The Work-at-Home Parent

Note: None of the below is to be taken as any indication that I don’t absolutely adore my kids. I love them dearly, but it would be nice to be able to talk openly about the challenges of being a parent working at home without the fear that you’re going to be accused of not caring about your children.

Both my kids went back to school yesterday, after being home all summer, and having the house quiet after three months of screaming and squabbling and joyous screeching and constant interruptions was just…glorious.

And this touches on something that a lot of writers (who also, of course, work at home) have to deal with: this perception that if you work at home, you’re able to be some kind of super-parent to your kid(s) and manage work well at the same time, all within the bounds of a normal working day. You can’t.

Well, okay. I won’t speak for you. But I can’t. Something has to give.

That “something” varies from person to person, I’m sure. With me, it’s downtime for myself that goes first. Well, that and housework. I hate housework anyway (and am far from being a neat freak), so it just goes by the wayside when I’m busy. There are tons of messes kids make that absolutely have to be cleaned up right away. Broken glass jar of jam? Bodily fluids of any kind, anywhere? Stuff spilled on the dog or a bed or a sibling? I have to take care of those immediately. One hundred little tiny cars spread out all over the living room, or all the books pulled off a shelf? Those will stay there till I finish my current project and take a “day off” to clean the house. (Yes, I can make the three-year-old clean them up himself, and he ultimately will: but that takes more time in supervision [and encouragement or discipline] than cleaning them up myself.)

People envy me for working at home; I envy people who get to go to work and just work. I averaged about sixty hours a week all summer, with both kids home. Without kids, sixty hours a week when you’re working at home is completely doable–you don’t have any travel time cutting into your workday, don’t take lengthy lunch breaks, and so on. With kids, sixty hours a week meant that I pretty much sat at my desk trying to work (and having to get up every few minutes to do something for the kids, and then reread whatever paragraph I’d marked my stop at when I came back, so I don’t miss something) from the minute I got up in the morning (usually around 4 a.m. so I have at least a few hours of quiet) until the minute I went to bed, seven days a week. It really was not pleasant.

Yet when I meet people and tell them what I do, their first reaction is often something like, “How wonderful you get to stay home with your children!”

Right. Yeah, I get a lot of quality time in (this is sarcasm)–and then I suffer a lot of guilt over it. I’m not sure when people think you’re supposed to work, or how they suppose that happens. There seems to be this notion that your day can just be broken down into segments: work for three hours, play games with the kids, take a lunch, work for an hour, read to the kids, work…

Small children aren’t that convenient. They’re great big bottomless pits of want and need.

I know I do more for my kids when I’m working than the vast majority of daycares would. But am I sitting around reading books to them for long stretches, or playing cards or Candy Land? No. When I’m working, my kids watch a lot of TV (which before I became a parent I swore they’d never do) because I’m least likely to be interrupted when they’re doing that than anything else. My daughter takes care of her little brother quite a bit (and I tell her all the time how much I appreciate it). I encourage them to do everything for themselves that they can–and I’m willing to endure the mess that results from them learning to do that, which is substantial.

Every parent who works at home must manage it in their own way. I don’t know what other people do, honestly. There’s so much guilt wrapped around parenting that it’s not something you can even talk about without fear that you’re going to be accused of not loving your kids enough–whatever that “enough” is. Everyone has an opinion on parenting.

People say, “Oh, you don’t have to work that much!” Well, no. In my current circumstances, I don’t “have” to work at all, frankly. I do this job because I get enormous satisfaction from it, and I know I’m good at it, and I know that many of my authors and editors really appreciate what I do. I know because they request me for their books, and those requests make up the vast majority of my work–to the extent that to take any substantial break from work, I inevitably have to turn down those requests, which I hate to do. I get far more satisfaction out of this job than I would from being a full-time mom, whatever “full-time mom” means. (I think I already am a full-time mom, just with a full-time job, as well.) And again, that does not mean that I don’t love my kids.

