The Realities of Working at Home (In 1998)

It is well after midnight and I am just starting to write this article. I have attended a Valentine’s party at my son’s preschool, had two meetings at clients’ offices, lost a large contract that we had bid, played toddler street hockey, closed a deal by phone with another client on the other side of the country, cooked dinner and watched the winter Olympics as a family, attempted an internet conference, and now, in less than five hours my son will be waking up ready for a new day. Being a work-at-home dad is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.

When you work at home you are, in effect, taking on a second job. Your family, the same family you decided to stay home and raise, the family that counts on you to be there, is your number one job. Anything else is secondary. Sometimes you have to remind yourself of that. I want to give you a glimpse into what it takes to balance work and family, all under the same roof. I am an extreme case. I take care of my son full-time and run a small company full-time. The extreme nature of my situation helps to flush out the real issues. I hope my experience can help you can make an informed decision about working at home.

First, establish your goals. This is not about your business plan. This is about why you want to work at home in the first place. Do you need the money? Do you want to stay connected with your career skills? Do you feel like less of a person because you are not contributing to the family income? Economics is hard to argue with, but your self-concept has less to do with the needs of your family and more about your emotional needs.

After you decide why you want to work at home, you must decide what you gain and what you will lose. Being a work-at-home dad (WAHD) is a real juggling act, literally. I have been able to establish a pretty good routine since I only have one child. My company was young when he was young so I was able to be more flexible. Now that my company is placing more demands on my time I have to be careful to keep my self-defined priorities in place.

You lose control of time when you work at home. Every parent knows that their child has a schedule, a routine that has been developed over time. Starting a new business will initially disrupt that rhythm. Eventually you and your kids will adapt to the new routine but you have to remember that your kids are job number one. When push comes to shove, you will find yourself working late into the night and during the weekend when your spouse is home and can help with the childcare. No matter what time you go to bed after a long night, you are up when the kids get up. This is only an inconvenience when it happens occasionally, but over a long period of time, the effects are more long-lasting.

Lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns can effect your physical and mental health. The fact that you stay up late with unfinished work, or work on weekends has an impact on the time you get to spend with your spouse. Those quiet moments without the kids that are so precious once you become a parent. Then there is the loss of personal time. Face it, we don’t get very much personal time as it is. When you work at home, your personal time is the first thing to go.

You hope to gain monetary reward for your efforts to work at home. This would seem obvious, but for those who are considering starting their own business, the money is not always there in the beginning. I am not going to go into the detail of what to expect when starting a business. There are others with far more experience in that field. I will encourage you to evaluate your realistic expectations of what income you will receive based on the effort you will have to invest as a WAHD.

There is a definite feeling of being productive when you start generating income from the home, but don’t let this cloud the fact that this is more of an emotional issue. As a SAHD, you are doing one of the most important jobs you can ever do. It is our society that defines a person’s value based on monetary gain. That said, it still feels good. So, I’m weak. Another benefit that working imparts is contact with adults who are not talking about children or running to wipe a nose. Adult conversation seems like such a simple thing, but you don’t miss it until you are without it.

Your children lose having 100% of your attention. You can work out a solution, however, especially if your kids still take naps or are old enough to entertain themselves for prolonged periods. This is where establishing a routine will help. My son takes a three hour nap in the afternoon. (Yes, I realize how lucky I am!) This is time I can spend working or talking with clients on the phone. During nap time, my work has little impact on time with my son. When he wakes from his nap, I make a point to quit work and make the next four hours family time. He and I play until we start dinner. Mommy comes home, they play, we eat, they play a little more, she bathes him, we watch a little TV, then at 8:00, she takes him up for the bedtime routine. Then I go back to work until about midnight. For me, I found a workable balance with naps and scheduling. I wonder if this would have worked so well with another, younger child or if my son did not take such grand naps. My routine may sound hectic but, to me, it would be far worse to work outside of the home and never get to see my child until just before bedtime.

Besides the absolute fact that they always have a full-time parent at home, your children get to see their daddy do a job, other than the job of being daddy. I feel very good about my son growing up in what is essentially a cottage industry. Modern communications technology and computers have afforded my business partner and me the opportunity to return to the home to raise our children and still work. There are other businesses that don’t require the same technology, but I find it certainly helps.

The key to success as a WAHD is a routine. There is not much you can count on with children other than their love. They do adapt well to and generally enjoy a steady routine. The younger the child, the easier to build a routine around both work and family. I have found that the routine actually finds itself. If you relax and don’t force it, you will see a pattern of events that you can work your business around. My son’s nap schedule is a good example of this. Your routine should be adaptable. For example, if you know that your kids go ballistic when you get on the phone, don’t answer the phone when they are an active part of your moment. Use an answering machine or voicemail. I got a bit more creative and have my voicemail dial my pager so I will know if someone left a message. I found this particularly convenient when it was diaper time. The moment you pull the diaper off, the business line WILL ring.

