Sarah was positive Ethan would sleep for a full half hour longer, but just as the conference call began, his wails filled her ears, drowning out the discussion taking place on the phone. She rapidly excused herself and ran to comfort her son. Nancy was halfway through writing an important memo when Ally ran into her office, gleefully holding her brother’s model airplane, his angry bellow and stomping steps tearing the stream of thought from her mind. The memo stalled as she broke her concentration to deal with their behavior. As Matt was about to launch his client’s webpage, his daughter’s diaper failed spectacularly, demanding his immediate help, and delaying delivery for his client.
There’s a myth in the world about parents who work from home: they have it all. The idea is that they’ve got the best of everything: freedom and flexibility in their jobs, time to spend with the children, independence and income, and a sense of purpose. And while a work-at-home parent (WAHP) does enjoy those benefits, there’s a lot more to what a WAHP has that’s part of “having it all.” The WAHP often takes care of the bulk of the household errands, chores, and childcare, making their life a tug-of-war between their responsibilities to their home, their family, and their job.
The WAHP often needs to work harder to be taken seriously, both by colleagues and peers, and even their partner. Many WAHPs feel an enormous sense of frustration when their partner suggests they take care of errands and chores, because, after all, they are home, without regard to the challenges of major projects, deadlines and conference calls that also demand attention. On the other hand, managers frequently question what EXACTLY an employee is doing at home: is he working in his pajamas? Or watching morning talk shows? WAHPs must often justify their value to managers, employers and customers, struggling for acknowledgement of their hard work while handling the myriad responsibilities of parenting. Employees and entrepreneurs who work from home struggle to balance the demands of work and home more than any other. Add a newborn’s unpredictable demands to the juggling act, and often the work-at-home parent feels far more frustration than freedom.
There are some effective strategies to help a work-at-home parent in successfully balancing their work and home responsibilities.
- Set realistic expectations. Parents who work outside of the home are not able to prepare meals or do housework and chores during the day. The same holds true for parents that work from the home. Be sure your family understands that your job is not the housework, but your career.
- Communicate with your partner about your needs and frustrations. A huge project that is exciting to you may also require more of your time and attention than usual and your partner may be completely unaware of the demands you’re trying to meet. Let him know your deadlines and challenges so he can help out with the other household and parenting duties.
- Share the work. Split chores, household duties, and care of the baby and children with your partner. The most important part of making work-at-home parenting successful is knowing you’ll need help, and asking for it. No one should have to do everything, and sharing the work can even deepen your bond as parents and partners.
- Understand your priorities. If you have chosen to work at home for the flexibility of being home with your children, then remember that they are the reason you are there. Try to focus your attention on them early in the day, so that they are less likely to interrupt you in a bid for your attention later. Know that their needs, especially as babies, will often take precedence over work, and communicate that to colleagues depending on you. Be sure to set expectations, both for work and yourself, accordingly.
- Set boundaries. When work needs to take precedence, let your family know you can’t be interrupted. Some WAHPs signal this to their family by shutting the door to their home office, or having a rule like if they are wearing their phone headset, don’t interrupt. By establishing some boundaries, families know when you must focus, and will be less likely to interrupt you. Equally, set boundaries with your work. Be clear if your boss is treating you like you’re on call, what times are not okay for interrupting you. A phone call just as naptime started can be the end of productivity for the day.
- Keep reinforcements ready. Any work at home parent knows to expect interruptions. By keeping special treats available, like a movie, special toy or quiet activity, parents can “buy” a little more time when their children start demanding some attention. One woman keeps special markers in her office. Her 3-year-old son is only allowed to use them in her office, and only if he sticks to the rules they created — quiet play, only color on the paper from the recycle bin, and he has to clean up when he is done. He is so excited for the privilege of spending time with her in her office, he follows the agreement perfectly.
- Find good caregivers. When you need uninterrupted time, have caretakers in place to help. They can be professional childcare workers, a babysitter, or help from friends and family. Schedule time when someone else will take care of the baby, and allow you to focus your attention on your job. Reach out to friends and family when important deadlines arise. If the budget allows, hire someone to come into the home for a few hours. This will give you an uninterrupted stretch of work time, without the commitment or expense of daycare. One father has his mother take his son to a baby play group each week. It makes for special grandparent bonding time while assuring him of the uninterrupted time to get work done.
- Create a routine, schedule or plan to accommodate your work and your child’s needs. Try to keep your child on a nap schedule, and use that time for calls, to go through emails or make progress on a project. Also, allow yourself transition time. By establishing a routine, perhaps starting with reading through emails, you will signal your brain that it’s time to settle down to work, and help you be clear and focused.
- Get support. Join local business organizations or online professional associations. They will give you professional support, as well as advice and recommendations for challenging situations. An online magazine, WAHM.com, offers articles and advice for the entire community of work-at-home parents.
In the tug-of-war between parenting and working, the work-at-home parent has unique benefits and challenges. Struggling to balance both roles, equally important, requires flexibility, support and a plan to make it successful. With the right strategies and support team in place, work-at-home parents really can have it all.