It sounds like every parent’s dream: work from home, be with the kids, and earn a good living. Visions of happy, contented kids frolicking at your feet while you’re super-creative at the keyboard dance in your head.
The reality is a bit different.
I’ve written a lot about freelance writing in the past decade — over 1,000 posts — but I rarely write about being a work from home mom. Even though I’ve been one for literally a lifetime.
My two younger kiddos are now moving into their late teens. Recently, my oldest turned 25.
That milestone made me realize I’ve spent almost exactly half those 25 years freelancing from home. And I spent the other half mostly in remote full-time jobs where I was home-based, too.
That’s a lot of work-from-home experience that I’ve never really shared tips about. So here goes.
Buckle up, because some of this won’t be pretty. Here are the lessons I’ve learned as a longtime freelance writer and home-based mom:
Your kids will never understand
This one took a long time to sink in, for me. But to kids, computers mean: fun time!
You will explain patiently, hundreds of times, in progressively age-appropriate ways, that you are using the computer to earn the money the family needs to stay fed and housed.
And they will never believe you.
As soon as you sit down at the keyboard, they will shriek: “Print me out a coloring page, mommy! A mermaid. No, not that mermaid. Show me other ones! Waaahh…”
And so on. While you desperately try to keep that blog-post or article idea in your head, they will wail and thrash about on the floor.
Meanwhile, you feel like a giant has a meaty hand on either side of your brain and is slowly ripping it in two.
You’ll calmly (or not so calmly) explain that you need quiet time to think and write. That it’s important.
And they will insist you play that Recess Monkey tape full blast.
It is THE primary challenge of the stay at home, freelancing mom, to make kids understand you’re really working. They think you’re ‘having fun’ or ‘just typing’ or ‘watching videos.’
Try explaining that your time on Facebook promotes your writing, or that you’re watching instructional videos so you can charge more. Be my guest. Good luck.
There simply isn’t the clarity for kids that comes with putting on work clothes and driving away. Kids of parents who work outside the home think, “Oh, there goes mommy off to work. …and now here comes mommy back from work, and now her time is mine.”
I wish I could say I found a solution here, but I never really did. For my kids, going to a co-working space during summer breaks, and otherwise having a home office with a door that locks — that’s about as close as I got to creating clarity that “mommy’s working now.”
My 16-year-old daughter still firmly believes I’m ‘just typing’ and should be able to stop and buy her stuff on Amazon. Right now.
Fight to keep work and family separate
The biggest danger in working from home is that your writing time basically expands to fill all the available space. Work can easily never end. And then, it’s kids begging for attention they don’t get from you, all day long.
It becomes a negative in your relationship, instead of a better scene than working a day job, like you’d hoped.
Don’t let this happen.
For many years, I had an alarm on my computer to remind me to turn it off 30 minutes before kids got home. Then, I could fix that snack, clear my head, and be fully present when they got off that bus.
Holster that smartphone and keep business hours. You don’t need to check email after dinner. I promise. Kids get that you’re ignoring them, and they super-hate it — visit any park to see the sad scenarios.
You won’t be with your kids 24/7
As that little opening vignette hinted, the fantasy that you’ll be a loving, attentive parent to your kids and also write or market a lucrative freelance biz at the exact same time dies quickly, if you work from home.
It’s nearly impossible to do both at once, and do either with any success.
Even if you feel comfortable parking your kid in front of the TV 8 hours a day (a single hour bothered me and I rarely used this option), it won’t solve their need for meals/snacks/fight referee/hugs/boo-boo fixes/fresh outfits/storytime/outside time/homework help and more.
Soon, you’ll look for a way to get in your work time while your kids are not around. Solutions I’ve used through the years include:
- preschool and summer camp enrollment
- full-time summer nanny
- young mother’s helper
- working 8-midnight
- working dawn to 8 am
- working during naps
- getting partner to take kids out Sundays
- working opposite hours from spouse
- babysitting co-ops (I sit both our kids now, you sit them next)
- co-working offsite while husband stayed home with kids
- after-school sports, arts, and child-care programs
Being a work from home mom is not like being a stay-at-home mom who is not working. You will not gaze into Sally’s big blue eyes all day and chant nursery rhymes.
Some of the time, someone else will be with your kids. You can minimize the amount of lost kid time, though…with help.
Get help to preserve kid time
There’s time we often spend with kids that isn’t real high-quality, in my view. Slogging around the grocery store, for one. Mopping the floor.
Consider outsourcing some of this stuff, so you preserve the precious bedtime-story, going to a movie, park, or whatever you treasure doing most with your kids.
Groceries get delivered these days. Hire someone on TaskRabbit to do household errands and chores. You’ll never regret it. Accept that you cannot, in fact, do it ALL.
You’re trying to do the most important job there is — raise humans — and run a business. It’s a massive undertaking. You need help. Don’t feel guilty about it.
Kiss sleep goodbye
How will your writing work get done, as well as all the mommy-and-me time?
The answer is often that you will sleep a lot less. Early on, I optimized my sleep at around 6.5 hours. That’s it. I can take a 15-minute nap later, and it’s like a whole new day has dawned.
You may be wondering about the other person in this equation. You’ll need to make time for them, too, right?
