From Baby to Toddler to Little Kid

Strategies for Adapting at Work and at Home as Your Child Grows and Develops

Sure, the first year of working parenthood was a huge adjustment—but these next several years are likely bringing change on a scale and of a speed you’ve rarely had to deal with before. All of a sudden the baby’s walking and talking. Then she’s three, and demanding to know why you have to leave her to go to work each morning and why she can’t have the iPad again. Or with everything that’s happening at home, the new schedule you just went to great lengths to negotiate with your boss isn’t meeting your needs anymore. It may feel as if every time you find a good working-parent groove, things shift and you have to find all-new ways to cope. You’re constantly flexing, and reinventing—and fortunately a few simple, powerful, consistent strategies will help you do so. During this time of constant change, here are ways to stay on your front foot, both at home and on the job.

Making the Most of Care Transitions

During the first year of working parenthood, your beginning- and end-of-workday caregiving transitions were critical but fairly straightforward. Conversations with your care provider centered mostly on timing and logistics: on feeding and napping schedules, for example. But as your child grows, his needs change and become significantly more complex. Eating and sleeping are still important, but so are his emotional development, socialization with other children, physical abilities, and growing readiness for the eventual start of full-time school. With so much in flux, the partnership you have with your caregivers becomes ever more important, and important to get right. Good communication is essential now, and in this relationship, morning and evening handoffs are your main connection points. As you enter Year Two, it can be helpful to rethink how to use these daily check-ins.

  • Broaden the frame.  Begin talking about a larger range of topics—and ask your caregiver more, and more-differentiated, questions, too. How is your child interacting with other children—and who is he making friends with? What activities does he enjoy most? When left to his own devices, what toys or activities does he gravitate toward? Were there any surprises, particularly happy moments, or disappointments throughout his day? How does he express joy, or frustration? Have your caregivers noticed any new behavioral patterns? Abilities? Fears? The extra texture and insight you get will let you feel more on top of your child’s development as it occurs—which, while you’re working so many hours each day, will be deeply reassuring. To be clear: you don’t have to turn every conversation with the sitter into an interrogation. A few extra minutes each morning and evening will let you cover everything you need.
  • Make it a two-way street.  Offer your own updates and observations, too. If your child has been having more tantrums at home, let your caregiver know. When you’re heading into busy season and will be working very long hours, or if your partner is changing jobs, share that context as well. Your care provider may have insights on why the tantrums are happening and how to defuse them, or can provide extra attention and reassurance.
  • Observe—and be open to learning.  Don’t be shy about spending extra time quietly watching your nanny or daycare providers in action: how they comfort your child when he’s upset, for example, or encourage him when he’s frustrated, or what games they use to stimulate his activity and thinking. Remember, your caregivers likely have much more practical experience in child development than you do. The changes and new behaviors that are baffling for you may be old hat to them, and they can teach you some wonderful new tricks.
  • Maintain a unified front.  Babies are oblivious to how you interact with your caregiver, but even a two- or three-year-old can sense when there’s a difference of opinion, if interactions are rushed, or if your relationship is strained. Take care to greet your caregivers warmly, and don’t override the decisions they’ve made or directions they’ve given your child throughout the day. If you have any difficult questions or issues to resolve, do so out of your child’s earshot. Your relationship with your caregiver should be a constructive partnership—and your child should feel that too.

A visible schedule

Your child may be too young to tell or understand time, but be certain to talk with him about daily plans, particularly if your work or caregiving schedule is complex or varies. Starting each morning understanding the basic “pegs” of his day—who will be dropping him off, whether he’ll be doing the extra hour at daycare, who will be putting him to bed, etc.—lets him feel safe and secure. One easy tactic to help here is to make the daily schedule “readable.”

Hang up a cork or magnet board at his eye level in some visible, high-traffic area of the house, and each morning tack up pictures, in chronological order, of what he’ll do and who will take care of him during the day: A photo of Mom (who will take him to daycare), followed by an image of the daycare building, then a picture of the sitter who will pick him up, and so on. He’ll be proud of being able to decipher the schedule by himself, and you’ll feel better when you’ve made his day understandable and familiar.

