Fragmentation, and what to do about it

Over Christmas this year, I stayed with my then-almost-3-year-old while my husband took the three big kids skiing in Colorado. I thought this would be less stressful than taking two long flights with the little guy, and then attempting to keep him safe and non-destructive in a rental house. On some level, this should have been fine, except I also needed to turn around copy-edits for Off the Clock over the same period of time. Since I could not get the Word track changes function to work on my Mac laptop at anything faster than a snail's pace, I was stuck using the home computer. As I was going to be traveling to NC over New Year's, and then to California immediately after, I needed to use the days that he and I were there alone together.

It reminded me why I generally don't try to work when I am responsible for a small child. I felt horribly fragmented. I raced to get done what I could during his (unpredictable) naps and night time sleeps. I was frustrated with his normal 3-year-old behavior, and I missed things on the copy-edits (hence a very embarrassing math error that made it into the galleysโ€ฆbut won't be in the finished copies, thank goodness).

Anyway, I was thinking of this when I received a question recently from a woman who was trying to get work done while also coping with this fragmentation. She had two children. One was in full-day preschool, but the other, a baby, was generally with her during the day. She did freelance work that arrived unpredictably. A client would ask for a rush job, which she would want to do (extra income!) but the chances of the client work coinciding with the baby not needing anything wereโ€ฆlow. If she was dealing with the baby, and then wasn't done with the work when it was time for her older child to be home from school, she'd be trying to finish that while tending to both of them.

She found this all stressful, and I did too, reading about it! She said that hiring a full time sitter wasn't an option, but she had other tools in place that she was possibly not optimizing. For starters, her husband had opted for a more limited work schedule during their baby's first year. Second, she had family nearby who were willing to help out.

My first thought is broadly applicable to anyone who works from home and works flexibly: It's not a badge of honor to do everything oneself. While sometimes the decision not to pay for childcare is solely about finances (and it may be in this case), I often have people who do have extra resources write to me about their incredibly elaborate schedules designed to limit the use of childcare. I think they think I'm going to high-five them for their genius time management, but I generally don't. That's because I don't subscribe to the underlying belief: that paid care is a bad thing that should be minimized. If you work from home and work flexibly, but have the option to use paid care sometimes, do. You'll be less fragmented. Your kids will be less stressed out when you're less stressed out. A fragmented parent has very limited patience.

As for this specific situation, this woman wrote that she wasn't sure her husband could handle both kids. I suggested that he needed to learn to handle them, and he wasn't going to learn if he never had the chance to try. If he had limited his work hours, he probably wanted to have that experience! In any case, she was going to have to leave the house at some point, so best for everyone to get comfortable with the concept. Start with an hour or two. Build up from there.

Using willing grandparents is also a great idea. To avoid fragmentation, the goal would be to have a few hours on each day that she chose to work that she would know she could have coverage. That way, if a client asked for a rush job at 10 a.m. due at the end of the day, and she knew she had coverage from noon- 3 p.m., she could relax and enjoy her time with her baby, knowing she had a time when the work would get done.

How much coverage she had in place would depend on the grandparents' generosity and her husband's schedule, but my guess is that between those three sets of extra hands, she could get 3 hours on 3-4 days of the week.

She could then work to proactively get jobs on those days when she had time available. Even unpredictable work is seldom truly unpredictable. Her clients were choosing which freelancers to reach out to. If they knew she was available Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for sure, they'd be more likely to put her on top of their lists for those days. If she was getting work regularly on those days, and turning in high quality work (because she was less fragmented!) she might earn enough that she could tell her clients that the other days of the week would be less good for her. Or she might earn enough to consider hiring a sitter for a few hours on those days. Either way, she'd be getting plenty of focused time with her baby, and focused time for work too. That beats the constant crazy-making back and forth that comes from trying to do both at the same time. She might even be able to disconnect for an hour or two after her older child came home from preschool. I don't urge disconnecting all night, because I know it's not reasonable for many people, but knowing you can check in after a certain period of time usually lessens the pressure to be constantly in and out.

