By Kara Gehbart Uhl
Maybe you’re a telecommuter, independent contractor or freelancer with a home office. Perhaps your employer is experimenting with a work-from-home-on-Fridays perk. Or maybe you don’t typically work out of the house, but the dishwasher is broken and you were given an 8-hour window for someone to come and fix it. There are innumerable reasons parents work from home these days at least occasionally.
I have years of experience working in a corporate office environment. It’s safe to say the pleasant vision I had of freelancing as a stay-at-home mom while pregnant with my oldest child didn’t exactly come to fruition. Sharing space with people who are younger – and much louder – than your typical coworkers can certainly be challenging. (My surprise that my toddler wouldn’t sit on a blanket and quietly play with wooden blocks while I typed for hours is now quite laughable.) Things aren’t necessarily easier now that my children are older. An example:
It’s late afternoon and I’m conducting an important phone interview in my home office. The door opens and a note is placed on my desk. “Owen called me a meanie.” Owen’s twin brother stands there, waiting for a response. I write on the note, in all caps, “WAIT!” as I continue conducting my phone interview. He writes back “OK” and then loudly runs off to play some more.
My daughter is 11, my twin boys are 9 and I’ve been freelancing since before they were born. My husband and I have never hired a full-time babysitter. Some truths: During the school year, I work when my children are at school. During the summer, I work less on weekdays and more in the evenings or on the weekends. I’m attentive at sports games and piano recitals but regularly take my laptop to practices and lessons. I got some good news when my husband was told he could start working from home with his full-time, corporate job, allowing me more flexibility if I need to leave the house.
The last few years have taught me some important lessons, and those lessons have made me both a better freelancer and a better parent. Here are some tricks of the trade, along with advice from fellow “Not now, I’m on the phone!” parents who sometimes have to turn their kitchen table into a makeshift office.
Set clear expectations
Kids are not colleagues. But what they lack in brain development and maturity is made up with love and humor, and sometimes, frustration. One afternoon, when my daughter was a toddler, our entire family was in the minivan and my husband needed to make a work call. After explaining the importance of being quiet, there was a brief pause and then my daughter yelled, “Do you want to hear how good I can make a sheep sound?”
Following are tips to make your day a bit less stressful.
- Choose a designated work space (an office, a desk, the dining room table, even your bed) that sets the expectation among your kids that when you’re in that space, they need to leave you alone unless it’s an emergency.
- Kids like order, routine and knowing what’s ahead. Be clear about the day’s itinerary (“I’m working until 4 p.m. today; we’ll hang out after 4 p.m. If you behave, I’ll even take you to the park.”)
- To head off noise and interruptions, equate your work to their homework, reminding them of how irritated they are when they’re trying to do their school work and a sibling (or parent) is being disruptive.
- Yes, kids need to learn to entertain themselves, but don’t set them up to fail. Suggest quiet activities if it’s raining. (Puzzles or crafts are great.) Stock up on books at the library. Provide easy access to Legos, board games, cars, dolls – whatever they’re into. Allow them screen time if you need to. Make a long list of “things to do when you’re bored” and post it for easy access.
- Know they’ll make mistakes. Kids are kids. They’ll forget, they’ll lose patience, they’ll get into an argument with their siblings and they’ll break rules. Show some leniency to avoid ever-building resentment. When quiet is crucial, talk with them beforehand. Explain the importance of the next hour and their obligations, and let them know what emergencies warrant interruption and what consequences they may face if an interruption proves unnecessary. Follow through.
Consider investing in a babysitter or a ‘parents’ helper’
For several years when my kids were younger, I refused to spend money on an outside sitter, fearing it would cut too much into my profits. Instead I would start working as soon as the kids went to bed, staying up until the wee hours of the morning. Everything suffered: the work I did at 3 a.m. and then my parenting a few short hours later.
So, I began using a babysitting service or calling one of the many high-school babysitters in my area. With older children, you might consider hiring a parents’ helper — an older teenager to “hang out” with your kids and drive them places as needed. Yes, this costs some money. But the upside is stronger work and better parenting. If you’re looking for a more cost-effective option, consider forming a babysitting co-op. Fellow parents agree to watch your children for free, and in exchange you return the favor when they’re in need of a helping hand.
If you live with a partner, don’t be shy to ask for help. With many employers becoming more flexible regarding work-from-home policies, you might be surprised with what can be worked out. Consider both of you shifting your work hours so only a few overlap. Ask your partner to try negotiating some work-from-home hours so you can take turns cleaning up snack spills or helping with homework. Share drop-off and pick-up duties. Drop any guilt you might have. Talk with your partner and come to an understanding. You both, equally, deserve uninterrupted work time.
Leave the house (even briefly)
One fellow creative professional told me that her copywriter friend traveled often when her kids were young, so they would be used to their mom being away at times. Whether you're packing your bags for a conference or a short-term contractor gig in another city, or you're simply spending a few hours in a coffee shop to work, give yourself permission to work out of the house when childcare is available. And now that my kids are older, I let them stay home alone for an hour or so. I give them my undivided attention upon my return and they like the feeling of new responsibility. I also sometimes bring them with me. Now that I don’t need to keep a constant eye on them I let them browse books at the library or play at the park while I work for a bit. The change in scenery benefits us all.
Develop a routine
My work hours tend to be deadline-driven, but many freelancers and telecommuters work better with a set, daily routine. If your kids are older, enforce a schedule. During the school year, this is easy. During the summer, create working hours (8 a.m. to noon is my working time) and set boundaries. Again, make sure your children know that you're only to be interrupted in an emergency. When working, have self-discipline and ignore the housework and your personal to-do lists. One friend I spoke with said that when she's really busy, she sets timers to impose deadlines and breaks. Pick a plan, and stick with it.
The bottom line is that working from home when children are present can work. It does work. But every family is different. Find what’s best for you and those you love, and stop feeling guilty. You deserve your on-the-job time (and, in many cases, your family's finances depend upon it). I believe time spent not parenting makes me a better parent. And there is great value in your children seeing you succeed professionally, personally and creatively. Show them, through your actions, the importance of a balanced life, filled with a variety of passions.