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Working from Home — With Kids Underfoot

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I’ve been working from home since I was pregnant with my first child. As I was finishing graduate school, one of my professors approached me about working on a new grant she was starting. “Would you ever be interested in work you could do part-time and from home?” was music to my (hugely pregnant) ears.

After a decade of commuting downstairs to my home office, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to navigate what might seem like a perfect work-life balance — but comes with plenty of pitfalls. If you’re hoping to switch to working from home or if kids are now entering the picture, here’s how to get started and keep going in the work-at-home-parent life.

How to start

Make your case. Negotiate with your boss. Highlight the benefits. Emphasize how technology makes virtual connections a snap in many industries. Start small: show what part of your regular responsibilities could be done remotely and ask if you could work from home one day a week. Offer a trial period. Set benchmarks to track your progress and meet in person to evaluate. Take initiative and show that you are responsible, diligent, and trustworthy.

If you run into a dead-end with that approach, think about shifting your work. If your current job doesn’t offer flexibility, look into more entrepreneurial or freelance opportunities within your field. How could you work as a consultant or independent contractor in similar ways to how you’re working now? Reach out and network with others who have taken a similar career path.

How to keep going

Set boundaries. Defining your schedule is essential, especially when kids are coming in and out of your work time. Plan your week in advance, and use productivity apps or timers like the Pomodoro Technique if you’re prone to procrastination.

My mantra: No laundry or dishes while working. Unlike my husband who leaves each morning to head to the office, I’m surrounded with our family’s undone to-dos every time I sit down to work. So I remind myself to draw boundaries and not let outside tasks creep into my work days.

I’ve learned to take the advantages of working from home without taking advantage. When it’s winter in Minnesota and the university where I work cancels classes for a snow day, I can still get to work, so I do. I figure that’s fair, given the flexibility I’ve gotten from this arrangement.

But when a friend calls with an invitation to get together during work hours, I have to gently remind her that I’m working and would love to meet up later instead.

My go-to reminder to keep myself focused is to pretend that my co-workers are standing over my shoulder. Am I keeping on task with what needs to be done that day? And what they are doing in their respective offices?

Recognize the drawbacks: blurred boundaries; daily distractions; the temptation to overwork. Many people don’t understand that working from home still means you have a real job.

No work arrangement is perfect. But when working from home seems like an enviable set-up, it can be hard to admit that there are real challenges. Let yourself name what’s hard, and it becomes easier to brainstorm possible solutions to ease your stress.

Reassess regularly. Talk with your spouse or partner: what’s working? What’s not? Professional work and parenting are ever-evolving realities. I now expect to reevaluate every year — whether it’s our childcare arrangement, school schedules, extracurricular activities, or work demands.

My husband travels frequently for his job. I have local speaking events that require evening hours. So we have to sit down every week and figure out who’s covering car pool, kids’ activities, and household chores. While it sometimes requires Olympic-level time management (not a strong suit for either of us), this reality has deepened the mutuality in our marriage and our support for each other’s multiple callings.

Let kids see you work. Historically, home has often been the place where parents and children work alongside each other. So don’t feel guilty when kids see you working. Take the opportunity to explain what you’re doing, and tell them when you’ll be available to give them your full attention: “I need to send this email by 5:00, so I will ready to play with you in five minutes. Can you sit here and color or read next to me while I finish?”

Let yourself model good work habits for your kids. Turn off your laptop or set aside the phone during set hours (e.g., after school, during dinner, or before bedtime). Today’s kids are growing up with technology, so showing them how people still come first is an important task for us as parents.

Build your village

We all know you can’t raise kids without a support network. But how can you build one?

Hire the help you can afford. Child care is a must for most working parents, but comes in a variety of options: in-home day care, child care center, full-time nanny, part-time sitter, mother’s helper, childcare swap with friends, or working opposite hours from your spouse.

Hiring additional help — house cleaners, lawn service, grocery delivery or curbside pickup — is an extra, but can bring huge relief in busy seasons of family or work. Knowing the expense is temporary (after the birth of a new baby, for example) can help to ease your anxiety.

If your family budget simply can’t stretch to allow it, you’re not alone. Trading off with another parent in your area to share chores, errands, or child care can be a huge (free!) help. Check out connections from neighborhood groups, parents’ clubs, local bulletin boards, or apps like Nextdoor.

Ask for the help you need. One sure-fire way to fail professionally and personally as a work-at-home-parent is to try and do it all yourself. Remember this is not a competition you have to win. Collaboration is the name of the game.

If you have to miss a meeting to bring your child to the doctor, be sure to thank the co-workers who covered for you and offer to take something off their plate in return. If you need extra help with carpool during a busy week, trade off with another parent to make extra runs when your schedule eases.

Remember to make backup plans. Kids get sick, school gets cancelled, and work deadlines or travel can spring up suddenly. Who is a trusted neighbor, local relative, friend, or fellow work-at-home parent who might be able to help out in a pinch? Does your spouse have any flexibility in work hours that would allow you two to trade off?

Expect the unexpected

Parents learn quickly that change is the only constant about life with kids. (Unconditional love too, of course, but still.) Children have a delightful way of throwing wrenches into our well-tuned plans. Over the decade I’ve spent working from home while raising four kids, I’ve found three kinds of days:

Plan-A Day: Everything flows as planned. Child care is set and covered. Kids are healthy and school schedules are normal. Prime conditions are in place for important or creative work without interruption.

Make the most of these days. When possible, don’t fritter away your best work time with tasks that drain your energy or could be saved for another day with divided attention.

Plan-B Day: Work needs to get done, but there’s not enough child care to cover it (or you’re working extra hours). So you’re tight on time and have to hope for naptime or school hours to finish work.

Save tasks like catching up on email, editing documents, filing, or organizing for when kids are literally underfoot. Reserve your rare quiet time for phone calls, video conferencing, or tasks that demand more attention.

Plan-C Day: All plans are off. Kids are sick or your child care falls through. No back-up care is available, so you have to take personal time away from work.

When it all falls apart, switch gears and focus on the kids. Trying to cram in work will only lead to frustration, so consider what you might get done around the house while caring for your children: make dinner early or catch up on chores. Plan to make up work in the evening or on the weekend instead.

As you learn to pivot and grow in flexibility, you’ll find that you freak out less on Plan-C Days because you know Plan-A Days will come around again. The beauty of working alongside your kids is that you notice how you’re all growing together, slowly but surely.

Above all, do what works for your family and your job. Every family will navigate this arrangement in different ways, but even wrestling with the imperfections can be a great learning experience. Most importantly, the ways that you live out multiple callings — to work and family — will teach your kids how to weave together what matters to them as they grow.

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