Bonding with Your Child Through Activity

At some point during the toddler phase, the moments of reconnection you have with your child after each workday will become frustrating and emotionally fraught. This is due to a fundamental difference in how adults and children are wired, and how you each want that precious time together each evening to begin.

While adults relate to and show affection for each other by talking and asking questions, children can’t. Get home after work, eagerly ask your three-year-old, “How was your day?” and you’ll most likely get a blank stare, an “I don’t know”—or be completely ignored. When you’ve been looking forward to seeing her all day and stopped work early to be able to hang out with her before her bedtime, that lukewarm response can be disappointing—and feel like a rejection. But it’s nothing personal: at this very young age, your child simply doesn’t have the ability to sort and categorize her experiences the same way you do, or to capture her feelings in words.

What will work to make those pivot points easier and more rewarding for both of you is action: doing things together, instead of talking. As soon as you arrive at the daycare center, get down on the floor and join in whatever game she’s playing. Or when you arrive home, pull out a puzzle or toy to enjoy together, put on some of her favorite music and ask her to dance, or encourage her to act along in her play kitchen while you’re cooking dinner. Better yet, let her lead; simply ask, “What should we play?”—and then follow along with what she chooses. Unhurried, engaged in an activity she has chosen, and without any pressure to go back and forth in adult-style conversation, your child will feel much more at ease, those transition moments will go more smoothly—and talk will quickly follow.

‘‘Every morning when I get up, I create an ‘invitation to play.’ I set up a game or a toy in an interesting way that I know will engage him—something creative but not complicated. This morning it was a little cave made out of blocks with a couple of his animal figures inside.

When he wakes up, he runs to find what I’ve left for him. If I’m still at home, we can have fun with it together. If I have to leave early for the salon, he’ll show me what he’s doing over FaceTime. It’s our little ritual, and it’s a win-win-win. He’s excited and looks forward to it, my wife gets thirty extra minutes to chill out and wake up, and I get to interact with him, even if I’m not there.”

—Devin, hairdresser, father of one

When you’re carrying around a lot of work stress or feeling harried by a nonstop schedule, this “action first” technique can be easy to forget or tempting to skip. When you’re under pressure, and as you’re nearing home or the preschool, remind yourself, Hugs first, then play, then talk. What feels counterintuitive or like an extra step now will solidify into habit quickly—and those precious end-of-day reunions will become reliably happy, for both you and your child.

Harnessing the Power of Repetition and Ritual

While transition moments are critical, so is the rest of the limited time you spend together. Whatever your work schedule, those mornings, evenings, and weekends can feel very short, and you’ll want to make them as enjoyable and high-impact as possible. Your key technique for getting there is R&R: repetition and ritual.

Watch any episode of a TV show made for little kids, or read any children’s book that’s part of a series, and you’ll notice that it’s remarkably similar to the next one. Characters always wear the same outfits, plots always unfold in the same way, and the theme song plays at exactly the same time. The writers and producers all know that predictability helps anchor children—that it makes them look forward to watching the program or having the book read aloud and that they will enjoy it when they do. For your small child, the world is a brand-new and complex place, and when he can see patterns in it or accurately spot what’s coming next, it gives him a sense of security, mastery, and delight. For you, repetition is dull. For your toddler, repetition is wonderful and reassuring.

So borrow this technique—and create rituals of your own. The ones that will work best are ones that feel natural, that can happen frequently, that involve both you and your child, and above all, that are easy to do. If your son knows you’ll pick him up and hug him in the same way when you come through the door each evening, he’ll look forward to it—and be thrilled when it happens. Sing that favorite song together each day on the way home from daycare, begin each Saturday morning with the same breakfast, and tuck him into bed in a consistent way each evening. With little effort, you can weave small but deliberate threads of routine like this throughout the time you have with your child—and make those hours more satisfying, comforting, and happy for both of you.


