Self-isolation…with kids.

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Artist: Carolin Wedel. Like the image? Visit the ScillustrationsShop for more.

TIR shares the stories of scientist parents coping with self-isolation.

It’s all there in the title on this one. We know a lot of you out there are having to manage the self-isolation period while also managing children, and that’s no different whether you’re a scientist or in some other profession. Here are a few accounts of scientist parents and the various way that they’re coping – or not – with the situation. 

A big thanks to all our contributors, and we hope that if you’re in a similar situation, reading this is helpful.

If you’d like to share your own experiences, either leave a comment here or send a DM to @TIRscienceblog.

Best wishes to everybody; stay healthy, stay safe, stay at home.

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I feel like our parenting (or maybe just mine) has become really specialised (akin to my scientific specialisation). With major contributions from grandparents and other family, kindergarten and the school, my role was pretty focused. 2 hours in the morning, 4 hours at night, 1 Wednesday a fortnight, and weekends. I had figured out the rules, risks, benefits, and I was getting pretty good at it. Now I’ve been asked to become the complete package again, something I haven’t been since they were less than 1. Maybe this feels like being made to lecture a complete 1st year biology, biochem, chemistry and physics course with 24 hours notice 15 years after graduating. I’m exhausted and stressed and drinking.

But at least we are all healthy.

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I think the key is not to expect to get much work done, and then celebrate once you manage a few hours. The situation is as it is, and, in comparison with my colleagues and friends in other countries, it’s just great to live in Germany. In comparison to many at-risk people, we as a family with young children are still fine and the chances that any of us dies are small. Thus, even though right now it feels really stressful, and we start appreciating all the work the kindergarden teachers are doing  for us, it may help to remind ourselves, that, in comparison, we have little to complain about. And, we are NOT isolated, in contrast to many other people who live alone. These people may manage home office better, but only if they are really self-organised and don’t get depressed by loneliness. We can chat to each other. We can go for a walk together. The hardest bit is not knowing when all this ends, and to avoid checking on the news every minute.

I have a 3 year-old daughter and a 6 year-old son. I get up at 6am to have at least one hour to myself. My daughter joins me at about 7:30 and she is allowed to ‘work’ with me. This means that she draws something and constantly chats, but I plan my work to have some routine done during that time and just answer ‘This is really beautiful’ at the expected intervals. If my spouse is not working, he will take over later and gives me some time until about 12pm. I am using noise-cancelling headphones. Afterwards, it’s kids time. What really works well is preschool time. We play school with real school bags, and breaks and all these things. And it gives me at least some intellectual challenge to think of experiments that both like. Yesterday, in physics, the older one measured the distance a brick would be moved by a marble in dependence on where the brick was placed on the marble-track and the younger put the marbles to the track. It gives them some routine. Then we go out, usually to the forest, where we have our very special private playground and the goal is to get them as tired as possible. Of course, we do use movies etc too, and this gives an extra hour. We alternate bringing them to bed, and if it’s my time with my little one, I stand a chance to manage some work afterwards, if I’m not too tired. And yes, there is the domestic stuff too, the daily run for toilet paper and things.

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The last two weeks have been very difficult from a parenting perspective for my spouse and myself. Even with all research activity (both personal and in the group) suspended, the nonstop nature of having to look after two boys all day, every day, is absolutely exhausting us and leaving no time for anything outside of parenting and domestic chores. I’m supposed to be revising a paper and I’d like to keep up with the admin, but at present it’s a good day if I manage to write 2-3 e-mails.

I have been getting more and more wound up and frustrated (not for the first time) with a lot of the online chatter about how to leverage this time and find solutions etc etc. This may be feasible if you’re childless, but I really don’t see any way of getting any more done than I am now because there simply isn’t time.

The last couple of days have been better and I feel we’re adjusting to a new routine and new expectations. We try to ensure that each of us gets at least 45min per day to work, exercise, have some solo time. Keeping away from the booze is a challenge too – when you spend most of the day providing voices for multiple inanimate objects and inventing stories it’s easier to do it half-cut, but then you’re less able to make use of time if it suddenly becomes available. 

Also, I’m slowly going mad because I have the lyrics of “Lemon Tree” going round and round in my head all day (Isolation is not good for me / Isolation I don’t want to sit on the lemon tree). We’ve all been ill but not too badly, not sure if it’s a seasonal bug or the real thing.

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Home-parenting/schooling and working-from-home are two mutually exclusive activities (unless drastic steps are taken. We put so much pressure on ourselves, and from outside, to achieve so much. To keep up with the school curriculum and do amazing craft projects with our kids each day, whilst whipping up a quick paper. If we just keep ourselves and our kids alive during this time, surely that is enough? Not to mention that it is difficult to concentrate even when we do have time to work, due to compulsively checking the latest figures on the pandemic.

