How I stay sane while I work and parent simultaneously

When people find out that I’m actually productive while my young son is at home with me several days a week, the look on their faces is downright priceless. It’s a combination of awe and disbelief, peppered with confusion and desperation.

“Tell me your secrets,” they plead feverishly.

That’s what I plan to do in this blog post.

Ready? Almost there.

But first, a disclaimer is necessary. I’m about to share what works for me and my son, but I know what all parents know: kids are created equally but they are not the same. The tricks and techniques that work beautifully for one kid might be completely ineffective on others. That said, please give it a shot and perhaps along the way, you’ll find out more about what does and does not work for you, your parenting style, and your unique beautiful child who is driving you bonkers while you’re at your laptop. 

Okay, with that out of the way, I’m ready to tell you my story. Let’s do a quick rewind to five years ago, when I was taking care of a newborn who refused regular sleep patterns, recovering from a difficult birth, and trying to maintain some semblance of consistency with my freelance work. I had planned to work while my newborn napped, but when he didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t, I didn’t have a backup plan. That was my first mistake. 

My second was thinking I could make any kind of plan (A, B, C, or otherwise) and stick with it, because that’s just not how parenting works. (All the parents who have been parents longer than me, or have multiple kids, are nodding and perhaps even chuckling right now.) It took me several years to realize the first secret to keeping my sanity intact, but after that, the others flowed like hot lava. 

Get really good at adapting to change. Not only will this keep you sane during this period of your time, it will greatly benefit your business down the road. What it will take to achieve this state varies widely among different personality types, so pull out your mantras and sticky-note reminders and brush up on your breathing techniques, because it takes more than “Serenity now!” to get you through this, perhaps the most difficult transition into parenthood. When it comes to work, my best advice is: never procrastinate work when you have a deadline, be honest with your clients about what you can and cannot do and when, and always be thinking about your contingency plan. 

Set the expectations early, clearly, and visually. Creating a visual schedule for the day is immensely helpful to kids. We use a dry erase board now, but a felt board with pictures would probably be really useful for younger kids. At breakfast, we talk about how the day will unfold, using vague blocks of time. “After breakfast, I need to work for a while, so what would you like to do?” “Let’s go for a walk before lunch time, and then after lunch, you can do X or Y while I work.” Including kids in the planning of the day is like getting buy-in from a grumpy CEO. Suddenly they think everything was their idea and they’re psyched to see the plan come to fruition. 

Talk to your child, as much as it takes. Kids don’t understand why we’d rather stare at a laptop and clickity-clack at a keyboard when we could be playing or snuggling with them. They don’t know what money is or why we need it. They really don’t care how important that new client kick-off call is or that you’ll be able to pay attention to them if only you could just get 10 more minutes of actual writing done. We have to teach them all of that. And it happens the same way we teach them about everything else: by repeating it one million times.

Be with your child, as much as you can. One of the most revolutionary things I did to save my sanity was put my son’s desk right next to mine. I was hesitant at first, thinking that he’d surely wreck my concentration at every opportunity, but it’s been a dream. Now, we ‘work’ together. He colors, paints, draws, plays with dinosaurs, and watches videos on his tablet while I write, edit, research, talk with clients, participate in webinars, and so forth. In between my tasks, when I need a break anyway, I turn to my little coworker and find that he’s always ready for a play break, a snack break, a walk break, or whatever. And that buys me another big chunk of productivity time. 

Use a timer. I don’t know what age it is when kids start to understand the passage of time, but it hasn’t happened yet for my son. What he does understand, though, is a kitchen timer. Whether I need 10, 30, or 45 minutes of uninterrupted work time, I tell him that, and together we decide on an activity for him to do for that duration. Then we set the timer together and get started on our respective tasks. When the timer goes off, he knows my attention is his again. (This works spectacularly well if you’re already a fan of the Pomodoro method of working in ‘sprints’, and can definitely be effective with children as young as two years old.) 

I could easily write a book about all the different techniques I tried over the past five years, and what works (and didn’t work) at various ages, but these tips are the prevailing themes so far. These are the things that allow me to run my business without losing my mind, and frankly, have strengthened my relationship with my son. At the end of the day, he knows how hard I work, and he sorta-kinda understands why I do it. Best of all, he knows I’ll be right there to play and snuggle with him when my work is done.