Now’s the time to start enlisting your child’s help by asking her to do basic self-care and household chores. That doesn’t mean expecting your toddler to do all her own laundry or to de-ice the car, but she can easily handle small, simple tasks like putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket, tidying up toys and games, bringing napkins to the table at dinnertime, or helping to wipe the kitchen counter after a spill. Doing so will build her sense of capability and self-esteem, and get her ready to take on larger responsibilities—like homework, or laundry—later on. Don’t fall into the “it’s faster if I just do it for her” trap, or wait to assign chores when she’s bigger and more capable. The more your kids understand early on that their help is valuable, too, the easier it will be to run your working-parent household.

Explaining Work to Very Small Children

When your child is very young, work can feel—to him—like a mysterious competitor for your time and attention. Why does Mommy leave every morning? Why can’t Daddy put away the computer or stay home and play? Without decent answers to those questions, your daily commitment to work can be read as abandonment, and the tears, emotions, bargaining, and flat-out tantrums that can result may leave you feeling helpless and guilty.

Talking with your child about work—regularly, honestly, and directly—won’t be a perfect solution, but it can help. When she understands why you’re going to work, and that you have to, it can allay a lot of difficult feelings. Over time, it will also allow her to feel more secure in your affections, to take interest and pride in what you do, and to begin to understand work as an important part of your life and ultimately of her own.

The daily goodbye

Whether you’re leaving for a day at work, doing daycare drop-off, or just headed into your home office, be sure to mark your leave, and keep those goodbyes loving, reassuring—and brief. An extended farewell only provides more time for your child to be upset, and if she observes that knee-grabbing hysterics prompt you to hang around for a while, she’ll likely continue. Tell her in a firm but tender way that you know she’s sad, but that her trusted caregiver is with her, and that you’ll be there later in the day to pick her up or to put her to bed. And then go.

If she’s routinely distraught at your departure for work, check with her caregiver(s) as to how long the sadness typically lasts. Most children recover from daily separations quickly; she may be happily playing again less than a minute after you’ve gone. Consider a “goodbye ritual” also—like a certain type of hug, or a favorite song. If she knows that Mommy or Daddy never leaves without giving her a high five at the doorway, but always leaves right after, it will limit the drama and help protect everyone’s feelings.

To help your very small child understand your job and its demands:

  • Keep things as simple as possible.  Use the kinds of plain terms, descriptions, and examples your child can easily grasp. If you work in a hospital, you “help sick people get better,” or if you’re a chef, you “make good food for people to eat.” If you work in a professional setting that’s harder to explain, describe it in terms of relationships and feelings; try saying that you have to “go to the office and work because people there depend on me,” or “will be upset if our team isn’t together,” or similar. Lean on words and concepts familiar to small children, like helping, building, or making. Terms like clients, projects, deadlines, or responsibilities will be mostly unintelligible.
  • Let your child see where you work.  Show her your workstation, the copier, the supply closet, the break room. If your work requires a uniform or special equipment, show her the changing area or where those tools are kept. Plan your visit for a weekend, or other quiet day when you can avoid noise and distraction and focus solely on your child’s experience and questions.
  • Be open about your “why.”  It’s OK to tell your child that you like your job—and there’s no need to shy away from the economics. Statements like “I really like building new houses for people to live in” or “working lets me earn the money to take good care of you and Daddy and baby Oliver” are direct, reassuring—and the truth.
  • Keep it positive.  Yes, your boss may be difficult, the hours long, and the work occasionally tedious, but those aren’t problems your toddler can in any way solve or relate to. And from her perspective, it will be upsetting to think that you’re leaving her each day for something you don’t enjoy or take interest in.
  • Talk about her job, too.  The demands of your real, adult work may be hard for your daughter to get her head around, but the overall idea of “working” comes naturally to and fascinates most kids. If you have to catch up with work-related reading on a Saturday, set her up with paper and crayons and ask if she’ll “work” alongside you. During playtime, be willing to play the role of sick animal to her veterinarian, or of customer to her shopkeeper—and compliment her for the effort she’s putting into these make-believe jobs. When work is positioned as something that everyone does and that’s important, interesting, admired, and praiseworthy, it will go a long way to helping tears and guilt go away.

