Productivity While Caregiving

I had very different intentions for this post when I set up the draft and titled it. I thought I’d share how I was finally hitting my stride with this whole newborn care and working from home thing. Share some of my newfound wisdom, if you will. And then yesterday happened. The baby threw up in her crib, setting off a series of really bad naps. Our upstairs neighbor is on a campaign of mass annoyance with a reflooring project that’s been going on since March of last year and which culminated in the loudest sounds I’ve ever heard in my unit (including baby screams). Then the cat threw up on our bed. I eventually took the baby to my mom’s so I could have a glass of wine and call my friend who was a pandemic mama and knew all about how I was feeling.

Working while caregiving is fucking hard. I mean…that’s what did-in a lot of people during the early days of the pandemic, right? Not working from home necessarily, but working from home while taking care of people, isolated from your support networks. Even I, at the time a childless person who largely worked from home anyway, was faced with launching my pandemic work-from-home phase with intense caretaking. My husband, in his role as an essential worker, contracted Covid-19 in March 2020. I’ve never been so afraid in my life of losing someone or so exhausted with keeping him alive and myself safe. It changed my whole outlook on everything that followed from how I designed my classes to how I emailed students. I knew how hard it was on me, juggling caretaking and work, even with all my relative privilege, so the last thing I wanted was to make life harder than it already was for anyone else.

My husband’s illness was thankfully brief. Compared to taking care of a newborn, it was a piece of cake. I’ve never in my life experienced the kind of dependency that a newborn brings to the table—this all-consuming act of caring for someone else that just keeps on going in a never-ending loop. It’s awesome and exhausting and all the things I was forewarned about. AND it has changed my whole conception of productivity. I’d like to say that I’m super strategic about how I spend my time now and that I’m “cherishing every moment” as so many people have urged me to do as a new mom. But that is far from the whole truth. It is true that I try to be strategic about how I spend my time. When she’s awake and in her bouncer, I do things like dishes, laundry, and eating – things that I feel don’t merit the quiet, focus of a “nap time” and things I can do while keeping one eye on her. And when I feed her, I am soaking it in as much as possible. Those little milky grins and the cooing that she’s just started doing. But I cannot discount how fractured I feel most of the time. Or how disappointed I am in myself when I have a day like yesterday. I cannot ignore the anxiety I feel about how much worse it’s going to be when work ramps up for the spring semester. Or the fear that I’ll be too swamped to enjoy any of it – to enjoy this life I made on purpose!

I am too green with this experience to offer any firm wisdom as I had planned. Instead I’m offering a few thoughts that have helped me get through even the toughest days.

  1. Care-giving is often a marathon; not a sprint. That means two things to me right now: a) I shouldn’t feel bad if I’m not cherishing every moment since I have a lot of moments that I do, in fact, cherish and b) every day is not like yesterday. In fact, most days are average/strange and full of happiness – I just have to keep that in mind while cleaning baby vomit off my face.
  2. Scale back your expectations – mainly for yourself. I remember wanting to bake some date bars one day while juggling zoom calls and a work deadline and of course care of my daughter. Only after I had managed to get everything out of the pantry, chopped the dates, and turned the oven on did I realize we were out of butter. Going to the store would mean getting baby into the bucket, into the car, into the grocery store and back out in 35 degree weather. I am ashamed to admit that I cried. “I can’t even do this simple thing anymore,” I lamented. But of course, I was the one who had wildly unrealistic expectations for what could be accomplished in a day with a newborn in a 1000 sq ft condo.
  3. Outsource as much as possible. We hired cleaners. We get takeout sometimes (especially on days like yesterday). We do curbside pickup for groceries. We buy the cake instead of making it. In the past, my fierce desire for independence sometimes caused me to take too much upon myself. Now I don’t have the luxury of being so self-indulgent. If we want a clean house and fresh fruit in the house on a regular basis, we need help making it happen. It is what it is, so why not embrace it?
  4. Say yes to support when its offered and ask for it when it’s not. Again, for someone who used to pride herself on doing it all myself, this was hard. But I knew that staying home with my baby by myself during maternity leave and then after returning to work would be harder. So I said yes. A lot. Yes to meals. Yes to holding the baby (as long as they were being responsible). Yes to help with the dishes. And now that she’s a little older, I’m finally saying yes to offers to watch her while I have a whole hot meal with my husband. You better bet, I’ve made a mental note of anyone who has offered to help in any way. I’ve also stepped WAY outside my comfort zone to ask for help when I thought I could really use it. Be proactive. Ask for more than you even need. Believe me, you’ll thank yourself.
  5. Decide once. Whenever you do get a moment to yourself while caregiving, you are faced with a myriad of choices about how to spend that time. It can be overwhelming and, if you’re like me, you can prioritize the weirdest stuff instead of what actually needs doing. So before she’s up for the day, I decide once what I’d like to do during her naps. That way, when I return to my desk, I just have to glance at the list and get going on the next item instead of waffling about what to do.
  6. Eat first. Or pee first. Or do whatever you really need first. As a full-time caregiver it is all too easy to run from one thing to the next and suddenly realize you haven’t eaten in six hours or peed all morning. And for some reason you realize this only while you’re trapped in a rocking chair feeding your baby for the next 30 minutes. Do yourself a favor and check-in with yourself each time you are free to do so and ask yourself, “what do I need right now?”

That’s all I got so far. If you are a full-time caregiver and working full-time as well, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

BTW, I’ve left Twitter for obvious reasons, but you can find me over on Mastadon (which I highly recommend btw) and LinkedIn. Also, I have a substack if you want to subscribe to receive these posts via email!

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