‘No beginning and ending’ – professionals juggle productivity, parenting in the WFH age of COVID-19

If you see Abbi Whitaker on a morning walk with her daughter, Eden, don’t interrupt. There’s a good chance one Whitaker is in the middle of a conference call and the other is in the middle of PE homework.

“I’m like, ‘I’ll do a conference call and you’ll walk beside me, it’ll be super fun,’’ Abbi Whitaker, president of The Abbi Agency, says. “My daughter is like, ‘this is not super fun — you’re a liar.’"

Pausing, she adds with a laugh: “I’ve been called a liar so many times.”

The reality is, Whitaker often has no choice but to take a conference call while walking with her 11-year-old daughter assigned to exercise for PE class.

It’s one of the many ways she tries to stay productive as president of a public relations and marketing firm while also making sure Eden stays on track with school on her three digital learning days each week.

The Abbi Agency’s Abbi Whitaker works on a homework assignment with her daughter, Eden (11), last week at their Reno home.

With many students oscillating between learning in school and online, thousands of parents across Northern Nevada are walking the same walk as Whitaker throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Week in and week out, they’re juggling the daily tasks of effectively working from home and being an attentive parent to their school-age children. Through it all, some moms and dads might even say they’ve added “unpaid digital-day teacher” to their resumé.

“It’s a struggle,” said Whitaker, who co-owns the Abbi Agency with her husband, Ty Whitaker, the company’s CEO who mainly works at their Reno office. “My daughter’s mad because she needs my help and I’m on conference calls all day. That’s hard. She needs me and my clients need me, too, so you’re stuck in this weird spot.

“I think for most working moms and dads right now, even though we’re lucky enough to be at home, we’re trying to do two things at the same time.”

‘Orchestrating and rearranging’

Forest Firestone, a therapist at Reno-based Quest Counseling and Consulting, is doing the same juggling act throughout the week.

“My days feel very choppy,” said Firestone, who has a 7-year-old son, Nico, doing full-time remote learning. “There’s a lot of orchestrating and rearranging my day to still meet his emotional needs. I work, I cook, I clean, I attend to his needs … and then I work again. And that’s kind of the flow of it.”

Forest Firestone says she balances various work tasks as best she can on days when she has to work from home as both a parent and a professional.

Firestone and her wife alternate the days they work from home and at their respective offices.

On days that Firestone is at home with her son, she sticks to paperwork and notes; days in the office, she sees clients — some in person, some via telehealth. Some of her clients are also dealing with the stressors of balancing work and life while raising children.

“For me to be in a space where I’m absolutely, completely present with my clients, which is essential for the work that I do,” Firestone said, “I need to know that there’s another parent who can intercept if he has needs.”

Daily distractions

Sarah Porter, owner/principal of Reno-based Porterhouse Marketing, also has to mold her workdays around whether or not her two sons — ages 6 and 8 — will be with her during school hours.

Porter’s sons are in elementary school and enrolled to attend class in person throughout the week.

However, during the first two months of school, a wrench was thrown in the academic calendar. August and September were checkered with “smoke days,” when the dense smoke from the California wildfires caused the Washoe County School District to — due to the unhealthy air quality — deem it a distance learning day for all schools.

Sarah Porter of Porterhouse Marketing helps her sons Hudson (6), left, and Jackson (8) with their homework in late October.

On smoke days, and any snow days ahead this winter, suddenly parents like Porter no longer have a morning and afternoon of uninterrupted WFH time.

“When I wake up and I see that I got a call at five in the morning from (the school district number), I instantly want to throw up, and immediately look at my calendar,” said Porter, whose husband works two days on, four days off as a fire captain. “I look at what can I move? What can I bump to tomorrow? What can I do after three o’clock when I know all their distance learning is done? I try to make concessions for myself.”

Porter then turns her home office into a mini classroom, pulling in small desks and chairs for her sons to fill until they’re Zoom meetings and classwork is finished.

Meanwhile, with distractions coming like clockwork, Porter stays away from doing work that requires intense focus. Instead, she chips away at tasks she can “come in and out of.”

“Any of the strategy work, I have to table it until I’m done distance learning with them, because I’ll make a mistake — it’ll be impossible,” Porter said. “You just can’t do that kind of work and be interrupted constantly.”

‘No beginning and ending’

And of course, the other hurdle many WFH parents have faced during the pandemic is many of their workdays no longer have an endpoint.

Emails flagged in the morning get tended to late at night. Paperwork gets picked at during dinner. Projects with looming deadlines are put to bed at sunrise.

“There is no beginning and ending right now,” Whitaker said with a laugh. “There’s no eight-hour workday. It’s now a 13-hour workday, where you take little breaks in-between to move things around.

“And then you just ride your Peloton to stay sane.”


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