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Zen and the Art of Working at Home with Children

Mixing motherhood with a home-based business takes more than patience and a laptop.

If you haven't tried it before, working from home might sound easy. You can do it while your children are napping, building Lego castles or watching Curious George on public television, right?

Well, not exactly.   

I started writing at home in the late 1980s when my son, Nate, was enrolled in nursery school at . In those days, parents who ran businesses out of their spare bedrooms or worked at their kitchen tables were slightly ahead of the trend. With fewer role models to blaze the trails ahead of us, we often felt like pioneers stumbling through uncharted territory in our bathrobes.

From the get-go, I struggled to find a rhythm in sync with my family and my editors. The slow writer that I was, I could barely compose and edit 400 words in three hours – especially while my junior office assistant was trying to illustrate my drafts with finger paint.

So, I bought myself more time by hiring sitters or enlisting the help of Nate’s grandmothers when he wasn't in school or day camp. (If you have little ones and think you can conduct business at home without hiring child care — ever — you're dreaming.)

But even after a year or two of juggling writing assignments and motherhood, I still hadn’t managed to establish a reasonable schedule.

Is anybody home?

It all reached a crisis point the day Nate walked home from and found me in my usual pose: hunkered over the cluttered desk in my home office, tangled in a wicked paragraph that wasn’t going anywhere.

Barely looking up from the keyboard to say hello, I waved my son away.

“Mom’s working now. Leave me alone for a minute while I finish this story,” I snapped, knowing full well that I needed at least another two hours to wrap up.

Something upsetting had happened to Nate in school that day – the details of which escape me now. But I still remember the tear-stained look on his face when he pointed his index finger at me and shot back: “Didn’t you decide to work at home so you could spend time with me? You’re always too busy!”

The outburst was cheeky, even for an 8-year-old, and I was tempted to send him straight to his room. Regardless, I knew the kid was right: Working at home didn’t necessarily mean I was truly “there” for him. My body occupied the chair at my desk, but my mind may as well have been in the newsroom downtown.

Soon after, I reorganized my office hours – and my priorities. Even if I wasn't driving the school car pool, I'd end my work day around 3 p.m. My toughest challenge was training myself to stop ruminating over unfinished articles while I spent time with my family.

I also started enjoying the work-free zone I created when Nate came home from school. When he wasn’t occupied with his own friends or homework, the two of us would head to for milkshakes or for ice cream. That’s when I discovered that my Jeep was the ideal place for discussing everything from current events to setbacks in school. The motion of the vehicle seemed to lighten any conflict or tension between us, prompting some of the best conversations we’ve ever had.

Good advice from the experts

If you want to try working at home with children, you’ll need more than a laptop and a room of your own. Flexibility and a knack for multitasking are essential.

“I’d rather work in my own home, even with all the distractions that brings,” explained Meagan Francis, a nationally known parenting columnist and mother of five. “I like being able to leave my desk and putter around the kitchen when I get stuck. Blending work with life is actually one of the things I love best about being self-employed, so it makes sense that I’d enjoy working in my house.”

Francis tried renting office space – twice – but never used it enough to justify the expense. She wrote her newest parenting guide, The Happiest Mom: 10 Secrets to Enjoying Motherhood (Weldon Owen; $14.95), in her home office in western Michigan.

If you can't get help with child care, Francis suggests using every bit of free time available, even if it’s only a 20-minute break from your children. “Don’t use that time to spy on your high school boyfriend on Facebook,” she said. “Try to get some work done.”

Unlike Meagan Francis, I didn’t have online social networks or an iPhone when I started freelancing years ago. Today, the new technology at our disposal serves as a blessing and a curse for everyone who combines work with family life.

The editors of WAHM.com, an online magazine for work-at-home mothers, offer this advice: "If you're always checking email, always updating online networking sites or even checking your investments, your family time might suffer. Think about turning off that pager, iPhone or BlackBerry for a few hours each day, and consider how the intrusion of off-hours updating affects your home life."

It goes without saying that mothers shouldn't feel guilty about pursuing outside interests and careers. Learning how to strike a healthy balance between work and family, business and pleasure, is an invaluable life lesson for children. Parents who work at home can teach by example.

Experience has taught me that being an attentive parent doesn't necessarily depend on whether you work at the kitchen table or across town in a corporate office. It's all about crafting a lifestyle that works for your own family – and finding ways to be fully present when your children need you. And maybe then, the Zen-like balance between family and working at home will be achieved.

Cindy La Ferle's award-winning Royal Oak story collection, Writing Home, chronicles the years she worked from home and is available on Amazon.com. For more information, visit Cindy La Ferle's Home Office.

Samantha Pattison April 11, 2011 at 09:54 AM
I always wanted to work from home, but thought I would lack dicipline. I did get the chance to a few years ago, but it was short lived. I worked for someone else though and now would like to branch out on my own. I know now where to get some advice on that, thanks Cindy for another great article.
Cindy La Ferle April 11, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Sam, thanks for your comment. Another good resource is "The Work at Home Success Bible," edited by Leslie Truex. While it's geared to mothers with younger kids, it does provide good info on how to get started with a home business. Ask for the book (and other work-at-home titles) at our library, or look for it on Amazon.com.
sarah April 11, 2011 at 05:25 PM
Cindy, great article - it hits home with me since I'm a writer as well and started my writing business when my youngest was a toddler. It wasn't the easiest transition from full-time mom to home business owner. Even though I was home, both my children complained that I was working too much. They're older but I still need to work hard to shut down my home biz buzz in my mind and focus on family sometimes. Like you said, it helps to set regular home-biz is closed times and activities. Ours is often going biking or working in the garden. I've put together many of my strategies in the Healthy Home Biz Guide, currently being revised. You can get the first chapter free at www.yourhealthyhomebiz.com and you'll also get notification when the full guide is re-released.
EMoses April 13, 2011 at 12:14 PM
Cindy, I struggle daily with this. I recently purchased a small business in Royal Oak (Playaway) and I am trying to create lesson plans, answer email, and make phone calls during the day. My boys are screaming for my attention and sometimes I have to say no. It breaks my heart. I am hoping to get into the swing of things soon. I have to remind myself that I can try to do some of the work when they are in bed, but then my husband suffers. It truly is a work in progress and a difficult balancing act. Thank you for your article.
Cindy La Ferle April 13, 2011 at 01:54 PM
Cindy La Ferle Evelyn, I hear echoes of my old self in your e-mail. And I'm glad you mentioned the issue of finding time for our spouses when we work at home with kids. You're so right about calling this "a work in progress".... Sounds like you're just getting started with the business, and that's the hardest part. Congrats on the purchase of your Playaway business, and I hope you'll let me know how it's going!
Brett Paesel April 14, 2011 at 03:33 PM
I cannot write at night because I get too tired and things are much easier now that the kids are in school. But when they were younger and I was home alone with them, I wrote only for three hours on Saturday while my husband was home with the kids. That seems like nothing. But it was amazing how much I got done in those three hours because that was pretty much all I had! Point being, sometimes it's good to have a routine that you can plan for and know is in place, even if it's a short amount of time.
Cindy La Ferle April 15, 2011 at 12:09 PM
Brett, kids or no kids, I've always found it harder to work at night, too, because I'm not as fresh. You're absolutely right about finding a schedule that works for you. And yes, isn't it amazing how much we get done when we have to? It's weird, but the more we have to do, the more productive we are, it seems.

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