Home is Where the Job Is

By Laura Ulrich
Issue 153 March/April 2009

baby blocks and phone

 

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. Even as a child, I think I knew how lucky that made us. When we got off the bus, she was there. While other kids headed off to summer camp, we slept in, helped in the garden, and spent long afternoons reading under a tree in our own backyard.

Last year, when I was pregnant with my son, Graham, I wanted to offer him what I’d had: a mom who was home. But, like many families, we had to accept that we couldn’t make it on one income, so I made plans to take my maternity leave, then return to my job as a magazine editor.

My mother and my husband’s mother agreed to help with childcare; I’d hand the baby over each morning with a neat row of bottles full of pumped breastmilk and head off to the office. At the end of the day, I’d come home and shift my focus back to mothering.

Plans are neat and motherhood is messy—our plan began to unravel as soon as Graham was in my arms. My maternity leave flew by, and with each day that passed, it became harder to imagine leaving my son. When at last I walked back into my boss’s office, I struggled through the door with my baby in one arm and my workbag in the other—an apt metaphor for the tug-of-war going on in my heart. I was willing—even eager—to do some work, but motherhood wasn’t something I could put down.

After that first day, I went to work several more times with baby in tow, but neither my company nor I was ready for the long-term reality of a baby at the office. Eventually a decision had to be made, and in the process, I discovered that I had a choice I hadn’t considered. I turned in my resignation, launched a freelance writing business, and became a work-at-home mom.

Now, freelancing from home, I’m doing something I’ve dreamed of for years. I work for myself, write about issues that matter to me, and connect with a community that feels like home. And my son is never more than a few feet away.

It isn’t always easy. I’ve done telephone interviews while dancing around my house with Graham in a front pack, praying he wouldn’t wake up until I’d hung up the phone. One time, in the middle of an interview, he spit up his most recent meal all over both of us. I had to continue asking questions while marinating in my own curdled milk.

There are toys in my briefcase, audiotapes in my diaper bag—when you’re a work-at-home mom, the elements of your life get mixed together in a wonderful, messy way. I’ve found that if I can be flexible enough to roll with the surprises, I may just discover that my days have become Jackson Pollock paintings: unpredictably beautiful, inspired, and original. For this story, I talked with work-at-home moms in several different careers, some much more experienced than I, and asked them how they make it work.

Working with baby

When I decided to work at home, I pictured my son sleeping peacefully next to my desk while I churned out articles, rocking his cradle gently with my foot. The reality of caring for children at home while you work is a little more complex, but with patience and flexibility, moms and babies can accomplish a great deal side by side. The first step is getting off on the right foot, and that entails avoiding a trap many work-athome moms fall into: planning a lightning-fast maternity leave, because you won’t be leaving the house to go to work. However, a difficult birth, a high-needs baby, and nursing or sleeping troubles can force work onto the back burner for longer than you expected; you and your baby will both benefit if you plan to take your time.

“I struggled with two bouts of bouts of mastitis, among other breastfeeding difficulties, and wasn’t able to work for the first two months,” says Mandi Meidlinger, who, as a work-at-home mother to Jillian (now four), started Jillian’s Drawers, a New York–based online cloth-diaper and natural-parenting company. “My advice is to plan on spending the first three months dedicated to becoming a new mother. If you can start working before that, great! But if you can’t, don’t feel like you’re behind, because you’re not.”

Once they do start working, many mothers find the first several months the easiest for working alongside baby. “I was able to do everything I needed to do with my babies on me or next to me until they were several months old,” recalls Pamela Crawford, a Massachusetts-based work-at-home mom who has spent a decade serving as art director for a national-magazine publisher while mothering Simon (ten), and now also Alice (four). “For the most part, they slept, nursed, or played happily as long as they were with me.”

When baby begins to sleep less and becomes more mobile, most work-at-home moms start to divide their work into two categories: tasks they can accomplish with baby, and tasks they can’t. “I used to make two lists: one for things I could do while wearing Jillian, and one for things I needed to do while she slept,” Meidlinger says.

