I’ve been working from home long before we had children. I started in 2007 when I opened up my own design company with my husband and set up our home office. Here I was…free of the daily commute, Skyping into client conferences instead of physically being there, and could usually blissfully get through the day without having to apply makeup. Work and life were in balance, and I was happy.
However when my son arrived in 2011, working from home became a whole new ballgame. Suddenly, it was not only clients who needed my attention during normal 9-5 business hours (and often beyond!) — this sweet new baby did as well. During office hours, after hours — really, any hour of the day and night. And between the needs of a newborn and the needs of our clients, I was left wondering how I could manage all of them and my sanity. Was that 1 o’clock deadline for the new web design brief or the next feeding?
For almost three years, I’ve experienced a slowly evolving situation that has included the following:
- Monitoring and managing employees while on “maternity leave” (AKA Handling only work “emergencies” but also responding to client’s “Congratulations!” emails to prove I wouldn’t abandon them now that I have a baby. )
- Working at home with an infant (AKA Emailing clients with the one arm that isn’t pinned down by a baby who I do not dare transfer to the crib)
- Sharing work / care time with my husband (AKA “You go work for the next 15 minutes while I change his diaper, then I’ll work for the next 30 minutes while you feed him lunch.”)
- Hiring an in-home nanny a few days a week (AKA Hear my son screaming for me through the door…Is it worse to ignore him or undermine the nanny?)
- Enrolling my son in daycare/preschool (AKA It’s 3 o’clock already?! I’m only on #1 of my to-do list!)
Even with my partner working by my side and raising our son, it’s never been as smooth as we originally imagined. When I was pregnant, I had idealized fantasies on how things would work, most of which differed greatly from the reality. Here’s a little of what I learned and some tips that may help you too!
Me on “maternity leave” 1 week after birth.
Myth: “Sleep when the baby sleeps” is a great way to stay rested.
This common phrase for moms doesn’t apply to the work at home mom. The nap and bedtime is prime time for cramming in as much work as possible before our eyelids droop uncontrollably.
Categorize your to-dos by the amount of effort required to complete them. Have a task that requires deep concentration or for you to call an important client? Plan for when you know you you’ll be at your sharpest. Reserve any mindless tasks for times when you know you won’t be at your best and combine tasks with daily chores and errands. For example, proofread a contract while on the exercise bike, fold the clothes while catching up with the evening news, or answer emails while on the subway or bus. One of the best things about working from home is the flexibility and with a little creative planning, you can get done more than you think!
My son drawing on the windows of our apartment.
Myth: My child will quietly play by himself while I work nearby.
It seems ridiculous now, but before my son was born, I thought toys were enough to keep kids occupied and age appropriate toys meant they could play safely. Right? Apparently not. I know every child is different, but for my almost-3 year old, toys are just the gateway into some other highly messy, loud, or dangerous activity that needs my attention. To often I’m faced with a , “Mommy, can I show Mickey how to use the knife?”, or “I’m just getting the screwdriver, my Thomas needs new batteries”, or “Mommy, I don’t want to play with any of my toys, I just want to climb on your head.” Basically, a non-ideal working condition.
I’m afraid there’s not a lot you can when you have to get work to do and don’t have childcare. As moms, we know that our children and their safety always comes first, but we also know that there are occasionally emergency situations. I like to have a few of my son’s favorite and rarely played-with toys on hand just in case these times come up. These can’t be the everyday-toy-bin toys–a preoccupied mommy is ALWAYS more enticing than those. When the child is younger, you may get away with a play-pen, bouncer, or swing. For infants, a baby wrap leaves you hands free for typing while also giving you the ability to sway the little one to a nap. (With a few deep knee bends, you get the exercise in too!) And then there are my true “in-case-of emergency” props: the iPad and TV. These are great last resorts, especially if you’ve withheld them normally (which I do). Once I had a video conference call with a client and my childcare fell through at the last minute. I couldn’t cancel the call so I gave my then two-year-old the iPad and turned on a Thomas video. Between the two forbidden delights, his head nearly exploded from joy and I got a child-free 30 minutes to handle the call. Not an ideal situation, but sometimes you just gotta do it.
Myth: I’ll be able to work and keep and eye on my child as long as I have someone else watching him nearby.
When I first started working again, we hired a nanny to take care of our son while we worked in the next room of our 900 square foot NYC apartment. As a first time mom, I wanted it all — to work like before, but also still be close enough to keep an eye on everything he did. Turns out, working with my son clawing at my locked office door isn’t the best environment to created inspired work. Sprinting into the office and locking the door behind me to barricade myself from my own child didn’t feel so great either. And it wasn’t just with the nanny. While my son loves his nanny, father, and grandparents, somehow the minute Mommy becomes unavailable, the clinginess switch is turned on and he acts like I’m leaving forever.
I realized that I had to either leave the apartment or get my nanny to take my son out of the house. Even if it was just down the street, getting away gave us both the space we needed. If you have an extra large house or one that has a room your child can’t access, that might work fine as well (although even in my parent’s large 2 story house in the suburbs, my son has been known to scale stairs and sniff me out.)
Myth: 100% of my time away from my child I will be able to dedicate to my work
5 hours of kid-free time sounded like a lot. But by the time doctors appointments are set up, dry cleaning is picked up, and emails sifted through, it seemed like half the day was gone. There would be many “non-accounted-for” tasks that just crept up and sapped away so much time.
Factor in a buffer zone of 1 hour a day to account for those household related tasks. For instance, if you have 6 hours of “child-free” time, only expect and plan for 5 hours of actual work time. Sometimes you’ll need more, other times you’ll need less. It’ll all even out. And on the days nothing comes up, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Enjoy it!
Myth: I’ll be able to schedule and plan out my day the same way as before kids.
It seems like kids are the master of surprises. They get sick, get you sick, accidentally jam the dishwasher, deviate from a month-long established nap pattern, and cause a variety of other events that drain your time and energy. And somehow, these usually are conveniently timed to happen whenever you least need it.
Sometimes you just need extra help so consider what you can outsource. Outsourcing services allow you to outsource almost anything from business tasks like website design and online research to personal ones like scheduling appointments and cleaning the house. Here’s a list of 10 business tasks which are best outsourced. The key is to have this back-up plan set up BEFORE the emergency strikes. Once you’re in the crisis mode, it’s usually hard to set-up something effectively.
I love the flexible working situation that my career brings me. It’s allowed me to be apart of my son’s daily life and for our family to travel for extended periods of time affording us once-in-a-lifetime experiences and memories. Working from home with my son has been a major challenge, but with minor (and sometimes major) tweaking, we’ve made it work!
Lina Fenequito is the co-founder of Mommikin and Mommikin Jobs as well as the Managing/Technical Director for Good World Media, which she co-founded in 2007. Lina also served as an adjunct professor at Parson’s School of Design and is the creator of the Swap-O-Matic, which was featured on CNN.com, Fast Company, and Wired.com. She earned her MFA in Design and Technology from Parsons, where she conceived projects that addressed social issues and building community through digital media.