I need the mental stimulation that I get from my work. My kids, of course, need mental stimulation, too, and so I spend loads of what I make through working my brain on a fancy private school for them that works their brains very well, with teachers who (it seems) get satisfaction from their jobs.

And in the process I get five hours per school day to work in peace.

Does that make me a bad parent? Well, I certainly hope not, though I think it’s in the nature of good parents to worry. I have great kids who are typical kids–with all the noisiness and rambunctiousness and neediness intrinsic to childhood. My sincerest hope is that they’ll turn out to be great adults who recognize their own value in all the aspects of their lives.

16 thoughts on “The Work-at-Home Parent”

  1. Strikes a chord with me, too. I work full time from home now, but our kids are 8 and 11. Each has their own computer, and they’re old enough to cook meals and more-or-less tidy things up. (My wife would disagree with that one.)
    It IS nice and peaceful when they’re at school, so I’m not pointing any bad parenting fingers.
    With the computers, that’s our choice rather than TV. They love complex role playing games like Morrowind and Oblivion, enjoy stuff like Black and White 2, and dislike repetitive platform/action games.
    I use Virtual CD so they don’t need any games disks, otherwise sticky fingers and stompings would put paid to the whole idea.
    Now they’re older I also put a DVD drive into each of their PCs, so they can watch a movie from time to time. They rarely do, but it’s an option. (No damaged disks so far.)
    And yes, they still do all the normal kid stuff ;-) We’re not just plonking them in front of a screen eight hours a day. In fact, the youngest is currently *SQWARK* practicing the *SQUEAL* cornet.

  2. Hey Deanna —

    Yah, the kid thing is weird. We have this myth of perfect parenting, especially for moms. And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love their kids fiercely. But I just came off an 18-day string of being single dad while my kid’s mom was out of town, and good Lord the stress if you want to do anything other than be kid-focused 24×7. It’s not a widely acknowledged issue, so good on yez for taking a shot.


  3. Hear, hear!

    I work at home, my job is performance’driven, I do have to work to pay the mortgage and I can tell you it’s no picnic. My job is stressful, and I have no time for anyone or anything. I’ve gotten to the point where I want separation between work and home.

  4. “(I think I already am a full-time mom, just with a full-time job, as well.) ”

    {teasing} Dontcha mean _two_ full-time jobs, then? {/teasing}

    Yeah; I’m not as full-time employed, but I’d _like_ to be writing more than I do, and a goodly chunk of that is eaten by frequent exhortations for quiet so that I can “have _my_ words in my head and no one else’s.”

    And I suck at house-keeping. Very much.

    I do love her. But — and she’s reading over my shoulder right now — it’s difficult to get stuff done that _doesn’t_ revolve around her.

    Um, mine’s obsessed with Neverwinter Nights; a problem-solving, goblin-whacking alternative to TV? Does take a computer, though. *wry smile*

  5. Simon: My daughter has a level 17 druid on WoW. :-) (It’s hard for her to get higher because I won’t let her group and seldom play with her anymore.)

    Jay: It’s very difficult to talk about. It feels like I’m not supposed to want to do anything other than being a mother, if I don’t have to.

    Ilona: The lack of work/home separation is incredibly challenging, and it means less q.t. for everyone, I think.

    Beth: Yes, it’s difficult. And my seven-year-old likes the computer, but the three-year-old still needs so much supervision and help with it that it’s more work for me.

  6. I watched a bunch of television when I was a kid. Didn’t hurt me none.

    Of course I also read a lot and romped outside.

    I put no restrictions on the amount of television my kids could watch when they were growing up, but they didn’t take advantage of it once they were old enough to have friends and play outside without supervision.

  7. Auuuugh, 3, right, augh. (Mine did not fully toilet-train till 4, which meant no “get out of Mommy’s hair” time till then. We found a wonderful preschool after that, which probably saved my sanity…) She’s six now, and we don’t let her on WoW yet.

