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How remote learning has forced me to rethink my freelance workday

Tips for parents juggling a freelance career on top of a newly imposed remote learning schedule.

This image shows a family engaged in remote learning, wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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The only indication that things have gone awry is the sound of her voice. I hear her chatting, her words all a rush. There’s no way she’s that excited about a math lesson. Still, I hesitate to check on her. I’m working on a piece that’s due in just a few days and, for the love of god, I can’t sit next to her all day long.

But then my phone starts pinging with Facebook Messenger alerts from the other moms. I get an email from Em’s teacher, letting us know she lost power. Eventually, there’s an email from the school’s principal, alerting parents to the news that a nearby transformer has blown up, the power in the entire school is out, and all parents of in-person students must pick up their kids.

An explosion. A fire. Mass confusion. It seems a fitting end to the first week of remote learning.

That August, the superintendent of schools had given parents an impossible choice. We could:

  • Withdraw our child from school and instead opt to homeschool them,
  • Choose 100% remote learning, or
  • Send our child to school on a hybrid schedule.
  • My husband and I chose option b. We felt there was no point in possibly exposing Em to the coronavirus when we both worked from home. It would be easy enough to keep an eye on her, right? To manage her distance learning while simultaneously getting our work done? We’d done it in the spring. We could do it again.

But the first week was a mess of technological difficulties and poor communication. Me sprinting between my home office and my daughter’s bedroom to make sure she was in the right place at the right time. And work? What work? With 20-minute classes and 15-minute “brain breaks,” with separate Google Meets for separate teachers, with a first-grader who was not yet old enough to tell time or to navigate between various video chats, I felt like I was in a constant state of high alert, unable to focus on any one thing for any significant length of time. Suddenly, I had to rethink my entire workday.

I know there are parents who are far worse off than we are. Essential workers who can’t stay home with their children. Parents who are forced to choose between their children and their livelihoods. In this way, freelancers have an edge.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Here are some of the ways I’ve managed to perform this next-level juggling act.

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1. Prepare the evening before so that the morning is not a chaotic hellscape.

Each day, it’s her footsteps that wake me up, even before the alarm. I blink my eyes open. Force myself to slither out from beneath the covers. Take a quick shower while my husband gives her a vitamin and brushes her teeth. Then I make sure she’s dressed, that she’s had breakfast, before hot stepping it over to my computer to go through new emails and send out some promotional social media posts before running upstairs to help her fill out her daily check-in form and log her onto her morning meeting.

Thank god we don’t have to bring her to a physical location, right?

Still, mornings always feel like a hectic rush, so I try to make them less so by preparing in advance. I write up Em’s school schedule for the next day on a whiteboard that I keep on my desk, at eye level. I go through the schedule with her, class by class, so she knows what to expect. I print out the worksheets she needs for the next day and place them in her desk organizer, where she can easily access them.

The next morning may not be smooth sailing. Not exactly. But it also doesn’t leave me a broken shell of a person, twitching on the floor while sobbing about printer glitches and internet connectivity.

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2. Keep your goals manageable.

In addition to drawing up my daughter’s school schedule every evening, I use the Momentum app to track my own to-dos. I keep a running list there, and, every week, I pinpoint which ones are the highest priority and how I might spread them out through the coming week.

Since throwing my daughter’s remote learning into the mix, I’ve tried to be kinder with myself when setting these goals. More realistic about what I can get done in the span of a week while also guiding my daughter through her school day.

Sure, I might want to bang out two blog posts, a personal essay, a craft essay, and a slew of submissions all in one week. But is that truly within the realm of possibility (assuming I don’t have the capacity to bend space and time)?

By making sure my goals are reasonable, I help stave off burnout and that relentless feeling of always being behind.

3. Get comfortable with getting stuff done during those small snippets of time when your kid is staring vacantly at a livestreamed class.

In the past, if I had an extra 15 minutes before my next interview or editing shift or parental obligation, I’d scroll through Instagram or play Spider Solitaire. Now, I use those 15 minutes to get just a teensy bit closer to finishing that blog post I started writing six hours ago.

4. Reprioritize your to-dos so that you’re working on simpler, bite-sized tasks during the school day.

While it feels like my daughter’s remote learning swallows up the entire workday, it doesn’t. Not really. Her day ends at 2:45 p.m. So, I try to plan my own day accordingly. I draw up outlines or send out emails when I know my time is short. When I know there’s not enough time to drop fully into a new piece, I do the writing or schedule interviews once the school day is done.

5. Consider devoting different days to different task types.

Depending upon how many deadlines I’m juggling in a given week, I sometimes also batch tasks. I dedicate one day to developing new pitches and sending them out. Or I spend a couple of hours following up on older pitches and submissions. Or I just send out LOIs (letters of interest). Or work on a personal project. It’s not always possible to be this single-minded in my focus. But when it is, it gives my day a sense of cohesion. I no longer feel like I have 10 billion competing thoughts bouncing around my head. And that’s a beautiful feeling.

6. Push harder with outreach…or, conversely, pull back.

Back in the spring, pieces were killed because of a shift toward coronavirus-focused content. New projects were postponed. Budgets were slashed. I focused on spinning new story angles, sending out even more LOIs, and reconnecting with people I’d worked with in the past. And it worked. But when the fall came, it all felt like too much.

Again, be honest with yourself about what you can realistically handle at this time. As freelancers, it can be hard to say no to new work. Hard to feel that you’re hustling enough.

But now is the time to be kind to yourself. As freelancers, we have the flexibility to do that. And who knows? If you press pause on the work that’s not giving you a higher ROI, you might actually make the space to take on better-paying or more exciting work.

“Work smarter, not harder,” sounds like cheesy business-speak. But seriously. Work smarter. Not harder.

7. Roll with the punches.

This past spring, an editor from a well-regarded publication I’d never written for before reached out to me with a quick-turnaround assignment. There was no way I was letting that opportunity slip away. Which is how I found myself sitting outside on my front steps, laptop balanced on my lap, headset plugged into my phone, conducting interviews while my daughter created chalk art in the driveway and waiting for a scheduled drive-by with her teacher.

It wasn’t the perfect work setup.

But things are far from perfect these days.

If we take all those skills we’ve developed as freelancers – tenacity, adaptability, self-reliance – we’ll make it through this just fine.

—Steph Auteri has written for the Atlantic, the Guardian, Pacific Standard, VICE, and other publications. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Her reported memoir, A Dirty Word, came out in 2018.

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