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The Secret to Working at Home with Small Children

I’ve been working at home for almost 15 years now, both before and after becoming a mom of three. Over the years I’ve learned many lessons about getting work done at home, in the midst of diapers, sticky fingers and wooden train pileups. But working successfully from home depends most on one essential thing: work time is only for work.

That means in those hours that you have set aside for work, when the baby is napping or your older children are at school or burning through their allotted daily screen time, you need to be planted at your desk getting stuff done. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted by the dirty lunch or breakfast dishes in the sink, the unmade beds, or the sky-high piles of dirty laundry. Those tasks have to wait. And believe me, it’s not always easy to ignore these housework jobs, partly because they’re a lot simpler and easier to begin and complete than sitting down to write or edit a few pages or stare at a spreadsheet, and partly because they’re staring you in the face. Yep, the hardest part of working from home, at least for me, is literally the home part. And it’s only compounded when you have children because suddenly the home mess increases in direct proportion to the way your available work time decreases.

Yet if you can get yourself in your chair and working, you might find that your limited work time can actually help you, in terms of efficiency and focus. Anne Lamott famously wrote: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.” She’s onto something there. When your available work time is suddenly reduced to a couple of half-hour naps, as it was for me with my first child, who slept a depressingly tiny portion of each day, you develop a sort of laser focus. It becomes amazing how much work you can get done in the small amount of time you are allotted if you can keep your focus.

At the same time, we need to be realistic about how much we can take on. There have been many times in my work-at-home life where I met deadlines by pulling close to all-nighters, and I’m no longer willing to jeopardize my health that way, so I can’t always take on all I’d like to. I’m lucky enough to be able to occasionally hire babysitters to get extra hours of work when I need them, but I recognize that’s not an option for everyone. It’s important to take a hard look at how much work time you realistically have before you commit to projects.

Another important part of successfully working at home is to set aside time in your schedule not only for work but also for housework and focused time on children. I think of this process¬† as “segmenting” and for me it’s fairly fluid. For example, I already mentioned that I set aside my daughter’s naps as work time. I do most of my housework in the afternoon, after she wakes up from her nap and has lunch. It’s much easier to clean or do laundry with her at my side than it is to write or edit. And I spend focused time with her in the morning after her brothers go to school and with them in the afternoon after school.

It may feel strange or forced to think about setting aside time for each child, especially since we often feel as moms that we spend almost all of our time focusing on our children anyway. But if I’m not careful about setting aside time for work and housework,¬† I can find that I’m with my kids but not really with them, as I’m always trying to read or write one more email, get one load of laundry in or fill the dishwasher.¬† If I can take the time to sit down with each child and really focus on him or her, even just for 5 to 10 minutes, whether that means helping with homework, reading books, or playing on the floor, then I find that they are a lot happier to then entertain themselves for a while and give me some time to get some household things done.

The key for all of this “segmenting” is really just to try to focus on one area at a time. Even now, after years of trying to practice this, I still often find myself trying to finish an important email and accomplish some household task while at the same time trying to respond to one of my children’s needs. The result is almost always that nothing gets completed, and certainly nothing gets completed well. Multi-tasking sounds great, but most of the time attempting it just makes us feel frantic and crazy. Setting aside time every weekday for each of these three main areas: work, housework, and kids helps me to enjoy each one so much more. I can feel a lot better about focusing on my children and not working in the afternoon when I know that I’ll be back at it the next morning. I can even live with the dirty dishes in the sink when I know that I’ll have time for those a little later in the day.

So here you go, work-at-home moms (and dads!). If I could sum up my advice for you in one sentence, it would be simply: “Leave the dishes.”

At least until naptime is over…






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