Laptop and children's toys on a desk, signifying parents working from home with children

“Scope creep” is a project management term used to describe what happens when extra, after-the-fact demands are placed on a project without any increase in resources to meet those demands.

Right now, every working parent knows what scope creep is because they’ve been living it since shutdown began. We’ve been asked to do an essentially impossible task, at least with our current resources, and yet somehow, our response is to feel guilty that we’re not doing that task well enough. 

Being a working parent isn’t simple to begin with, and 2020’s gauntlet of working and parenting from the same place, at the same time, has been nothing short of brutal. We’re talking about more than just interrupted Zoom meetings and jokes about day drinking (as if anyone has time for that).

The pandemic knocked more than two million women out of the workforce between February and October. One report calculated that the decreased productivity of the nation’s 46 million working parents with children under age 18 is draining $76 billion from our national GDP each week.

Then there’s the emotional toll: mental health appointments for working parents jumped 320 percent during the pandemic, according to a report by Great Place to Work and Mavin Clinic.

Without intervention, the most likely outcome of scope creep is total project failure. And many working parents are already feeling that every day. “These are not decisions we’ve ever had to make before: employment or our children,” says Parker L. Huston, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH.

Parents need a coping strategy for the now normal

Is there a long-term coping strategy for parents? An unlikely source of inspiration may come from a subset of caregivers who have been unwittingly training for this moment their children’s entire lives: parents of kids with special needs.

One in four American families has at least one child with mental health or behavioral issues, a chronic illness, or a neurodivergent condition. While it’s easy to imagine that might just add another layer of complication to an already difficult situation, as one of those parents, I can tell you it’s actually the opposite.

Because parenthood has never followed the usual script for me, I’m less shaken when routine runs amok. 

 “I’ve been asked a ton, especially over the past year, how are you still going? How have you not imploded?” says Rebecca Bruton, 30, a warehouse manager from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania who has four children under age 5. Her third, a daughter, has complications, including hearing loss and a weakened immune system, from cytomegalovirus (CMV). Bruton acknowledges that it has been a “downright difficult year,” but this is a woman who saw her newborn through three months in the NICU. She knows that imploding isn’t a choice. 

“The average parent starts checking off benchmarks when their child begins to walk and eat solid foods,” says Huston. “The idea of missing a year of normal development is unthinkable.” But parents of children with special needs don’t have the same “normal.” So, he says, “it could be that they’re more adaptable because they get used to reevaluating and changing their expectations.”

We’ve also had more time to develop coping strategies and skills in the years following our children’s diagnosis than parents who were thrown into homeschooling during a pandemic overnight. These are some of those strategies.

Create your mission statement

As parents, you’re used to making decisions for your kid, but they’re usually along the lines of yes, you can wear that to school today or no, you may not have gum before bed – not issues of public health and safety with potentially life-threatening consequences. It is nerve-wracking.

Parents of children with special needs often have to make these kinds of calls from day one. My son was only a few months old when I learned that his father and I alone would have to decide whether to have him undergo major, life-altering surgery – and decide which brand of medical implant to use. Neither of us has any medical background so we researched, asked doctors their opinions, crowdsourced from our family, friends, and others in the special needs community.

Bruton says that early on, she and her husband agreed to always choose whatever path gave their daughter the most options in the future. Laying that kind of groundwork, kind of like a mission statement, gave them something to fall back on whenever they weren’t sure about a decision or couldn’t agree. Decide that, ultimately, whatever you choose is the right option and it will probably be okay.

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Don’t hesitate to delegate

You can’t do it all – not for long, anyway. Don’t be afraid to enlist your kids in getting done what needs to get done. They are far more capable and far more curious than we give them credit for, and assigning them some responsibility outside of schoolwork can even be a way of relieving the boredom of being home all day with nothing to do.

Huston’s eight-year-old daughter started making her own lunches. My son helped me clean the gutters. The chores we dread as adults are still interesting to kids, will help them learn to be independent, and can become part of a routine they thrive on. 

