Harriet Shearsmith: Pressing pause in lockdown
We speak to the award-winning blogger, and mum of three, Harriet Shearsmith about how she’s balancing homeschooling her children with work, and the way that pressing the pause button has unleashed a new-found appreciation for self-care
Harriet Shearsmith and I are grappling with technology as we attempt a remote interview on a shakey line – not helped by my overstretched, domestic WiFi connection. It’s a snapshot of the times – the homes-turned-offices, technology called into action, and the sincerity of the question, “How are you?”
“It’s remarkable how quickly things become normal,” says Harriet, reflecting on lockdown so far. “We've actually got quite a nice routine going now – but in the beginning it was difficult because we have three children across three different key stages, so finding something that I could arrange for them to do together, or something that would fulfil all of their needs individually, was a challenge.”
Harriet and her husband, like parents across the globe, are having to find the balance between working from home, and homeschooling. But through these challenges, for Harriet, the key to maintaining a healthy mindset is anchored in self-compassion.
“We need to remember that we've never tried this before. We've never tried working and homeschooling, whilst also trying to maintain a house, and making sure that my own mum – who is one of the vulnerable people – is getting the things that she needs,” Harriet explains. “It’s something that’s quite challenging, so what helps is keeping that routine but allowing ourselves to know that it's OK if it’s not working, and that we can change things, and that we can be really flexible.”
As much as possible, Harriet starts her children’s days at 9 AM and finishes them by 3 PM, with regular breaks throughout. That said, she notes how planning out the days like this has actually enabled her to designate time to switch off in ways that she wasn’t doing before. These days, for five minutes every morning and evening, it’s all about Harriet.
“It’s just to wash my face, gather my thoughts, maybe put some moisturiser on – things that I actually didn’t really do before lockdown, because I always felt so busy. But just taking myself away for five minutes, and giving myself a little bit of breathing space has been really useful.”
Self-care can make the difference between a clear head and a foggy one, but it doesn’t look the same for everyone.
“I've always really struggled self-care,” Harriet reflects. “It's often portrayed as these really luxurious bubble baths or reading by candlelight, and for me – with three small children, work, pets, and a home to look after – I've often felt like it’s just a waste of my time, investing in me. But that’s not true, and it’s something that I've learned to combat a little bit in lockdown.
“Lockdown is posing different challenges for everyone. But for myself and my family, learning to slow down a little bit has been really useful. We're stepping back and just enjoying some time together – we haven’t always enjoyed time together.”
“Obviously, sometimes it has been really strained. But then there are moments when we've just been able to curl up on the sofa together, and normally, it would have been, ‘OK, we need to go to this activity. You've got ballet. You've got football. You've got this, let's get going.’ But we've actually just been able to hit the pause button a little bit and spend some quality time together, which has been really, really useful for us as a family.”
Through the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, an opportunity to slow things down is something that many of us will appreciate. And while each of our circumstances will be different, taking the time to regularly check in with our needs is the essential tool at the centre of all our wellbeing.
Our lives have been turned upside down. We’re contesting with the walls coming down between our work and home worlds, cabin fever, and a whole lot less alone time. But for Harriet and her husband this is, at least in some part, familiar territory.
“Both my husband and I already worked from home, so we’ve spent a few years learning how to work from home together, how to respect each other’s spaces, and how to step away from one another when we perhaps need to,” says Harriet.
“Obviously, that becomes a little bit more challenging in lockdown. We can’t just necessarily say, 'I'm going to go for coffee,' and rush out of the house through gritted teeth, and it has been interesting throwing the children into our working-life dynamic. But I'm very grateful to have my husband at home as well, safe with us, and also able to help with things like maths that I frankly cannot do, because year 4 maths is complicated!
“I think the first thing that I would recommend, is acknowledging that it can be really tough and that’s OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem within your relationship if you are finding being with this human being 24/7 hard. It’s not necessarily natural for us to be together all the time, and finding a balance can be really difficult.
“From my point of view, it was really good to gain a bit of perspective and say, ‘Actually, OK, this is new, this is different. We’re going to have to learn how to do this together.’ Respecting one another’s spaces is a really, really great tool. I know that if I'm in my office, and I'm working, Adam, unless he wants something specific, or he wanted to chat to me, he wouldn’t come into the office. The same goes for him.”
It’s helpful advice, but Harriet is not one to dictate what others should be doing – a feeling at the heart of her blog and Instagram page where the focus is on documenting what works for her, rather than what others should be following.
“I've always struggled with the term ‘parenting expert’,” Harriet explains. “I feel quite passionately about the fact that I'm an expert in my own children, the same as any other mother or father might be in their child. That wouldn’t negate professional advice, but just in terms of, for example, the homeschooling at the moment – I know that one of my children is finding it really hard, so for him I know how to work with him on that, and how to help him feel better.”
While online parenting communities can be incredibly informative and supportive, there’s no denying there is also space for judgement and comparison. Despite this, by sharing what’s working for her online, Harriet has found comfort and catharsis in recent months.
“It’s been really useful for me to be able to share and to reach out. I think it’s been quite a community-building experience with people helping each other, which has been really, really great to see,” she explains. “For myself, putting things out there and finding that people are sending things back and saying, ‘This is how we’re doing it, why don’t you try that?’ That has been really great.”
Help comes in all forms, and can so often be found in the most unexpected places. And while this looks different for all of us, there’s one thing we could all do with noting and that’s Harriet’s message that we haven’t done this before, that it’s not something that we have prepared for, and so whatever we’re doing – however we’re trying to it – it’s OK.
Though there is no fixed end-date in sight, we can’t help but look forward to a time when things will start returning to normal. For Harriet, what is one thing she will leave behind, and one thing she will take from lockdown?
“One thing that I would like to leave behind in lockdown is trying to teach my children maths,” she says, laughing. “And to keep is that ability to be a bit kinder to myself and say, ‘Actually, you can slow down, and it won't be the end of the world.’”
Harriet Shearsmith is the founder of parenting website Toby and Roo. Follow her on Instagram @tobyandroo.