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My kids watch me work
Lessons from the visibility of remote work
When I was 12, my dad took me to work with him for the day. The first national observance of “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” was in 1995. This was only a few years later and somehow I persuaded my dad to let me miss a day of school. He left for work every morning at 7:30 am wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase and arrived home promptly at 5:30 pm for dinner. But beyond that, I didn’t know much about what he did all day.
My dad was the CEO of a nonprofit. The day started with a breakfast meeting at a local organization where he had to give a speech. He confessed to me that he hated public speaking. After that, we drove to his office. The rest of the day was a combination of meeting with people and quiet work in his office.
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My mom stayed at home so my primary model for “how to work” was my dad. He kept reasonable hours at the office, though he sometimes worked in the evenings. It was a classic example of “work hard, climb to the top” since he started at the agency as a social worker.
I’ve worked from home for the vast majority of my career. My husband has worked from home for the past six years. The way that we model work to our kids is far different from what I experienced growing up.
I’ve been working from home since my oldest son was born. My kids have seen me juggle my workday when they’re sick, watched me flex between working and doing laundry, been shooed out of my office when I need to focus, stood by my side while I’m typing or on calls, and sometimes unexpectedly burst into the room when I’m on a meeting.
They’ve also watched the collaboration between their parents. We have to navigate scheduling conflicts when there’s no school and decide who will pick up our 5th grader from art club and drop the middle schooler off at student council in the morning.
How I work is not a mystery to my kids. As a working parent — and especially a working mom — that’s really important. I’m a living example of work-life integration.
But I’ll never be one to claim that I “never missed a soccer game.” Far from it. I’ve declined to be the chaperone for school trips, even though I had the flexibility to participate. Often, I felt that it would be too disruptive to my day: work still had to get done.
Earlier this week, my 5-year-old approached me around 4:30 pm. She was holding a new book, one that she’d bought with her own allowance. It had arrived that day and she was desperate for me to read it to her. I looked at her, with her big, eager eyes, and looked at my computer screen — where I had a tiny bit of a draft left to finish for a client. I wanted to read to her, but knew that I couldn’t step away. I told her that I’d read to her in “just a few minutes.”
Working in the hard moments
My kids have watched the day-to-day fluctuations of work and life. But they’ve also sent the unbearably hard moments.
They might be too young to remember the first time I was really struck by grief. My oldest daughter, Nelle, was stillborn in 2015. My kids were six and three at the time. They probably don’t recall the weeks I spent lying in bed or sobbing on the bathroom floor. My work was minimal during that time and often below the bare minimum requirements of my job.
If my kids could remember that time, they’d probably have noticed the shift in my attitude toward work. I simply didn’t care anymore. Nothing about my job was more important than my grief.
I participated in a research study recently about the experience of returning to work after a stillbirth. And mine was unique: I could grieve privately. My emotions weren’t on display for my coworkers. Nor did I feel any pressure to “hold it together” during the day.
Yet my kids have also had a front-row seat for other moments when emotion, shock, and disbelief have taken priority over work.
They were home, due to remote learning, on January 6th, 2021. I heard the news about the insurrection at the Capitol. I cancelled my afternoon meetings and we turned on the TV to watch everything unfold. My husband also abandoned his work for the afternoon. The kids missed their afternoon classes.
I knew in that moment that we were watching history unfold — something that would be talked about, studied by academics, and make its way into textbooks. Work didn’t matter. We didn’t pretend that anything else mattered. Sometimes work takes a backseat to current events.
And the insurrection was only one moment in a larger struggle: parenting during a pandemic. Even with job flexibility, there was only so much I could do. It was overwhelming and an utter depletion of my physical and mental energy. I hope that my children saw that sometimes we’re all just doing the best we can. And at the end of the day, there’s only so much we can give.
The ability to choose
As I prepped to write this article, I played around with ChatGPT. I asked the conversational AI “why is it important for kids to watch their parents work?” to generate some ideas. The results were generic at best (reassurance that my livelihood as a writer won’t be replaced anytime soon), but included the following line:
Watching their parents work can serve as a positive role model for children, showing them the potential rewards and benefits of pursuing their own goals and ambitions.
That’s probably true. And it depends on what the goals are.
Years ago, I asked my son what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, “I want to work from home.”
Nothing about a career or industry or any aspirations of being the next president or an astronaut. He had internalized the benefits of working from home as his highest priority.
Here’s the thing that my kids have seen, over and over, as I’ve spanned more than a decade of remote work while parenting: I have a lot of control over when and how my work gets done. Working through grief? Stepping back during pivotal moments happening in the world? I had a choice to de-prioritize work.
And now? My children have additionally watched me completely change careers over the past few years.
First, leaving a job I’d been at for 15 years and “starting over” in a new field. Second, leaving 9-5 life altogether and pursuing a solopreneur life.
Even though my husband and I both work remotely, our jobs couldn’t be more different. He works for a corporation with billions in revenue and twenty thousand employees. I’m a freelance writer.
But we talk openly about our work, and I hope my kids hear and absorb that as well. We’ve talked about toxic behavior, incompetent bosses, and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, my children will see me and learn.
Work doesn’t have to suck.
I don’t have to tolerate a company I don’t like.
I can find work that makes me happy.
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