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.