Working at home with small children is kind of like trying to pose for a magazine shoot with a herd of feral cats walking around your living room: You will want it to go well; you will pray it will go well. But deep inside you, you kind of know that things will get scratched, clawed, and peed on. And at the end of the day, you’ll just be glad that glass picture frames can be glued back together and that the area rug was only a knock-off from Garden Ridge (#WinWin). The magazine’s editor knows you have feral cats and is supportive. And you are so, so grateful.
In all honesty, it’s kind of the best and worst of everything. It’s the best when your toddler plays quietly, but it’s also the best when she pulls at your leg and begs you to get off the computer and get “down mama,” on her level, because – at least in this season – she wants to lavish her love on you. And I will take it. Every last drop, sister.
But then, there are things you need to do. You have emails that can’t wait until nap time, phone calls to return, floors to mop, and lunch to cleanup. And the child is going to melt down at the most inopportune times. And that’s okay.
I scoured my brain for my most helpful tips and tricks that might aid anyone else who is trying the difficult balancing act of being a work-from-home-parent. Here’s what I came up with:
1. Pick something you LOVE to do for work. This is where people go critically wrong. If numbers and spreadsheets aren’t your thing, don’t torture yourself by becoming a data analyst from home. If it feels like work, you aren’t going to have any intrinsic motivation to work during your “breaks” as a work-from-home parent. If you love photography, then you will enjoy editing photos during nap time. If you are naturally creative, then churning out a few cute new pieces of inventory for your Etsy shop after you put your sweet ones down won’t feel like drudgery to you. But if you don’t love it, then it’s going to feel like work. And who wants to work after a day of full-time chasing, wiping, disciplining, loving, cleaning, playing, tantrum-ing, cooking, entertaining, and…well, parenting? You have already done such a hard job all. day. long. You’ve loved your tiny people and need to do something that is going to fill you up – not wear you out. Search your heart, and ask yourself what energizes you and makes you excited, and then go chase that as an opportunity.
2. Set up a work space that is easily accessible to your kids’ play areas. In a perfect world, my work space would be tucked nicely away, deep within the heart of our home. It would be filled with soft and pretty accessories, and there would always be fresh flowers in a vase on my tidy desk. A hot latte would simmer next to my keyboard, and I would leisurely execute brilliant ideas while humming along to a custom play list of my favorite music or podcasts. In real life, though, I need for my child to have access to all of the things that best entertain her while I’m working. I need to be able to quickly jump over to my computer if an idea hits me while I’m scraping the discarded remains of a grilled cheese off the high chair. In that case, right now, my “office” is a little butler’s desk in our kitchen, with equidistant sight lines to the playroom and the living room. I can also close the door to the play room (they are glass french doors), and still see what kind of antics are going on while I try and finish a marketing lineup for Facebook. It isn’t perfect, and little sticky hands find me more often than not, but it’s what I need right now. Flowers and lattes will just have to wait .
3. Set realistic expectations. I have a list I keep by my computer every night (I actually have 3: one for work, one for the blog, and one for cleaning/shopping). I start on Sundays by writing down my weekly goals…usually 3-5 big ones for work. Then I break those down into realistic “chunks” of what I think I can accomplish each day. Don’t constantly make yourself feel like a failure by trying to attain impossible feats. You are not just “at work,” but you are also the full-time care giver of one (or more) little ones who really do need your time, energy, and attention. It’s okay if you can’t sit down for four-hour stretches to finish one task from start to finish. Do what you can when you can, and allow yourself the grace to be realistic about what your daily routine looks like. For me, that’s 3-6 hours of fragmented time each day. Some days I get more (thanks to my sweet mom, who takes care of the girl once a week for me), and some days are laughable. See #4 for the next tip for help with that.
Nope, this isn’t my real list, and as you well know by now, those aren’t my real flowers. But look how pretty! (#Fraud)
4. Work for people who “get it.” This is hard, and I absolutely realize that not everyone is blessed to work for people who understand the demands you face when you work from home with kiddos. When interviewing for the job, feel it out. Ask questions to see how your potential employer feels if your child won’t cooperate during a phone meeting, or if it’s okay if deadlines are soft when your baby gets sick. If you start getting the vibe that those types of events won’t be well received, then move on. Your life is what it is, and you are in a season where you need a little flexibility. Find people who will embrace this with you. For me, that’s this lovely duo:
Jennifer Walker & Laura Hunter, co-authors/founders of Moms on Call.
