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This picture is exactly the opposite of what it's like to work from home with kids.

Why Being A Work-From-Home Parent Is The Worst Of Both Worlds

Working from home means none of the commute—but a double serving of guilt.

I was sitting at my computer working when I got an email that said next week is Parent’s Day at my kid’s camp. Seriously? I pay boatloads of money to this place to take my kid off my hands for four measly hours a day, and it wants me to cancel my conference call with a client so I can come watch them watch my kid? I guess I could choose not to go, but everyone knows I’m a work-at-home mom, and they all think being a work-at-home mom means I can drop everything for my kids whenever they need me. But that is not what you get to do when you are a work-at-home mom.

Every day, I hear it: You’re so lucky you get to work from home. But guess what? Being a stay-at-home mom is hard, and being a working mom is hard, but being a work-at-home mom is the suckiest choice of all. It may not be worse than the single mom who has to hold down two or three jobs and never gets to be at home with her children, but it’s worse than going to an office 9 to 5 and it’s worse than staying home with the kids all day long. I’ve done all three, and that is my conclusion.

I know how it feels to leave your kids every day and go into an office. I remember sitting at my desk and dying to see my kids in the middle of the day. I remember going back to work after maternity leave and locking myself in the breast pump room just so I could cry my eyes out where no one would see. And sure, part of it was the hormones, but most of it was a super-strong maternal desire to be with my kids, the same desire that makes me want to squeeze their cute tushies whenever I see them. It’s just there. I remember driving home from work and getting stuck in traffic, and it was pure torture thinking about the minutes that were ticking away before my kiddo’s bedtime. "No red brake lights. No red brake lights," I used to pray.

I also know what it’s like to spend every waking minute with your kids when you’re a stay-at-home mom. Trying to figure out what the hell you’re going to do with them for four hours until the stores open at 10 a.m. because they woke up at six. Playing with them in the playroom for hours and then looking at your watch and realizing it’s really only been five minutes. Walking around a parachute singing "Pop Goes the Weasel" and thinking, "Ahhh, yes, this is why I got a master’s degree." Sitting down for lunch with them and asking, "What’s your favorite color?" because that’s the kind of crap you ask when you’re trying to have a conversation with a 3-year-old. You know that saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Well, here’s another saying. Constant presence makes you want to grab the nearest cup of bleach and drink it.

So being a working mom and being a stay-at-home mom are both crazy hard. But being a work-at-home mom is hard in a whole different kind of way. It’s not about seeing your kids too much or too little. It’s about ignoring your kid—a lot—and feeling like you’re constantly failing them throughout the day.

It’s awesome that I get to pop in and see my kids sometimes during the day, but here’s what else I get to do all day long. "I can’t right now, Mommy has to work." "Go play somewhere else, Mommy has a very important deadline." "Hey kiddo, I’m sorry you want Mommy and only Mommy to play Barbies with you, but scram because Mommy has a call with Mr. Very Important Client who paid for those Barbies."

Day in, day out, I have to tell my kids to leave me the hell alone, and I constantly feel bad about it. Do they think my work is more important than they are? It’s not. But sometimes it has to be. What does it to do to them that I’m constantly shutting my office door in their face or handing them over to another woman? And sure, I get to pop out to see them sometimes when I get a break, but then they freak out when I have to go back to my office, so it’s almost better not popping out to see them in the first place. And you know what really feels terrible? When you’re sitting at your desk and you can hear them bawling downstairs because they fell and they’re calling, "I want Mommmmyyy" and you’re dying to go to them but you can’t because you’re working, so you have to trust that someone else can hug them enough or sing them the boo-boo song or figure out that they’re faking it and tell them to shake it off.

So yes, it is a perk that I get to have lunch with them sometimes. And unless I have a video conference call (damn you, Skype!), I love that I get to go to work in my comfy pajamas. And it’s a time-saver that there’s never any traffic after work on the way downstairs to the playroom. But being a work-at-home mom is wrought with all sorts of guilt.

