I type from a “standing desk” in my kitchen, working with kids at home. This is to say I’m at the kitchen counter, mat beneath my feet, the family betta fish swimming behind my screen. Next to the fish, there’s a piece of foil languishing from my son’s chicken sandwich. And behind the counter stands a sizable fort of bed sheets, chairs, and rubber bands.

I hear my husband’s voice on a conference call up the stairs. My daughter hums from the hallway; my son is cuddled with a laptop on the sofa. And one hasn’t truly lived until a teenager interrupts a conference call to inform you the unplunged toilet resembles a war zone.

Somehow, all six of us are working from home. Welcome to the new normal.

At one point early on, I flopped on the bed, groaning. “Why am I so tired?”

It reminded me of navigating a new culture in a foreign country: Everything was just left of normal, the cumulative effect being utter exhaustion.

When we’re working with kids at home, how do we prioritize and juggle and soothe? And at the end of the day, how do we arrive at dinner with more than a tight smile and smudges beneath our eyes?

Working with kids at home: What do you expect?

May I suggest this without either of us sighing?

Expect less.

COVID-19, and working with kids at home, are eating a larger slice of your pie than you’d think. Sure, some norms might be easier: less laundry, because hey, some of you are (re-)wearing PJ’s all day. Soccer and jazz and the gym got nixed along with everything else. Social expectations hum at a minimum.

But there are stressful trips to the grocery store. And cooped up kids with gnarly attitudes (and a gnarly parent to match). Crusted cereal bowls sprouting around the house like dandelions.

And, as I saw in a meme with Dolly Parton, when we’re working with kids at home, we’re working 9-5. Or is that 9-9:05, 9:07-9:12, 9:18-9:21…?

If you’re working from home and expectations for your efficiency and productivity haven’t changed a lick, maybe it’s time for a chat with your boss. Or maybe it’s time to disappoint a bit. Or maybe you’re the one holding yourself to such unrealistic standards and it’s time to give yourself a bye so that your family receives more than the charred version of you.

Superman never worked with kids at home

I get it. No one wants to jeopardize a job with 46 million Americans furloughed or reduced in hours.

But the solution is not to therefore exist as a boundary-less superhuman. A wise man once said each day has enough trouble of its own (hint: It’s Jesus; see Matthew 6:34). We’ve all found it true that when we bust our humps to get a little more work done, it typically just pries open time for more work.

But Psalm 127:2 reminds me, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Rest is a gift from God.

He established a Sabbath for His people to remind them He brought them out of Egypt: They were no longer slaves; no longer someone else’s machines (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). God Himself didn’t rest because He needed or deserved it.

And truthfully, when I’m rested, I love better. I play with my kids more; we read Prince Caspian or make cookies. And I listen to them more rather than nodding and making the right noises.

Do I trust He’ll give me what I need to accomplish whatever He asks of me each day? Or am I driven by something other than His voice and priorities (Acts 4:19)? By something other than the good works He’s prepared in advance for me to do (Ephesians 2:10)?

I’ve had to ask myself, Is it God’s will for me to be constantly burned out, even for all these things I think He wants me to do? Do I really think Jesus was the most burned-out guy on the planet?

No. No, I don’t. God has set healthy rhythms for my body, my home.

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Prioritize peace

Sometimes, like a farmer in harvest, we must stretch those rhythms for a season.

But when that becomes the norm, I’m straining against the Creator’s design. I can’t ignore the signs of my body and mind forever, imagining the rules don’t apply to me. (Today, my fifth grader sacked out for an hour and a half on the couch during his lunch break. I didn’t wake him.)

Everyone in my home needs good nutrition. Exercise. Leisure. Structure. Sabbath.

For me, planning for peace looks like:

  • Rising before the kids—not so early I feel like I’m only a machine, but early enough to get some exercise, spend time in prayer.
  • Getting enough sleep.
  • Paying attention to that jittery feeling I get when I’ve been staring at a screen too long.
  • Going for a walk when one more fight between kids equals one mom blowing her top.
  • Helping kids set and maintain a schedule that works for individual energy levels, capacities, personalities. One kid might need a daily bike ride. Another might need virtual social time, or to download the day with you.
  • Asking kids to contribute with extra daily chores.
  • Being unavailable. Jumping up like a hot Pop-Tart for every child’s needs can further my kids’ sense of entitlement, and lessen their ability to problem solve and serve others. So I want to maximize this opportunity to train my kids in further self-sufficiency.
  • Taking time to hash out conflict. If we can truly forgive, it’s great to overlook the little things (Proverbs 19:11). But those big conflicts may need an intentional sit-down, where we admit the mutual logs in our eyes (Matthew 7:4), ask forgiveness, and grow in character.

Hunt for joy

Celebrate the little wins, the big gifts. For example: health for your family, enough food, employment. Relative justice in your nation, whereas so much of the developing world experiences oppression when resources are scarce and fear is abundant. A sunny day. A TV show that helped your brain reboot. And finishing the last call of the day.

High-five your spouse or your kids about the things going right—because there’s so much to be thankful for right now.

Studies find such similarities in the human brain between happiness and gratitude, they’re nearly indistinguishable. How could gratitude turn your family’s focus upward, outward?

Poet Mary Oliver once wrote,

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

What gifts could God be giving?

My husband and I will never have this time with our teenager again. Because the window of his time at home closes in two years, pinching my heart beneath it. As I type, two of my kids are out on a run together. Another pair had a Lego-building competition between themselves yesterday. My husband keeps playing football or soccer with the kids after work or nabbing a child for a drive-thru lunch to enjoy outside.

And last night our family clustered around the table laughing about which of us would be which Disney character. We weren’t rushing to someone’s practice; no one arrived home late.

Could a bit of non-activity, a bit of “fasting” from odd things, bring our families and communities a bit closer to where we belong? Could a lack of security cause my heart to bloom more openly toward God?

We’re working with kids at home. What great things could happen?

Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.