5. Use Your “Breaks.” This is why #1 above is so important. As a work-from-home parent, you’re going to need to seize your windows of uninterrupted time. For me, that is usually 45min-1 hour of t.v. time in the morning (bless you, PBS kids), and then another 2 hours during nap, and then a few hours after bed time. Since I love what I do, this isn’t hard (it used to be, before I stumbled into my current job). You need to prioritize your goals, and try to knock off what you can from that list during the windows of time that you have. And speaking of those windows…
6. Don’t Squander the Gift of Time. I know it’s tempting to spend the first 30 minutes of nap time on Facebook or Instagram (especially if your work involves a computer. You know how it goes: you fully intended to sit down and knock out some emails, but somehow you accidentally got sucked into the vortex of status updates, articles, and photos). Since a large bulk of my work revolves around social media marketing, I actively have to ban myself from scrolling through my personal newsfeed and strictly stick to my clients’ accounts. This can be hard, especially if your two-year old has had a morning full of meltdowns and you just need a minute. But again, if your work feels more like a hobby, it will be easier avoid the black holes of Netflix and Pinterest. Keep that list of realistic goals nearby, and find a way to reward yourself when you do accomplish them.
7. Find a creative way to let your kids “help.” I’ve recently found a neat solution to be able to sneak a little extra work in while Ginny is awake. Grab an old keyboard, and place it on your desk in front of your own keyboard (push yours out of reach). Then your kiddo can “type” (a coveted task by any toddler) while you tend to emails, reaching your arms over a bit to get your work done. Her buttons aren’t doing anything, but they make the fun clicks, and they keep her occupied while you knock out a few emails (an old mouse and an unplugged, old-school style office phone are also great if you have multiple kids….sooo many buttons! And local yard sales and thrift stores seem to have a never ending supply of this stuff). You can also get an old cell phone and hand it to your toddler when you have to make a call. I usually say something like, “Okay, Ginny, Dada is on the phone for an important meeting with you. You take this call and mama will make one on her phone.” I’ll even hand her a pad of paper and a crayon for her to “take notes” during her phone meeting. The biggest key to these little tricks is to only allow these special “office” toys to come out when you need them. Don’t let them be accessible as a part of your regular toys in the playroom, or they will lose their luster and will stop working. But if you only pull them out once a day for a limited window, your kids will look forward to the 20 minutes of their “work” time, and you would be shocked at what you can learn to accomplish in 20 minutes!
8. Learn How to Maximize Your Weaknesses. I struggle with being overly Type-A and organizing the mess out of anything and everything (if you don’t believe this is a true weakness, then try living with me…it is annoying, I assure you. Pray for Burch). However, when it comes to work, this is my jam. I don’t hold back or reign it in; I unleash it and make it work for me. I have another friend who struggles with organization, but she works amazingly well when she is under tight deadlines. This woman can perform at an inhuman level when something is due for a client in three hours. Procrastination is her friend, and her work is BEAUTIFUL. Let go of the image of the “ideal” employee, and just use what you’ve got. If you struggle to get up and going at 5am, then don’t. Find a way to make 10am your peak hour of productivity (and make this coincide with your allowable window of screen time for your kids). If you can’t work spreadsheets to save your life, then take that mess of receipts and tack them up by your desk. Work smarter, not harder. Use all of the parts of yourself – good, bad, and ugly – and find a way to maximize each one to the benefit of your household and your employer. Everyone will be happier if you don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
9. Accept and Enjoy This Season. This may sound somewhat obvious, but I have to actively work to remind myself that this season will not last forever. There will be plenty of time for me to sit at the computer later on, wishing that a tiny, golden-haired munchkin would tug on my leg. I worked with teenagers for more than a decade before I had kids, so I am well-aware that the day is coming when it will be me who tries to tear her away from a screen. I will long for the days when my attention was her heart’s delight. So if the emails have to wait, or if the house looks like the feral cats have won yet again, that’s okay. (And that’s also why I shop at Good Will, Target, and Home Goods ;).
Regardless of if you work inside or outside of the home (or if you don’t do either), your attitude is what sets the tone for your household (and lest anyone think I’m lecturing here, let me openly profess that I FAIL AT THIS REGULARLY). While we’re at it – let’s embrace the fact that we will fail.
Our kids learn from watching us respond to both our victories and failures.
Whether that’s in the office or in your kids’ playroom, then get after it. God has given YOU the unique ability to balance your life, your hobbies, your dreams, and your kids. No one else is equipped to model for them what it looks like to be their puzzle-piece-fit of a mom or dad. You do that for them. Show them what it looks like to be fully present, to love them well, and to work hard at whatever it is He has called you to do.