Lower the bar for yourself

“Guilt comes from feeling like you’re not meeting an expectation,” says Huston. It’s important to realize that you are the one setting that expectation. It would have been totally reasonable to be upset that your kid wasn’t completing all their classwork a year ago, but now, really, it’s not the end of the world. With everything else that has changed during COVID, it’s unrealistic to hold yourself to pre-pandemic standards, both at work and a home.

“People would be surprised by how many employers have relaxed ideas of what success and productivity mean right now in the workplace, and in our school systems as well,” says Huston. “It should be the same at home. We can relieve ourselves of that burden of thinking we’re doing our kids a disservice if we don’t all turn into professional teachers.” 

Measure (and celebrate) your successes

Right now, a lot of parents feel like they’re doing two jobs and failing at both. But feelings are subjective. Keep track of what you’ve actually accomplished, and you may be amazed.

Remember, small successes count too. Got your kid to read one book by herself? That counts. Drank a whole cup of coffee without having to reheat it? That counts too.

Avoid comparisons

In this time of isolation, social media can be a lifeline to some kind of interaction with others. But it’s important to remember that it is only a glimpse. It’s easy to make your life look good in a photo or two, where people don’t see the chaos that’s been cropped out of the frame. Parenting is, for some reason, often seen as a competitive thing, even during the best of times, but it’s important to recognize that it isn’t a sum zero gain.

“None of us are always succeeding in this pandemic,” says Bruton, “but none of us are completely failing either.”

Give yourself incentives

It’s easy to prioritize yourself last, after work and family obligations, but that’s a surefire path to burnout. “Self care isn’t a luxury,” says Bruton. “Not this year. It has to play a role in your daily life.”

Add it to your calendar if you must. Bruton makes a double-sided to-do list every day: “One side is need to do, and one side is want to do,” she explains. “My goal is to get through the first list and then move on to the second.” It’s less overwhelming than one big list, which can make you feel defeated just looking at it, and gives you things to look forward to, even if that’s only “15 minutes of alone time” or “bed by 9:30 p.m.”

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Feel your feelings

There was a span of time, pre-pandemic, when my son’s behavior made me cry almost every morning. I felt terrible about it and worried I was traumatizing him. I could barely remember my own mother ever crying, let alone as a result of something I had done.

But you need to acknowledge your emotions in order to process them and move on. If you feel overwhelmed, frustrated or angry, crying actually can be a relief. Plus, Bruton says, “If we reflect healthy ways of processing emotions in front of our children, it gives them a model for processing it themselves later on.”

Know that failure is an option

It’s just crazy to think that with everything you’re juggling – that everyone is juggling right now – it’s all going to work perfectly all of the time. Your kids will miss assignments. You’ll miss deadlines. And life will go on.

“Everyone has days where you have to throw in the towel and say, ‘Okay, we’re just not going to learn the state capitals today,’” says Huston. Or, we’re all eating cereal for dinner. Sometimes your best effort isn’t going to be enough, and that’s okay. Failures aren’t permanent, progress isn’t linear, and we all get a second chance tomorrow.

Break the tension

The exhausting, endlessly demanding cycle of homeschooling while holding down a job can feel a lot like Groundhog Day: get up, work, nag, sleep, repeat, with no end in sight. But remember, Groundhog Day is a comedy.

“Guilt doesn’t help anything,” says Bruton. “Pity parties don’t help, and running away from your problems just lets them build. Laughter really is your best defense mechanism.” The act of laughing releases endorphins, and promotes social bonding. When things are at their most unbearable, don’t underestimate the power of sheer silliness.

You won’t find this advice in any parenting book, but once, beyond frustrated by my son’s eating issues, I lightly slapped his cheek with a piece of salami. We both collapsed in giggles, but then – after a brief exchange of slapping each other with deli meat – he actually ate it. Whatever works.

Know you’re not alone

“The best thing for parents to keep in mind right now is that they are not alone in these struggles,” says Huston. “Your kid is not the only one who is struggling to finish assignments or getting too much screen time.”

Just like you’re not the only one struggling to answer emails and get through meetings. Get whatever support you can from family, friends, co-workers, employees, and online communities. And remember to give it, too. 

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