Monday, August 13, 2012

How to Be a Work From Home Mom (As If I Know!)

For the past five and a half years, I have been a "WAHM," a work-at-home mom. Working from home presents unique challenges as well as some great benefits.

One of my strong desires for when I had kids was to be that mom who was able to chaperon field trips, come to the school for daytime events, attend parent-teacher conferences, be home with the kids when they were sick, and volunteer at school. I grew up in a single-parent household, and my mom had to work to support us, so from sixth grade and up, I was a latchkey kid with my younger brother. Our mom set a great example of work ethic and reliability, sticking to commitments, and doing everything for your kids. But since she had to work, she wasn't able to be home with us when we were sick, come to school stuff during the day, or help out at school events. Once she left for work, we were on our own until she got home. I don't want to paint this as a dismal picture. My childhood was happy, and I don't resent or regret anything my mom had to do to keep us in a comfortable home and give us almost everything we wanted.

But, all the same, it gave me a vision of motherhood different from the one I grew up with. I began to feel that it was vitally important for me to be home with my kids, at least until they were preschool age. And when the opportunity came up for me to work from home when we moved from Philadelphia to California not long after our first son was born, we seized it. So, when I started my job as a transcriptionist, I thought, how great that I'll be working from home. I can be here with NJ all the time. We don't have to worry about paying for daycare or a nanny, and I'll be able to spend lots of time with him. I very quickly (within a week) found something out: It's really hard to get work done when you have a baby.

(Before you get excited and ask me how I can help you get a job working from home, I have to reveal that I work for my aunt, in a two-person (her and me) operation, and I can't do anything to help you get a job in my field. Sorry.)

I didn't know what to do with a baby all day long. I didn't know what to do with myself. I was new to the area and had no friends. My few feeble attempts at finding other moms around fell flat (I went to one Meetup where only one other mom showed, and we didn't really click.) My husband and I decided that, for my sanity and ability to get work done, we would put NJ in daycare three days a week (that was all we felt we could afford).

I was definitely happier being able to take him to daycare, drop him off, go home to a silent house, get my work done, and then pick him up at the end of the day. This worked out reasonably well on the three days he was at daycare. On the two days he was home, I felt like I spent half the day trying to get him to nap so I could work, and the other half of the day hoping he would stay asleep long enough for me to get some work done. And in between, I didn't know what to do with a baby.

Eventually, I found my stride with him, and we were able to put him in daycare full time so I could work during regular business hours. Also, he finally started going to bed around 7:30 or 8:00 a little before he turned one, and then I could also relax in the evenings, and my stress lifted quite a bit. I started making friends, finding other moms, joined a Mommy & Me, and life started to make sense for me.

And then along came SB. Though NJ continued on in daycare, we could not afford to put SB in daycare along with him. When he was a tiny baby, I found I could work in short spurts during his little naps, and sometimes he'd be happy in his swing for a bit while I typed. But he would get cranky and need me. I couldn't leave him sitting and staring all day, after all. And when he gained mobility, things definitely got more difficult again.

When SB was about six months old, my mom moved to California and into our house. She got a part-time job, and she took care of NJ and SB in the afternoons for me so I could work. This was, by far, the best arrangement I have yet found as far as work and having kids home, but it couldn't last forever. And it didn't. Mom got a full time job as a preschool teacher, NJ went to her school, and I was home with SB again. I did get some part-time baby-sitters and such to help me out, but what I learned to do was work work work while the baby sleeps. I also got more in the habit of working in the evenings after both kids were asleep. Since my husband works late, usually past 9:00 if not later, I was alone in a quiet house after the kids went to sleep, and I was able to relax, work, goof off on the computer, or do whatever else struck my fancy. Usually, I worked.

Now, I don't have to work eight hours a day or anything. Really, my job is sort of part time, and I need to put in between two and five hours of solid work in a given day (from the time I get up in the morning to the time I go to bed at night) in order to make my goal billing. This can sometimes be done by working during nap times, but not always. Plus, I like to find time for, say, blogging, internet surfing, random freelance work if I can get it, and simple relaxation. Oh yeah, and stuff like laundry and dishes. And at some point during the day, I also need to take care of my kids, right?

Now that GI's come along (actually, he's almost one already!), I feel like I've finally figured out, to an extent, how to be an at-home mom. Especially now that NJ is in public school, the value of my being home is really making itself clear. We don't have to scramble to find baby-sitters, camp settings, or alternative daycare options during school breaks (of which there are many). We don't have to figure out which one of us uses a sick day or PTO when one of the kids is sick. Even though kindergarten was only half a day, we didn't have to have wonky work schedules or hire a nanny or find before and after care. In other words, my being home has saved us a lot of money on the childcare front.

