Lockdown lessons from a working parent

Literary publicist Helen Lewis lists what she has learnt about working and parenting during lockdown, including what is and isn’t possible.


Helen Lewis is director of book publicity agency Literally PR, co-director of indie publishing house Hashtag Press and imprint Hashtag BLAK, co-founder of The Author School and launched The Diverse Book Awards with Abiola Bello this year. She has a busy working life, but mostly works from home, attending meetings in London once every week/fortnight. Helen has two daughters aged 9 and 11.

They attend a local primary school so her hours are restricted to 6.5 hours a day when they’re in school and about half an hour of checking emails first thing and reading some evenings. But that was before lockdown. Here she lists 10 of the things she has learned from working in lockdown so far…

1. I’ve become an emotional whirlwind

I wasn’t expecting to feel such a blitz of emotions. I started with fear and panic. Mostly about my children and the impact it would have on them. My 11 year old missing her last days in primary school and all the fun that brings. How would she make the transition to secondary now?

My 9 year old getting bored and not being able to see her friends or go to her club that she loves. It then moved on to right here, right now worries. Losing 40% of our business for April and May in the first week of lockdown was enough to instil some serious fear into me. I’ve also felt bored, tired, really tired, and anxious.

2. The guilt though…

Guilt has been the overriding feeling. I’ve felt extreme guilt at times. I’ve felt guilty about shutting myself away at home and telling the kids they can’t disturb me as I need to focus on work. I’ve felt guilty about work because I’m now literally doing half the hours I was just a month ago. I feel guilty that I’m not doing something more ‘meaningful’ when it comes to helping the wider community, like nursing or caring, or fundraising, or something…Guilt, guilt, guilt.

I’ve felt guilty that I’ve not been learning a new skill or hobby, trying that thing I’ve always wanted to do, made my garden beautiful, my house spotless, my cupboards tidier. I’ve not done a load of creative arts and crafts or home schooling lessons with my girls (and I see that over and over and over again on social media, and I know that I shouldn’t care about what other people are doing but I can’t help myself). The guilt is real.

3. I hate routine, but I need it…

I’ve always thought that I’m the kind of person who hates routine, but it turns out I had a routine and, though it was a bit haphazard, it was mine and it almost worked. I was over-worked before this kicked in and I knew then and am 100% certain now that I need more work-life balance. But what I didn’t really acknowledge was that working around the kids gave me structure and routine. It was a sort of enforced routine, but I’ve realised most routines are!

So after three weeks of trying a semblance of routine between my husband and I who are both trying to work ‘normal’ hours, I’ve worked out that that routine wasn’t working.

I had Mondays to work, then Thursday and Friday mornings. It was great his work gave him that time to be with the kids and focus on them. But given I was doing an average of 45-50 hours a week a month ago, even if I pulled a 12-hour day on Monday I was looking at about 20 hours a week – not even half what I was doing before!

Erm… Needless to say it wasn’t working. I was making mistakes, making wrong decisions, getting very, very, very stressed out. So I’m trying a different routine this week. Working an hour in the morning, 1-3pm every day, still the long days on a Monday and the Thursday and Friday mornings, but that extra 10 hours a week has made a massive difference and allowed me to focus. Guilt kicked in, of course, especially when I’d much rather have been going on a walk with the kids or playing with them in the garden, but I love my job too and I need to work because my money pays the bills.

4. Friends who understand are amazing

I sent out an SOS to some of my friends last week. I think I had a bit of burnout. I was questioning everything I did. I wasn’t good enough in work. I wasn’t good enough as a mother. I wasn’t good enough at anything, frankly. The responses I got, the stories that made me laugh, the comments that showed me that I wasn’t alone, really helped. I know we’re all told that a problem shared is a problem halved.

But sometimes, especially when we aren’t able to let off steam in a bar on a crazy night out or over coffee in a mate’s house, it all becomes too much and we internalise everything.

5. I’m glad I’m not furloughed, but sometimes I am weirdly envious of those who are (and then feel guilty about that)

I know that’s really awful to say, because at first, during the panic stage, I did look into if I could be furloughed as a director of my own business, and decided that it made more sense given I pay myself mostly in dividends, to keep going and do all I can to grow the business. Also, I couldn’t let down the clients who had remained loyal. I knew that. And I know that being furloughed must bring all sorts of worries about whether there’s a job to return to.