Toddlers can often be incorporated into moms’ work, reaping huge developmental benefits as they “help.” Meidlinger relates that “Jillian started helping me with my work when she was about 12 months old. When I was packing orders, I’d say, ‘Can you pick that diaper up and give it to me?’ She’d stay happily engaged as long as she was helping.”

Older children can spend some of their time independently, checking in with mom periodically. “Now that Simon is ten, I can tell him, ‘I really need to get this project finished,’ and he understands,” Crawford says. “We each work on things for a couple of hours, and then we meet in the kitchen, make lunch, and eat together on the porch.”

Older children can also take on meaningful roles with mom’s work, contends Nancy Traversy, founder and CEO of Barefoot Books, an independent publishing company focused on art and imagination in children’s literature. Traversy started Barefoot Books 15 years ago as a work-at-home mother in England. She had four children under the age of five in the early stages of the business. “Once they got older, I’d read manuscripts to and share illustrations with my children and ask for their input,” she says. “When they learned to read, I’d give them their own manuscripts. It helped them feel like they were part of the success of our family business—which they truly were.”

Childcare solutions

Many work-at-home moms also use additional childcare when their jobs become hectic or they need time to focus solely on work. By thinking creatively, it’s possible to keep costs low and quality high. Care by relatives can be a great solution, since grandparents and other extended-family members often have flexible schedules. Having a family member in your home while you work can feel comfortable, and your child will be connecting with other members of his tribe.

For Crawford, a childcare exchange has worked out well. “A friend of mine has two girls and I have one,” she explains. “We found a care provider we both loved, and for three days a week she alternated caring for all three girls at each of our houses. Then I took care of them for a day and my friend took care of them for a day, and the whole week was covered. The girls loved having each other, and we saved money.”

For Julie Nathanielsz, a New York–based life coach who works at home, creativity took the form of a friend, another mother who needed to earn an income. The friend brings her own child and cares for Nathanielsz’s three-year-old, Angelica, while Nathanielsz works with clients on the phone.

Many work-at-home moms employ a paid, in-home caregiver. It’s important to choose carefully, since caring for children in their own home while mom works is a challenging job that requires experience and insight.

“My caregiver has big shoes to fill, because mommy is home and very accessible, but I can’t have my children coming to me constantly,” says Alix Clyburn, a New Jersey–based freelance writer who specializes in environmental issues. “I need someone who can engage them in fun, meaningful activities. My caregiver is older, and she sees this as her profession. It’s tight financially, but it’s worth every penny.”

For many work-at-home mothers, their spouse or partner is the other half of the childcare team. “When Simon was born, my husband got a job working Friday through Sunday so I could work Monday through Thursday,” Crawford states. “Four days a
week, he took care of Simon while I worked, all in the same space. Now that our children are older, he cares for them in the evenings while I finish work. I always wanted us to be equal partners in caring for our children, and this has allowed us to do that in a very direct way.”

With the added advantage of saving money, splitting care with your partner can be a great solution, but it takes forethought to make it work. Open communication and an agreed-on schedule are essential.

“When Dan comes home, he’s tired,” Crawford says. “He would love to sit down, but he can’t. He has to be ‘on’ immediately. If this is the plan, your partner has to be prepared for it. Think together about low-energy activities for the partner to do when he gets home. With a young baby, dad can lie on the floor for half an hour and let baby crawl all over him, or get into the bath. With older kids, plan reading or coloring for the hour when dad gets home.”

 

To nurture their own relationship, partners also must carve out time to spend with each other. “We didn’t do that when Simon was a baby, and it definitely took a toll,” Crawford remembers. “When Alice was born, we knew we had to put a high priority on our relationship, so we looked for something we could give up. We’re traveling to see extended family less. We don’t see people as much, but it’s given us more time for our marriage.

