Strategies for Working at Home
With a baby in tow, working at home takes on new meaning -- and new challenges. Whether you're resuming a freelance career, starting a new one, or telecommuting, you are in good company: According to a June 1996 article in Money magazine, nearly 13 million Americans are choosing to work from home. We talked to veteran work-at-home parents to find out their secrets for balancing work and family.
How can I set a schedule that lets me work, but also leaves me flexibility for my family?
Juggling career and family is challenging no matter where your office. But if you're working at home, experiment to find what works best for you and your family. The big question: Will you accomplish more if you set uninterrupted weekly business hours, or can you manage a less predictable schedule?
Writer and editor Annie Barrows, of Berkeley, California, falls into the first camp. "If you don't make the time to work, no one will give it to you," Barrows says. "An external structure with deadlines helps." To this end, she works three days a week in her sacrosanct, no-children-allowed converted garage.
But if you're disciplined enough, you may succeed with a more flexible schedule. Chris Demarest, a children's book author and illustrator, found that he enjoyed the flux of each day while he worked at home in New Hampshire. "I was not too strict about separating myself from the family," he says. "I'd work for a certain amount of time each day, but I liked to play with the baby or tinker around the house."
One point veteran work-at-home parents agree on: Childcare is a must. And whether you go for a strict work schedule or a more haphazard one, do plan some transition time: It's hard to move effortlessly from diapers to deadlines and back again. Give yourself time to make phone calls, open mail, or simply collect your thoughts. Likewise, make sure to schedule family time into your workday, perhaps feeding your baby, joining your older kids for lunch, or taking a walk together. As your children grow, include them in your work life -- many work-at-home parents relish that their children see their work as part of the rhythms of family life.
I'm just starting a home-based job: Until I can afford hired help, how can I juggle childcare, housework, and my career?
When it comes to your house, consider lowering your standards. If you can accept living with a certain degree of chaos, you'll have more time for work and family. If relatives or friends ask "What can I do to help?" tell them: Prepare a meal, clean house, do the laundry, watch the baby for a few hours. They'll probably appreciate the opportunity to do something concrete for your family -- and help you launch your new career.
Meanwhile, get organized! Swap childcare with other parents, and consider joining or starting a babysitting co-operative. Learn to work in the short blocks of time granted you while baby is playing in a swing, napping, or sleeping at night.
Most important, set realistic goals. You'll need to ease into working under these circumstances. Don't try to write a novel when you are most likely good for only a few paragraphs. Agree to make that presentation in three weeks, not one. Everyone will be better off.
How do I work at home with a babysitter in the house?
You may discover you simply can't, in which case you'll need to make off-site childcare arrangements -- or establish a home office. But if you can work with your children nearby, you'll definitely need to go into your office and close the door to accomplish anything. Once behind that door, some parents want to be disturbed only in case of an emergency. But others, like San Francisco-based writer Susan Davis, find that some interruptions alleviate worries or tension."If the babysitter feels free to ask me questions or to tell me when it's time to breastfeed, I can relax knowing the baby's needs will be met," Davis says.
Whatever your style, resist the urge to minister to every cry. Find someone you trust and let her do her job. Take regular breaks to visit with or feed the baby. As long as you can get your work done, enjoy the proximity. This is why many people have chosen to work at home, remember?
How do I deal with the inevitable interruptions from people who know I'm home?
Discipline and communication are essential. Since therapist Christa Otter, of Montpelier, Vermont, sees clients at her separate home office, she sets specific office hours. "Everyone, friends and family included, knows not to disturb me during those times," she says. But if you're in a profession with murkier boundaries, or you've set up shop on the dining room table, you may have to work harder to stake out your territory. A separate business phone makes life much simpler; let the answering machine take care of your home line during work hours. If you use your home phone for work, ask non-business callers to ring you at a more convenient, specified time. If you're unavailable, hang a friendly sign on your door, or ask your sitter to play sentry. Be unapologetically serious about your work. If you don't take it seriously, neither will anyone else.
How do I deal with the potential isolation of working alone at home and taking care of children, too?
Chances are, you'll find no shortage of human contact. But if your work doesn't naturally involve other people, consider joining professional organizations, scheduling regular lunches with colleagues, participating in parent or play groups, and taking exercise or work-related classes.
Many work-at-home parents find isolation isn't the problem -- it's that they have no time alone. "Make time for yourself," suggests Irene Facciolo, an architect in Vermont. "Between work and caring for your children, it is really easy to forget about yourself -- yet it is so important to do something on your own."
It's easy for work-at-home parents to become masters at scheduling it all in -- work, family, household responsibilities -- but be sure to pencil in time for yourself as well.