Working from home when your toddler is trying to destroy your life

working at home with a toddler

When I worked in an office, there was a guy near me who had the most uncanny timing. The second I’d get down to a tricky piece of work, he’d stick the radio on, or call one of his contacts for a loud, prolonged chat about his latest project. I’d sit there, quietly seething and trying to focus.

Those days were the halcyon days, my friends. The office dudebro has nothing on a toddler who most definitely does not want her nappy changed, and who has decided to do her best velcro impression on the back of your legs.

As I write this, my toddler daughter is in the middle of her second gigantic, tantrum of the day. The house is ringing with ear-splitting screams and this could last for hours. I’m lucky enough to have childcare 2.5 days a week, but I’m running in and out because this is Off. The. Scale.

Right now, I’m back at my desk with a to-do list the length of my arm and three hours’ childcare left. And instead of this week’s planned blog post, I’m writing this – as much to myself as to any work-from-home parents reading it.

Be resigned

While an adult – even the office dudebro, to a certain extent – can be reasoned with, a toddler can’t. They don’t get that you have to work, they don’t care about your clients, and they’re unlikely to stop their Best Tantrum Ever so you can make your 1pm phone-call. It’s not their fault, and it’s not yours – it just is.

At some point in your day from hell, you’ll need to open your arms and embrace the bonny wanderer that is resignation. This mental acceptance, while we tend to resist it at all costs, is actually a healthy action.

Once you’ve stopped fighting the truth – that your day is one of those disasters that all parents have now and again – you can stop beating yourself up and focus on surviving until bedtime and limiting the damage.

Be realistic

You need to be realistic about what you’re going to achieve with your day. Yes, you’ve got a to-do list that rivals War and Peace, and yes, you really wanted to catch up / get ahead / just get some goddamned work done, but fixating on that isn’t going to help.

Try and focus on what you can actually do, rather than worrying about what you can’t. Some things are going to be completely off the table until you can get some peace. Others might still be do-able – it’s up to you to make that call.

Communicate with your clients

There are two yous: the frazzled, food-stained you who’s losing negotiations with a mini-Hitler, and the professional you, who delivers quality goods or services to happy clients. This is not the time to blur the line between those entities, no matter how tempting it might be to bang out a mass email to your clients telling them that you’re worthless and they might as well look elsewhere because your life is never going to be the same again.

If it looks like your disaster day is going to impact externally (i.e. on client deadlines), you need to communicate. Remember: PROFESSIONAL YOU. There’s no reason to tell your clients that a 2-foot Godzilla has smashed your day like Tokyo; a brief message about illness should do the trick – apologise and let them know you’ll be back on it as soon as you’re ‘well’.

Guard your to-do list with your life

When everything’s gone proverbials-up, your to-do list is TREASURE. Keep that little scrap of sanity on you as you pursue and manage the tiny dictator that is wreaking havoc, and scribble down any jobs that come to mind.

There may be little tasks on there that you can tackle while chaos reigns – I’ve banged out work emails, scheduled social media and planned blog posts while chatting with an angry toddler about why the aggressive seagulls on Puffin Rock won’t just let Baba and Oona keep their shiny shell. Remember: even one tiny job done is a job off your list, so pick the easy stuff and GO!

Consider the graveyard shift

There’s no way – unless you’re some kind of eight-tentacled, eyes-in-the-back-of-your-head, impervious-to-screaming miracle-worker – that you’re going to get all your jobs done on a day like this.

So while it’s not ideal, it’s worth considering getting back to it when the kids are in bed. No, it’s not fun getting down to work when you’ve been yelled at all day, and no you shouldn’t have to. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and there are some jobs that need doing 1) on deadline and 2) when it’s quiet.

If spending an hour tucked up with your laptop and some comfort food means you can keep your clients happy and go to bed with some of that weight off your shoulders, it might well be worth pulling a late one.

Think long-term

Hopefully, these kinds of days will be relatively rare. But, it’ll likely be often enough (children aren’t big fans of regulating their emotions or quietly embracing logic), so it’s good to have a think about how to minimise the impact on your business.

  • Keep your to-do list and diary up-to-date. If you’re run ragged, the last thing you want to have to do is work out what the hell you were supposed to be doing today anyway.
  • Try not to leave work until the last minute. Easier said than done, but I pull the occasional late (or early!) one to try and get ahead of myself sometimes. And – bonus – if no disaster day occurs, it means I can take a lazy day now and again instead.
  • Schedule whatever you can. And I mean that in two ways: 1) automate whatever you can (hello, social media!) and 2) create a schedule for yourself. Identify quiet periods in your day or week and plan around those.
  • Enlist the help of friends and family if you can – not all of us have people around who can pop in and take our little darlings off our hands for an hour or two, but if you do, don’t be afraid to ask.

Finally: be kind to yourself. Some days will go to shit, some deadlines will get pushed, some clients won’t like it, and sometimes you’ll wish it would All Just Go Away. But, you’re doing the best you can – we all are. So be kind.

Are you a work-at-home parent? Have you got any advice on balancing parenting chaos with running a business? Comment below or come and chat on Twitter – I’m @LorrieHartshorn 🙂

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  • Great post! At sixty, I don’t have a toddler around anymore — instead I have a 10-month old puppy that understands Spanish than I do. Many of your pointers will help me keep my sanity when she wants/needs to go outside.

    Keep up the good work.
    Jerry Nelson
    Buenos Aires today — Bolivia tomorrow

    • Thanks, Jerry – glad you enjoyed the post, and glad to see you survived having a toddler; there’s hope for us yet, then!

  • I hear you!! I work from home and try to do most work around school and pre-school hours, outside of that is very difficult with a demanding toddler!! I also do late nights if needed. I keep telling myself that things will only get better as they grow older and I don’t want to wish that time away either!

    • It’s that endless tension, isn’t it, between wanting some time to yourself (even just for work!) and not wanting to wish away this time that everyone keeps reminding you will fly by! For the time being, it’s about learning to work in little, chaotic bursts (not easy with baby brain – when does that wear off, by the way?!) or yes, when they’ve gone to bed! x

    • At some points, I have to carry on with mine actually attached to the back of my legs. It is hard, but you’re definitely not alone and it does get better! x

  • A very reassuring and positive post, Lorrie! I just came here the minute before coming back to work after having my second child. Yes, I survived one toddler, so I’m hopeful I can survive two ;). It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. You’re so right when you say that this is nobody’s fault – it just is. We just need to get used to a new home organization, a new home office structure and hence, a new way of working now. So here we are, putting all my adaptive skills into work. Let’s see how it all goes with the second one around. Wish me luck!

    • I don’t think you’ll need my luck, Dani, although you’re very welcome to it – you’ll do brilliantly on your own. “Adaptive skills” – exactly right. It’s a question of accepting the new normal and finding ways to work with it and make it work for you.

  • Definitely agree about the grave yard shift, I do a lot of my freelance work and blog writing/editing after my son is asleep and after I’ve cooked dinner. Sometimes I even get up earlier (before I go to my day job) deliberately to fit in an hour of writing so I don’t have to stress about it all day long. Also automating social media posts is a big help you are right! #stayclassymama

    • Yes to getting up early – it hurts, but it’s better than late night-working for me; I end up unable to sleep if I’m on the laptop too late, and I’m the same as you in that I like to get things out of the way before the day starts.

      And yes again to automation; I buffer a lot of my content at the start of the week – stick some music on, boil the kettle and get it done!

    • I hear you, Sarah – over the long-term, it’s lovely when you can start to be a bit more open with clients. They’re human too (despite how it might feel sometimes!) and building up a good working relationship with them can make life a lot easier.

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