The Work-at-Home Covenant

Working mom

Working mom (Photo credit: rankun76)

I’ve been working on an article about the balance between being home with kids and trying to work at the same time. I think this is something that needs to be addressed for frustrated moms out there (like yours truly) who sometimes feel helplessly at sea. But it seems like the articles already out there fall into one of two categories: advice from people who clearly don’t have kids (or are empty nesters and have forgotten) or are written by frustrated moms who just need a friendly reader to commiserate.

Yet there are successful work-at-home moms who make it look so easy. I’m sure it’s not rainbows and unicorns for them all the time, but they’ve turned their time at home and considerable talents into profitable careers. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while she was out of work and a single mom. Madeleine L’Engle stayed at home and wrote, even during a decade-long drought, in which she worried she would never be published again.

So while I’ve wrestled with my own situation (which is more often work-on-the-go than from home), I’ve tried to piece together what I do that works and what doesn’t, aspiring to be as successful as one of these greats. And it was actually my son who made me realize what the most important aspect is. It was a truth that’s glared at me for months, but sometimes it takes the brutal, innocent honesty of a child to bring it home.

Granted, it was a rough week for us. My husband was gone for five days, something that only happens a couple times a year, if that. I really admire single moms, military wives, and other women whose spouses travel frequently. We made it, but it wasn’t pretty. I cook most of our meals from scratch, and Thomas often takes the boys outside to play while I cook. Or he helps me in the kitchen. On my own, my kids ate a lot of chicken nuggets, I’m afraid, and I rarely got to eat before they were done. Chores went unfinished, and my temper got shorter and shorter: there just wasn’t time for me to do what I needed and sleep and play with my kids. And we’re talking bare minimum here. Forget reading a book or doing anything fun for me.

One night, after getting the little guy down, I sat at the table with my laptop, writing an article. And my elder son came to me and asked for something. I am ashamed to say I don’t remember what it was – I was barely paying attention then, immersed as I was in my work. What did catch my attention, though, was what he said next: “Mom, sometimes you’re not very fun. You don’t spend enough time with us.” I stand condemned.

No matter how many hours my husband works, he gives our kids one-on-one (or one-on-two) time when we’re together. The boys eat it up. They crave time with their daddy and miss him when he’s gone. The way things have been going, I wonder if the boys feel the same way about me. Something has to change. I don’t want to look back over my mothering years and realize I missed a number of small, meaningful moments while I wrote another article.

Last week was an exception, but it’s no excuse. I’ve had too many days recently in which I allowed myself to become a passenger in my own life – a passenger who barely even looked out at the scenery. And it’s my life. If I am imprisoned by my choice of lifestyle, I can only blame myself because I am the warden and hold the keys.

Because freelancing is so open – so “free” – it’s easy to get swept away in the current of work and never stop. And since there are no paid vacation days, no sick leave, and I don’t make a salary while I apply for jobs that may or may not come to fruition, I sometimes feel an almost self-denying need to write while everyone else takes time off. The idea that I could squeeze in full workdays every weekend was seductive. With no need to rush out the door for school and with most of my other chores finished during the week, I could just sit around and write all day – and let Thomas deal with the kids. First of all, that’s not fair to him, and it makes me unavailable to all three of them. Second, I ended every weekend looking back on everything I didn’t get done and feeling like I’d let everyone down. I’ve heard freelancers say to set a schedule, and the longer I’ve been at it, the more I agree. It doesn’t have to be nine to five (and in my case, it’s not going to be), but I do need some parameters. At some point, I need to say, This is my family’s time; writing can come later.

I have preached about this before – to others as well as myself. But for me, walking the talk is more than just saying, “I need to.” My almost immediate mental turn-around – the decision to not let my writing interfere with my family – was akin to other life choices I’ve made. These are things I’ve decided to do, no matter the cost, like nursing my babies for at least twelve months, getting up early to exercise on weekdays, and cutting wheat out of my diet. This was more than a simple decision but what I think of as a covenant with myself. I write because I love it, which means it should feed me, not starve me. The only way I can keep on writing is to protect myself and my family from freelancer’s burn out.

I implemented the plan this week. I wrote during the day, cutting myself off at supper time. I still checked e-mail, and if necessary, I wrote after the kids went to bed. But one of the reasons I’ve been so irritated lately is that, along with having little family time, I’ve had absolutely no me time, no time to recuperate. So I’ve made sure to only write sparingly at night, allowing myself a little time to read for the fun of it.

When I received three assignments with a tight deadline on Thursday, I met my first challenge. I either had to write them all on Friday, or I would break my promise and work through the weekend. So I stayed up a little later, finished the assignments, and when I woke up this morning, instead of heading straight to the laptop, I went into my younger son’s room and helped him build a train track.

This little bit of structure – of making myself accountable – has helped me be more productive than ever, believe it or not, and extra conscious of my family’s needs. Work-at-home moms have to decide what’s most important and tailor their lives to their particular covenants. That doesn’t mean there won’t be rough days or emergency writing assignments, but there will be something to answer to. All the other bits of practical advice I’m saving for my article are secondary to this. If we work-at-home moms can’t define the purpose of staying home – and I certainly hope it has something to do with spending more time with our families – why did we choose to be at home to begin with?