Don’t let couple time fade away
If you’re a single parent, maybe this isn’t your top concern. But if you’re part of a couple, combining young kids and a home-based business is an easy recipe for zero togetherness. And divorce. I know folks it’s happened to.
You’ll have to be a valiant warrior, fighting for your couple time. Ninja swords out!
When kids were little, my husband and I were pro at staying up later to talk, watch TV, touch, and laugh together. In more recent years, we’ve had a religiously observed date night. It’s worth the sitter money, trust me.
Lower your standards
Bulletin: Your house is not about to be photographed for a lifestyle magazine. It can be messy. You wouldn’t believe the shoe pile by my front door.
As I write this, the last falling birch leaves from the trees next door litter my entry floor. My daughter’s laundry-room art table is an unusable mound of clothing, pens, watercolor boxes, paintbrushes. Clothing cascades from there to the floor.
My response is to gently…close the door. Value your creativity more than perfection in housekeeping.
Lowering your standards about how picked-up and perfect everything has to be is one of the best gifts you can give yourself, as a work-from-home parent.
The same thing goes for your writing work for clients. Stop endlessly researching and rewriting, put the hammer down, and press ‘send.’ As my pal Linda Formichelli likes to say, do B-minus work. Perfectionism is the enemy of the juggling, work-from-home parent.
Lower standards mean more kid time. And your clients won’t know the difference, honestly.
One thing I think is super-important is that kids see you have friends, and that you offer hospitality in your home. When you’re juggling home-based work, kids, and a relationship, it’s easy for friends to fall off the priority list.
Don’t let that happen.
Have a dinner party. It doesn’t matter if everything’s a mess. Hold a game night. Let your kids see that you have your own playdates.
Step away from the fridge
Working from home is for the self-disciplined.
If you’re the type who can’t keep yourself on a schedule, say no to friends who want you to run their errands, and avoid emptying the fridge into your piehole all day, being a work from home parent probably isn’t a good choice for you.
Especially with kids in the mix, you’re going to want to be like Mussolini — make those trains run on time. Routines make kids feel happy and secure, and they make freelance writing possible for busy parents. It may feel a hair autocratic, but trust me, it’s a win-win.
If I didn’t know how to make preschoolers go to bed at 7:45 pm every weeknight, you wouldn’t be reading my blog today. It wouldn’t exist.
You’ll never miss a performance
OK, enough ugliness. There are benefits to being a work from home parent! Definitely, yes.
One of those I’m most proud of is that I have never had to miss a kid’s teacher meeting, clarinet performance in band, play, gymnastics meet, soccer game. Nothing. Ever.
While the day-job parents sadly arrive covered in sweat from their late train minutes after Johnny finished reciting his poem, you won’t have to live with that guilt. Set your own hours and prioritize the moments in your kids’ lives that matter.
This. Is. Why. We. Do. It.
Your kids will learn entrepreneurship
Remember that 25-year-old? He’s now my social-media manager.
If you want your children to learn to be more than corporate drones, and pursue work they love, there’s no better way than to model it yourself.
They may resent that you’re ‘typing’ when they want your attention, but as they grow up, they’ll come to respect that you’ve created your own business and paid the bills, with nothing but your brain and computer.
You won’t miss meals
The parents I felt the sorriest for on my journey were the ones who had to leave for day jobs so early that their kids ate breakfast at the before-school day care.
To me, that’s a deal-breaker. Food is love and bonding and family time — and hey, we’re already losing you for lunch at school! Eating breakfast with kids is something you can swing, as a stay-at-home parent.
Ditto for dinner. My kids were never those last, sad kids still in care at 6 or 7 p.m., eating a dinner they packed. Work from home, and you get to share those important mealtimes with your kids.
Make vacation memories
I’ll never forget the evil years when my husband sold cars 80 hours a week for Toyota — and we could never vacation. Because he couldn’t get ‘permission’ to go (any of the times we wanted, anyway).
Want 8 weeks off a year? You can make it happen, when you work from home. You make the schedule. And all that time to be together with kids, instead of parking them in spring-break camps because you have to keep working, is a chance to make a lot of great family memories. Freelancing also allowed us to take nicer vacations –the kind that don’t involve a tent or crashing on a relative’s couch.
You’ll be resilient
Special note for the ladies: As Barbara Ehrenreich noted, a man is not a plan. I’ve coached many writers who waited until after kids left home to try to resume their career…and it’s brutal.
My dad was a pioneer in believing his girls needed careers and to be able to take care of themselves, no matter what.
Remember that partners die. They leave. They turn out to be abusive and need to be left.
Freelance writing is a great, flexible way to pay bills and maintain your independence. Having another sphere of competence besides being a parent gives you the tools and resilience to thrive, no matter what life throws your way.
Work from home — beats the alternative
Obviously, it’s been a long, crazy ride as a work-from-home mom for me. Has it been perfect? Hell, no.
But at the end of the day, I love it. I am the master of my fate.
I feel like I became the person I was meant to be. A mom. An entrepreneur. A crusader for fair writer pay. A wife. A coach. All of it at once. That’s how I’ve spent my wild, precious life.
There are compromises, every day. It’s messy and imperfect. But I can’t imagine having spent the past decade-plus in a dead-end cubicle job. I shudder to think what sort of mom I would have been, in the tiny slivers of remaining time your boss grants you.
What’s your work from home experience, parents? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.