“Overall, I believe working at home has been good for us as a couple,” Crawford adds. “It’s really made us each better at understanding what the other needs, and it’s allowed us to
work together toward common goals.”

A different way to work

Most adults who have spent their careers working outside their homes are used to workdays that last an uninterrupted eight hours. When you work at home with children, it’s imperative to learn a different way to work that allows for interruptions. The biggest challenge can simply be staying present: giving your child your full attention when a pile of work is screaming for your time, and focusing on work when you can hear him or her playing with a caregiver. “If Angelica is anywhere near, part of my mind and heart are on her,” admits Nathanielsz. “Even when I’m focusing intently, I’m still aware of what she and her caregiver are doing in the house.”

In part, staying in the moment is about learning to discipline your mind and let go. Breathing, slowing down, and centering yourself—over and over, if need be—are tools that really do work.

Getting some physical distance from the work can also help. If the unfinished work upstairs is calling too loudly to Richele Baburina—who works at home in Massachusetts for Barefoot Books as a “stallholder,” independently marketing the company’s products from her home—she simply heads out the door with her boys. “The act of leaving the house helps me leave the work, and all three of us feel freer and happier outdoors.”

Creating a separate workspace in your home is also key. “Segment it off,” Meidlinger advises. “You need to be able to physically ‘go’ to work, even if you don’t leave the house. It creates a psychological separation.”

Rapid transitions between working and mothering are another challenge. “I love to do projects to completion,” Baburina says. “Most of the time, that can’t happen. I’ve had to learn to be OK with working on something for a half hour and then putting it aside.” Here, setting goals is tremendously helpful. Nathanielz’s approach? “I take a few minutes at the beginning of each work session to ask, ‘What is my highest priority?’ Once I have a framework, I can get down to it more quickly. When I have to step away and come back, I don’t lose time trying to figure out what to do next.”

Meidlinger sets daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. “I make them very specific,” she says. “I used to write down, ‘Spend more time with Jillian.’ That was too vague. My current weekly goals are to work three days and be with Jillian the rest, to go to playgroup on Tuesday mornings, and to go to the park one day. If I see that I’m not meeting those goals, I change something.”

Burnout, too, can be a risk. “I’m definitely fighting that,” Meidlinger shares. “The solution I’ve found is to take one week completely off every three months. Even if I stay home, I completely walk away from the business. Sometimes, you also just have to let something go. The laundry may not always be caught up. Don’t apologize. Be happy with the work you’ve gotten done and the time you’ve spent with your child, and just let the rest go.”

When your work and your child are in the same place, they seem to vie more directly for your time and attention, and it becomes crucial to keep your eye on your priorities and know when one more “Just a minute, mama’s working” is too many. For us, taking a break to nurse whenever my son needs to is one great way of keeping his needs paramount. This approach also worked for Meidlinger: “I always stopped working to nurse, no matter what I was doing,” she says. “It was Jillian’s way of telling me she needed my full attention and one-on-one time, and when she needed that, I listened.

“Practicing that helped me put her first in other ways as she got older,” Meidlinger continues. “As a work-at-home mom, you have to commit to your children, and it can be hard when your work is competing for your time. But when you say, ‘Just a minute, I’ll be there,’ and it’s not just a minute, you’re teaching them your work comes ahead of them, and that’s a terrible lesson. So now, I practice the other parts of my mothering just like I did nursing: When I say, ‘Today is the day we’re going to the park,’ it doesn’t matter how much work is piling up. I stop what I’m doing and go.”

An Integrated Life

I’ve come a long way since the day my maternity leave ended and I showed up at the office with my baby, feeling so torn between work and motherhood. For me, the beauty of the work-at-home solution is that I haven’t had to choose. I believe our culture does mothers and babies a disservice by posing working and mothering as an either/or proposition. But we were made to multitask; for those of us who choose it, working at home allows us to integrate our lives in a wonderful way.

The amazing part is, while they mother their children, many work-at-home moms are achieving spectacular things in their work lives, too. When women work at home, they often seem to use the opportunity to tap into their true passions, work from the heart, and work for a cause bigger than themselves.

