Working from home: the worst of both worlds?

Every so often, friends or family members tell me about opportunities for freelance work. Some of the suggestions – the ones that could help me build a writing career – would appeal even if I was childless and working full-time. Others – training to be a translator or proofreader, for instance – probably wouldn’t. But they’re not supposed to: their biggest selling point is that I can work from home while caring for my daughter.

Before I was a parent, it sounded like such a good idea. Rather than having to choose between going out to work and staying at home with my hypothetical child, I could combine both. No need to wonder whether my baby was safe and contented – a glance across the room could put my mind at rest. No need to worry that I was financially dependant on someone else – I would have the security of my own income source.

What I didn’t realise – what I had to learn from firsthand experience – was how intensive the job of looking after a small child is. In my vision of parenthood, the work consisted mainly of physical chores such as washing clothes and preparing meals; in practice the physical work is the easiest part. In addition to the chores, taking care of a child requires a level of concentration that doesn’t sit well with an attempt to build a freelance career.

While my daughter’s awake, she wants my attention. If she doesn’t have it, she quickly realises this and makes sure she regains it by letting out a cry that’s virtually impossible to ignore. For short spells, if I’m doing something I don’t need to think deeply about, I can block out the cries; shutting them out effectively enough to finish an essay is beyond me. And even if, by some miracle, she’s too absorbed in her play to miss my attention, I know she could wriggle into difficulties at any moment. Watching her out of the corner of one eye, constantly alert for the early warning signs that she’s about to need my help, pretty much prevents me concentrating on whatever it was I wanted to write.

That only leaves the times when my daughter’s asleep to work on my freelance projects. And here the problem boils down into one that’s familiar to any woman who does paid work: the second shift. Whether I work on freelance projects or not, I need to spend a certain amount of time on my daughter and associated chores. Trying to add freelance work to the mix means effectively trying to do two jobs at the same time – with exhaustion the predictable result.

But although this arrangement has the same disadvantages the working mother suffers, it doesn’t offer the corresponding advantages. My freelance projects will be speculative, at least initially, so the dream of financial independance remains just that. And, by not going out to work, I’m isolating myself with no colleagues and no potential change of scene. It seems I’ve combined the worst of working with the worst of staying at home.

I’ve heard some people make a success of freelancing with children. I don’t know whether they have money in the bank, contracts in hand, or just a partner willing to subsidise them until their projects get off the ground, but it seems they have something I’m missing. For me, working from home is all problems and no solutions. I’m thinking of training as a teacher instead.

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14 Responses to Working from home: the worst of both worlds?

  1. 1
    Elena says:

    Hang in there. It’s going to get easier, I promise. I am a freelancer mom, and I remember the early days and it was hard, but every day your daughter becomes more and more independent, and the day will come (in the blink of an eye) when she will have her own life and friends and activities and being a mother won’t be so intense.

    Right now you are building your career, by hook or by crook. All of this craziness will pay off later. The real parental payoff of freelancing is later on, when the flexibility makes participating in your kids’ education and sports way less stressful than it is with a 9 to 5 job. My advice is baby first, work second, house last. And share your baby with her grandparents and other adults who love her. You get time to work and they all get to know each other.

  2. 2
    Penny says:

    I agree with Elena–it’s more reliably workable when the kids are preschool or school-age and the days have some built-in kidless time blocks, but you still have the flexibility to do pick-ups and drop-offs and school meetings and such. I’ve heard it’s more isolating being a freelancing dad, though — freelancing moms can more easily find each other and trade off care hours. And it’s probably way harder for a dad to hire a teen “mother’s helper” for a couple afterschool hours a week, too.

  3. 3
    Barbara says:

    It’s just a fact that you can’t do two things involving intense concentration at once. If you work at home you either have to work while your child is sleeping or you have to find a daycare arrangement. As your infant gets older you will find playdates, cooperative daycare or pre-school arrangements that lighten your load. In the meantime, try to enjoy your little one as much as you can, her childhood will fly by before you know it.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    The problem most folks who work from home have is that as children they never had to discipline their own time; it was always done for them. (8:00 – on the bus. 9:00 – math class. 10:30 – gym. And so on.) So they have to learn how to do that on their own. Sounds like that might be your issue as well.

    It can be pretty rough. I employ a number of stay at home moms. They tell me that discipline is the key; allot two hours a day to house work and three hours to paid work (or whatever) and then do that – even if it means dishes are undone or deadlines are unmet. Then learn to prioritize so that you get the immediately deadlined work done today, and let the (perhaps more enjoyable but less urgent) undeadlined work wait, or clean the toilets that got messy when the kid had diarrhea and leave the front room a little cluttered.

