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‘I Got Used to Working to the Sounds of Screaming and Playing Pretty Quickly’

Balcony conference calls, strict schedules, and first-borns: how HSE staff are managing to work in self-isolation with kids

© iStock

Many HSE employees have had to combine self-isolation and parenthood without the help of childcare, schools, or relatives. We asked HSE staff to tell us about the difficulties they have encountered and what is helping them survive this difficult period. In addition, psychologist Ekaterina Solovyova of the HSE Centre for Psychological Counselling shared some of her survival tips.

‘This is probably the most time we have ever spent together as a family’

Alena Minochkina, Manager, Institute of Education

We have three kids: our oldest daughter is 8, and our twin girls are 4 and a half. Our eldest attends two schools: her elementary school, where she is a first-grader, and a music school, where she is learning to play the piano. She also takes gymnastics classes. The twins are in daycare. Both my husband and I work.

This is probably the most time we have ever spent together as a family. This is, of course, a test. It’s as if I’m getting to know my husband and my kids all over again.

Before the pandemic, I was in charge of taking care of the kids, keeping tabs on how they’re doing and whether their activity load is manageable. When the schools and daycare closed, that made things more challenging, but it did not change things for me and my family to a critical degree.

The kids’ grandmother used to help take my eldest to music school and pick the twins up from daycare. Now we are managing on our own. We keep in touch with Grandma online since she is at home. Now all of our kids’ energy is redirected towards Mom and Dad (for the most part, towards Mom).

These tricks help me manage:


I make my plan for the week, which includes:

  • a list of work tasks, ranked by importance;
  • a list of household chores (it has expanded significantly);
  • a weekly plan for the kids (it is different for each child: online lessons at both schools, gymnastics, creative activities, homework, etc.).

Every day I work on fulfilling my own plan and ensuring that the kids fulfill their plans. This requires going into a mode of ‘must’ and ‘should’. Not everyone likes it, but we have no choice. We’re like a small factory.

Daily routine

We maintain all of our routines. This includes Mom and the kids doing their hair, sticking to a sleep schedule (wakeup is at 7:00-7:30; bedtime for the kids is at 9:00 pm), and meal times (we maintain the meal schedule the kids had in daycare).

Resources and Keeping Our Spirits Up

Don’t let yourself and your family get down in the dumps. Mind your health! That is what is most important.

My ‘miracle drugs’ (save for the first two points, which are fundamental):

  • Sleep: this helps 100% of the time;
  • Exercise: fortunately, my trainer conducts online classes (though they are at 8:00-9:00 pm);
  • Humor: it helps just like sleep does.

Overarching Goals

I have long-term plans, a wish board (as well as goals for the next 10 years, 5 years, or year). When things get difficult, and I’m approaching an emotionally critical point, I think about why I’m doing this all, and I find the answer!

‘Pre-pandemic, no TV was allowed. Now it is our magical “off” switch’

Sarah Kapp, Editor, English Website Support Unit

My husband and I are both working from home full-time, and we have a toddler who is fast approaching those ‘terrible twos’. While Claire is making progress with being able to play on her own (a new train set from Ozon has helped tremendously), she generally still needs constant supervision and stimulation. It has been a challenge balancing work, cleaning, cooking, and childcare without any help from our relatives (who are ten time zones away) or our nanny, whom we had to let go in March.

However, we have managed to find a (strict) schedule that works for us. It is not perfect—we are each forced to fit in a full day’s worth of work into roughly a half day—but it does manage to keep us sane. Brian, who is an Assistant Professor in HSE’s School of Philosophy, works from about 6:30 am to 11:30 am while I take care of Claire, and then we switch. In the latter half of the day, I translate and edit texts for the HSE website. On top of that, throughout the day, we take turns doing household chores when we can, and, in the evenings, we alternate who cooks dinner. Then it’s bedtime for Claire at 8 or 8:30 pm, after which, if we have enough energy, we read or watch a show on Netflix.

Aside from keeping a schedule, another effective tool for keeping our household sane has been our TV. Pre-pandemic, no TV was allowed. Now it is our magical ‘off’ switch for tantrums and other difficult moments. It has been fun to explore the world of Russian kids’ shows. Favorites are ‘The Three Cats’ (‘Tri kota’) (which she now requests by name) and ‘Happy School’ (‘Veselaya shkola’).

Generally, though, no matter how hard things get, we often think about the many people out there who have kids and don’t have the luxury of working from home. Or the many people who have lost their jobs. We are very thankful to have jobs that can be done remotely.