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I’m at home with food and family so considering that thousands are dying every day I am privileged to write this. Anyway… We are at home with our 13-year-old boy. It’s a different situation in comparison to isolation with toddlers. It’s more of a formalised pain. The adolescent duties you have to carry out are not solely orientated around food, games, and basic entertainment. No. These duties involve education, or rather supervision of homework, plus discussions about everything. We are now teachers in the classical sense, and to be honest I am not that good at it. OK, it’s not as bad as 24/7 with young ones because they need attention, and attention is what you are short of. Clearly, toddlers are harder to deal with in every sense. Oddly, adolescents require that we think with them. Sometimes they don’t want you around!  Normal, I suppose. All this is not so bad though. After all – they are our kids. For me, the problem is elsewhere. It is the combined lack of clarity and limitations in movement that somehow equal low productivity. I feel free but imprisoned, ready but unsure. Socialmediacs are pumped on this but not me. We will get used to it. The question is – will the kids?

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I get up at 5am because our son for whatever reason decides this is a a great time to play. After breakfast, drawing, playing, fighting, crying, laughing, getting dressed, brushing teeth, more playing, reading, singing,…at 8 am I switch over with my spouse and get to work. Then I deal with a new job, and struggle with trying to figure out what I’m trying to accomplish in this strange situation – I work with many people who don’t have kids, meetings happen any time in the day, and I struggle to set boundaries because I’m trying to impress, be positive, not seem frustrated. I feel I’m trying to fake my way through it, and it’s a lot harder via Zoom. I’m answering many emails and calls, also from friends and family who need my support too. At about 1pm, we have lunch and switch childcare. If I’m lucky our son will nap (the holy hour!) and I can either catch up on more work or, for self care, get some exercise. After this it’s coming up with activities – kids yoga, an art project, draw more, play more, build a race car track, (squeeze in a an email or two on my phone while losing at Memory), get groceries, not to have our son touch everything and then stick his fingers in his face… the hours move by. Time to make dinner, eat dinner, try to be on a last work call for a few minutes (i.e sit him in front of a screen, where I then struggle to peel him away again) get ready for bed, read stories, sing songs. Finally our son sleeps. Most days not before 9:30pm. One hour of losing myself in social media, calling a friend, talking to my spouse. Bed.

Repeat.

And to be honest, most days it’s not that bad at all. I enjoy having so much time with our son. It’s the juggling and meeting expectations that’s hard. Having a good day? Great. Having a bad one? Things just got so much worse.

But I realise how lucky I am and how easy I have it.

We retreated to a house in the countryside, where you still can go outside, and where we have lots and lots to explore. I can’t even imagine how it would be being stuck in our tiny flat in the city, where you can’t go anywhere without being too close to people.

The weather is great, and as of now, we can still go out into the woods for treasure hunts.

I have a job, I have money, I don’t have to worry.

We are all healthy, also our parents and relatives.

I empathise with people who get anxious being stuck at home, alone, with no tools to come up with something to do. I am an only child, I learned how to entertain myself early, in fact I need some regular alone time.

I am grateful for the efforts of the dance/yoga/music community to provide us with the joy of the studio at home (I cried doing my first dance class in my living room – it felt so good and I know I need to make it a priority).

I have a spouse who takes half the load, we don’t have much time with each other, which is ironic as we are both home all day, but we divide everything to not duplicate or overlap efforts to not go insane.

I have only one child (although, I guess that could be a downside – he has no one to play with. I guess it depends on the situation and the kids what’s better here).

I have a child that’s not yet in school, I don’t have to deal with keeping up with schoolwork – a load I have no idea working parents manage.

We have the technology to stay in touch and connected with the world (maybe too much).

So, all in all the isolation itself doesn’t bother me. Life has gotten very simple suddenly. Our son loves it, he doesn’t ever want to go back to kindergarten. My spouse is pretty content too. If I could manage my own expectations of myself, balance the need for productivity with the need to let go, it would actually be really pleasant. Like a vacation. With kids. Which is not relaxing, but also doesn’t kill you.

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This is what I/we are doing/trying to do (though only 4 days in…)

– keep brainwashing yourself that productive types have a screw loose in these circumstances and are deficient two-dimensional human beings, whereas you are whole and thereby inherently superior.

– don’t look at Twitter (see above!).

– do what you want to do (probably sooner or later that is some subset of your work).

– rarely look at the news. 

– keep the kids eating/sleeping routines and food habits the same as nursery/school, even if lunch is at 11.30.

– star jumps (who can do the most).

– being quiet competitions.

– have a “special day person” who gets to do jobs like opening the door, turning on the washing machine, laying the table.

– teach older ones to get their own cereal/milk.

– water bottles so you are not constantly getting drinks that get spilled.

– do not put the TV on first thing in the morning, try to get them outside. 

– make nursery/school hours like nursery/school with one parent with the other one locked away with their own chocolate/coffee/computer, swapping at lunch or taking days each.

– save packaging for junk modelling.

– pens are attentive-parent supervision only (no sneaky emails) to save having to clean pen off everything and them.