So I realise I’m not envious of those who are furloughed, but some days, there’s a FOMO situation occurring. I’m wishing I could just sit on the sofa, drink wine and watch crap TV all day long. And the truth is, if I really wanted to do that, I could. I am my own boss. I am allowed downtime. Everyone’s allowed a day off! So that’s my plan… for Sunday 😉

6. I’ve been reminded that I’m not ‘working from home’; I’m ‘at home during a crisis, trying to work’

This was a game-changer (thank you, Susie). I have been trying to keep my working from home situation as close to what it was before as I could and that’s quite frankly, stupid. Why? And how? And what? So now I’ve accepted that I’m in a very different situation to normal and that I am at home during a pandemic trying to work (with husband, kids and
three cats) I feel like there’s actually a bit less pressure on me to be perfect. That’s it, perfectionism. And there’s no place for perfectionism during a pandemic, methinks!

7. I was over compensating for lost productivity, lost clients, fear of losing business by working longer hours

And I burnt out… yes I’m 40 next week…. You’d think I’d have sussed that by now. I have worked like a dog, burnt out, vowed to change, gone back to working like a dog again, burnt out. You get it. So maybe one of the most valuable things I will learn from lockdown is that I’m not a superhero and that silly working practices equal burnout. And burnout means not being able to work for a few days while you get back to ‘normal’, which has a more negative impact in the long term. If this is the major learning of this I will be so happy with that. But I know what I’m like and I convince myself that the next time I’ll be OK.

8. “By the time your birthday comes round you’ll be amazed at how differently you’ll be thinking about things.”

Things are not being measured the same now as they were a month ago and in a month’s time if we’re still in lockdown things will be different again. My husband told me that a month ago when I was in tears because the birthday party, trip to Dubai, family holiday in New York, day in my favourite place on my actual birthday, seeing friends and family, were
all cancelled in an instant. I’m big on birthdays. And even bigger on big birthdays. I feel like 40 is almost as big as it gets. So I’ve been planning it for almost a year. And I hate to admit it, but he’s right. I am still gutted about it all, but really I’m just glad my friends and family that I would have celebrated with are all still healthy.

9. Zoom and Skype calls are great, but I’m over seeing my face on a screen

I don’t know about you, but slumming it in my leggings/trackies and comfy tops has been a bonus for this lockdown. I have been doing the age-old ‘nice top’ and leggings trick for meetings. Seems to work until I have to stand up to pick up a book or encourage a cat out the room – eeek! But if I never see my face on a screen again it’ll be too soon.

10. Stop the comparison! Insta-super-mums may seem to have it all covered but do they really? And why do you care?

This is a lesson I’m currently working on. Getting feedback on how my friends who are also working mums are coping with homeschooling, working, routines, husbands etc is really helpful for me, but that’s because they’re my friends i.e. on my level! If I had a friend who was an insta-super-mum, sharing 100 times a day about the amazing new lesson they’d done at ‘Casa del Home-School’ with their poppets or how many times she’d ‘done Joe Wicks’ I am not sure I’d have asked them for help when I thought I was burning out!

Some quick survival tips for working mums from my friends and I:

1. Don’t beat yourself up about homeschooling: get them to read and do some kind of ‘online maths’ like mathletics five times a week and you’re winning.
2. Make them a packed lunch in the morning so they don’t keep nagging for food.
3. Have a conversation with your partner if you need more help. It might have been that they used to work full time out of the home and you worked around the kids, but things have changed, and they need to step up and help out more than they would have been a month ago commuting and being out of the home for long periods.

4. Set short lists in 1-2 hour chunks for yourself to achieve. Be realistic about what you can get done that day.
5. Prioritise tasks that are urgent each day.
6. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It doesn’t work and the person you let down the most is you.

7. Set incentives for the kids… and for you… if you get your work done.
8. Consider doing ‘homework’ in the evening if your child is a night owl.
9. Try dividing the day by mealtimes i.e. breakfast to snack, snack to lunch, lunch to snack, snack to dinner. You’ve then got manageable chunks to deal with so you can say to the kids, ‘Right, I’m going to work until snack time, then we’ll do something together until lunch’.

10. One friend made a mistake that cost the company a few grand. He was devastated and never usually makes mistakes like that. Why did he make that mistake? Because his wife was working full time (key worker) and he had a five year old at home getting seriously bored.                                                                                    11. If going full-on Christmas (think reindeer hats and jumpers) works for you, I won’t judge and neither should anyone else (I’ve been sent so many pics of kids dressed up for Christmas it’s obviously a ‘trend’).

12. If you need some time out, a day off, a morning off, whatever, just, for the love of God, take it! Everyone needs a break. Just because we’re stuck at home all the time, it doesn’t mean we’re on holiday. In fact, this is so far removed from being a holiday! So, working mums… be honest with yourselves and ask for help if you need it, take a break when you can (before it gets to the point of being desperate for a break) and be as kind to yourself as you are to others!
13. Good luck…

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