‘‘It’s a two-way street: I try to involve my kids in my life as much as I want to be involved in theirs. My youngest is three, and too young to understand what I do yet, but if I need to make a home repair, I take him to the hardware store to get what we need. I’m showing him how the adult world, and adult mind, works.”

—Brant, chief information officer, father of seven

‘‘My son’s only four and a half, but he understands. I work steady midnights, which means 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. When I tuck him into bed, he’ll say, ‘Bye Mommy—have a good night at work!’ This year I did a special visit to his pre-K classroom, wearing my uniform, and talked to the kids about safety. He was ecstatic—and so proud of his mom.”

—Evelyn, police officer, mother of one

Confronting the Screen-Time Dilemma

Between ages one and five, your child will become increasingly more physically active, more interactive, and more vocal. You’ll be more tired, and it will be harder to get work done when he’s around—to find the quiet time you need on a Sunday to square off all the details on an important project before a Monday deadline, for example. This is when you’ll likely start having anxiety about screen time. Should you give your three-year-old the iPad and enjoy twenty more minutes of badly needed sleep? Allow him to watch TV while you’re emailing with your boss? Use the latest Disney film as a sitter when you’re working remotely, and without a caregiver? Or should you believe the experts who say that any amount of screen exposure is terrible for small, developing brains? Most working mothers and fathers do all four—and end up feeling all kinds of wrong.

Instead, try to find a moderate, realistic approach that works for the entire family—and that acknowledges the pressure points of your career and daily schedule and the circumstances we’re all in. We’re living in a stressful modern reality here, and allowing a toddler to watch a single fifteen-minute show each morning makes eminent sense if it lets you get showered, dressed, and ready and helps get the whole family out the door to daycare on time. Likewise, when you have to take an important conference call during your vacation, there’s no harm in queuing up one of your child’s favorite movies so you can speak professionally and undisturbed. Landing that big new project may depend on it. It’s likely you watched some amount of TV growing up, and it didn’t derail you, did it? On the other hand, if you find yourself using screens as go-to babysitters or depending on them for hours each day (if you’re abusing them rather than using them), then it’s probably time to cut back or reconsider.

Bonjour, Monsieur iPad!

To make that screen a little less appealing to your young child and make you feel a little more virtuous when you offer it, only allow him to watch shows and movies in a foreign language. Explain that Mr. iPad doesn’t know, or has forgotten how to speak, your native language, and queue up all of your child’s regular favorite programs in another one. Either your little one quickly loses interest and finds something else to do, or he’s exposed to a new language. Either way: you win.

If you are going to allow use of the iPad or TV:

  • Contract it.  Have a clear set of rules for yourself about how much screen time you’ll permit and when. Maybe you decide that the iPad’s OK when you get urgent work calls after hours and your partner’s not around to help. Or maybe you create a firm two-hour-per-week aggregate limit and use the time flexibly as a way to catch a breather amid your nonstop schedule. Whatever you choose, make the rules specific and transparent and stick to them. To ensure consistency, make sure that all caregivers, family members, and your child’s Third Parents are fully aware of them too.
  • Plan it.  Preselect age-appropriate and educational games, movies, or shows so they’re ready to go when needed. Don’t get caught hunting for an appropriate movie or waiting on a slow download at professionally critical moments.
  • Time it.  If you’re allowing thirty minutes of TV, announce it—and then set an egg timer, or put an easy-to-read clock near the screen. When time is up, it’s up: no surprises, no tears, and no “just five more minutes, Daddy!” type negotiations.
  • Hide it.  Eliminate temptation by keeping screens out of sight when not in use. Put the iPad and remote controls in a drawer, out of your toddler’s reach and mind. When devices are away, you’ll be more likely to use and savor the limited time you have with your child, too.

