 2-hour school delay. It's getting to be a Tuesday tradition around here! But other than some mild trepidation about whether my 3-year-old would tear the house apart while I was outside shoveling the driveway, I am relatively relaxed about it. This has not always been the case. But I feel like I've reached a pretty good place on winter weather and still getting my stuff done.

Many years into my parenting journey, I have become obsessive about winter weather checking. When heavy snow is forecast, I have learned that there is a good chance that the schools will be closed, or delayed, or dismissed early. This means my children will be home. And while I have a back-up layer of care for this (full-time nanny coverage!), if the weather is bad enough to prevent the school buses getting through, it can prevent anyone else from driving to my house either. Also, it's a lot harder to work with the big kids underfoot. If they're home at unusual times, they're not inclined to think "hey, I bet mom would like to get some work done. I should refrain from bothering her!" One example: my 10-year-old just stopped by my office to ask when the books he'd ordered would arrive via UPS. He is also bouncing a ball. Loudly.

Hence the obsessive winter weather checking. If I know ahead of time that bad weather is on the way, I can plan my work to account for it. (One reason I am posting this now instead of making any of the calls I need to make -- calls which would not be helped by the sound of a bouncing ball).

This generally looks like this: On Friday, I figure out what I have due over the next week or two. I try to figure out how much time these tasks will take. Then, if inclement weather is forecast, I aim to get anything that is really time-sensitive done ahead of time. So if snow is forecast for Tuesday, I schedule anything that has to get done that week for Monday. That way, if school is canceled Tuesday, and then also Wednesday, it's OK. If snow is forecast for Monday, I'll often try to get the week's time-sensitive work done over the weekend. My husband knows to take the kids — because I'll most likely be covering the week days. If I don't manage to get it done ahead of time, I break things up into smaller chunks and assign a time to them: after the 3-year-old goes to bed, doable in 20 minutes while Go, Diego, Go! is on TV, etc.

(A question: Why am I responsible for snow days? This tends to be the case when one parent works from home, though it's important to make sure the split is not so lopsided that the work-from-home party's career starts suffering. If the weather were bad enough to preclude my husband getting to his office, then he would be just as much on the hook as me. Though I have found he has a sneaky way of flying out ahead of snowstorms for meetings in some non-snowy place. Of course I should note that I did that to him two weeks ago — flying to San Francisco just in time for us to have two snow days in a row.)

That sort of triaging is fine for solo work that can be done at any point. Obviously, not all work can be done like that. I evaluate any calls I have coming up on potential snow days and see what category they fall in:

  • People Who Will Be OK With Kid Noise
  • People Who Will Not Be OK With Kid Noise or
  • People Who Would Probably Be OK With Kid Noise, But This Is A Live Radio Interview or some such.

If the latter two categories, I'll suggest other times for the call. Or maybe take my chances. Theoretically, the 10-year-old could watch the 3-year-old for a bit and I could still do something requiring no kid noise for 10-15 minutes. However, I try not to do this if at all possible, as I've found he's not a reliable caregiver. The 3-year-old will do something not nice, like throw a truck, and the 10-year-old will come yelling to me. (Of course, if our nanny is here, she'll just take everyone in the basement or outside for the duration of any important calls. If I were taking off for a trip and my husband was gone, I would probably ask her to stay over the night before a potential snow closure so I would know for sure she was here).

Sarah and I were talking on the podcast about this topic recently: noting that snow days in snowy climates are what Donald Rumsfeld might call "known unknowns." You don't know for sure when they will happen, but you can be pretty sure that they will happen at some point during the winter. Best to plan for them. A lot of work can be done ahead.

Though not all! Sarah does not live in a place where it snows, but if she did, she couldn't suddenly see her patients on Sunday if there's bad weather forecast for Monday. And while snow days might be visible on the horizon, other winter woes don’t fall into that category. You don't know whether or not your children will suddenly have a stomach bug on Thursday. That's why people who do need to report to an office on their work days, with very limited work-from-home options, often wind up going the nanny route rather than daycare. Sick kids can't go to daycare, whereas a caregiver who comes to your home can care for (mildly) sick children. That's straightforward for young kids, but many people give up their nanny when all the kids are in school…only to learn that they still need coverage. Because school is not reliable childcare. Hence the popularity of au pairs. And living near extended family.

And, of course, trading off with a spouse. Maybe one party is responsible for problems on Monday and Tuesday, another party for problems on Wednesday and Thursday. That way, each party knows to schedule anything that has to happen on the days his/her spouse is scheduled to cover.

