Working from Home: Myth vs. Reality
By Pamela Kruger
Often when other mothers hear that I work from home, they'll say, "You're so lucky" or "I wish I could do that." The at-home mothers will talk wistfully of how they quit their jobs because they couldn't handle the long hours and wanted to be able to drive their kids to ballet. Working mothers will tell me how stressful it is to commute and how they would love to telecommute a few days a week, but they're afraid it would hurt their careers. As parents, most of us want work that fits our lives, as opposed to lives that fit our work. Working from home seems -- at least from afar -- to offer that.
I've worked from home as a writer and editor for about a dozen years, the last nine while raising children. And I've seriously questioned whether I should look for an office job, oh, at least once or twice each year. Only a few months after I began working from home in 1993, I had my first crisis. One day my husband, David, called me from work, asking me to "throw in a load" of his dark clothes.
"Can't," I told him.
"I'm working," I said, digging in my heels.
David didn't understand. "Why can't you do me a favor? I have no clean socks left," he said. "You don't have to sort."
The more he insisted, the angrier I got. I had started working from home not to "find balance" -- we were newlyweds, without kids or even a mortgage to worry about. I was trying to launch my career as a freelance writer, yet I was finding myself increasingly responsible for the domestic tasks. I hadn't minded at first -- picking up the dry cleaning or dropping shoes off at the repair shop had replaced running out of the office for coffee or schmoozing with a co-worker. It gave me a break when my concentration was lagging. But suddenly, I saw our once-egalitarian relationship becoming lopsided, and it made me scared. What would happen after we had children? Didn't David realize that all these chores chipped away at my day -- and my productivity? Wasn't my time as important as his? Was I going to have to go back to an office to have an equal relationship again?
I don't remember whether I ended up doing his laundry that day, though I do know laundry remained a sensitive topic until we began paying to have our clothes cleaned. When we had our first child, Emily, in 1996, I was delighted I was home and didn't have to face the agonizing prospect of leaving her for nine or 10 hours a day, as so many of my friends did. I felt blessed that I could work for a few hours (with a babysitter on hand) and greet Emily when she woke up from a nap or had lunch.
But my domestic responsibilities expanded exponentially. I was the one who made sure we had enough diapers and baby food. If a babysitter called in sick or didn't show up, I pushed work aside to take care of Emily, making up for the lost time at night or on weekends. David and I both knew that it would be far more difficult for him to call his boss at 8 a.m. to say he was taking that day off. While it made sense for me to step in, it also made it harder for me to work conventional 9-to-5 hours. So whenever I had a free moment, I felt I should spend it working. I was constantly calculating how much more I could be earning (in salary and benefits, which are estimated to be worth at least 30% of one's salary) if I still had my in-the-office staff position.
And then there was the problem of constant interruptions. The babysitter couldn't find Emily's favorite blankie, so I spent 20 minutes looking for it. When Emily began crying "Mama," how could I not rush off the phone and find out what was wrong? When I let my babysitter comfort her, I felt horribly guilty. Would Emily be scarred by this rejection? If I had been in an office, would Emily not be wailing for me, or would I just be unable to hear her cry?
Such questions led me to take a three-month, three-day-a-week freelance-editing gig in 1997. I found the sudden immersion in office politics exhausting. I counted up the time that was wasted on meetings and chitchat and realized that even with all the interruptions, I was far more productive at home. Meanwhile, I was losing 90 minutes a day to the commute and coming home from work at 6:30 p.m., which left me only an hour to see Emily each evening. When the three months were up, I couldn't wait to get home.
I wish I could say I've made my peace with working from home since then, but the truth is I am still conflicted. We have two daughters now (Annie, 4, in addition to Emily, 9), and although David took on more chores (he does the cooking, for instance), I have many more domestic responsibilities and field endless requests and invites from my kids' schools, summer camps, and friends. Will I bring in treats for Annie's Purim party? Will I help Emily's class pick out books during library time? While my kids accept it when Daddy says he can't -- he's at work! -- they don't always understand when I say that. It seems to them I have a choice, and I'm choosing work over them. "I wish I could throw your computer out the window," Emily said to me last summer when I told her that I'd attend the barbecue at camp one week but I couldn't chaperone the all-day trip to the water park the next. (Why a summer camp charging a fortune needs parent chaperones is another story.)
