Going to work may be the way many women make a living, but if staying home to work sounds good to you, you're not alone: About 21 percent of employed adults did some or all of their job at home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Considering becoming a work-at-home mom (WAHM) yourself? First, heed the advice of moms and experts who have learned the best ways to navigate life at the intersection of WAHM-ing and Mom-ing.
It's important to line up your day carefully, with set "office" hours. How many hours do you hope to work that day? When will you return calls? What can you accomplish while your son or daughter is coloring in the next room? You'll get more done if you work smarter, not harder, says Christine Durst, a mom of two in Woodstock, Connecticut, and cofounder of ratracerebellion.com, a site that helps people find work-at-home jobs. That said, one of the best benefits of working at home is flexibility, especially if you are your own boss. If your son or daughter is fussing during your office hours and it's a beautiful day, it's okay to push assignments aside and go to the park. You can catch up on work later when your cutie has settled down.
If you have an employer to report to, just be sure to have an agreement for how many hours per day you should log. "Some may not fall during the traditional workday," says Durst. That gives you the okay to skip out once in a while without feeling any guilt.
It's one chunk of the day when you can generally expect to be able to plug away without interruption (at least not from your child). Whether your kid sleeps for one hour or three, use this time to finish assignments that require your complete focus and concentration, says Erin O'Donnell, a mom of two and freelance writer and editor in Milwaukee, who often schedules work-related phone calls during her 20-month-old Jonas's naps. If for some reason he isn't tired, they have quiet time instead: O'Donnell puts him in his crib with books and closes the door. "I can usually get in 20 minutes of work before he grows restless," she says. If Jonas wakes up while she's on a work call and begins crying, O'Donnell has trained herself to resist hanging up and rushing right in to check on him. "It hurts a little bit to listen to him," she says. "But it won't kill me -- or him." Plus, she believes it's important for him to learn how to soothe himself.
Since naptime is when many moms are tempted to cram in everything on their to-do list -- dishwashing, playdate schedules, laundry -- try to stay focused. "If you were working outside the home, you wouldn't be concerned with anything but work," says Durst. Concentrate only on the things you can't do when your child is awake. Aside from naptime, if you're a morning person, use the wee hours to get stuff done before the rest of the family wakes up. A night owl? Burn the midnight oil.
If you don't learn to keep your roles as mom and businesswoman separate, giving each your full concentration for a set amount of time, you'll never feel like you're doing either well. To separate mentally from the rest of the house, set up a private office area, recommends Lauren Kohl, an attorney and mom of two in Newton, Massachusetts. She works out of a converted closet, a kid-free zone that helps her to detach from the rest of her house. If she can't see the dirty rompers in the hamper, she's less inclined to leave her desk to launder them, she says. Plus, it helps you disengage from your job if you have a door to close. If you don't have an office, try making a list of everything you're going to do the next day, leave it in your work space, and walk away. "You're doing something to turn work off," says Durst.
Another tactic to adopt when you're in business mode? Dress the part. Aimee Samuelson, a Portland, Oregon, mom of two, who runs a marketing business out of a converted garage, dresses as if she's going into an office when she's on the job. She knows if she works in her pj's she won't concentrate as well and might get distracted by household tasks between conference calls. Not everyone needs a suit on to feel more professional -- sometimes taking a shower and putting on makeup and a clean outfit will do the trick.
Renee Belbeck, a WAHM from Columbus, Ohio, and C.E.O. and founder of the National Association of W.O.M.E.N. (Women, Owners, Moms, Entrepreneurs, and Networkers), discovered a simple rule when her children were toddlers: "If I gave them a little quality time, I'd get two hours to work." She says the rule still holds true, even though her children are now 10 and 6.
Her other kid-centric tips: Set aside a few cool toys that your kids can play with, or arrange playdates or special movie viewings only during "Mommy's work time." If your children have something to look forward to, they'll be less likely to interrupt you. You can also try setting up an activity center in your home office so kids feel as if they have their own designated place to do projects while you catch up on e-mails. If their interest in that fails, create a "boredom bowl," suggests Durst.
If her kids ever felt like they had nothing to do, she'd tell them to choose a slip of paper from the dish. Some instructed them to build the tallest Lego tower, others told them to clean their room. When they got older, she'd include them in her work by asking them to put away files. "You need to have an open-door policy and involve them in any capacity they can handle," she says.
Every WAHM has a similar horror story: She's on an important call, her toddler wants to watch Elmo or is suddenly starving, and her boss is left listening to a whining child and Mom's apologies instead of her bright ideas. Their advice? Hit the mute button during conference calls to avoid any unexpected yells of "Mommmeee!"in the background. If your child is fussing while you're on the phone, end the call and reschedule if you can. That said, you can usually count on a more compassionate response from another parent. When she first went back to work, O'Donnell would hide that she worked from home from her clients. Now she's up-front with them, explaining that her kids might interrupt. She's found that, in general, people are understanding.
Some moms don't want to play the "parent card," admitting to clients that a finicky child is preventing them from meeting a deadline. In that case, it may be best to keep the fact that you're working from home out of the conversation completely. Give your child a nonverbal "Do not disturb" when you need quiet time. Perhaps you could wear a tiara when you're on the phone to signify that kids are not allowed to make noise or interrupt -- unless there's an emergency. If you have an office door, tie a red ribbon on it when you're not to be bothered. This tactic is best for older kids; toddlers won't understand that they can't always have your undivided attention.
You may think working at home means you can skip child care, but you'll have days when you need help -- and that's okay. When Jonas was about 6 months old, O'Donnell hired a responsible high-school student to watch him two or three hours two days a week. The teenager charged half of what an adult sitter or day care would, and it meant O'Donnell could concentrate on answering e-mails and returning phone calls.
Another way to get affordable child care: Pool your resources with several other working moms and hire one babysitter to watch all your children at the same time. Even without the sitter, you can get together with other WAHMs and let the kids play while you all work. "I found that if a child has a playdate, he or she is often amused long enough to allow you to do work that doesn't require extreme quiet," says freelance writer Melissa Dutton, of Columbus, Ohio, who also sometimes swapped child care for her two kids with another working mom a few hours a week. "I knew that she worked from home, too, so I offered to take her kid first, and it grew from there."
Your partner can also be a great source of support. When Samuelson's husband, a teacher, arrives home at 3:30 p.m., she relies on him to take over kid duty. He can ferry their two children to the park and get dinner ready, and Samuelson will emerge a few hours later feeling finished with her day's to-do list. If your partner gets home after dinner, ask him to oversee bedtime -- you'll fit in at least an hour of work before the kids yell "Mom!" And once they do, you're there for the call, with no rush hour to race through.