Still Owning—and Updating—Your Story

When you became a working parent, you carefully crafted a message for your manager, colleagues, and clients. You told them about your ambition—and new needs—in a compelling, authentic way. Now, a few years later, you may have a new boss, or new responsibilities; the organization’s strategy or budget may have shifted; or the schedule you’re keeping as the parent of a four-year-old may be much different from the one you kept when he was a baby. You may have been promoted, or risk being passed over for promotion if you don’t raise your hand. Things change, people can forget, and even the best and most thoughtful manager or coworkers can’t read your mind. Throughout these first several years, therefore, it’s imperative to stay in control of your story. Fortunately, there are several natural openings in which you can create the overall workparent narrative you want.

  • Performance reviews.  Feedback conversations are the right environment in which to reassert—and reset—your high-level expectations and needs. Never go into an annual review without knowing what key workparent points and messages you want to get across. If you’ve been handling an unreasonably high workload despite a reduced schedule, for example, or if you’ve gotten into a solid working-parent routine and are ready for new challenges, bring those things up with your manager now along with proposed next steps and solutions.
  • Day-to-day communications.  Leaving to take your child to a healthcare appointment? Be sure to let your colleagues know using the priorities, next steps, commitment, enthusiasm framing tool we first covered in chapter 3. Saying, “I’m leaving for my son’s doctor’s office now, and will be back at work by 3:00, when I’ll finish updating the storyboards so we can have a fresh version for approval tomorrow. Looking forward to getting this into production!” will bring people into your plans, alleviate their concerns, showcase your dedication—and minimize the risk of misunderstandings.
  • Outside events, executive recruiters, and social media.  If you haven’t circulated at a networking event or industry conference, bent a headhunter’s ear about your recent achievements, updated your LinkedIn profile, or otherwise sent signals to the broader professional community about your commitment and achievements within the past six months, do so now—and then set a calendar reminder to do so again on an every-three-months basis. You’ve worked way too hard to develop your professional brand and your reputation in the field to let it go stale through benign neglect. Careers are made by doing brilliant work—and then by making that work well known. Regardless of how busy working parenthood gets, it’s in your best interests to keep your contacts and profile fresh.

When you’re on the phone

C’mon, we’ve all been there: had work conversations interrupted by our small children, and felt mildly embarrassed or unprofessional as a result. While those break-ins are inevitable—little kids simply aren’t capable of understanding work boundaries or phone or videoconferencing etiquette, no matter how often they’re explained—they don’t have to leave you apologizing or distracted.

If you do need to take a call when your little one is around:

  • Alert the person you’re speaking to. “My five-year-old is home with me; you may hear or see her in the background” is all it takes. What’s not surprising isn’t embarrassing.
  • Make technology your friend: know how to mute the phone quickly, install a slidable tab over your laptop’s camera, or download a professional-looking backdrop onto your videoconferencing platform (most green-screen-type backdrops will pick up only one face).
  • Have a “diversion object” ready: an interesting toy or gadget, or a small piece of candy, that can reliably distract and quiet your child.

When you do get interrupted—which you will—resist the natural instinct to be terse with your child or to start explaining yourself, both of which will make you sound frazzled or not-so-nice and only draw more attention to what you’re trying to downplay. If you need to, ask for a quick break to get your child’s needs sorted out. And don’t be surprised if the person on the other end of the line laughs, or sympathizes: they’ve been there, too.

Considering Changes at Work

Even if you were one of the rare mothers or fathers who raced eagerly back to work after parental leave, there will be moments during your first five years of working parenthood when you find yourself mulling over and revisiting your professional choices. You may start thinking about going part-time, changing jobs or careers—or taking a professional break. With so many pressures at work and at home and with your kids growing and changing so rapidly, it’s completely normal to worry about what you’re missing at home, to seek relief from the strain, and to want more slack in the system. The risk you face, though, is in making these kinds of professional choices reactively or hastily—in leaping toward what appears on the surface to be a good solution yet might not ultimately be the right one for you. Before deciding:

