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For the past seven years I’ve been living the dream of many working moms: I have a flexible schedule that not only allows me to control how and when I work but also lets me do a large chunk of work from home. I’m extremely grateful to have this arrangement. It’s been wonderful for me and my family, and it’s something a lot of working parents crave.
As attractive as flexible schedules can look on days when you’re weary of your 8-to-6, butt-in-office-chair job, they do come with challenges. Not that I would have believed that seven years ago. Oh, how I idealized flexibility back then. It would solve all of my problems. It would be the best of both worlds. Nirvana!
Well, reality always differs from the ideal. So if you’re thinking of pursuing a flexible schedule—especially one that entails work from home—I’ve got some tips.
Ideal: Working with kids in the house can’t be that hard. Especially if it’s a baby. They sleep most of the time anyway.
Reality: Working with kids in the house will be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done.
It never fails. The day you’ve got an important conference call—the one you’ve carefully planned for naptime—is the day your little angel refuses to go beddy-bye. So you set her up with some educational videos and her favorite toys, but she would rather crawl under your feet and scream. Then, just as you’re preparing to give your Very Important Presentation, she has the blow out to end all blow outs, covering herself, you and somehow, inexplicably, your laptop, with poop.
Get the picture? I can probably count on one hand my number of kids-and-work days that have run smoothly. To save your sanity and your career, you will want to:
1. Give yourself several child-free days each week. Simply put, you need time to focus exclusively on work. Before both of my kids were in school I sent them to a sitter three to four days, depending on my work load. And I tried to ensure that stay-home days were light work days.
2. Get a headset with a mute button. If you do have to take a call when kids are home, you must sound professional. A headset allows you to keep hands free to handle any emergencies, while the mute lets you listen without anyone hearing your little ones in the background.
3. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. I’ve always done some of my best work at night, which is nice on days when my kids are home. I can handle easy things like answering email during the day, then use the quiet evening hours to concentrate on the meaty stuff.
Ideal: I will be available to take care of everybody!
Reality: You will be available to take care of everybody.
One big benefit of an office job with a set schedule is that you have boundaries. Work is here, family time is there. (OK, that’s not necessarily the case now that we all have smart phones, but… ). The best thing about my flexible schedule—I can take my kids to school, pick them up in the afternoon, be free for doctor’s appointments and snow days, etc.—is also sometimes the worst thing. Because “flexible” can start to mean “flexible to do everything for everybody.”
Sure, it’s lovely to be able to chaperone a morning field trip, but then I really can’t get annoyed when I get a business call at an odd hour that evening. It’s a trade-off, which is exactly what we want when we talk about flexibility. Still, you need to make sure you don’t get lost or even taken advantage of. Flexible schedules are supposed to promote work/life balance, but sometimes they can balance you right out of the equation. My tips?
1. Set boundaries anyway. I don’t take business calls during mealtimes or my childrens’ bedtime. And when I’ve got an important work deadline, I expect my husband to keep children out of my hair.
2. Make time just for you. This is a must for all moms, even (and sometimes especially) those with flexible work schedules.
3. Again, be realistic about what you can accomplish. When I started working at home, my husband would get annoyed because the house wasn’t always immaculate. Um… that’s because I spent my day WORKING!! The only people who can do their jobs and scrub toilets at the same time are janitors.
Ideal: I will save money on things like daycare.
Reality: You also will scramble for things like daycare.
Most full-time daycare providers charge you a set rate per month, whether you send your child every day or not. A flexible work schedule can give you more control over your daycare costs by allowing you to pay only for what you use. But flexibility can also bring unpredictability. You may have analyzed your work load and set up your week with kids at a sitter for certain days, then a client calls a meeting for 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Since much of the world doesn‘t have a flexible schedule, it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re covered. For these kinds of situations, I really have only one recommendation:
1. Create a support system of people who are as flexible as you. Work with other moms in similar situations. Take their kids when they have an emergency so you can ask them to return the favor. A handful of trusted family members, friends and sitters who can say “sure!” on short notice is a wonderful resource.
Ideal: I won’t feel guilty anymore.
Reality: You will still feel guilty.
When that conference call goes too long and your child is sobbing in his playpen but you can’t get away to comfort him. When your summer-vacation kids think it’s “Fun Play with Mommy Day” but you have a project to finish. Or when you’re crabby because you’re working the weekend after taking a day to help with a classroom party. You will feel guilty. You’ll think, “This is what I wanted. This is how I chose to arrange my schedule. Other moms would kill to have what I have. I am an ungrateful wretch of a mom/employee/spouse.”
Healthy or not, I’m convinced guilt is part of the mom gig no matter what your work/family situation. Each of us does the best we can with the time, energy and resources we have. Even though I sometimes get frazzled , I love my job. And I love that I can do it well while being more available to my family. If you are fortunate enough to get a flexible work schedule, I guarantee you won’t take it for granted–just be prepared to adjust those ideals to reality.