The Balancing Act

by Jeannie Ralston

The Balancing Act

I work full-time at home. I have a babysitter for Gus, 7, and Jeb, 5, so that, in theory, I have eight hours a day to write freelance articles and run our family’s lavender farm. But that much daily schedule in one day is a pipe dream. In just the past two hours here’s what I’ve done instead: took Jeb to the dentist, picked up Gus from school, gone charging out of my office upon hearing a window-rattling scream from Jeb (his sweet brother had hit him with a yardstick), helped Gus fix the chain on his bike, and calmed Jeb (who’s angry that we took the training wheels off his bike, and who then had to be shooed out of the office when he came to tell me that he doesn’t want to be anything when he grows up because of what we did to his bike).

Their babysitter is like their second mother, but my kids want only me for certain things, and they know where to find me (or how hard to yell to bring me out of the office). My workday is chopped up into tiny slivers, into which I try to squeeze maximum productivity, which leaves my brain overheated from sprinting and stopping, sprinting and stopping. But this is the life I’ve chosen as a work-at-home mom, a member of a rapidly expanding subculture in the workforce. Friends and neighbors tell me I have the best of both worlds: I’ve found the middle ground in the ferocious pull between working and staying at home.

But I know better. I know that every mom who works at home makes trade-offs. For all its many advantages  — from having a flexible schedule to feeling like a more involved parent  — there are difficulties that often go unaddressed, from not being able to draw boundaries between the two spheres of life, to sacrificing earning power and career advancement. Working from home is no magic bullet. If you aren’t fully prepared for the tightrope act, it may create as many problems as it solves. “If you’re switching back and forth between two roles that are important to you, it may become difficult to manage both,” says Stephan Desrochers, Ph.D., assistant psychology professor at the University of Maine in Farmington. “You may get confused over where to focus your attention at any given moment.” Right now, for instance, I’m wondering whether I should be writing this or going to the garage to put the training wheels back on my son’s bike.

Jeannie Ralston, a contributing editor to Parenting, works  — or tries to work  — from her home in Texas.

The Road to Independence

One common route to working at home is starting your own business, which women have been doing in recent years at twice the rate of men. According to the Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington, DC, there are an estimated 8.2 million women-owned businesses in the country, and most of these have one employee  — the woman who started it. The majority of these businesses are home-based, according to a Small Business Administration study.

Home-based businesses today are no longer confined to small cottage industries, says Julie Weeks, executive director of the National Women’s Business Council in Washington, DC. They’re more likely to be full-fledged operations, such as a design firm or a CPA office, sometimes with employees on site. And unlike men, women don’t start these businesses to increase their wealth. A Rochester Institute of Technology study found that we’re after something less tangible but just as valuable: more flexibility with our families.

Another route for moms who wish to work at home is through an agreement with their employer to do their job from a home office. It’s another booming trend: The ranks of telecommuters with this arrangement grew from 16.8 million in 2001 to 23.5 million (a 40 percent increase) two years later.

In a growing number of companies, teleworkers are an accepted part of the culture, and they needn’t give up money or promotions. But in offices where the arrangement is new or a manager is uncomfortable with it, the situation can wreak havoc. “For some people, it’s difficult to keep their career on track when they’re invisible in the office,” says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, an information clearinghouse for work-life issues.

Trish Rawls, mom of a 28- and a 17-month-old in Fredericksburg, Texas, used to telecommute as a designer for an ad agency. “I felt so out of the loop,” she says. “I’m used to being a leader, but when I worked at home I ended up taking a lot of orders from other people.” She eventually left the firm to start her own design studio from home.

Blurring Boundaries

When they have a setup they like, work-at-home moms report feeling better about themselves and their parenting because of the sense of control in their lives. “Work-life conflicts come from having no say over your work, not from too many hours,” says Seitel. “It’s how you work that’s important, not how much.”

But flexibility can be a double-edged sword, especially for moms who do better with structure. “I need to make sure I plan my day in order to stay productive,” says Karen Reddick, who has a home business assisting other small businesses with clerical and administrative tasks in Centennial, Colorado. “Otherwise, I end up wandering around the house, eating out of the fridge, and watching Dr. Phil and Oprah.”

The flexible lifestyle may also require you to change hats 30 times a day from mom to accountant to chauffeur to salesperson. The biggest challenge of working at home, especially at first, is the lack of boundaries between work and home. A recent study found that work-at-home parents had more trouble focusing on work and were more likely to feel their job interferes with their parenting than moms and dads who go to an office.

“When you work outside the home, it’s clear what mode you’re in, or at least should be in,” says Teresa Carbajal Ravet, who offers Spanish instruction and translation in Austin, Texas. “But at home it’s challenging to switch back and forth between being a mom and a professional.”

Gloria Gault Geary, a motivational speaker and mom of three boys, feels the most tension when she’s trying to leave her house in Gaffney, South Carolina, for an appointment. Her office is upstairs, away from the living areas, but whenever she has a sitter, Geary must pass through the family area to get to her car. “I’ll be running to an appointment and the boys will see me and say, ‘Mama, Mama,'” she says. She’s recently instituted a new rule for herself: When they ask for her, she gives them at least ten minutes of undivided attention. “I used to think I couldn’t stop because I was afraid it would take up a half hour,” she says. But since she started this, she’s discovered that before the ten minutes are up they’re on to something else. “I think they just need to touch base when they see me,” she says. “I can always give ten minutes to my kids.”