There’s Mandi Meidlinger, whose cloth-diaper and natural-parenting business benefits the environ-ment while her advice helps parents choose gentle, conscious ways to raise their babies. There’s Alix Clyburn, whose writings raises awareness about the kind of planet we’re leaving for our children. There’s Nancy Traversy, whose publishing business fights the Nintendo mentality one book at time, bringing art and multiculturalism to children’s stories. And there’s her network of stallholders, some of whom are restocking the shelves of Mississippi schools and libraries devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and putting books in shelters that serve women and children in crisis.

The more we as mothers take ownership of the right to integrate our lives, the more society at large will evolve to support such work arrangements. “It starts with us as mothers,” notes Meidlinger. “We need to stop apologizing for [including] our children as part of our professional lives. It’s hard in our culture, which expects things to be separated, but it’s up to us to lead the way. If I’m on the phone with a business call and Jillian is making noise, I’ve learned not to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ As work-at-home moms, we need to give ourselves absolute permission to do what we need to do, and other people will follow our lead.”

She’s right. Every time someone I’m interviewing hears Graham in the background or I arrive to cover a story with him on my hip, the response is the same: “How wonderful that you can work with your child. I wish I’d had that option.”

The best part is, we’re raising children who will grow up assuming that family life and work can go hand in hand. Traversy believes that these are the values she’s teaching her children. “They’re seeing that they have choices when it comes to how to integrate their careers and their families,” she says. “They’ve seen that if you love something and have a vision, you can make it happen, and that you can do that alongside your family. They know, because they’ve been there every step of the way.”

 

To nurture their own relationship, partners also must carve out time to spend with each other. “We didn’t do that when Simon was a baby, and it definitely took a toll,” Crawford remembers. “When Alice was born, we knew we had to put a high priority on our relationship, so we looked for something we could give up. We’re traveling to see extended family less. We don’t see people as much, but it’s given us more time for our marriage.

“Overall, I believe working at home has been good for us as a couple,” Crawford adds. “It’s really made us each better at understanding what the other needs, and it’s allowed us to work together toward common goals.”

A different way to work

Most adults who have spent their careers working outside their homes are used to workdays that last an uninterrupted eight hours. When you work at home with children, it’s imperative to learn a different way to work that allows for interruptions. The biggest challenge can simply be staying present: giving your child your full attention when a pile of work is screaming for your time, and focusing on work when you can hear him or her playing with a caregiver. “If Angelica is anywhere near, part of my mind and heart are on her,” admits Nathanielsz. “Even when I’m focusing intently, I’m still aware of what she and her caregiver are doing in the house.”

In part, staying in the moment is about learning to discipline your mind and let go. Breathing, slowing down, and centering yourself—over and over, if need be—are tools that really do work.

Getting some physical distance from the work can also help. If the unfinished work upstairs is calling too loudly to Richele Baburina—who works at home in Massachusetts for Barefoot Books as a “stallholder,” independently marketing the company’s products from her home—she simply heads out the door with her boys. “The act of leaving the house helps me leave the work, and all three of us feel freer and happier outdoors.”

Creating a separate workspace in your home is also key. “Segment it off,” Meidlinger advises. “You need to be able to physically ‘go’ to work, even if you don’t leave the house. It creates a psychological separation.”

Rapid transitions between working and mothering are another challenge. “I love to do projects to completion,” Baburina says. “Most of the time, that can’t happen. I’ve had to learn to be OK with working on something for a half hour and then putting it aside.” Here, setting goals is tremendously helpful. Nathanielz’s approach? “I take a few minutes at the beginning of each work session to ask, ‘What is my highest priority?’ Once I have a framework, I can get down to it more quickly. When I have to step away and come back, I don’t lose time trying to figure out what to do next.”

