Work-at-home stress? 6 tips for juggling it all.

My very non-glamorous office...covered with kid art

I started working from home as a writer in 2003, a few months before my third child was born. Over the years I’ve built a writing and blogging career, authoring several books and publishing my work in dozens of magazines – while simultaneously growing my family to total five kids. Through a lot of trial and error I’ve come to realize that some of the pat “work-life balance” advice offered just doesn’t apply to those of us who work alongside our kids. Here’s my advice – some of it rather unconventional – that I hope will help you manage the juggle:

  1. Ignore your kids
    If you have a lot of child-care help, this “rule” may not apply to you. And yes, some help – whether it’s from your spouse, friends and family, or paid caregivers – is vital. But most work-at-home parents I know patch together not-quite-enough child care, friend-kid-swaps and spouse-taking-over time to get things done…leaving them with time they’re trying to work with little ones, quite literally, underfoot. Don’t feel guilty about ignoring your kids – or, as I prefer to think of it, “giving them space” -  a little so you can get adult things done. This may include the dreaded “TV-as-babysitter” or setting your little one up with paints in the next room and hoping for the best. If you’ve got an only child who always wants you to play with her, having another baby might help. I’m only partly kidding. 

    Is it ideal? Maybe not. But life is full of trade-offs, so focus on what your kids are gaining from your work-at-home job (more financial stability? The benefit of seeing Mom pursuing a passion and succeeding at something that’s important to her?) and also, remember that kids don’t need to be “parented” and entertained every second of every day. Some “benign neglect” is actually quite good for helping them grow into self-sufficient, creative and adaptable adults.

  2. Forget balance.
    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: balance is BS, especially for work-at-home parents. When you’re trying to meet deadlines with small children around, it’s laughable to think that you can somehow neatly schedule your life into “work” “family” and “me” time. Instead, embrace the idea that sometimes your life is going to be crazed and hectic, and at other times, the pace will be slower. 

    My “rule”? Whatever your focus is at the moment, be there. When work is crazy, work hard to keep up. Those are the weeks you’ll make mac and cheese or get pizza takeout two or three nights in a row. When work is slow, enjoy your family time, blow off your email for the afternoon and take the kids to the zoo, go out to dinner with your best friend or take the opportunity to re-organize your closets. Don’t worry about creating “balance” every single day; instead, look for a sense of peace and accomplishment over the long haul.

  3. Practice taking advantage of small snippets of time.
    I often joke that the “time fairy” is not likely to show up and grant you eight hours of uninterrupted work time when you have small kids. But part of learning to work alongside kids is getting used to making every spare minute count. I actually have written lists of things I can accomplish in five minutes, ten minutes, or fifteen minutes at my desk, so that if I find myself with an extra-long nap time or a few minutes of free time before my kids get off the bus, I can use it productively instead of zoning out or spinning my wheels.
  4. Be brutally honest with yourself about time-wasters.
    I’ve talked to so many people who swear they “don’t have time” for something they really want to do, but then I watch them cranking out Facebook posts with such speed and productivity that you’d think that was their job. 

    Of course we all need downtime, and there’s nothing wrong with a little brain candy sometimes. But since most work-at-home moms have to be on the computer anyway, it’s easy to fool ourselves that we’re “working” when really, we’re spending about five minutes of every hour working and the rest, Tweeting about our socks and then engaging in long discussions about others’ socks. Some multi-tasking makes my day more interesting, and it’s always possible that I’ll stumble across an amazing business idea while reading my Facebook feed…but at some point it just becomes time wasted. If you constantly feel behind, ask yourself if you really don’t have enough time – or if you’re filling the time you do have with activities that aren’t moving you toward your goals.

  5. Let work and life blend.
    I assume you’re working at home (or aspire to) for a reason: you want to work, but you also, uh, want to be at home. Am I close? We all want to make sure our kids aren’t getting short shrift because of our work-at-home gig, but in my eight years of being self-employed, I’ve found that the advice to completely separate work and home is just unrealistic. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace the fact that my work and home lives do blend for much of the day. 

    That might mean I’m dreaming up story ideas while pushing my two-year-old around town in her stroller or checking my email from the playground bench while my five-year-old plays. It also means that I’m careful to set aside at least an hour every night of focused, “totally available” time to devote to home and family. That way, I feel like my family is getting both “quantity” and “quality” time…and I feel a lot better about the multi-tasking I sometimes must do.

  6. Do it your way.
    Okay, so I just gave you a bunch of advice, and now I’m telling you to forget it? Not quite. Reading about how other work-at-home parents manage their time and energy can be inspiring, encouraging, and also gives you lots of helpful ideas you might be able to modify for your own life. The key word is modify. We all have different circumstances, goals, and work styles that can affect everything from whether you’re the get-up-before-the-cows-and-write type or the burn-the-midnight-oil type, to whether you do best leaving the house and working in a coffee shop or holing up in your bedroom. 

    Be flexible, and realize that what works during one season of your life might not work during another. But most of all, get to know yourself: there are lots of ways to be a successful work-at-home parent, so create the life and career that works for you.

What are your biggest obstacles as a work-at-home parent – or the tips you’ve learned along the way?

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