One of the things that really surprised me about working from home while raising kids was how hard it was to just work. I rarely had good long stretches of time when I could focus on work, and even when I did, I found it really hard to actually focus. No matter how hard I tried to arrange my schedule, I was always getting interrupted. I got so used to being interrupted all the time that I hesitated to get started on anything because I knew I would just get interrupted.
After working this way for 15 years, I’ve learned some interesting things about balancing working from home and raising kids that may be familiar to any parents trying to work outside of a traditional office.
First, I discovered that there are 3 very different phases when it comes to working from home: the infant/toddler phase (0-4), the elementary school age (5-12), and the teenager phase (13-18). The challenges of working from home change drastically during each of these phases.
The infant/toddler phase is challenging because your kids need so much from you. Taking care of young kids is its own full-time job, so ideally you will have childcare in the form of daycare, a nanny, relatives, or a very involved spouse if you’re going to have any hope of working a second job, even part-time.
The school age phase was the hardest for me, because school was not a sufficient replacement for childcare. At its best, the school day is 6 1/2 hours long. But really, that 6 1/2 hours is the exception, not the rule. If you have kids in two schools on different schedules, the day is even shorter. Our school district also has a short day once a week for teacher planning. I volunteered at the elementary school at least once a week, cutting even more into this kid-free time. These hours were also the only ones I had to take care of kid-free tasks like getting my hair cut, going to the doctor, and errands that were just easier without kids in tow. When you add in holidays, school breaks, teacher institute days, and summer, finding time to actually work was extremely difficult. Because my kids are 4 years apart at school, this phase lasted 15 years.
The teenage phase (so far) is the easiest from a work perspective – though not from a parenting perspective!! I have more freedom to work from home because my kids are much more independent. On the flip side, I am home a lot less because their activities keep us constantly on the go, and my schedule is much less predictable.
Here are the things that have worked best for me over the years in arranging my work-at-home schedule.
In the early phase, figuring out good childcare was key to balancing work and home. The combination of part-time daycare and my husband working 4 days/week made a huge difference in my ability to successfully work from home.
The school age years would have been a lot easier for me from a work perspective if I had arranged after school care for my kids. I didn’t do this because I made a conscious decision (and one I don’t regret) to give my kids a “stay at home mom” experience during these years, even though I was working part-time. At the time, though, I really didn’t understand how much work time would disappear once we were on the school schedule, nor did I fully understand I was making a 15 year decision! The only saving grace during this time was that my husband continued to work part-time as well. His reduced work schedule allowed me to have at least some time to focus on work. I also had some help from grandparents one day/week during a few of these years which was also a big help.
Now that my kids are older I don’t need after school care so much as I need a driver. My kids both play soccer and musical instruments, and have been involved in a wide variety of other extra curricular activities over the years. My work day still often ends at 3 now not because they need childcare, but because someone needs to take them to or from an activity.
Work In the Evenings
Throughout all of these phases I found that working at night was great for me. I’m a night owl, so once the kids are settled, 9pm-12am is often my most productive part of the day. When I do have a task that is going to require solid focus, I save it for after the kids have gone to bed. It’s the only time of day when I can really count on being able to work for a few straight hours without interruptions. I have to remember, though, this is also the only time I have to relax, or to spend time with my husband. Working and parenting is always a perpetual balancing act no matter how you do it.
I know other moms (who aren’t night owls) who find this same kind of focus time by getting up early before the kids are up. There is general agreement, though, that getting guaranteed focus time at home is incredibly hard if the kids are awake, no matter what age they are!
Learn To Work In Small Bursts
Over time, one of the most important things I’ve learned is to not search for or wait for those long stretches of time. At first I just had to force myself to start things even though I knew I only had 20 minutes and I wouldn’t finish. I learned to always leave myself notes about what I was doing, what I was thinking, and what I’d planned to do next so that when I was able to work for another 20 minutes later, I wouldn’t waste it all trying to remember what I was doing.
When I got used to this rhythm of working in 20 minute spurts, I discovered something wonderful about working this way. I could get a ton done during the times I wasn’t technically working, because I was thinking. In my 20 minutes, I might discover a problem I wasn’t sure how to solve. Instead of sitting at my desk staring at my computer wondering how to proceed, I’d get called off to pick up kids, or make lunch, or run an errand. But the problem was in the back of my head, and there is a lot of good thinking time doing all of those mindless tasks.
I began to be surprised by how often I solved a problem, or figured out a new approach, while walking to pick up the kids from school, or waiting for them at the orthodontist’s office. As a result of all of that background processing time, I discovered that in some ways I was more productive working in these weird little 20 minute increments than I was with solid, concentrated work time.
I also find those 20 minute increments at odd times. There’s wifi at the kids’ music studio, so each lesson is a small chance to work. There’s a Starbucks across the street from the soccer field, and I get over an hour of work there once or twice a week. One time I sat in my car while my older son went to a team dinner that was just an hour long. Rather than drive home and back, I did an hour of work using my phone as a hot spot.
Right now, it is summer break, and I brought my younger son (12) and his friend to a lakeside park the other day to swim for an hour before we got lunch. I brought my laptop, because I figured I might be able to get a little work done. I found a good tree, sat on my blanket, and wrote most of this post from start to finish (while keeping an eye on the swimmers) because it’s been percolating in my head for weeks and I had a few minutes to get it written down.
I have a great view from my office, right?