I made this choice because I thought it’d be better for my kids, but now I wonder. Maybe it’s actually just confusing them. I pray my kids get it one day. I pray they understand that the reason I work from home is so I can see them more. Because right now when they’re younger, I worry that they’re actually thinking the opposite: Why doesn’t Mommy want to see me? Hopefully when they look back on their childhood, they’ll think about the times I came downstairs to eat lunch with them or the time I canceled a meeting so I could go to Parent’s Day at camp. Hopefully, hopefully, they’ll remember those times more than the time I couldn’t play Barbies, or had to ignore them when they were crying.

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[Photo by Hero Images Inc., Corbis]

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31 Comments

  • Kalen Reichert

    Wow! The lesson I take from this article is, "Parenthood isn't for everyone." Due to financial (and family insurance) concerns, my SO & I waited until we were 30 to have a child and after juggling (and switching) careers in an attempt to do what was best for our daughter, we decided that we could not repeat the experience and are happy raising our now 9-year-old daughter as an only child who is lucky to have 9 other cousins and 4 terrific grandparents. Without our support system, we could never have been as successful as we've been, so far.

  • Paul Naftalis

    I am a Dad and run my business from home full time and my wife showed me your article. I feel your pain as I think this is even harder for a Mom. My wife works full time, but luckily she has summer's off. Let me a tell you an idea I think we are going to try that I am hoping could help balance things. This may not fit everyone's situation, but something to consider. I run an online retail business and traditionally Friday is slow. I also have the whole weekend and Monday to process Friday orders. We are lucky to have help 5 days a week with the kids so I can work, but am considering not working at all on Friday and just being with my kids. 4 work days ON and then 3 day weekend OFF. It is not perfect by any means, but I think younger kids like the structure of it. They understand what the weekend means. It also helps to put a picture of Elsa on your door firing an ice bolt that says , Daddy is Working!"

  • Wendy Cray Kaufman

    Wow, you've summed up exactly what I've wanted to shout at everyone who has told me how lucky I am for the past year! First off, there's nothing lucky about it - I made this job happen and I'm finally at a place where I can say that out loud to people. AND, as you so perfectly described, this shizz is HARD. I'm a madwoman, a juggler, a guilt-ridden mess. I'm terrified of Skype and Facetime because I never get to shower or get dressed, I never eat, I go 2 days without a glass of water, because I can't get a schedule of any kind nailed down with toddlers here.

    They actually punch my laptop in the face.

    When I was working 60 hours a week, they all missed me and I was all they wanted. Now? Now I'm treated like a piece of crap and the thing they take the most for granted. This WAHM gig sure isn't for the faint of heart.

  • JD Bailey

    I was nodding along the whole time I was reading.

    I worry about confusing my kids, too. I worry they think I like my computer better than them. They see me at the computer in the early morning or late evening, and ask dejectedly, "Are you working again?" They don't understand that I'm tackling emails so I can focus on writing during the day, have a hard-stop at 2:30pm, and pick them up from school to spend time with them. I'm trying to get some little things done when my kids are otherwise occupied to benefit them. But if they "catch" me, the guilt starts.

    On the flip side, my husband doesn't get any guilt from the kids because he goes to an office to work, and when he's home, he's home. I look neglectful, Daddy looks fun. That's what I worry about.

  • triquetra33

    I'm a WFH mom for 6 years. I have 4 kids, 2 still home, 8yrs and 2 yrs. My SO makes good money when he works, (power plant shutdowns for maintenance) but in his field he only works 5-6 months/yr on average. So half the time he's Mr. Mom- others it's just me, since he's gone 12-14 hrs a day including weekends with every other Sunday off. No daycare, can't afford it. It's by far the hardest thing I've ever done, but I needed to have a job for my own sanity, I need some stability, in my life. Sometimes I feel like I'm failing everyone. My job doesn't pay that well, but was accommodating when I needed it and is flexible. I'm lucky I have a good boss. I know it'll get better, but sometimes I'm completely overwhelmed!

  • Julia Manfredi-Hobbs

    I work part-time at the office and part-time at home. I chose to do that because it was killing me to be away from my little girl for so many hours. It is a double edge sword. On the days that I'm at the office I CAN'T WAIT to get home and play with her, and hug her and kiss her... and then, on the days I'm working at home, I CANT WAIT for nap time! I need quite time to be able to get things done. And just like you, I am constantly "ignoring" her and feeling awfully guilty about it.

