Having just scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Nicole Simon plays with her 3-year-old daughter in an "airplane" made of blankets, pillows, and plastic characters, while her 20-month-old gets cranky before his afternoon nap. Linus the chocolate Lab just ate a dirty diaper.
It's been 45 minutes since the 46-year-old single mother last checked her phone, and amid the screaming about a "monster," the fighting over a princess castle, and the throwing of fish sticks, she's "only" missed 26 emails.
"What's hard is having a job where people expect you to respond right away," said Simon, an immigration attorney who's in the middle of her busiest time of year. "The cellphone is the evil necessity."
Such is life on a snow day for the working parent, a juggling act you're forced to face when schools are closed, day cares are shut down, and babysitters are trapped in their own homes. The luckiest of parents might be able to take off work to focus on the kids or find trusted child care, but many in today's internet-based work environment are expected to remain plugged in at all times — background noise be damned.
This creates a daylong struggle only other parents might fully understand. Do you play a game with your child, or Skype into that meeting? Do you make a balanced meal for lunch, or respond in a timely manner to your boss' Slack message? And is there something wrong with keeping the kids occupied with a bunch of movies all day just to get some quiet?
Simon admitted it can be difficult to be 100 percent focused on work or the kids at any given time, especially when both demand attention simultaneously. On Wednesday morning when she heard from a client who wanted to talk via phone, Simon warned: "I can call you, but there will be two loud toddlers." Sure enough, Simon quieted Ariana several times during the call when she was screaming and/or singing. The client understood.
Greg Mester gets it, too. First thing Wednesday morning, his 7-year-old and 4-year-old were doing what many kids do first thing on a snow day: "Going crazy." When Mester, who works in information technology, walked into another room for some quiet so he could respond to emails, 4-year-old Eddie followed him. The child set up all his toy trucks on the table, flipped them all on, and created a chorus of singing and flashing plastic.
Later in the day to keep the kids occupied, Mester, a 49-year-old who lives in Pennsport, asked Eddie and his sister, Isabella, to use Legos or household items to build a makeshift snowplow for the front of a train that the family constructed together. It kept them busy for an hour or so, and Mester was able to sneak away to tend to his work obligations.
This particular snow day, Mester was lucky. His wife, an occupational therapist who often isn't able to work outside the office, had the day off, so he could get past the distractions, including the toy-truck fiasco.
"You just got to laugh and give them a hug and enjoy it for what it is," he said, "because they're going to grow up too soon."
The modern snow day might include more telecommuting than years past as technology like Skype and Slack has improved and many companies have relaxed rules about how often employees need to be physically in the office, said Alison DiFlorio, a Philadelphia-based human resources consultant.
She consults clients to share a clear telecommuting policy before inclement weather hits so employees know exactly what's expected of them, whether that's a flexible telecommuting option or a requirement that employees use vacation time if they won't be in the office. Even though a policy might not spell out what should be done in case of a child-care emergency, DiFlorio said it should be clear about responsibilities when working from home.
"It's a balancing act. Certainly you don't want employees driving in weather like this," said DiFlorio, managing partner of the human capital division at the consulting firm Exude. She also recommended that when possible, parents take shifts in watching the kids — perhaps one spouse takes the morning, while the other takes the afternoon.
That's how Roland Bui and Sandy Sanchez-Bui handled Wednesday. The Fishtown couple both worked remotely while their daughters, ages 1 and 2, were out of day care.
"It becomes about project management and tag-teaming," said Bui, 32, who works as a wholesale representative for La Colombe. "I might take a shift, then my wife takes one. Or if they're playing nicely, then I hop on my phone and do some emails real quick and then leave the bulk for their nap time."
For others, it comes down to figuring out which parent is able to stay home that day. Dustyn Roberts, an assistant professor at Temple University, lives with her wife in Newark, Del., and the two essentially "draw straws about who has the most important meetings to get to" on snow days when they can't find child care for 4-year-old Ariana.
Every time they see the forecast has snow, nervousness sets in and planning begins: Where can they shift appointments? Might a sitter be available? Can they switch on and off every two hours? On Wednesday, Roberts ended up at work conducting nine job candidate interviews while her wife stayed home, but it wasn't easy.
"I did not anticipate the level of logistical stress it puts on a family before having a kid," she said.
By 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Simon had put Lucas down for his afternoon nap, and Ariana lay on the couch while watching Pocahontas. Finally, the attorney settled in the living room with her laptop — once she found it — and was able to respond to clients and coworkers pinging her.
This time was precious, and she took advantage of it while it lasted.