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The working mom's playbook for coronavirus prep

From talking to your manager, to figuring out childcare solutions, to basic medical preparations, here's what experts say parents should cross off their to-do lists now.
Image: Shoppers in a Costco stock up on a 14-day supply of food, water and other necessities in Honolulu
Shoppers line up outside a Costco to buy supplies after the Hawaii Department of Health on Wednesday advised residents they should stock up on a 14-day supply of food, water and other necessities for the potential risks of novel coronavirus in Honolulu, last Friday.Duane Tanouye / Reuters

If your experience is anything like mine, news about the coronavirus outbreak is coming at you from all directions. And while many variables remain, you have that nagging feeling that you should be doing, well, something. But you aren’t sure what.

Most of us are used to the routine of hitting the store for milk, bread, toilet paper and board games as prep for blizzards and hurricanes. But what practical steps should working parents take to prepare for a potential coronavirus community spread?

Many parents were left scratching their heads when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the head of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, instructed us to prepare for "major disruptions to your lives." In my government contracting work, we are beginning to get requests for accommodations and plans if federal buildings are closed. Conferences and non-essential travel have been canceled.

And while there is no need to panic – after all, you’re a working mom rock star and the one thing you don’t do is panic – what should do to prepare with so much unknown?

Control your information flow

The first step is to know when and how your workplace, schools and daycare will communicate any potential closures or other impacts. And if you are the only adult in your family on these text or email alerts, now is the time to get the spouse, partner and all relevant parties signed up. You don’t need to be the gate keeper of this information.

This also means cutting out unnecessary chatter. Mute the “Bus Stop Parents” group chat, log off social media and cut out any other communication channel causing more anxiety than providing solutions. “You’ve got a lot of information coming at you,” said FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness Jason Hail. “I listen to the CDC, they’re the experts. Don’t get distracted by the noise. Make your lists, get what you need, prepare at home.”

Talk to your managers now

Now is the time to talk about what happens if schools or daycares are closed for an extended period of time. “These are not usual times, and we are not going to use usual solutions. Everything has to be on the table. That might mean you telecommute with internet powered by your phone when your employer would prefer a landline or taking calls with kid noise in the background,” says workforce consultant Dr. Kiban Turner, Ph.D.

“Approach your boss in a spirit of problem-solving; it may be that ‘the way things have always been’ may have to be suspended for a while,” Turner added. If you require different hardware to dial in remotely, or your organization requires telework training or paperwork, now is the time to track that down.

Negotiate childcare solutions and responsibilities with your partner or spouse

Equal or equitable divisions of childcare labor make this a lot easier, and if you and your partner or spouse carry an uneven load, this is a really good time set expectations. “Take a look at your calendars, and begin to have those conversations now,” said Sarah Argenal, founder of The Argenal Institute and host of the Working Parent Resource Podcast.

Argenal and her husband, for example, have laid out calendars for the next month, identified and rescheduled conflicting meetings or appointments, and have moved as many as possible to phone or video conferencing meetings. They have also pre-negotiated who is “on-call” based on the calendar forecast for if/when there is a sick kid call or school closure.”

Basic medical preparation

You’re following the advice to stock up on cold and flu medications and to get prescriptions refilled. But what about ADHD medications like my son’s that require a monthly weigh-in for a refill? I downloaded my health carrier's app and registered for the Telemed option. It took several steps to get the right password, log in and PIN, but we can now see our pediatrician over video chat. Also tampons, because that’s still going to happen, coronavirus or not.

There is a low level of creeping panic, and even some hysteria out there, I get it, I’m seeing it increase daily. To some extent, this is to be expected, since we don’t have a modern-day playbook for maybe-nationwide outbreak and unknowns outnumber the knowns. Take a deep breath, refocus your worry and pull it all together using your planning and preparation experience – at home and at work – and focus on controlling only what you can control. And if your children have already eaten all of the “pandemic provisions,” as my three sons and their friends have? Be happy they are well-fed and hit the grocery store again.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.