    Re: WoW — Actually, while it’s slowish going, you can solo a druid pretty high. The *real* soloing class there, though, is Hunter. I didn’t have a lot of fun with my Druid till… Hm. Probably till the mid 30s or even 40. I mean, she was fun, it was neat, but not soloing. Hunters solo really well, though. I’ve done the same quests and something that’d nearly killed a druid… The hunter just methodically blew right through ’em.

  8. I would go absolutely insane if I was a full time mother to my kids. I love my children, and do suffer guilt at times, however, the work that I do and the level of satisfaction that I gain from helping others balances any negative feelings I have.

  9. Being glad of some time to yourself because the kids are away at school in no way makes you a bad parent, anymore than beig glad of time to yourself when the spouse is at work makes you a bad husband/wife. Sometimes you just need time to yourself.

  10. i have this conversation with my wife (who stays at home) almost daily. we are homeschooling, so there is no summer break for her. she is working at home as well on a variety of projects and like you very much needs her mind to be engaged.

    it’s tough… no question.

  11. An emphatic uhuh!

    My husband is a stay at home dad, and even so, this summer as I’ve been working at home (I’m an English professor so I get to have my summer to work) It’s been a matter of jumping up constantly. And also wondering when, if at all, they are going to run out of energy and stop getting into every possible crack of trouble. They are quite creative about that. School starts next week. I’m looking at it as a sort of break. A relief. I think I’m a better mom when I get away a bit more. I think I stay more calm.

    Thanks for the post.


  12. My wife didn’t start working again until my youngest (of four) started first grade.

    Her biggest complaint, after “the kids are driving me nuts and I can’t take it anymore” was that when we did go out together to a prty or something, she was made to feel like she didn’t amount to anything by the working women who were around.

    So we stopped doing things like that.

    Things have probably changed since 1990…right?

  13. No, I don’t think that makes you a bad parent. Parenting seems an endless endeavor; the creative project to end all others. And it never seemed conducive to having other endeavors of importance. There’s always a certain amount of societal guilt placed upon the parent if other, even temporary, things need to come first. This kind of shaming never sat well with me. It was always the worst kind of virtue trap. So I cannot speak from personal experience, but one reason I chose not to have children is my observation of society’s expectations of parents and their resulting stress on a daily basis. (Is my anthropologist coming out much?)


  14. Frank: I encourage the outdoors, too, but it is hard before they can be out alone.

    Beth: She has an 11 hunter. Maybe I’ll have her play her a little more. :-)

    Saffster: Yes! It’s very rough, the guilt we go through, but I love what I do and do not want my children to think that women are good only for raising babies and keeping house.

    Steve: I don’t feel guilty about the time; just about the time not spent well. :-)

    Jon: I know I don’t have the personality for home-schooling. I’m glad to leave the schooling to the pros, and I admire them for their capability.

    Diana: Thanks for chiming in. This is the most difficult post I’ve ever made!

    Frank: I’m actually unusual, in my neighborhood, in that I work. I feel like I’m looked down upon for mentioning it–as though the other mothers think less of me for not devoting all my time to my kids, or like they think I’m trying to put myself above them. I just never mention it anymore unless someone asks. In the culture in which I’m immersed, day to day, it’s considered impolite to ask a woman what she does, which just drives me crazy.

    Fiona: Parenting is, by far, the most difficult job I’ve ever had. And the payoff–great adults!–is so far away. It’s really hard to stay motivated sometimes. :-) Thank you for chipping in.

  15. I have so much empathy. The expectations of other people, and the stigma if you’re not doing things in the way that’s expected in your social circles…ugh.

    I started a desktop publishing business when my daughter was an infant because it was obvious I was quickly heading toward single-parent-dom. It was extremely hard and I probably wouldn’t have managed it without the help of my family and the stamina granted by youth (I was 19), and I ended up homeschooling her on top of it. I can’t count the number of times that I felt like I was going insane.

    You certainly have my respect and admiration for doing what you do; it’s not easy.

  16. Katya: I have empathy for you, too! That must have been incredibly difficult. I don’t have any family around, and that does complicate things–but not so much as being single would.

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