Office for Three: Musings from a Single Dad in Quarantine (Part 1)
June 2, 2020
BY: Alexander Zarwi
Guest blog post by Alexander Zarwi
Out here in my neck of the virulent woods, my two daughters and I are entering a new month of quarantine. For us, that means my house has become the place where we share an office, an elementary school, and our collective sanity in unprecedented ways. Balancing homeschooling for a third grader and a kindergartner while simultaneously tending to a gaggle of clients is not a reality I expected to face. On the other hand, I’m grateful I can earn a living inside my home and away from much more frightening prospects. I feel lucky to have my health, my girls half of the time, evidently lots of patience, and hand soap for at least three more weeks (please contact me if you find a store, ANY store, with supply).
Gratitude itself, however, only takes me so far; my kids have needs beyond what I usually provide, and I struggle often with staying on-task at work (which is busier than ever right now) and being present with them. It’s especially difficult when I have a conference call in one ear and calls for recess in the other. In other words, trying to piece together your universe from scratch is hard!
But here’s the thing: I am doing it (and so are you). It’s not always pretty, and I am not thriving. But I am surviving, and I am doing it in ways I didn’t know I was capable. Although navigating daily life right now is a work in progress, I have found many ways to maintain some order and stability during this challenging time. Like many of us, I am flying my plane as I build it; my hope is that some of my thoughts on how to care for myself and my children while in quarantine will be useful for you, too.
1. Stop keeping score. The work-life balance had clear delineations in previous times: when I was at work, I crushed it there; when I came home to family, I gave them my all. But now that work hours are tangled with time spent with family, it’s hard to apply singular focus the way I am accustomed. I dislike telling my kids, ‘I can’t right now,’ but engaging with them on-demand affects my work output. Consequently, sometimes I am hard on myself for not performing at my best at work or at home.
If you’re doing the same, be like Elsa and let it go. Stop judging yourself based on pre-pandemic life, and take moments during the day to acknowledge your accomplishments in this challenging time. If you have happy kids, a happy boss, and enough toilet paper, you’re doing it right.
2. Give your kids buy-in by asking them for help. My kids and I are together a lot more now, and I discovered quickly that I cannot be the only one to generate all of the ideas about how we pass the time together. To give my kids some input into our day, I asked them to sit down and write out some things they could do by themselves and we could do together. They made lists of activities to do, food to cook/bake, and parties to throw (Christmas will return early this year).
A rigid, minute-by-minute plan of the day has proven hard to follow. These lists serve as a menu of activity options, plus they add flexibility to planning the schedule. To be sure, I also make the girls aware of our daily must-dos. (For fun, I taught them to prepare breakfast for me as part of their morning routine. Say what you will, but they are eager to please and enjoy the responsibility.)
3. Embrace improvised workstations. It’s no secret that humans traditionally thrive with structure and routine. But in a world where variety is restricted to which seat in the house will get the most attention from your butt today, improvisation can keep your day interesting and surprising.
When it comes to setting up camp for our work/school day in my home, workstations are everywhere and anywhere, and we all mix and match daily. With three laptops and two floors of space between us, some days I work upstairs where I can focus more intensely, while other days I sit in the porch with a great view of the tumbleweeds passing by.
Sometimes my eldest insists we sit side-by-side on the couch, with our laptops truly in our laps. While not ideal for me, I appreciate that it’s meaningful for her and that we are making special memories. I can also easily help with math class and she can crash my zoom meetings. Embracing the unstructured moments keeps the day fresh and often brings out pleasant surprises.
4. Screen time is okay. Allowing your children iPads and TV does not make you a bad parent. As previously mentioned, give yourself the occasional break and choose sanity. Moderation is important, but screens can also be tools to facilitate family fun and productivity. And let’s face it: sometimes we need a screen to sub as a babysitter while we take care of our usual business.
Houseparty is a cool social app for connecting with family and friends over a game, and Messenger for Kids has helped my daughter stay in touch with her friends. On YouTube, my kids enjoy videos of families and children playing games. Together, we like The Descendants, Ellen’s Game of Games, and America’s Got Talent. Disney’s Onward was a real tear-jerker for me. (A movie about two children desperately trying to bring their father back to life for 24 hours? Come on!).
5. Play nice with your ex. One of the benefits of divorce (yes, there are some) is that you get to make your own household rules when your children are in your care. But these days, it’s important to communicate with your co-parent to align on standards of quarantine safety. I am lucky that my ex-spouse is also able to earn a living from home, and we are similarly vigilant about social distancing. Consequently, my kids are seeing each of us more, we are improvising our parenting schedule effectively, and we are sharing valuable resources like…hand sanitizer. My ex even gave me a haircut! (She watched a YouTube video before starting, but despite the risks, I figured it was safer than handing the shears to my five-year-old.)
In a world where your former partner is the only adult you trust to stand within six feet of you, you’re each incentivized to collaborate effectively for the benefit of your kids and yourself.
6. Keep entertainment simple. Not unlike other parents, I often find that I put pressure on myself to be physically present for my children. I take pride in being a hands-on father in every sense of the word. Just as it was before quarantine, however, it’s not possible to perpetually entertain. It’s even more impossible (if that makes any sense) when all parks and all non-essential businesses (i.e. fun places to take your kids) are closed.
But basic needs notwithstanding, I have discovered that most of the time my children are happiest just enjoying my presence or being left alone. Legos, drawing, crafts, and games of ‘throw me on the bed!’ are now daily pastimes and bring many smiles. Their innate creativity and imaginations are tools to entertain themselves and one another through the basic yet joyful activity of make-believe. When it comes to entertaining small children at home, I have learned that less is almost always more.
Alexander Zarwi makes a living in commercial real estate in northern New Jersey. When he’s not at work, he likes to produce content that connects with others and makes people smile. He’s a dad to two young daughters who bring him smiles every day. You may find him on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.