Still, I have those good days -- when I've finished an article in the wonderful solitude of my third-floor office and I come downstairs to find Annie telling a funny joke or Emily rushing in from school with the exciting news that her poem was selected for publication. I have enough of those moments to convince me that my arrangement, though utterly imperfect, is the best one for me. At least for now.
"Why I Opted Out": One Mother's Story
By Pamela Kruger
Last winter should have been a high point in Caryl Hahn's career. As vice president of global media at MasterCard International, Hahn was one of the most successful women in advertising. In November she was even one of the few honored as Advertising Working Mothers of the Year by the Advertising Women of New York.
But at the same time, Hahn, the mother of two, was quietly wrestling with whether to quit working. By February she had made up her mind to resign, and on March 31 she left MasterCard to become a stay-at-home mom to her children, Evan, 13, and Alison, 10. In an interview, the 47-year-old Westchester County, NY, mom explained how and why she made what she calls "one of the hardest decisions" in her life.
"I didn't just wake up one morning and say to myself, 'I'm not going to work anymore.' I had a phenomenal job, I worked only nine miles from my house, and my employer was extremely family-friendly. But in 2001, my mother passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. I started thinking, 'What do I want my life to look like when I'm older? How do I want my kids to remember me?'
"After my mother died, we took a summer trip to Alaska. The sun never sets there in July, so people work long days. I said to our tour guide, 'Wow, you've been working since 7 a.m.' He said, 'Yes, how lucky I am.' I thought, 'I want to feel that way about a job.'
"The truth is, though I loved advertising, I never loved the corporate environment. But I chose to work in it because it has controlled hours; you aren't at the beck and call of clients, as you are at ad agencies.
"But my job was getting harder. I was starting to travel abroad; my kids hated it. And I knew I should take more trips if I wanted to keep growing. My bosses were fine with me not doing that, but I knew I was coasting. My mother had always worked but was home by 5:30 p.m. I wasn't getting home until 7:30. I was drained and had nothing left to give my kids at the end of the day. There were nights I couldn't even move from the couch to say good night.
"Meanwhile, Evan was having a hard time in middle school, socially and academically. At night, he'd be in bed crying, 'I had the worst day of my life today!' We'd talk, but I was exhausted and didn't have the energy to come up with strategies for him. I decided one parent needed to be home to give our kids the foundation they need to grow into happy, productive adults.
"My husband works even longer hours than I do and loves his job, so I felt I was the one who should quit. He was worried about the money and didn't want me to leave at first. But we're learning to live on less now. My kids don't care. They're happy to have me home. My son is doing better at school.
"Am I walking away from my career forever? I don't think so. I'd like to use my skills to give back to the world. I'm also pursuing consulting work. But whatever I do, I won't work 50 hours a week, travel, or expend all my energy on it. I know a lot of women who have humongous jobs and great kids, and they love it, but it just wasn't suiting me and my life anymore."
Pamela Kruger is a Child contributing editor. Her book, A Love Like No Other: Stories From Adoptive Parents, will be published this month.
Why Aren't My Kids Impressed?
By Melissa Fay Greene
One recent morning while making breakfast, I picked up the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and found, on the front page of the Living section, a color photograph of myself taken nine years ago. The article was about one of my books having been included on a list of top 25 books by Georgia authors. I stopped in the middle of scrambling the eggs. "Look!" I cried to all, holding it up.
"Mom! That you?" barked out Fisseha, the 11-year-old we adopted from Ethiopia last year.
"Yes," I said, the paper held aloft, the better to admire my likeness.
"Mom!" he barked again. "You young then?"
While there may be those who are impressed by a parent trying to pur-sue a major career while raising seven children, the seven children probably won't be among them.
When my youngest, Helen, was 6 years old, she messed with my office answering machine; this I did not discover until the end of a week of unusual messages. "Oh!?um?is this the office of Melissa Fay Greene?" voices asked. What were they hearing? I pressed the "check" button on the machine and heard a high-pitched voice: "Allo? This is Helen. And this is my butt!" followed by a Bronx cheer.