I found that a routine was easy to establish and maintain my child. I imagine it requires more patience and creativity with multiple children. (In my case, another birth right now and I would have to back out of my business responsibilities.) My son was small when my business was small. They have both grown at the same pace and after three years, my increased time on the phone is not an issue with my son because he can spend some time alone playing. Another thing I did to help my particular situation was to include work space in family space. I did not make my office a separate room in the house. I purchased a professional style cubical and placed it in one side of the family room. That is where my son spends his inside time. The desk is against a wall of windows that overlook our fenced back yard. I have structured the back yard so that is has always been as child friendly as possible and there is no way for him to get out. So, inside or out, I can keep an eye on him even if I am working at my desk or on a call.

I have two routines, one for the two preschool days and the other for the two non-preschool days. My wife is home on Fridays, so I am off home daddy duty that day. Preschool is nothing more than a four-hour Parent’s Day Out program offered by a local Methodist church. (It used to be call Mom’s Day Out; they changed it to Parent’s Day Out the next year without prompting. Times, they are a-changin’.)

My wife leaves for work at 7:30 AM. I drag out of bed a mere 15-20 minutes before she leaves so I can get a shower and an update on anything my son may have eaten for breakfast. If it is a school day, we are out of the house by 8:30 and I pick him up at 12:45. I use those four hours for meetings with clients, business errands, and networking. We get home from school and he goes down for his nap around 1:30. For the next three hours, I can work on the computer, make or return business calls from when I was out. If you notice that gives me about seven hours of work time. That is a routine, time I can count on. When my son wakes up around 4:30, the family time kicks in. When his mommy takes him up to bed, I am back “on the clock” until about midnight. (Notice my wife and I have very little time to communicate with each other)

On the non-preschool days, my mornings are a mixture of being with my son and taking phone calls. Sometimes he goes with me to the office supply store or the post office. One day a week I meet with a mommy friend and her son at the local fast-food ball pit. The boys get some time together and I get a little non-work adult talk. I have never been able to hook up with another SAHD in my area, so I have connected with a few mommies in the neighborhood. The kids are the common ground and we have built some very strong relationships. Once again, I feel very fortunate. After lunch and the ball pit, it is off for that wonderful nap again. Beginning with the nap the rest of the day’s routine is the same.

This all works out very well and look great on paper, but real life is never so perfect. Many times I have a deadline that forces me to work longer hours. The only hours available are those like right now– after midnight. It does not matter what time you go to bed, your child still wakes up at the same time. So working at home has had a serious impact on my sleep schedule. And as I inferred earlier, I don’t get to spend much time with my wife, either. She is in bed much earlier than I, since I stay up working. Even during waking hours, we barely get to have a moment alone to simply talk. Many times conversations wait until the weekends. In our case, we have been married over 15 years and have a very good ability to communicate with one another. It is not always fun, but we are happy to make the sacrifice for a cause that is so important to both of us: Someone home with our son.

When your work and your family are under the same roof, you have to make a concerted effort to separate work from the home, even though both are in your house. If you can’t separate, you will never leave work. For your own sanity and the sanity of those around you, it is nice to establish some boundaries. Some ways to help you with this are to set up a special place to work, a separate room or office location in your house. I would recommend a separate phone line so you don’t have to take business calls after hours. You can also set up certain days or times for working, very much a part of establishing a routine.

Another issue is zoning. You may want to discreetly check to see if what you are planning to do and how you are planning to do it is in conflict with your area zoning regulations. Many times you can operate a home office anywhere, as long as you don’t have a line of clients visiting your house or hang a sign out front. It is best to check, especially before you invest any money.

Networking can be difficult for the WAHD. I found that my son in a stroller was a real door opener. Receptionists are happy when I walk in, are enamored with the idea that I say at home, and allow me to march in to see the person I want to see, even though they might have filtered me out had I not had a “cute baby” with me. One time while standing in line at a local convenience store I struck up a casual conversation, I said I was a SAHD and had my own company. That always leads to the inevitable… “Your own company! What do you do?” What a great time to yank out a business card. And they even asked for it. Being a WAHD is still a new concept for many, it is a great topic to work into conversations. You never know where those conversations may lead!

Before you dive into the role of working at home, you need to evaluate why you want to do it. You need to discuss your ideas with your family because the decision will impact them as much as it impacts you, since you are there for them. Evaluate your family and whether the business you want to do will be a good fit for your family’s situation. If you are considering working at home and taking care of the family/house at the same time, remember these two things: 1) It is like working two full-time jobs for 1/2 the money; and, 2) There are only 24 hours in a day, whether that is enough or not. Good night.

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