Yesterday I was speaking to a former birth client, touching base about life with a tot, a spouse working full-time out of the home, and her own extremely demanding upper-level NYC job now being done from home. For eight weeks, my friend has chased after her small kiddo, cooked every meal, cared for her various pets, and cleaned her house solo all while working full-time from home without any child care assistance. She even tries to sleep or go on runs sometimes… imagine. This juggling act was not without its blessings (health, being out of the city in a safe home with space indoors and out, and more time with her toddler), but she described it as manageable only in that it had to be done, by her, each day, and by just putting one foot in front of the next. She described literally running from room to room and planning international work calls for late, late at night to work around her daughter’s sleep schedule.
This friend, she is exhausted, and finally surrendered her strict quarantine (she suffers from asthma) to bring in outside help to assist with her daughter. Her breaking point was her child literally ripping the headphones off her head during an intense work call, demanding her attention, in tears. Who could blame this nearly two-year-old? Mom is home, but often unavailable, there but not there. Everyone was essentially at their breaking point.
What I heard in my extremely resilient friend’s voice was a mixture of exhaustion, guilt, and frustration. I also heard the cautious and concerned relief of having another adult at last in the home to help a bit. Mostly, I heard the familiar voice of a person accustomed to somehow pulling off the tightrope act of motherhood feeling like her usual ways to establish sanity and balance were unavailable to her.
For this reason, this week, Baby Botanica Life & Career Coach, Christine Walker, joins us to talk about ways in which we can create and maintain balance during these unprecedented times. Thanks for joining us Christine!
7 Ways to Stay Balanced When Working From Home
By Christine Walker
There are so many mixed emotions involved in trying to juggle work and family, especially when those worlds overlap the way they are for anyone currently working from home during the COVID-19 quarantine. Trying to juggle caring for young children, maintaining a house, and working hard enough to keep your job when people are being laid off left and right can feel overwhelming. Add fear and anxiety about our uncertain circumstances on top of all of that, and we’re looking at a potential recipe for complex traumatic stress.
Fortunately, even during these challenging times, there are a few things you can do to help maintain a sense of balance.
Identify Your Minimums
If you balanced your life pre-COVID-19 with a lot of help: cleaning help, cooking help, childcare, etc. It’s probably not going to be possible to maintain that same lifestyle without help during the quarantine. When circumstances change, we need to change with them, and one of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to identify your minimums. Your minimums are the things you must do to keep your stress levels in check.
For example, I’ve learned over the years that having a messy kitchen is really stressful for me. If my kitchen stays messy for too long, I will almost always lose my temper about something. For some reason, that’s my thing. Having a messy kitchen throws me off my game. But, if my kitchen is clean, I can let the rest of my house go for quite a while without getting overly stressed. This doesn’t mean I have to let the rest of my house go. It just means I know where I can pull back without losing my equilibrium when things get tough.
Convince Your Brain You Are Safe
Once you understand where you can let go and ease up on your expectations, the next thing I recommend doing to stay balanced is to create a daily structure that creates space for the minimums you need to stay balanced. This will probably look very different from your pre-COVID-19 daily schedule, but what this will do is give you a sense of control, which is the key to convincing your brain that you are safe.
Bessel Van der Kolk who wrote, The Body Keeps the Score, said, “Being in a situation where you cannot do what you always do, where you’re basically rendered helpless, that’s the definition of trauma.” It’s the feeling of being powerless to change your circumstances that creates trauma. To counteract this, it’s important to create a sense of safety by controlling what you can, and one of the things you can control is how you structure your day.
Use the 5-Minute Rule
Anyone with young children knows that your daily schedule needs plenty of room for flexibility because children of any age, but especially young children, can’t always control when they need your help. Ignoring them might help you get your work done, but it tends to be emotionally expensive. So, another rule that my clients have found helpful is something Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, calls the 5-Minute Rule. She says, “If something would take five minutes or less, I’d do it right then and there and avoid the heavy psychic weight of a longer to-do list.”
Using the 5-minute rule can give you a clear boundary so that you know when to say yes and when to say not until later without feeling guilty.
Eat the Frog
Another strategy I like to use when I’m working from home surrounded by my four children is a technique called “Eating the Frog.” Mark Twain once famously said, “Eat a live frog first thing every morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” If you can start your day by getting your most difficult or urgent task out of the way, everything else will be easier. Your stress will decrease measurably, and you will feel much less stress managing unplanned interruptions.
Prioritize Connection and Sex
Something else you can do to control your stress levels is make time for connecting and getting in sync with the people you love. Bessel van der Kolk recommends, “getting into rhythmical harmony with other people.” He explains that this is, “the core mammalian sense of safety.” To create this rhythmical harmony, he recommends singing. I’m essentially tone deaf, so I personally prefer dancing, but when done with groups of people, they both work to foster a communal sense of safety that helps counteract helplessness and stress in the brain.
Another valuable thing to prioritize is sex with your partner. This can be challenging if you’re feeling tired and overwhelmed, but the oxytocin that is released after orgasm promotes the bonding and connection your brains need to feel safe, so making time and space for sex can go a long way in creating a stable, emotional foundation for your family.
Adapt Your Roles
This goes back to the idea that when circumstances change, we need to change with them, and that might mean adapting the roles that we’ve fallen into with our partner. For example, I’ve always had a much more flexible job than my husband, so normally I take care of a lot of the traditional homemaking responsibilities: cooking, cleaning, etc. However, with the quarantine, that has all changed. My husband no longer commutes, and he has an office upstairs where he can work quietly all day. My office is in the middle of the house where I get interrupted constantly. As a result, my work hours have increased dramatically, and we’ve had to adapt. My husband now cooks and cleans as much as I do, and we’re both really enjoying this shift.
Create a Menu of Self-Care
Finally, managing stress right now means fostering self-compassion and taking time to care for ourselves now more than ever, but not all self-care is created equal. For example, a hot bath might be just the thing when you need to recharge, but it might not have the same effect when you are feeling full of anxious energy. Going for a run, doing a yoga routine, or cleaning the tub might be more effective for releasing anxious energy.
Deb Dana, LCSW recommends creating a 3-column menu of self-care activities to keep handy. Use the first column for a list of activities that give you energy, the second column for a list of activities that can release excess energy in a safe way, and a third column for a list of activities that can help you savor and deepen your good moments. Once you have your menu, start tuning into yourself and using it whenever you need it.
Obviously, there are many ways to manage stress and maintain balance. However, this is not the time to be an overachiever. Trying to jump in and do everything I’ve just listed right away will probably make your stress worse, not better. Just start with one. Pick the one that stands out to you as the easiest to implement and start there. Alternately, consider “eating the frog.” Sometimes what we avoid is what we need most, so you might want to choose the one that seems the hardest.
Ultimately, you are the best judge of what you need, so trust yourself. And if you want more support, you’re more than welcome to join our free Balanced Life Group on Sundays at 2pm. You can sign up HERE.