Last year, when Helen was 8 and her sister Lily was 12, CNN scheduled me to appear on a special to discuss stories I'd written about the AIDS orphan crisis. Since my husband and I had adopted Helen from Ethiopia and our biological daughter Lily is Helen's great champion and mentor, CNN also invited both girls. Dressed up, with their hair styled, they flounced onto the set for the live interview and seated themselves like pros. Then somehow the half-hour got away from us. The cameras captured my girls poking and tickling each other and cackling as they watched themselves on the monitor. But all the questions were directed at me, and then suddenly the time was up and the producer thanked us for coming.
My daughters were furious. "You didn't even let us talk!" they accused. They stormed ahead of me all the way through the vast media complex. When we got home, they ran ahead of me, yelling, "Mommy hogged the whole thing!"
But while I don't always earn my children's respect for my professional achievements, I do win it from time to time for my domestic talents.
Seth, 21, really likes my Russian carrot pie, for example.
Lee, 17, likes my lasagna.
Jesse, 10, loves me for having beaten him the first time we arm-wrestled and for being beaten by him every time since then.
Fisseha is at his happiest when I read to him at bedtime. His childhood began on the central plains of Ethiopia; he didn't have the luxury of bedtime books, so he's delighted to cuddle close and hear a story.
Molly is at an age -- 24 -- where we can really enjoy each other's company, but she doesn't think much of my taste in music.
Lily respects me for speaking a bit of French. But I'm not allowed to kiss, hug, or touch her in public.
Helen says I am cute but that I wear my pants too high.
In the publishing world, it's almost enough for an editor to learn I have seven kids to gain a new respect for my oeuvre. A woman who has 21 children told me that if she shows up for work wearing matching shoes, people gush about how terrific she looks and what a great job she's doing. "How do you do it?" everyone asks me.
"I write when they're at school," I say.
"What happens if you have to go out of town?" they ask.
I tell them my husband, an attorney, holds my work in great esteem and helps out, although he doesn't always handle things as I would. Once, reporting a story from Eastern Europe, I managed to gain an overseas phone connection for about 12 seconds, during which Lily, then 7, wept: "I don't like volcanoes and tornadoes."
"Why are you worried about volcanoes and tornadoes?" I cried.
"We watch movies about them every night," and then the line went dead.
Still, I am lucky. I have no commute. I don't have to wear uncomfortable shoes. And I'm here nearly every day after school, waiting for the ruckus to begin. Yes, my kids are often more interested in what I've planned for dinner than the literary breakthroughs I've achieved that day. But that's as it should be. After all, excellent prose may come and go, but good, solid lasagna -- and an uproarious, loving family -- you can count on.
Melissa Fay Greene's new book, There Is No Me Without You, about Ethiopia's AIDS orphans, will be published next fall.
Taking Time Off
By Faulkner Fox
"Taking time off" sounds balanced and peaceful, and that's certainly what I looked forward to when I was pregnant with my first child. I imagined long days snuggling with my baby, all work worries temporarily put aside. But for many women -- myself included -- childbearing happens just when we're launching our careers. This timing can make peace a real challenge.
When my oldest child, Joseph, was born, I'd just started graduate school. After several years as a nonprofit director, I was making a career shift to creative writing and teaching. I was 31, newly married, and thrilled to be a mom. I was also plagued with fears about my fledgling career. Could I finish two years of graduate work with a baby? After finishing, could I start up a new -- and anything but certain -- writing career with a toddler? These anxieties were with me as I took seven months off to care for Joseph. I felt incredibly fortunate to be home with my son. If he'd been born the prior year, when I was the primary breadwinner with a 70-hour-a-week job that provided only two weeks of maternity leave, time off wouldn't have been possible.
Still, I couldn't focus solely on my son and enjoy mothering the way I'd fantasized. Joseph was a baby who seemed to need near-constant entertainment. When I had exhausted all other options I'd sometimes wheel around the house on my blue office chair, Joseph sitting squatly on my lap.