‘For meetings with colleagues on Zoom or MS Teams, our balcony works great’

Ivan Gruzdev, Director of Internal Monitoring and Student Academic Development

In my home office, there lives a little boy named Fedya, who is 2 and a half years old. In general, Fedya is a great guy, and we get along pretty well, but at first it was not easy working with him. There are two main difficulties: the noise level and the emotional demands that every parent faces when he or she must turn down an invitation to come play.

I got used to working to the sounds of screaming and rough housing pretty quickly. You just need to pretend that you are not at home, but at a crowded café (before this, we’ve all managed at one time or another to get some work done at a café, right?) And for meetings with colleagues on Zoom or MS Teams, our balcony works great. You can get some fresh air at the same time.

Fedya, it seems, is also already used to the fact that when dad sits at his laptop, trying to get him to play is useless. So, in general, we’re managing.

‘Football, hide-and-seek, pizza for dinner — anything you want, just get off me and let me work’

Alexandra Ulyanova, Chief Content Editor, HSE News Service

I consider myself lucky—Masha is already 6 years old. If she were 1 or 2, or even 4 or 5, I think we definitely would have failed this whole remote work thing. She is a human motor who does not just talk or bound about in her sleep, but can already entertain herself for a couple hours in a row.

Again, luckily, she’s not in school yet, and I don’t have to edit an urgent text with one hand, get her set up for a global studies lesson on Zoom with the other, and vacuum with a third. Friends and colleagues with kids who are in elementary or middle school are the heroes of self-isolation. Masha’s preschool education now comes down to forcing her getting her accustomed to doing things on her own. She has already mastered the most important things, like getting ice cream out of the freezer.

I acquired my main saving grace for this current situation 17 years ago—my eldest daughter Sasha sits in her room all day studying for the Unified State Exam, the rumors about which get wilder by the day—first they were going to postpone it till the fall (whaaa?!), then they were going to cancel it, then they were going to replace it with the university entrance exams.

This does not instill peace and confidence in this year’s graduates about the future, so we are trying to take care of Sasha as much as possible right now. But when Masha finally gets tired of painting the bathroom mirror with my lipstick, walking our yorkie Gosha around the apartment on a pantyhose leash, or launching our cat, Finik, into space in the washing machine, I am afraid I’m unable to withstand her DDoS attack. So I send her to her older sister.

Psychologist Ekaterina Solovyova of the HSE Centre for Psychological Counselling shares her tips for parents working in self-isolation with children without the help of childcare, school, or a nanny.

‘Try to use this time to get to know each other better’

Ekaterina Solovyova, psychologist, HSE Centre for Psychological Counselling

Being at home in isolation with young children can be a challenge. Many parents are continuing to work, but at the same time, they are faced with the difficult task of combining their professional and personal lives while not losing their minds.

Set a schedule for spending time with your kids. Highlight the time you spend together and the time when both you and the kids are busy with their affairs. If there are two parents in the household, then you can designate times when the whole family is together and when one of the parents taking care of or supervising the kids, and the other is resting or working.

Set aside time for group physical activity. Do exercises together, dance, or build a house out of chairs and blankets. On Wednesdays at 1:00 pm, join the online hatha yoga classes that are offered as part of the Mental Health Spring events. And on Fridays at 1:00 pm, attend the virtual psycho-yoga classes. Along with physical activity, your child will listen to a lesson about the importance of emotions.

Reduce your expectations of yourself and your child. You don't have to be perfect. Keeping up and staying productive at home with children is much more difficult. If you are tired or annoyed, but you don’t let your child play on their iPad because you think it is not the right way to raise a child, this is unlikely to make your life easier.

Read more

Getting closer to the family has been a long-awaited and enriching experience for some people and a crisis for others. Don’t get discouraged if you belong to the latter group and you feel anxious, annoyed, or helpless. These feelings prove how valuable your relationships are. We have discussed this issue with Maria Shvets, psychologist of the HSE Psychological Counselling Centre.

It’s difficult for children, too, to stay home for a long period of time. They can often be fussy and angry—the situation is difficult for them, too, and they need your support and reassurance. Don’t forget to talk with your kids about what is going on; explain why you are all staying inside. They are not being punished; it is a policy everyone is following in order to save people’s lives. Talk to your kids about what is hard for you, and ask them about how they are feeling. What is most difficult for them? Are they concerned about the current situation?

This may sound strange, but try to use this time to get to know each other better. Sometimes in our usual pace of life we ​​do not have time to talk heart to heart, to notice the changes that occur in our kids every day. Talk to your kids about your work, what you like about it and what you don’t, what’s easy, what’s hard. How did you choose your job? Ask your kids about their hopes and dreams. What worries them? What are they afraid of? What exactly do they like about this or that cartoon hero? What makes them smile, and what makes them want to cry?

This time of self-isolation will end soon. Try to fill it with moments that will stay with you for a long time and will bring a smile to your face.

April 24, 2020