Meidlinger sets daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. “I make them very specific,” she says. “I used to write down, ‘Spend more time with Jillian.’ That was too vague. My current weekly goals are to work three days and be with Jillian the rest, to go to playgroup on Tuesday mornings, and to go to the park one day. If I see that I’m not meeting those goals, I change something.”

Burnout, too, can be a risk. “I’m definitely fighting that,” Meidlinger shares. “The solution I’ve found is to take one week completely off every three months. Even if I stay home, I completely walk away from the business. Sometimes, you also just have to let something go. The laundry may not always be caught up. Don’t apologize. Be happy with the work you’ve gotten done and the time you’ve spent with your child, and just let the rest go.”

When your work and your child are in the same place, they seem to vie more directly for your time and attention, and it becomes crucial to keep your eye on your priorities and know when one more “Just a minute, mama’s working” is too many. For us, taking a break to nurse whenever my son needs to is one great way of keeping his needs paramount. This approach also worked for Meidlinger: “I always stopped working to nurse, no matter what I was doing,” she says. “It was Jillian’s way of telling me she needed my full attention and one-on-one time, and when she needed that, I listened.

“Practicing that helped me put her first in other ways as she got older,” Meidlinger continues. “As a work-at-home mom, you have to commit to your children, and it can be hard when your work is competing for your time. But when you say, ‘Just a minute, I’ll be there,’ and it’s not just a minute, you’re teaching them your work comes ahead of them, and that’s a terrible lesson. So now, I practice the other parts of my mothering just like I did nursing: When I say, ‘Today is the day we’re going to the park,’ it doesn’t matter how much work is piling up. I stop what I’m doing and go.”

An Integrated Life

I’ve come a long way since the day my maternity leave ended and I showed up at the office with my baby, feeling so torn between work and motherhood. For me, the beauty of the work-at-home solution is that I haven’t had to choose. I believe our culture does mothers and babies a disservice by posing working and mothering as an either/or proposition. But we were made to multitask; for those of us who choose it, working at home allows us to integrate our lives in a wonderful way.

The amazing part is, while they mother their children, many work-at-home moms are achieving spectacular things in their work lives, too. When women work at home, they often seem to use the opportunity to tap into their true passions, work from the heart, and work for a cause bigger than themselves.

There’s Mandi Meidlinger, whose cloth-diaper and natural-parenting business benefits the environ-ment while her advice helps parents choose gentle, conscious ways to raise their babies. There’s Alix Clyburn, whose writings raises awareness about the kind of planet we’re leaving for our children. There’s Nancy Traversy, whose publishing business fights the Nintendo mentality one book at time, bringing art and multiculturalism to children’s stories. And there’s her network of stallholders, some of whom are restocking the shelves of Mississippi schools and libraries devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and putting books in shelters that serve women and children in crisis.

The more we as mothers take ownership of the right to integrate our lives, the more society at large will evolve to support such work arrangements. “It starts with us as mothers,” notes Meidlinger. “We need to stop apologizing for [including] our children as part of our professional lives. It’s hard in our culture, which expects things to be separated, but it’s up to us to lead the way. If I’m on the phone with a business call and Jillian is making noise, I’ve learned not to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ As work-at-home moms, we need to give ourselves absolute permission to do what we need to do, and other people will follow our lead.”

She’s right. Every time someone I’m interviewing hears Graham in the background or I arrive to cover a story with him on my hip, the response is the same: “How wonderful that you can work with your child.
I wish I’d had that option.”

The best part is, we’re raising children who will grow up assuming that family life and work can go hand in hand. Traversy believes that these are the values she’s teaching her children. “They’re seeing that they have choices when it comes to how to integrate their careers and their families,” she says. “They’ve seen that if you love something and have a vision, you can make it happen, and that you can do that alongside your family. They know, because they’ve been there every step of the way.”

Laura Ulrich lives with her husband, Jon, and their son, Graham, in Upstate New York, where she mothers by day, writes by night, and takes to heart this article’s advice about letting the laundry go.

 

Illustration by Polly Becker

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