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Working-From-Home with a Sick Child

I'm grateful for the freedom to work at home when my infant is sick, but I don't particularly look forward to it.

Mother typing on computer while holding infant

I'm about 5 months into my first job as a developer. Officially, we do not have standard work-from-home days; however, we are allowed to work-from-home due to unplanned and unavoidable circumstances. In my case, most unplanned circumstances take the form of my 2-year-old daughter being sick. I'm grateful for the freedom to work at home when my child is sick, but I don't particularly look forward to it. For one, my productivity is affected; take, for example, the time lost waiting for a response on Slack vs. simply walking over to a teammates desk, or connectivity issues during meetings via video-conferencing. Now add to that a justifiably whiny child seeking your undivided attention, and it's the perfect frustration storm.

I've had a few WFH days with a sick child under my belt, and they've helped me develop a list of tips for maximizing such a work arrangement. Here they are:

1. Accept that the day will not be as #winning as one at the office.

The goal is to make the day as productive as possible, not to achieve the same level and/or quality of output as when you're onsite.

2. Release any guilt over choosing to be available to your child.

This was a tough one for me. I'm one of very few parents on my team and I would feel guilty - imagine, guilty! - for having a child that needed my attention. Such feelings only served to cloud my mind and distract me from my work.

3. Release any resentment over having to be there for your child AND your work.

Admittedly, I caught myself thinking "Why oh why did you even get sick? At least give me 3-4 months in between illness episodes?" My accusations made my child the issue, which is all shades of unfair. I make this embarrassing confession to let other moms with similar emotions know that they are not alone. These feelings come from the tensions that every working mother is familiar with; the pull between being needed at work and being needed at home. Again, release the guilt and embrace the truth that you are strong and present enough to fulfill both your professional and family obligations.

4. Take on and/or prioritize tasks that do not require as much deep focus.

I would explain to my manager that, in order to accomplish as much as possible while WFH, I'd prefer tasks that involve less deep thought. Is there documentation that needs updating? Tech debt that could be cleared up? Basically, any tasks that are more rote than cerebral. If you cannot avoid deep-focus tasks, try tackling them during your child's nap, or reach out to a friend/family member to watch your child for a few hours while you work on said task.

5. Divvy your chosen tasks into mini-parts and take a small break after each one to attend to your child.

Once I deliberately built childcare moments into my work-from-home schedule, I actually increased my productivity without forcing myself to ignore my daughter or offer her only shallow attention. For every 25-30 mins of work, I would spend 5-10 mins either attending to my child or enjoying a mental break. Choose the pomodoro interval that works best for you.

6. Eliminate time-consuming parent-child battles by offering only your child's favorites.

For example, one work-from-home-child-sick day, I fed my daughter only oatmeal and toast - her favorite foods. Let the day be the exception: meal-times won't dissolve into a battle that leaves you frazzled and distracted.

7. Resist any urges to do anything more than just tending to your sick child.

Not even one load of laundry, or one round of dishes, or a surface wipe-down. Remind yourself that if you were at work, you wouldn't be on hand to complete any of those chores.

I hope these tips help you during your next work-from-home-with-a-sick-child day. Drop some comments below!