4 Tips to Manage Childcare When You Go Back to the Office

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Even as the optimism of a summer filled with friends, camps, and travel prevails, many parents are already looking ahead to the fall with the return to school and the call back to offices. And with this return to the routine comes the anxiety of potential logistical issues that derails the whole week — a sick kid, a school holiday, the nanny having car trouble, or any number of unpredictable events.

But the past year and a half in the pandemic have taught us things that will help us emerge even stronger than when we entered the pandemic. And you can create a bench of backup help that can be ready when you run into these issues. First, keep your pandemic pod — and consider expanding it. Second, find people with the same patterns or schedules to partner with. Third, build your professional backup bench of sitters, nannies, and teachers. And finally, talk with your manager about being your own backup (when necessary).

Talia is an executive at a Boston area multinational company and the mother to two grade-school-aged boys. Over the past decade, she’s enjoyed advancing through the ranks, delivering consistently strong results while building high performing teams. But the past year and a half have taken its toll, pushing her to both her professional and personal limits.

She is recently divorced, so beyond the typical challenges of navigating such an emotional and foundational change for her family, she had to figure out how to handle schooling the boys from home and providing around-the-clock care without a partner to trade off with. The past year and a half have been a grueling, exhausting marathon that she can only now start to see beyond.

Now though, like many, her workplace is expecting employees to be back in the office for at least three days a week, starting in the fall. And as an executive leading a team of 75, she knows she’ll likely need to be there at least four days — possibly all five.

While she’s looking forward to the reprieve from everyone living, working, and schooling on top of each other, she’s anxious about what that means for the return to a world with hectic schedules and last-minute childcare snafus.

Talia is not alone. Even as the optimism of a summer filled with friends, camps, and travel prevails, many parents are already looking ahead to the fall when the return to school and the call back to offices brings back the feeling of living each day in fear of the next logistical issue that brings down the whole week — whether it’s a sick kid, a school holiday, the nanny having car trouble, or any number of unpredictable things. It’s particularly anxiety-invoking for parents who can’t rely on a partner to divvy it up with.

It seems daunting but there is good news: The past year and a half have taught us things that will help us emerge even stronger than when we entered the pandemic. We’ve been pushed to create new ways to help our families thrive in extreme circumstances and we can use those learnings to build an enduring social support structure — your parenting “bench” — that is grounded as much in camaraderie in the good times as much as in help in the hard times.

Start by evaluating your family’s realities and needs. That might mean acknowledging the increased travel expectations, evening commitments, or a tricky phase one of the kids is going through. It might be realizing there will be an uneven burden on one parent because the other has an intense period at work coming up — or because there simply isn’t another partner in the picture. Once you have an idea of what your needs are, you can decide how to build the right support network.

Here are four approaches for parents to consider, either individually or as a mix of concentric, mutually reinforcing circles.

Keep your pod.

During the height of the pandemic, when many of us still had demanding jobs and kids needing care and schooling and no social outlets, we turned to the concept of “pods” — one or two families that we could safely socialize with, share meal prep with, and swap childcare with. For many, they felt natural because they are natural: They were a mini version of our existing village.

As you think about backup care, keep this mentality around with one change: keep it just as intentional (clearly communicating expectations and needs) but not nearly as rigid (exclusively considering one family to suffice for all needs). Consider expanding your pod to include multiple families for different needs, including socializing, meal help, and last-minute childcare assistance. For each family, have a conversation around the mutual help that would be great to give and get and what it might look like.

For example, you can choose to do communal meals on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, where on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one family makes dinner and delivers it to the other, and on Fridays everyone eats together. You can choose to swap childcare each weekend morning — each family gets 8 AM-noon and swaps on the other day. This is also an option for the tricky after-school slot where families can rotate caring for all the children in the 3-6 PM timeframe. There are many ways to structure the mutually helpful, rotating blocks of care. The key is to identify what each family needs and coming to a communal agreement within your pod.

Find people with the same patterns of your life.

Another option is to look at your family’s schedule in the fall and find people that match parts of that schedule. For example, think of families that go to the same school and share pickup and drop-off times, are on the same soccer team, or go to the same daycare. Get to know three or four of these families and consider making a backup pact with them.

This looks like saying, “Hey, my fall work schedule has me going into the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. In case I’m running late or something comes up on those days, would you be open to taking Cara and Chris to school or bringing them home? I’d be able to do the same for you, especially on Mondays and Fridays. The kids have booster seats they’d be able to bring.” This is especially useful if you find yourself not able to make it to soccer pickup on time or need to deal with one sick kid but still need the other child to get to school. In these cases, you’ll have a ready-to-go set of people you can call.

Keep in mind that you’ll want to be comfortable with how the other family will provide care for your children — car seats, driving rules, etc. — and vice versa. The key is clear, overcommunication and upfront, mutually agreed upon expectations to minimize or lessen issues down the road.

Build your professional backup bench.

This was the go-to option for many of us prepandemic — a network of sitters, nannies, and teachers that we had on call as paid, professional backup. It takes time and care to build up this bench. You have to proactively find, interview, and manage them, but you get the benefit of a trusted professional that can swoop in and do just what you need.

The first step is to reach out to any one you used to have on your “bench” and see if they’re still available and willing to help for a set of times. It could be a standing weekly time, a flexible number of hours each week, or the ability to be on-call in times of last minute hiccups.

Depending on how many existing relationships you’re able to resurrect, you may need to add a few new people using the usual avenues — asking around, posting on parent/neighborhood forums, and using childcare-focused services.

Think about having at least two to three sitters on your bench, more if you’ll be asking them for last-minute needs. The deeper your bench, the more likely you’ll be able to get help when you need it. Also reach out to your employer to see if they have options they’ve brought on. Over the pandemic, caregiving has risen to the top of employee needs and workplaces everywhere have expanded the support they’re providing. This could look like on-site options to subsidizing childcare.

Be your own backup (when necessary).

There is only so much we parents can do to manage the unpredictability of our home lives. So as much as we can do to build our networks to step in in times of need, we also need to turn our attention the other way, toward appropriately setting the expectations of our employers. After these 15+ months, employers should deeply understand the context in which the work gets done — and that the context is complicated.

Another option to consider is to let your manager know that, although you have created a robust plan to deal with unexpected circumstances, there are going to be times when you’ll need (or want) to be the backup. And in those times, they should expect that you’ll be taking meetings from home, with a little one in the background, or you’ll be shuffling meetings to get individual work done on those days. After all, you’ve proven you can do it during the pandemic.

The past year and a half have pushed parents to the very limits of our resilience and resourcefulness. But there are important lessons and adaptations from our pandemic experiences that we can take and bring forward into the next phase — continuing to create and build robust social structures that help us weather the ups and downs of parenthood. And if we start with a realistic picture of what we need, and build up the right bench for us, the transition to yet another chapter will feel uncomfortable but doable.

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