Out-Of-Office Notice: My Kids Are At Home And I'm Trying To Survive

Mom and entrepreneur Hitha Palepu shares the auto-response notice she enables when her children's schools are closed—and walks parents through how they can do it with their employers, too.

Hitha Palepu Out of Office Message from Instagram
Photo: Hitha Palepu

Just four days after they returned to school after the holidays, we received notice from our sons' schools that there were positive COVID-19 cases reported. Our younger son's classroom would be closed for a week, and our older son's school would be closed the next day and remote the following week.

That Thursday evening, my husband and I coordinated our calendars to divide Zoom school responsibilities. We added the kids' favorites to our grocery list to make mealtimes a little bit easier—nabbing boxes of macaroni and cheese, refreshing our stock of spinach and kale bites, and grabbing extra mini bagels and snacks.

As my husband tackled his own emails, I sent a quick note to my teams alerting them of school closures and my limited availability. I turned on my auto-response on all my email accounts with the following message:

I am deeply privileged to be able to do all of these things—to work safely from home and have the flexibility to watch my children during typical working hours, to afford convenient, healthy options for meals, and to have a partner who bears his fair share of the home workload. I run one company alongside my father, and my other is staffed exclusively by fellow working mothers. In both businesses, how we work is defined by our teams' needs and by designing policies that support them.

What is common sense for us: an asynchronous-first policy that empowers my team to do their work in the time best suited for them, calls scheduled in predetermined blocks during the day (exceptions are made only when needed), and a culture of trust and communication. When my sons' schools are closed or our caregiver is unable to come in, I'm grateful that I can pause work during the day to focus on my children, and pick my laptop back up once they're asleep. I've had the occasional weekend call that I'm able to take with the help of Encanto. While it's not an ideal way to work, I feel incredibly lucky to have the flexibility I need to work and parent when we're in the thick of another COVID-19 variant.

Create Options That Work for You—And Your Company

I hate that my ability to hit pause is the exception and not the rule, especially as we enter the third year of the pandemic. While some companies have stepped up to support their employees who have caregiving responsibilities—with paid pandemic leave, 4-day work weeks, or meeting-free days as a company policy—these benefits are largely reserved for salaried, full-time workers and are rare. The burden, once again, falls on the parents—and let's be real, largely on mothers—to navigate the mess of school closures, work responsibilities, and the mental stress of keeping their families healthy and safe yet again.

And the mothers are broken. Mother Honestly, a global community working to propel women forward in motherhood, work and life, asked the mothers in their community how the pandemic affected them on the work front. The responses:

"Left my senior management position for something with less responsibility and fewer hours."

"Reduced my hours and then mysteriously got let go."

"Quit to homeschool in 2020, back to freelance summer 2021, now just limping along."

"Had to drop out of school, will probably never reach my professional goals at this point."

We are failing ourselves as mothers, as parents, as people. The system is not working for us. My out-of-office response was one step—for me—toward fixing it. Not everyone has the luxury. But it might be worth trying to see if it can work for you, too.

For parents who are nervous about putting up an auto-response like the one above or those who require permission from management or HR to do so, this is an opportunity to start a larger conversation about how we're working and how we can improve it.

It pains me that this advice is not applicable to many of the essential workers or medical professionals who are on the front lines to care for all of us. That's another—larger—conversation for another day. But if you are working remotely and logged onto Zoom all day, catching up on actual work and emails in the empty pockets of your and your family's calendars, here's what you can do to build boundaries to better survive the work/parenting/remote schooling juggle so many of us find ourselves in.

Talk It Through

Initiate the conversation by establishing your reality with your manager—I recommend sending through a request to meet, and preparing your talking points to focus on what you've achieved working remotely while parenting over the past two years.

Be open about your current situation, that schools are remote or your toddler's daycare classroom is closed, that you will be working but need some flexibility in how you work and may not be able to attend meetings. Say something like: "I'm considering setting an auto-response on my email to provide an immediate response to everyone who emails me, and to set expectations on when I will be able to respond. I wanted to run this by you to establish predictability and reliability during this time. Can I get your advice on this?"

Asking for advice—rather than permission—sets some ground rules and expectations for discussion. The goal of this conversation is to find a solution that works for you and your manager. If you come in hot with a list of demands, your manager may get immediately defensive and shut down your requests. If you approach the conversation more open-ended, you have a greater probability of success of having your requests heard and granted.

"Asking for advice is a softer approach," says Lauren Smith Brody, the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester, which helps organizations retain parents and advance gender equity.

"Workers have an opportunity to design our new normal and have people be open to that in a way they've never been before."

Preparation for this conversation is key, particularly if you think your manager will respond negatively to this request. You may worry that they'll ask you to take personal or sick days, or paid or unpaid time off when schools are closed or your child is home sick.

Knowing your rights and what you're entitled to—from your employer and your state's laws, most importantly—will help you prepare for this meeting. This would be the right time to review your employment contract to confirm what you are entitled to from a paid time off, sick leave, or disability policy.

Daphne Delvaux, the MamAttorney, also highlights OSHA regulations and associational discrimination laws that pertain to working parents, which will help you understand your legal rights and prepare for this conversation with your manager. Ultimately, the goal is for you to be able to continue working and contributing with some much-needed flexibility during these times. It is expensive for an employer to hire and train your replacement. Approach the conversation as "I'd like to find a solution that enables me to contribute at work and do my job, but with the flexibility that I and other parents need right now."

There's Power in Numbers

If you're nervous about your manager's response, bring others in the same situation in to join the conversation and to start a dialogue so you can all do your jobs and care for your families during these challenging times.

Resources like Smith Brody's Instagram account, MamAttorney, and ABetterBalance.org can help you prepare to meet with your manager, and to understand your options based on your employment and where you live when it comes to leave and how to request it.

How we're working is not working for most Americans. I hope this framework can help make a change in your life, and within your company.

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