If you work flexibly, and from home, what sorts of childcare arrangements do you have? How have you avoided fragmentation?

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18 Responses to Fragmentation, and what to do about it

  1. Aly says:

    I work remotely from home and have for for 8 years. I have a 4-month old now. People are often saying oh you can watch the baby while you work? Hell no! Not only is it against my contract not to have childcare, I wouldn’t get much done. Baby attends full-time daycare.

    • ARC says:

      YES! this was a pet peeve of mine when people at my big company would talk about working from home so they could spend more time with their babies. I think it’s so smart for companies to write in that someone is not the primary caregiver during their work time into the contract ๐Ÿ™‚ Because some people ruin “working from home” for the rest of us ๐Ÿ™

      • @ARC – exactly. I sometimes hear of working from home as being a way to save on childcare. Um, no, at least until the kids are in that short time span of being self-entertaining, yet not old enough to be by themselves, and even then only for like an hour or two after school, not for the whole day.

    • Naomi says:

      So agree I work from home 1 to 2 days a week due to long commute and young child. To counter this idea I was looking after my child I made sure everyone knew that he went to child care everyday. I needed to do this as many women in my workplace worked from home and looked after young children. When coworkers do this it ruins the trust system.

  2. ARC says:

    I am starting flexible work from home this week, and my husband also works from home. We’ve enrolled our younger child in half-day afternoon private kindergarten to complement her existing half day morning public K class. This gives us about 6 hours where kids are both at school. One of us does have to go pick up at one program and drive across the street to the other, but we can do this in <20 min total.

    There would have been advantages to sending our kindergartner to after-care at her own school (which is ridiculously inexpensive, like $2.50 an hour), but I wanted her to have a full day of school. Plus I am not super excited about the aftercare program overall. So we chose the slightly less convenient option.

    We basically stagger our days. Hubby starts work early and I get the kids through the morning routine. We all walk them to school together. I typically do mid-day pickup and transport of the kindergartner to the other school. Hubby picks up both kids from their schools, and gets them set up for snack and afternoon stuff so I get to work a bit more at the end of the day. At least that's the plan. ๐Ÿ™‚

    We specifically did not add after-school hours care for either child because we don't want to shorten our afternoons with them. I'd rather work a bit after their 7pm bedtime as needed, but with a 30 hour schedule, I shouldn't need too much of this.

    Hubby is always connected to work (software engineer) so he is definitely getting his hours in. He often spends time in the evening to work on an issue that's bothering him, etc.

    We are working hard not to schedule overlapping business travel, which is occasional for both of us.

    We are lucky to have a drop in daycare available to us if we're in a bind in the late afternoon. But the girls are fairly self-entertaining at this point so we can get some work done while they are here though it is less than ideal.

    This weird two-school thing will only be an issue until June 1, so I can live with it for a bit. For the summer, the girls will be in "full" day camps (9am – 3pm roughly).

    We make it work by splitting the load between both parents if we don't have childcare available, like on President's Day, etc.

  3. Sofia says:

    Excellent article.

  4. Tana says:

    I homeschool and work from home. We do school in the morning and then my kids are all tired of me so they pretty much leave me alone and I can work for an hour two – focused work – in the afternoon. That said, when my husband is around, the chaos goes to a whole new level and it takes all morning to do an hour of work and the work that I do is horrid and I have to do more checking later (just like your experience). When my kids were younger, I’d get up at 4:30 AM on the weekend, leave at 5 and drive a half hour to Starbucks, arriving the moment they opened. Then I would work for 3-4 solid hours and get a lot done. My husband had a cow about all the miles I put on the car (we live in a small town ~3000 outside a city of 350K), but that was the only way I could work and be productive and accurate. My husband did a house project last weekend (painting with wait times between coats) and I ended up going to town and working at Starbucks. I cannot do school with the kids or work when he is around. I only work about 10 hours a week, but it is enough to keep my finger in the industry and have something I could expand on or put on a resume if I needed to step it up to another level if something happened to my husband.