Moms who can’t create boundaries between their job and their family may spend too little time working, not earn enough money, or work too much. In a poll for Mompreneursonline, 26 percent of respondents said what they liked least about working at home is that the workday never ends (followed by loneliness and isolation). Tele-working moms are twice as likely as other working moms to report that they’re on the job over 50 hours a week and to say that they work too much.

For many, flexibility means getting up early before the kids or getting in a chunk of work after they get to bed. With the Internet, tasks such as sending e-mails and doing web searches can be done at any hour. Some moms regularly work into the night; others use it as a fallback option when they’re on deadline or the sitter has canceled.

The downside is that work is easily accessible at all hours. The quick I’m-just-going-to-check-my-e-mail trip to the office after the kids are in bed can turn into an hour or two. “The hardest part of it is that when I have ‘free’ time on my hands I find myself drawn more to my business than doing things unrelated to working. I see it as an opportunity to work rather than to relax,” says Jennifer Strumbel, a mom of two young kids in Monticello, Minnesota, who runs On River Street, an online shopping site. “Since the office is right here, I can easily wander in and check orders.”

Burnout is the number one consequence of using every opening of time to catch up on work. Marriages may suffer as well. “When you work from home, the focus is on your job and kids. If something’s going to get neglected, it’s either your husband or yourself,” says Lesley Spencer, a mom of two, who runs a website for work-at-home moms in Austin, Texas. “You’re constantly surrounded by the more vocal needs of your kids and your business, and it’s hard not to respond to them continuously. You have to make a conscious effort to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Going It Alone

One study of teleworkers by Susan Madsen, assistant professor of management at Utah Valley State College in Orem, found that the optimal number of days to be at home is two to three days a week. “Those who worked at home five days a week started experiencing isolation,” she says. To me, this seclusion feels like claustrophobia, which comes from having so much of my life within the confines of one house. I counteract it by scheduling lunch with friends whenever I have a break or by arranging in-person rather than phone meetings when I can.

Becca Williams, mom of two, an MBA who left a high-flying job as a financial analyst to start a business called WallNutz, in Portland, Oregon, which sells mural kits for children’s rooms, has found her own way to combat isolation: hiring other work-at home moms for her growing business. “I missed having people around, even the buzz of coworkers talking in cubicles next door,” says Williams, who now outsources her packaging, accounting, and licensing to other moms. “I get to interact with others who have ideas for growing and improving the business.”

Finding a Balance

I love having more time to be involved in my kids’ lives, but it’s been too easy to push aside my job to make room for such things as school events and bake sales. And it’s too easy for others to assume I have time to help out. I drop off my kids wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, and I pick them up wearing the same. I look every bit the stay-at-home mom, so it’s natural for people to think I have more free time than moms who drop off their kids wearing suits and heading to an office.

I admit I haven’t been diligent about alerting people that I work full-time. I know it would help if I could find a professional-looking outfit in my closet, but then, one of the perks of working at home is that you can do so in pajamas. Plus, booby traps await even a carefully calculated image. Spencer remembers an unfortunate moment when she was potty training her youngest son. There’s a bathroom next to her office, and in the middle of an important call, her son began shouting from there, “Mommy, I pooped.” She has never left the door open during a phone call again.

I can’t count the number of times my kids have barged into my office during a business call and left me feeling like a two-bit operation. Gault Geary has her children call her business line from downstairs if they need something, and I’ve heard of a mom who tells her kids to interrupt her only if there’s “smoke or blood.”

But I find it difficult to send my kids away; I don’t want them to feel that I’m too busy for them  — even if I am. My husband, who also works at home, is much more blunt with them, and Desrochers says that in his studies men are more likely to put work before family when they’re working at home. Even so, his studies have found that women and men make a point of working after the rest of the family has gone to bed.

Rawls is very conscientious about maintaining a professional image. “I don’t talk about my kids to clients, and I never answer my business phone when I’m with the kids”  — which isn’t easy to do when they’re constantly afoot. And for several months, she was a courageous breed among work-at-home moms: She ran her business without using childcare, exclusively depending on the kids’ naptimes for her work hours. This made planning a conference call or scheduling a deadline difficult, since kids aren’t known to cooperate with Mom’s idea of when to sleep. Most moms of younger kids arrange some type of babysitting, even if it’s only two days a week. And Rawls did, hiring a sitter for 15 hours a week.

Spencer has found that many moms without childcare begin to depend on the television more than they may like. “They feel guilty that they’re working and their child is watching TV,” she says. I admit that on days when my sitter has been sick I’ve resorted to too many videotapes, especially if I have a pressing deadline. Occasionally I’ll stop and think, “This is not why I’m working from home, so that they can watch more Scooby Doo.”

When I have such a fit of conscience, I know there’s only one thing to do: scrap the day. Cancel my calls. Put off deadlines. Then, we’ll turn off the TV and do something fun, like go for an ice cream cone in town. As hard as it is to juggle working and living under one roof, I know that having moments of stolen time with my sons is the reason I work from home.