    You’ll work it out.

  5. 5
    Kali says:

    Couple of suggestions I’ve heard from others:

    1. Hire a babysitter for a couple of hours as needed.
    2. Schedule some work when partner or another adult is at home and have a strict no disturbance policy at that time. Partner should in that case take care of dinner, childcare, cleaning chores etc.

  6. Your post is right on, as are the comments, which contain a lot of good advice.

    I also tried to freelance at home while caring for my son (who was a year old when this started). Total failure. I actually started renting an office and going to it at very odd hours (very early in the morning, very late at night, on weekends) when my wife wasn’t working. I remember this as a period of struggle and stress, not least because I was learning how to be a stay at home parent. Another unexpected side effect is that my wife and I basically stopped seeing each other as a couple, pretty much pecking each other on the cheek as one left the house or collapsing late at night behind separate books or newspapers. And don’t get me started about the financial distress. Later, as I got more work and our son got more autonomous, we started hiring a baby sitter for about six hours a week. Now the little dude’s in preschool.

    You’re not alone, but it’s exhausting and stressful. When I look back on the past year and a half, I wish I had spent less time worrying about the work and more time enjoying my baby. You may want to put your freelancing ambitions on hold for a well-defined period of time; it’s also perfectly legitimate to do something else with your life. But it really does keep getting easier, for everyone. Set goals and try to stick to them. Mark and celebrate your progress, however you measure it. But most importantly, enjoy your kid. She’ll never be this age again.

  7. 7
    marsha says:

    You work a hell of a lot harder and have a partner who does half the time with the kid and the housework. And you keep doing it until you decide you can’t.

    But if you do get it working right it’s wonderful. Or maybe you don’t and you go back to looking for a job with and office that has flextime.

  8. 8
    Ancarett says:

    I have to admit that I was very grateful when my freelancing job no longer needed my services after the dotcom crash and I could concentrate on my regular job, my family and try to regain my life. Yes, the flexibility is appealing, but you have to have a lot of support in place to be able to work from home with small kids around!

  9. 9
    LauraJMixon says:

    When our kids were little, we were part of a three-family childcare co-op. We each watched each others’ kids for about 12 hours per week, and each got 18 hours per week of work time.

    It was a lot of work, taking care of 6-8 tots all at once, but we learned a lot of useful skills, and bonded really closely with each other as families, and can rely on each other for whatever we need, to this day, eight years later. It worked really well for us. (It also gets a lot easier once the kids are in school.)


  10. 10
    mythago says:

    What those other people tend to have is support – paid help a la James Lileks or Caitlin Flanagan, or a spouse/partner/parent who will completely free you of child responsibilities for chunks of time.

    You do learn better time management when you have a kid, but I have to disagree with Robert–it’s not merely a matter of learning how and everything will fall into place. People who say that have clearly forgotten the joys of being a first-time parent with an infant or toddler.

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    Um, mythago? First-time parent with an infant and then a toddler, working at home for most of that, with significant child care responsibilities, right here.

  12. 12
    mythago says:

    Gee, me too. And all the time management in the world wouldn’t have helped with kid #1. I think it’s great to be encouraging, but ‘just get your schedule in order and all will be well’ is kind of hand-waving.

  13. 13
    Robert says:

    Exactly. Nick does not have the luxury of a partner. Which means that all the work that gets done, will get done by Nick. Which means that the slack and casualness and inefficiency that (I assume) Nick was able to handle as a single person with no huge life-changing responsibility to deal with, Nick can no longer afford.

    It isn’t that time management and efficiency will make Nick’s life easy and everything will be strawberries and orgasms. It’s that without brutal time managment and efficiency, Nick is completely fucked.

  14. 14
    wookie says:

    Nick, I wish you the best of luck. Having been in the position of attempting to do contract work out of the home (I am a programmer), I would recommend that to be successful at concentrating (and therefore successful at working, period), you will need to find at least part time child care. I don’t recall if your family is in a position to support you that way, but that will help out a lot. I was not in a position where my family was able to support me, so I ended up going back to a “regular” job, which has worked out well for me (the kids love the sitter and she loves them).
    Honestly, I feel contract/work from home is a tough row to hoe, even if you have a lot of support, logistically and emotionally. I wish you luck! I am confident you will find a solution that works well for you and your little girl.