– after 4-5 pm everyone binges on screens, any extra energy, do star jump competitions, running-to-cuddles or jumping on beds before lights out.

– bribe with the promise of chocolate after dinner.

– be clear with rules/acceptable behaviour so they tell on/police each other.

– 1-2 hours downtime to yourself (no Twitter) per day, exercise, TV, long shower – any work will be better for it.

– re-divert any work you can to no-kids-people who might just do it for you.

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It’s been total shit. Since my spouse, a doctor, is now working in the hospital round the clock, I am trying to work from home more or less alone with my 1.5 year old who can amuse himself for a total of 5 minutes on his own if I am lucky. I have held at least 2 conference calls on speakerphone in the past week while trying to change a diaper at the same time. I’m lucky that my direct boss is in the same situation, but without having anyone to watch the kids even for a few hours (since the grandparents are out of the question at the moment and the daycare is closed) I am spending all my free minutes writing emails on my phone while making sure our son does not hurt himself, or trying to catch up with the most important things for work after he goes to bed at night (if he goes to bed at night). I am not spending quality time with him (as I am always distracted) or at work (since I am again always distracted).

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We only have one toddler, and after thinking that this was going to be an opportunity to catch up on reading and writing, it quickly became clear that nap time was the only time we had to do any work and then it was for 1-2 hours at the most. We tried the ‘divide and conquer’ approach – one parent taking the morning shift and one the afternoon. But that just meant that our baby became obsessed with the working parent. Working at night after bedtime is doable – but it’s a pretty full day looking after a toddler and so by then we are both feeling tired. We decided to just do the best we can and ignore those on social media, because who really knows what’s happening behind the screen. And more than that – these are strange times and going from full-time working to full-time working from home takes some adjustment. I’ve really enjoyed this time with my child – we’ve had fun together and for me, now, that’s what I’m focusing on. So I working during nap time and a couple of hours at night; it’s not the equivalent of a full day but it’s the best I can do. 

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We are struggling – it’s not for nothing that the government has been promoting abuse hotlines. Being stuck with the same people in the same place together for a long time is just hard, especially with young kids. My eldest daughter has been a godsend in that she can look after the two younger kids for some time, but she’ll be leaving tomorrow. 

Spending time trying to entertain two young kids, without just letting them watch TV all day (which also makes them super grumpy) inside our house is just exhausting. I’m putting out the fires at work where I can, but any real work is very trying. Adding that my partner’s work hasn’t slowed down at all, and much of the childcare ends up on me, also makes me resentful – trying to reasonably share house/childcare somehow equally is also a huge challenge.

Also – having to cook and clean up breakfast lunch and dinner every day is a new challenge – incredible how much extra work a single meal is (or the three that the kids need to get through the day, they could be friggin’ hobbits with their second breakfasts, elevenses, lunch, tea-time, pre-dinner snack – and then at dinner they aren’t hungry anymore!).

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I am also slowly going nuts because we were in the middle of switching the kids’ room with our sleeping room. We managed to finish it yesterday but later this week we are supposed to have air conditioning installed. Such firms can still work despite the situation which is good but another couple of days will be lost.

 

I am supposed to be recording my lectures but you can imagine how that’s going….

 

We are lucky that our two girls are mature enough to look after their little brother, occupy themselves and help us (under protest) but our son is a real handful. On the other hand, I see him every day and see how quickly he develops. He is so sweet (except when he refuses to open his mouth to attract attention…).

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I also did not get much work done last week (my spouse being on the hospital duty the whole week and us renovating the kitchen on top of everything!). But I switched to a survival mode and do things according to my priority list. This includes staying healthy, having enough to eat, and keeping the kids from killing each other or me, especially when I mention homework. Science is not very high on the list right now, but it is getting higher, as we all adjust to the situation. No need to get too upset about the things we do not do, we should focus on the things we do manage to do successfully, even if it is only feeding the cat. Or finally getting all the laundry done! Or getting the last package of toilet paper from the shop.

I do wish that we could do something more than just sit at home and listen to the news! It makes me want to become a virologist. 🙂 All this school and gathered knowledge and I still feel useless. 🙂

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I would be amazed if I managed to write papers, plan reviews, plan experiments, mentor etc while trying to maintain my sanity, home school our kids, and run our household. And actually on a serious note our children need us right now. This is a crazy time for them too and they need our love and our attention. Imagine how long this isolation is going to feel in the eyes of a child – think how long the summer holidays used to feel, and during those times we could go wherever we wanted, visit friends, go to the beach etc. As a fraction of a child’s life this is going to feel very long. Right now my two kids are finding it fun – in the UK we have only been out of school for a week- but they may not always feel like this if social distancing goes on for months.

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Artwork:

Artwork this week is from Carolin Wedel. Carolin did her PhD in molecular parasitology and currently works in biotech. She also produces cool science-themed stickers like the one shown here.

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