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Sybil Procedure: The trials of multitasking at home with children

This month, I’m complaining about trying to get work done while being at home with kids. I know I’m super lucky to have a job. I know I’m super lucky to have a wonderful daughter. I know that my problems are minimal compared to most of the people in the world throughout the entire history of time. But here is my truth: working at home with a child (whose camp is canceled) is like trying to focus while a small finger pokes you all day. Actually, it is literally like that. Poke. Poke. Poke.

I know I’m not alone in this regard. Yesterday, I had a work phone call with two of my female colleagues. One of them kept being interrupted by a growling noise. She apologized. Her child was under her desk pretending to be a dinosaur. We never saw the child, but heard the roars the entire call. My other colleague was joined by her 10-year-old who stopped by to join our conference call and say hi.

These interruptions matter, because our jobs require focus and concentration. Research confirms that our brains are not designed to focus on multiple things at a time. Multitasking, in fact, can lead to silly mental errors, and it also limits creativity and production. Switching tasks can cost as much as 37% of our productive time, and other studies show that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to a task after being interrupted.

But all of the online advice (to avoid multitasking) seems laughable when the interruption is a child. Online articles advise us to put down our smartphones, wait to respond to emails, and to take short breaks between periods of monotasking. None of this advice works when the distraction isn’t an email, but is instead a small child asking you why their iPad is out of batteries or wanting a snack. Let alone when it’s a small child who you are simultaneously supposed to be home schooling while practicing law.

One of my favorite short stories is Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, a tale of a dystopian future in which all Americans must be equal—no one is allowed to be smarter, better-looking or more physically able than anyone else. To achieve this aim, beautiful people are forced to wear masks. Strong folks must carry weights. And smart people are attached to radios that interrupt their thoughts whenever they start to have an idea. This story has taken on new meaning to me of late, because I realized I am a smart person who has been attached to an interrupting radio. Her name is Iris, and she is seven years old.

I know that this problem is challenging to anyone who finds themself working at home with kids. But I can’t help but notice (in my small sample size) that (in general, on average) my female law partners, opposing counsel, mediators, judges and friends all seem to have more kids hanging off them in phone calls than the male parents in my circle.

For example, a recent phone call with a senior partner at Ropes & Gray was repeatedly disconnected. “I’m sorry,” my opposing counsel apologized, “I have my two-year-old on my lap.” While these interruptions have permitted me to bond with folks in a new way (my relationship with this opposing counsel has never been better—we both commiserated over trying to work with children on one’s lap), I wonder, with admittedly a little bit of bitterness, how the dads seem to be keeping the kids off of their laps.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Deb Perelman (of Smitten Kitchen fame) mused that “In the Covid-19 Economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both.” She described the past few months of the pandemic at her house. Because she is a writer and her husband had an office job, she managed the remote-learning curriculums of their two children (in pre-K and fifth grade) while her husband attended conference calls all day. Then she worked until 2 am every night. A few weeks later, her husband lost his job. He took over homeschooling, and she became the sole breadwinner. Through this all, they have been paying the nanny—even though she isn’t coming to their home because she has her own school-age children. Deb knows that their family cannot sustain this arrangement however.

My arrangement isn’t sustainable either. So what am I doing? I am thinking about how to keep my career on track. My days have been busy of late. I am on conference calls and Zoom meetings all day. I start work at 5:30 am so that I can claim uninterrupted time to monotask. And I am looking at private schools for this fall. I love our public school, but I am so scared that it won’t open. Not only do I not have the time to print out 10 different worksheets from 10 different links every morning and try to figure out what we are supposed to complete, I don’t have four hours to make my daughter do this work. To teach her, I need to find an open school because otherwise she won’t learn anything; as much as I tried, she learned very little between March and June this year.

But this is where I get very scared. I am so lucky that I can even explore private school options. But gaps in our society will only get worse if those who can opt-out of public schools. Or those who can find tutors. Or those who can leave their jobs and commit to full-time homeschooling. I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that the status quo is about to make things a lot worse.

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About Sybil Dunlop

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com.

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