  • Take a vacation, and any other time off you’re due.  The burnout you’re feeling may ease up, at least partially, during a well-deserved break, or you may gain a different perspective on how you’re handling the pressures of parenting and work. With some rest, and distance from the day-to-day grind, you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to chart any new course forward.
  • Find quiet, unhurried time and space to think things through.   It will be impossible to come to good conclusions when you’re exhausted, multitasking, or interacting with a cranky toddler. You don’t need weeks of uninterrupted contemplation on a mountaintop someplace, but do try to get out of the office and catch a short break from your regular routine. Even an hour by yourself at the local coffee shop will let you better consider your needs and options.
  • Speak to colleagues and mentors.  What workparents do you know—and trust—who have been through this challenging “baby into little kid” period and come out the other side? Their encouragement can be invaluable, and they may be able to steer you toward solutions you didn’t think of.
  • Get creative.  Perhaps practicing corporate law while parenting a toddler feels impossible, at least right now. But could you stay with your firm in another practice group with better hours? Take an in-house staff position for a year? Work for a client on secondment for six months? Whatever your role or circumstances, cast your net wide and think broadly about potential solutions.
  • Take a longer-term view.  This patch of working parenthood—when change is the most rapid, your kids need you so much, and your career may be accelerating—can be tremendously difficult, but it’s finite. A few months from now, the big deadline may have passed, your child will be able to do a bit more for herself, and things will invariably get a little easier. And five years from now, or twenty, you may be very grateful that you persisted with your career in the way that you did.

No comparing: other parents

It’s normal to look around at how other workparents are managing things, and it’s healthy to seek out their differing perspectives, encouragement, and advice. What isn’t productive is to start benchmarking or evaluating yourself against other moms and dads. How did she get promoted on a part-time arrangement? Should we have our second child now, like everyone else? How do they seem so “together” with twins and big careers, when I feel tired and overwhelmed all the time? The simple answer is: their careers, ambitions, personalities, parenting styles, and budgets are different than yours, and comparisons serve no real purpose. Find support, solutions, and inspiration among your workparent community, but stay focused on what works for you.

‘‘When the kids are this little, and you’re in a tough phase, it feels like it lasts forever. Potty training will drive you cuckoo. I tortured myself about it—but then the phase passes.

The work you put in now will pay off when the kids are older, because you’ve given them a model for managing life and navigating independence. If you make big changes to optimize for this one brief time in your family’s life, you may limit your options later. Picture your kids when they’re twenty-five years old, and the good ways they’ll describe you to their friends, or partner. Play the long game.”

—Karen, macro trends expert, mother of two

If you’ve considered your situation calmly and holistically and you’re still interested in a change to your career or schedule, turn to chapter 15 for advice on negotiating and using flexible working arrangements and/or to chapter 17, which covers breaks, sabbaticals, and other time off.

Staying on the Right Path—for You

When you’re working a demanding job and parenting small children with ever-changing needs, it can be easy to let your own friendships go unattended, put hobbies and interests on hold, let exercise or spiritual practices fall by the wayside, and constantly be in go mode, without any time for reflection. And when that happens, you may start losing sight of something vitally important: yourself.

‘‘In our office we work 9:00 to 5:00, but we also see every production, and have networking events three or four nights per week, and there’s a lot of travel to conferences and trade shows. The job demands a lot, but I’m passionate about the work, and my coworkers are a tight-knit group who have each other’s backs. My son is five, and that’s what I hope to show him: that this wasn’t just a job, a paycheck—that I loved what I did, and was contributing.”

—Allison, Broadway marketer, mother of one

As hectic as things are during this baby-to-little-kid period, try to stay involved with the activities and people that were important to you before you were a parent. If you’ve always been close with your college buddies and were an avid runner before your child was born, organize the next get-together—and then lace up those shoes and hit the trail, at least occasionally. Take the time to think through your professional goals, also—and think how you can move closer to them. Keep up with your mentors, and keep asking for their advice.

And along the way, cut yourself some slack. It’s OK to have allowed your toddler an episode—or more—of her favorite TV program, to have lost your cool during her third tantrum of the weekend, to work different hours than you used to, or to be craving unpressured time alone. Your children are always changing, but you are too—and the more you can keep yourself on a good path, the steadier and more confident a working parent you’ll be, both now and in the years to come.

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