Working Parents, Do You Have a Plan for Childcare Emergencies?

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For working parents, childcare emergencies can throw entire days or weeks into chaos. But such emergencies aren’t just stressful. They can make productivity a challenge, and too many of those unexpected hiccups at work could create red flags, making you appear unreliable or leading to lost opportunities for professional growth.

But there are ways you can both plan for and respond to childcare emergencies. First, understand your time on a weekly and daily basis, so when emergencies come up, you will know what your work priorities are. Next, ask your manager, colleagues, and clients for what you need to accommodate your situation. Once you’re home, be flexible about how and when you work, and think outside the box in how you can keep your children occupied while you focus on work. Finally, build a community of people you can lean on and ask for help.

There is always potential for a childcare emergency for a working parent, whether you get the dreaded call from the school nurse or daycare letting you know your child has a fever or from your caregiver to let you know that she has an emergency. Without backup childcare options or, in some cases, a coparent or significant other to help, it’s not only a stressful situation. It can have real repercussions.

When faced with a childcare emergency, it is hard to focus on work, and your productivity can take a hit. You might have to take a sick or personal day if you don’t have flexibility or a plan in place (and for some jobs, this time may go unpaid). Appearing too frazzled or flustered when faced with unexpected hiccups could make people think you’re unreliable – your manager or colleagues might start to think that you aren’t able to balance your family needs with work responsibilities. In the long term, this could lead to getting passed over for a promotion, missing out on key projects that allow you to shine, or even losing your job.

While this can all seem overwhelming, it’s a reality that too many working parents face. But it’s also something that can be planned for and managed. Based on the interviews I did for my books and the one-on-on sessions I’ve done with working mothers over the past eight years, I’ve discovered a few tips to help you handle childcare emergencies. These tips can help you whether you have to divvy up last-minute care with a partner or if you’re the only parent available. They will help you stay focused in the moment and respond accordingly — and they start before a childcare snafu occurs.

Plan Ahead — Regularly

Before you even get that unexpected call, take steps to understand your time and any commitments on your calendar, both on a weekly and daily basis. Planning your time helps you maximize your productivity and enables you to more quickly address unexpected surprises. Every week, take 15-20 minutes to set your goals and priorities for the week, and quickly map out the work to be done on each day. Often this can be done on Sunday or late in the workday on Friday. If something comes up, you know what you can shift and what your must-do items are.

Additionally, every night, plan the following day. This extra layer of planning can make a big difference if you have a childcare emergency, because you’ve already identified what you needed to accomplish for the day and how to make it happen, saving you valuable time when emergencies do come up. You won’t feel scattered trying to figure out which emails to send before you dash out the door, which items you should pack up to work on at home, and which projects will have to wait. You’ll know in advance.

When you create your daily plan, consider who you’re working with or meeting with. When you have a childcare emergency, you must quickly assess which meetings must stay and which can move to a later time or, even better, another day. You’ll also know immediately who you need to contact about your change of plans.

Understand the Situation and Ask for What You Need

There is a big difference between your caregiver having an emergency and your child having a broken bone from a spill on the playground at school. Once you get the call, pause for a moment to understand the challenge and how you need to address it. Do you need to quickly get to the doctor? Pick up your child and head home? Have a conversation with your manager or client because you need to work from home? By taking the time to understand what your next steps are, you’ll know how to communicate with your boss and coworkers, and you can face the situation more calmly.

Once you know your plan of action, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Often your client, teammate, or manager is willing to work with you when childcare emergencies come up. Becca Sitzes, writer and mom to a teenage daughter, shares that when she worked in the fast-paced world of journalism at a local newspaper and would have a childcare emergency, she would talk to her manager: “I discussed workload with my editor, and we would come up with a plan to shuffle things around.” Figure out what you need help with before you reach out. If you’re asking for deadlines to be moved, understand the impact on timelines. If you’re asking to work from home when you usually don’t, talk to your manager about why you need this change and for how long. If timelines can’t be changed and you need work to be redistributed to others on the team, talk to your colleagues first to understand who might be able to take on additional work.

You likely have at least some clients and colleagues that are willing to be flexible as well, whether it’s moving deadlines or changing or delaying meeting times. Whatever you decide, make sure to communicate with your colleagues and manager if there are changes to meetings or key dates.

Be Flexible in How You Work

When childcare emergencies arise, you shift into a make-it-work mindset. If you’re planning on taking work home with you, one option is to change how and when you work. Work before kids get up or after they go to bed. If your young children are still napping, work during naptime. (Fortunately, most of us have had plenty of practice with this when kids were home during the pandemic.)

Sabine Horner, mom to an 18-month-old and owner of Cloud Street, a communications and PR consultancy for nonprofits, shares, “I would keep certain tasks that involved a lot of concentration for the precious hours when my daughter slept and before I went to bed.” Sabine would use the hours while her infant daughter hung out in her bouncer or played on her mat to “respond to emails, put together slide decks, timelines, drafts, and pitch notes, and do other tasks that don’t require a long block of uninterrupted time.”

To continue to make progress, even with interruptions, consider breaking tasks down into smaller steps. When you look at your workload at the larger items, it can all feel overwhelming on top of dealing with a childcare emergency. If you break things down into smaller pieces, it all seems more achievable. And you keep moving toward your work goals.

While this flexibility can help you as you face your emergency, remember that you should also reserve some time away from work each day, especially for longer emergency situations. When working from home, it’s easy to hop back online for “one more email” that can then turn into hours. Keeping long hours may not lead to burnout in the short term, but they can over time.

Think Outside the Box

When your child is feeling well but must be at home with you (the nanny had something come up or your child’s school closed due to inclement weather), think outside the box. Danielle Tenconi, VP, Marketing & Communications at Operation Gratitude and a military spouse with boys ages 9 and 6, uses what she calls “walking calls” when childcare emergencies come up, but her boys aren’t ill. She and her child(ren) take a walk while she takes a work call. She’s spending time with her child and getting work done, so it’s a win-win. Make sure to let people know ahead of time that it will be a call, not a Zoom meeting.

You can also create an emergency toolkit. Sabine’s trick is to have novelty items her child doesn’t usually play with that she brings out during calls or virtual meetings that can’t be rescheduled. This approach is helpful, especially when you have young children.

Create a Community to Help You

Many people don’t live near family, so it’s not as simple as picking up the phone to ask your mom or sister to come over when your child has a fever. And sometimes you can’t turn to a significant other or coparent for help, whether it’s because they’re traveling or you’re a full-time solo parent. While it does take time, creating a community of friends and resources you can lean on when facing a childcare breakdown can help.

For instance, in the military, especially on international assignments, everyone is in the same boat. Your spouse may be unavailable for long stretches of each day or is fully deployed and away for weeks or months at time. It’s even more challenging if you’re a working military spouse. For Danielle, that means becoming a “fast friendshipper”: “You learn to quickly identify the criteria for friendships and find those people when you first arrive at a new location.” Being successful as a working parent and military spouse, especially in a demanding role, requires becoming comfortable with leaning on the community you create. “You learn to ask for help and let go of being in complete control” when emergencies arise, Danielle says, and you can’t take care of them alone. You can lend a land when others need help another time.

To create these relationships in your own life (even if you’re not in a military family), think about connecting with people where you already are. Get to know your neighbors. Interact with parents at school functions, parent meetings, or even at kids’ birthday parties. You will start to find parents with a similar mindset to yours and you start to form friendships. These relationships can become a key part of dealing with childcare emergencies.

Working parenthood will continue to have its day-to-day challenges. Preparing for the emergencies that could come up makes overcoming them that much easier so they don’t derail you.

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