Anyway, we're already deep into winter, and we've come through the first major winter storms on the east coast, so I'm guessing most readers with kids have already thought about these matters, but if not, consider this a reminder to think about it: what is your winter back-up plan? How will you stay on track with your projects as snow days and sick days pile up? There are lots of options. One genius one for weather: finding a responsible high school student sitter who lives in your neighborhood. He/she will also be out of school when school is canceled, and could walk over to watch the kids for a few hours. It won't be a 100 percent work day, but it will be better than nothing.

A retired neighbor might be an option too. Or another neighborhood parent who you might be able to trade coverage with. If he/she has more during-the-week flexibility, you could take his/her kids on the weekend in exchange.

What's your snow day/sick day plan?

Photo: Un-shoveled driveway early in the morning

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10 Responses to The art of winter back-up plans


  1. Sarah K says:

    The YMCA and the Parks department in our town both offer drop-in snow day care as well. My son doesn’t really like to go (it’s a bit loud and chaotic for him) but at least I know I have an option if both my husband and I both have work responsibilities we absolutely cannot miss.

    • @Sarah K – that’s great that the YMCA and Parks departments offer options. Because it’s not like only one family has a problem when there’s no school! And while I can imagine that it’s not ideal, some times situations aren’t ideal.

  2. Aly says:

    I want to say I love your podcasts even more so as I return back to work this week after maternity leave!!

  3. ARC says:

    We are unlikely to ever have a snow day here in CA, but something I discovered nearby that has been amazing for meetings at the girls’ school where both of us parents would like to attend is a drop-in daycare center. There are several of these in our city and one literally across the street from our subdivision. I’ll be honest, it’s not the best quality EVER (they mostly park the kids in front of a screen), but it’s safe and clean and for an hour or two, it’s fine for my 5 and 8yo. There are two nearby so we’ll likely give the other one a try for date night.

    Hubby and I often did a lot of handoffs during the day based on schedules – typically if we had a snow day in Seattle, EVERYONE was home, so we’d just hand off the kids when we had a call to take. Our girls still thankfully go to bed at 7:15ish so we have a big chunk of time in the evening to play catch-up as needed, if the day got too crazy.

    Now that I’m not working, I welcome a day off as a change in the regular routine which I find a bit relentless 🙂 My 5yo was home sick yesterday and even though I was “on call” for her, she was happy to listen to kid podcasts, read, nap and watch a movie, and I didn’t have to remember mid-day Kindergarten pickup. It felt surprisingly relaxing to NOT have my day cut in half like that even though I didn’t have any kid-free time yesterday 😀

    • @ARC – that sounds like a fascinating business concept (or is it a non-profit?) Like the YMCA, only you don’t have to be working out there!

      • ARC says:

        I have always thought it would be a brilliant business idea, especially in the evenings – you could use another daycare center at night and pay them rent.

        One of them here is a chain of these centers – there are at least 5 in our city. The rate is quite reasonable, maybe $9/hour and you pay a little extra for meals. They also have a day rate for people with unpredictable work schedules.

        The only issue we’ve had is that they don’t take advance reservations so we’ve been there and found them unexpectedly full (they still have to adhere to state ratios of kids to caregivers, and since they take babies, I guess it’s not a high #).

        There are a few “regular” daycare centers here who turn into drop-in daycare at night, so we will definitely try those, too. Since we’re new to the area, it takes a while to find good babysitters. And we’re in a high-young-kid area so it’s hard to ask (new) friends without them feeling like you’re poaching their sitter 😀

  4. Alissa says:

    While my husband is the stay at home parent so snow days don’t interrupt us to much what does get me is the sickness. On Monday night my youngest was up practically all night with a stomach bug and who did she want – ME her mommy. I was quite frustrated the next morning and fortunately I had a clear afternoon so after some morning meetings and work I went home at lunch to nap and then came back late afternoon and worked to make a total of 6. Last night I stayed late and worked a 10 hour day to catch up. I’m fortunate to have the job flexibility but my first thought Tuesday AM as I was late to one meeting so I could drop the non sick kid off at school was “being a working mom is no joke”

    • @Alissa- yep, it’s no joke, and here you have a stay-at-home partner! I think a lot of people assume that solves all kid issues, but it doesn’t necessarily. Glad you were able to take your nap.

      • Virginia says:

        I’m going to guess that men with stay-at-Home wives don’t feel the pull to stay home with sick kids.

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