  5. Natalie says:

    I work from home and love to do the pre-school drop off and pick up. Between the hard starts and stops of school times, meetings, calls etc, there is just not enough stretches of time for my “deep work”. The solution that has worked so well for our family – is for the grandparents to handle pick up at school one day a week, have my son sleepover and drop him off at school the next day. Having at least two days where I can get long uninterrupted work time (late one night and early the next morning) has been fabulous for getting work done. It’s also been great for my son and grandparents who are very close.

    • @Natalie – how wonderful that you have that available to you, and that you use it!

  6. Amy Laski says:

    I have run my virtual communications and content agency from home for 6+ years, managing a team of ~25 remotely. I am fortunate to have a full-time nanny, and she and my kids know that when I am “at work” (in my office) that they are supposed to leave me work. It’s effective…most of the time! On days when I have been in meetings that end around the time my kids get home from school, I try not to “break the seal,” by which I mean, come home when I have an hour or so left of paid childcare. That’s because it usually takes at least a half hour of “transition” time when I arrive home where my kids are eager to tell me about their days, and are generally seeking my attention. This eats into the time of day when I like to wrap up loose ends for work etc. Even though I generally prefer to work from my home office, I’ve found it’s better to go to a nearby coffee shop or our local library for that last hour. This way, when I do get home, I feel like I’ve gotten what I need to get done (mostly!) for work and can focus my attention entirely on my kids, without feeling fragmented.

    • @Amy – break the seal – nice image ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, as soon as I walk in the door, it’s hard to get back in the zone. I generally try to do my concentrated work during the school day, because while the 3-year-old has supervision, the big kids generally get the run of the house, and it’s inevitable that someone will start bouncing a ball next to my office.

  7. I work from home. I have a 2 and a half year old at home and two older kids in school. I try to read and play with the little one for a half hour after drop off, and then I focus on work while he independently plays and/or watches a DVD, then naps, until pickup time. Occasionally my husband’s schedule allows him to pick the kids up, giving me a little bit more time. We’ve got cousins who don’t live far off and love having my kids over, so sometimes I take my kids over there with my laptop and work in another room if I am in a pinch or independent play didn’t work out so well earlier in the day. I’ve also used my gym childcare to drop the kids off and use the gym wifi to work in the lounge. I also have a list of indoor play spots that allow me to sit while watching my child play, and I can do things like mark papers or do planning at places like those. My bigger challenge is actually people who know that I work from home and then therefore think my time is flexible enough for drop in visits. I’ve had to draw a boundary and for the most part it has worked out ok.

    • @Phoebe – the indoor play places is a creative idea for a normal preschooler. My 3-year-old requires closer supervision, as he’s the kind of kid who will figure out a way to get on top of the gym and leap to the ceiling fan. Work is not an option just yet…

  8. Natalia says:

    Excellent post and comments! They make me think that part of dealing with fragmentation is having the right mindset about relaxing in the slots of time not devoted to work, and being firm about boundaries. Sometimes fragmentation is a story that’s so engrained in our brains that it makes us feel restless even when there’s no need to.

    • @Natalia- relaxing can be hard. But I think when we know we have time for the work it becomes easier to have time to relax (or engage with other people). All time doesn’t have to be in play.

  9. My kids are older, but I homeschool, so they’re still here at home. And if I’m trying to work and they’re interrupting me (“Mom! I need help on this math problem!” “Mom! Sibling x won’t move their stuff!”), I can still feel very distracted. So, I’ve been trying to block out at least one multi-hour work session a week where I tell them not to interrupt me unless someone is dying. I can help with math problems later. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • @Kristen – it’s probably good training for them to learn to make a list of things to ask Mom later. I bet some of the things magically disappear after a few hours anyway!

      • Kristen says:

        You would be surprised how often someone can figure out a math problem on their own if mom is magically unavailable. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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