But the challenges still exist. I have to balance getting my work done with giving the kids what they need, taking care of the household, feeding my own soul with my hobbies (mostly blogging), and sleeping. It's Not Easy. (Whoever said parenthood was easy, anyway?) This summer has been a real test. GI, like his brothers before him, does not like when I am sitting at my computer. He might be in a perfectly good mood, playing with toys and whatnot, right up until I sit down at my computer. Then, BAM, he's right there, holding onto my chair and wailing. Why? What is it about me sitting at my computer that upsets him so? NJ and SB were the same way at this age. I never did figure it out. What it means, though, is that I realistically can only work while GI naps, which can be hit or miss. He usually naps for a total of at least three to four hours during the daytime, which should be enough to get a fair amount of work done. The trouble is, with NJ and SB home, they bicker constantly, and I find I'm always having to stop what I'm doing to tend to them. They're pretty self-sufficient, and I thought I had come up with an ingenious idea to help them want the baby to stay asleep: Screen time! They can watch TV, play with the iPod, play on the Wii, and use the other computer only when the baby is asleep. This turned out not to work as well as I'd hoped, as they simply fight over what show to watch or whose turn it is with the iPod or the Wii, but I tried. Oh well.

The most unfortunate consequence of my relying on GI's nap in order to get work done is that I'm obsessive about his naps. I become very resentful and angry if he is kept from his nap, or if he is awakened early, or if he naps anywhere but at home, because it means I've missed out on valuable work time. It also means that I'll have to stay up late after he's gone to sleep for the night in order to finish my work. I got very angry with the two older boys on Friday, for example, when they were arguing and woke up the baby.

Things will change as GI grows into a toddler. I'm hoping he'll become more able to entertain himself and not be so upset when I'm at my computer. I can't remember when SB reached that point. Also, NJ will be in first grade, at school all day, starting next week, so the dynamic (and routine) will change once again!

The main challenge for me is that my work isn't "mobile." The only place, the only place I can work is at my specific work computer, at my desk, in my office nook. I can't work on a laptop in the living room, or in the back yard, or at the park or Starbucks. I have transcription equipment that can't travel around the house and special software that can't be transferred to other computers. For people with work-from-home jobs where they are more portable, as it were, I would imagine working from home is slightly easier. Of course, you also have to contend with little hands banging on keyboards and such.

I have learned a few things that might be helpful to others considering taking up the work-from-home challenge.
  • When you have a chance to work, sit down and work. Anything that can be done while the baby is awake, leave for when the baby is awake. Dishes, laundry, cooking, errands all can be done while baby is awake and being entertained by brothers or toys. Work can't. And try not to squander your time. (I am a pro at procrastination. I should really take my own advice.) If you have 10 minutes, get 10 minutes of work done.
  • Spend a few hours each day doing stuff with the kids. Take them to the park, wander around the mall, go to a local amusement park or the zoo (get memberships to places you like to go!), even just spend time playing with them, reading to them, and talking to them in the house. They crave attention, the little ones do, and if they know they're going to get some Mommy time, they'll be more willing to leave you alone when you need them to.
  • Make sure they have a safe place to play, so that if your eyes aren't on them all the time while you're working, you know they can't get up to too much mischief. With babies and toddlers, this means a baby-proof area within view and ear-shot that they can't get out of. With older kids, it means making sure they know the rules about where they're allowed to be and what they're allowed to be doing. And, it goes without saying, check on them periodically!
  • Get some help. Any kind of help. Whether it's a neighborhood girl who comes over twice a week after school or a part-time nanny, whatever fits in your budget and your style, get some help. Or do a childcare trade with other stay-at-home/work-at-home moms, if you could handle other people's kids along with your own. It buys you more time to work and get other stuff done around the house, and it makes sure there's someone paying attention to your kids while you do those things. 
  • Lay down the rules with your kids about your work time. They have to understand that Mommy sometimes can't play with them because she has to work. I like to use a carrot method, too, though. "If I get all my work done in the morning, we can spend the whole afternoon at ____." My oldest is very interested now in how much I've gotten done each day. "Did you get all your work done, Mommy? Do you have a lot of work?" It's cute.
  • Be flexible with your hours and be realistic about how much work you can take on. Get an idea of how much you can really get done in an average day so that you don't overbook yourself. If you get overloaded, you'll either be taking too much time away from your kids or from yourself, and neither is healthy.
What's the secret to working from home? Finding a balance, being forgiving of yourself, and setting realistic work goals. If only it were as simple as it sounds.


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