As we rolled by, I would comment on the objects that caught his eye: a pink vase, the washing machine, a poster of crazy ladies -- over and over again. This is the chair I used to concentrate in, I would think longingly. Concentration -- and my dream of a writing career -- seemed many miles away.
When my second son was born, two and a half years later, I was so afraid of reliving the isolation and anxiety I'd felt after Joseph's birth that I started a part-time teaching job six days after delivering Benjamin. By the time Ben was 6 weeks old, I was also squeezing in 15 hours of freelance writing a week -- on top of my teaching. I'd had a fairly traumatic birth too -- Ben weighed more than 10 pounds, and the delivery was 37 hours long. I got a staph infection in the hospital, then two breast infections, and then strep throat -- all before Ben was 4 months old. Still, I kept working and taking care of a toddler and an infant every minute I wasn't at work.
Looking back, I don't regret working; the time I spent teaching was actually my least stressful day of the week. But I do feel sad that it's hard for me to recall many details from Ben's infancy. I had so many balls in the air before I could get my strength back that I rarely let myself simply enjoy being with my baby. The times I remember most vividly and fondly are Monday lunches when my husband, Duncan, would bring Ben to meet me at a Thai restaurant near my office. Ben would nurse the entire hour, and I would sip slowly on a delicious (and nutritious) bowl of chicken soup. Even though I was eating, nursing, and talking to my husband at the same time, this was much less than what I was usually doing. Those restaurant lunches stand out as rare, treasured moments of calm.
Now, eight months pregnant with my third child, I'm hoping for more frequent peaceful moments when my baby (a girl!) is born. At 41, I'm established professionally: I've been teaching for seven years, and I've published a book and many articles and poems. I feel confident that my career won't end if I take time off and that I'll be able to restart it when I'm ready.
So this time I'll be teaching only one afternoon a week and will do no writing for at least four months. During those months, my older sons will be in school, and Duncan will be on paternity leave. Because my husband and I will share the early care (making isolation much less of a fear) and because this will be my last time mothering an infant, I'm eager to be at home with my baby, with few work distractions. From experience, I know that caring for an infant is difficult -- and precious and fleeting.
Yet I'm expecting to still feel torn. I love my work. And loving a newborn isn't likely to change that. What I'm hoping for this time, though, is a temporary reprieve from work anxiety and the pressure on myself to do everything at once -- so I can finally get the peace and balance that "time off" seems to suggest.
Faulkner Fox is the author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child. She lives with her family in Durham, NC.
My Homegrown Career
By Poonkulali Lee Suresh, as told to Elaine Stuart
At age 39, I'm the mother of a 10-year-old son, Sathesh, and a 6-year-old daughter, Sabrina; and I'm a successful Avon representative in Florence, SC. Until two years ago, I had never worked a day in my life. When my husband, a computer program analyst, and I moved to the United States (we're from Sri Lanka but were living in Saudi Arabia) in 1999 for his job, I was a stay-at-home mom. Then his project ended and he was suddenly unemployed. He soon found another position, but I wanted to make sure we'd never have to worry about debt again. So in July 2003, I started my Avon business from home.
Why Avon? At first I tried a 9-to-5 job, but it was too hard to manage on top of running a busy household. I realized I needed something that would fit my kids' schedules. Yet, I also wanted to interact with others. I'm a people person, but with no family in this country I'd get lonely when my kids went off to school. And most of all, I wanted a job that would help me teach my children responsibility and the importance of hard work. When I started with the company, I worked just two to three hours a week. Now, as an Avon unit leader with 47 members in my training center, I work about 35 hours a week and focus on multilevel marketing and recruiting.
My kids are very involved in my business. They come with me on deliveries and help me hand out books and products at local events and school fairs. My son counts the money we collect in a sale by separating the coins from the dollars, and it's really improved his math skills. My children have also developed an appreciation for the value of money from watching me work. They understand that it doesn't come as easily as it goes and have started saving the money they earn from doing chores. We discuss every purchase they make with the money in their piggy banks and donate to charities together.
It's a challenge to balance my career with the demands of my kids, but my husband and I are a team. We arrange our schedules so that one of us makes it to every school event, soccer game, or badminton match in the backyard. Our family time is the most important part of our lives.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the November 2005 issue of Child magazine.