I am the Executive Director of a non-profit organization with an unusual set up: I split my time working from home and working from the office.
Like so many other families, when our child was born my spouse and I struggled to find a way to make childcare possible. It was so expensive, even with both of us working full-time, and we couldn’t find a spot for an infant. We were on 12 childcare wait lists since the year before she was born, and when she arrived, like many others in the state, we were still without care.
Thankfully, my boss at the time was willing to work creatively with me on a solution to my dilemma. Our agreement was that I would split my time working between the office and my home. As long as my job was done, I could do my work when it worked best for my family.
And so, in June of 2017 I began an experiment in the complete merging of my work and home lives. I became a part-time work from home mom.
It’s 6:10 a.m. My alarm sounds at just the right volume to wake me but not the sleeping child next door. My husband left for work by 3:15 a.m., so I’m on kid-duty and need the precious time between the alarm and my toddler’s waking to get myself ready for the day. I fumble to turn it off quickly, as to not disturb my tiny master’s slumber. I would like to say that this is when I leap out of bed and start my day with a workout or something healthy. In all likelihood, I am instead scrolling through my email and Instagram.
After my customary emailing and scrolling, I coax our dog from bed and tend to his various needs. Then I pour a cup of coffee, cursing my own name if I forgot to set it up the night before. Around 6:45 a.m. I sit at my laptop and begin to work.
When M wakes, usually around 7:15, we eat breakfast together. She steals my food and gives me hers, even though they are two halves of the same banana. After that I open the toy chest and M plays independently for about an hour and a half, moving from toys, to books, to eventually sprinting around the house. Occasionally, she will plop a book in my lap or put one of her friends in my coffee, which is a not-so-subtle hint to take five minutes and give her some of my focus. This morning block of time is the one where I don’t try to accomplish anything major, and do small tasks that can be accomplished in 15 minutes or less.
When M tires of playing, we go outside. Sometimes I bring my phone or laptop and work while she plays in the yard, and sometimes I don’t. When we come in, she will play more, and if needed, the television gets turned on so I can wrap things up. At 11:30 a.m., we eat lunch together, during which I’m still typing away on my laptop. Eventually she (in theory) naps, and I go back to work. This is when I complete work that requires more concentration than I can give when M is awake. My husband comes home mid-afternoon, and will take over childcare at that point if I need more time to work.
Here are six tips for how I make being a work from home mom successful for me and my family:
Stick to the schedule.
We rarely deviate from the above schedule on work-from-home days because it creates clear expectations and routines for both M and I. She knows what’s coming next, and I can predict approximately how long I have until I need to take another break to read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” for the fifth time.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
I don’t try to make important phone calls while M is doing her laps around the kitchen singing “twinkle twinkle” at the top of her lungs. I don’t do major writing or things that need 100% focus while she isn’t occupied. I schedule phone meetings during her nap time. Sometimes this does not work out as planned.
In our house, screen time is a tool. It’s a means to an end that helps me accomplish work tasks or get dinner on the table. Sometimes our friends Mickey or Elmo need to come for a visit while I make a phone call that can’t wait. It’s not my first choice, and I know that it’s likely not a popular one. I have to admit that I feel conflicted about it, as I am someone who tries to limit screen time. However, in small doses, screen time meets my need for a few moments of uninterrupted work-time when we have run through the usual cycle of toys and activities.
Let your house get dirty.
This was really hard for me in the beginning, and sometimes still is. In the early days, I felt the need to keep the house immaculate, have all of the laundry put away, and get a hot meal on the table, all while caring for an infant and working a full-time job. Oh yeah, and exclusively pumping. This is unrealistic, and I can assure you that no one expects this of you, but you. Let the dishes sit. The laundry can wait. That bathtub doesn’t need to be scrubbed. You can play catch-up in about 18 years, more or less. Maybe even by then, the kids will be doing their own laundry. A girl can dream.
I got lucky.
I am aware that this isn’t advice, but it’s the honest truth. I am extremely lucky to have a child who plays independently for long stretches of time and who craved being worn when she was little. In the beginning, when she was tiny, I would wear her in a carrier and bounce on a ball while working at my desk. Now I get at least 20 minute stretches where she plays independently, depending on the activity. As I mentioned before, most days it’s about 90 minutes with the occasional visit from M who needs me to help her find something new to do. This isn’t the case for everyone, I know, and it probably won’t always be this way for my daughter. As it so happens, the day I wrote this, I cleaned purple crayon off our freshly painted white window trim. This happened because I was engrossed in meeting a deadline and neglected to realize M had located a rogue crayon and used it to add some color to the dining room. This was an important reminder that I can’t do all of the things all of the time.
Be kind to yourself.
This one is the most important tip I can give. When you work from home with children, and get into a pattern, you will have some days that feel easy. Days when you achieve work goals and manage to parent in a sustained, committed way. There will also be days when it will feel like you have accomplished nothing. There will definitely be days when you wonder how you thought you could do all of this and you feel tired and overwhelmed and miss putting on clothing other than the same black leggings. You are splitting your attention between two things that are important to you, your career and your child, and that is really, really difficult. This is when I want you to tell yourself that you are doing your best, and your best is pretty great. After all, you are trying to model balance and it’s a challenging path for everyone.