Around the Clock: The joy and pain of being a work-at-home parent.Steve Almond
If I had a nickel for every time someone told me how lucky my wife and I are that we “get” to work at home as parents, we wouldn’t have to work at all. No, we could just sit around doing blow and paying one of the Bush twins – the undrunk one – to watch our ten-month-old.
But here’s the thing about working at home as a parent: you try it, buster. Seriously. You try focusing on the next sentence when your daughter is sobbing down the hall. You try talking to your editor while the kid rakes your cheek with her (surprisingly sharp) fingernails because you won’t let her chew on the phone. You try hitting your deadlines between naptimes.
I’m not suggesting parents who work outside the home have it easy. Battling rush hour, hiring babysitters, pumping breast milk at your desk – all major hassles. But at least you office folk have the consolation of being able to partition your work life from your parenting life. As my pal Jane over at Baby Squared has confessed, she actually enjoyed returning to work after her maternity leave. In the office, she writes ad copy and helps pay the bills. When she gets home, she moms. There are clear, recognized boundaries.
My wife and I live, by contrast, in a blurry world, one I suspect is becoming increasingly common. The basic equation being: digital technology + rising commuting costs + corporate savings = lots and lots more home offices. Factor in the absence of traditional extended family supports and soaring daycare costs, and you get, well, us.
Each morning, I head upstairs to write, all dozen steps. But it’s not like I can’t hear the baby down below, making all her burbles of joy, her shrieks of discovery and anguish. She’s my kid. I’m curious about what she’s up to. I miss her. So I wander downstairs a few times each morning and now that she’s a little older, she recognizes the thumping and gets all psyched and crawls to the baby gate and shakes on the bars like the town drunk. This means I have to pick her up. And once I’ve picked her up, we need to do at least a couple of laps around the living room before I can put her down without her clinging to my chest hair. This is not counting those occasions when I’m lured downstairs by my wife’s hysterical laughter, or a loud expletive. But even if I could control my impulse to visit with my daughter (which I can’t), there are mornings – such as this very morning – when my wife needs to do an errand, and asks me to look after Josephine. What am I supposed to say to that? “The baby will have to look after herself, hon. I’m hard at work on The Great American Novel.”
As for earplugs or headphones, I refuse to wear them. I’m not going to be AWOL while my wife’s screaming for help because Josephine just bonked her head on the radiator grate. The bottom line is that babies – first babies especially – are powerful creatures. They drink your attention like blood. They will not, in the words of Glenn Close, be ignored.
The times I really miss working in an office, though, are at night, when I should be focused on my wife and daughter, but wind up with my computer on my lap, trying to squeeze out a bit more work product on the family dime. My wife sometimes jokes, not so funnily, that she expects to find me spooning my computer before long. In fact, I’m simply trying to keep up with the many deadlines involved when you’re trying to earn enough money to (for instance) insure your daughter’s health.
Which brings me to all those office-dwelling folk who impose the deadlines, and who have about as much empathy for new parents as, say, Genghis Khan. A few weeks ago, for instance, an assigning editor emailed me an urgent request to talk. She couldn’t get through on our landline, because we had unplugged it so the baby could nap. I emailed her my cellphone number, with the request that she call in two hours, or email me her concerns. Instead, she called my cell immediately – and woke the baby.
At which point I wanted to scream: “What part of I’ve got a sleeping baby in my house who will raise hell on earth if woken from her nap did you not understand?” But of course I knew the answer. It’s the part about the baby sleeping inWhat part of I’ve got a sleeping baby in my house who will raise hell on earth if woken from her nap did you not understand? my house. Because this woman, like so many young, ambitious types, doesn’t have children. She can’t imagine a household that does, let alone a household where one might work.
And she’s not alone. I am continually dealing with men and women who can’t seem to fathom why I’m so uptight about pinning down when I’ll get an edited manuscript back, or a travel itinerary. They don’t get that jerking around my schedule is actually jerking around my wife and kid – no matter how many times I politely try to explain this.
The crazy part is, I’m embarrassed to bring this stuff up, like I’m somehow “letting my personal life” interfere with work. I was recently made to feel guilty because I refused to take a day away from my family to schmooze at some cocktail party for an hour. I felt like Dustin Hoffman toward the end of Kramer vs. Kramer, when he can’t work late at the office and do the dumb parties because he’s a dad, and his asshole boss cans him.
Some of this probably has to do with gender. If I were a mom working at home, I suspect folks would view me as the primary parent, which would come with its own sexist baggage, but at least some basic recognition. And, in fairness, some of this has to do with being a freelance writer, a field in which you’re constantly being made to feel like you should be grateful for every scrap of money or attention you receive. (And if you make any trouble, there are twelve replacements waiting in the wings.)
But a lot of this just boils down to corporate culture, which has the same tolerance for parenting as sulfuric acid does for skin. The basic attitude is that a worker’s first and last loyalty is to the shareholders. It’s nothing personal, just a matter of efficiency.
The big fat irony here is that people who work in offices are – in my experience –As my wife said to me the other day, rather wistfully, “Remember when I worked in an office? I had so much free time.” about the least efficient on earth. As my wife said to me the other day, rather wistfully, “Remember when I worked in an office? I had so much free time.”
The bigger the office, the more time gets sucked into bureaucratic wrangling, neurotic miscommunication, and good old proletarian bullshitting. You all know what I’m talking about: the office pool, the wheel-spinning meetings, the CYA memos, the dozens of emails sent and received to facilitate a single (pointless) two-minute conference call. As a parent working at home, I don’t have time for such shenanigans.
The only consolation I take in all this is that one day some of these office dwellers really will have kids and try to work at home, at which point they will realize what assholes they were. Some consolation.
In brighter moments, I fantasize about a world in which a brilliant and enlightened CEO – a mom, most likely – assigns all her mid-level managers a baby for a week. In fact, she makes her child-free employees take the baby home and work from there. Granted, a few babies might need to be rescued. But at least the larger work force would develop some sense of what work-at-home parents face. And I can’t help but feeling that their productivity would go way up the following week.