  • mbarkoot

    I work from home full-time for a major company, and I do not have my son home with me for a couple of reasons. One, they expect that we have childcare (not everyone adheres to this). Two, there is just no way I'd get anything done for work, and be able to give him the attention he needs (he is the kind of kid that demands constant attention - does not like playing by himself). So, I send him to daycare still. He learns there, he gets the attention he needs, he plays with his friends, and I don't feel guilty throughout the day that I have to tell him to go watch something on the iPad while I take my conference calls (in my guilty mommy mind = ignoring him). I do feel that tug at my heartstrings throughout the day, and it's a hit to the pocket book, but it's the right choice for us. I, too, hope one day he understands why mommy works, and why it was better for both of us for him to not be here with me.

  • What bothers me is not your choices, or the way you feel about them, but the tone. All too soon (I promise) your kids will be teens and then adults. Your work schedule and time away aren't affecting them now as much as you may think. But your approach is. If you have a positive, grateful attitude about working at home, they'll pick that up. If you're all about work ethic, it will likely rub off. But if you're negative, they'll perceive that, and may either feel guilty themselves or angry. They may not appreciate what you do now. But later, they will. If they think you were thankful for them, & for your work, they'll admire you. I worked at an office 9 to 6 when my 1st babies (twins) were young, & I felt as you did. Then I stayed home and had 2 more kids. I relate to your feelings about that, too. Now, 3 are in their 20s & the youngest is 19. Six years ago, I began working fulltime at home. For me, that worked. Kids notice your attitude about whatever you do & the sacrifices you make.

  • joni

    Nailed it. Only point I disagree with is that you might be "confusing your children". You are not. They will get it...I've done it all and have done none of it well (or so I thought). If college funds need to be substituted for therapy, so be it. After my triplets were born I never dreamed I'd take assignments far, far away. But I did. Did a "flex schedule" when they were a little older. When I was able to come home to a clean house, full of happy kids, who had been fed and freshly bathed AND truly wanted to see me it was dreamy. Now I'm working from home with a meeting or two a week outside of home. But when I'm working, I'm WORKING. Got it kids? They are 8 now...they've survived. For the naysayers that think we are missing critical parenting time re: conversations about favorite colors...some of us just aren't built that way. btw, I have a well adjusted 16 year old and he's pretty damn great! Can't wait to buy your book!!

  • Jennifer Parnell Dahl

    I just read this going YES YES YES and immediately shared it on fb. Then I saw who wrote it and realized I have been reading your Baby Sideburns blog forever (well, whatever... a while.) It was an ah-ha moment recognizing your name as the author. I love that it was my non-parent brother that sent it to me to read. How on Earth would he have a clue that you are my virtual blog buddy? (In my mind, I know.) Thanks for another great read.

  • This is an interesting story that my wife and I can relate to. We work from home and have a 1 year old.. he is teething by the way and my wife's cancer came back. We put a lot of effort into keeping a pretty good schedule so we can both get work done, plus eating, going to the bathroom and showering. We are not unknown to go a week with out a shower. Its gross. The good thing is that we can set our own schedule. Its quite a challenge - however I do not think I would trade it for an office away from home.

  • Amanda Farough

    Well, thank GOODNESS I'm not the only one banging my head against the wall with this whole working-from-home thing. I can't imagine being a work-from-the-office mama (well, even if I wasn't a parent, I'd still have a big problem with working in an office), so it's one of those rock and a hard place situations.

    I simply say no to working while the kids are awake these days. I'm glad that my clients are okay with working around my schedule, otherwise this would never work.

    Anyway. Thank you for posting this. It breaks a big silence in our community.

  • Wendy Cray Kaufman

    I agree. It wrecks our days if I try to work, so I save it for nighttime. But OMG the tired is killing me.

  • Tara Eveland

    The thing is we have all the time in our lives to pursue our career after our kids are gone and away from the house, but we only have a very short and very precious amount of years to spend talking about 'favorite colors and even less time being the only person in the world our kids want to play with.I feel very sorry for you kids that you seem to not have set 'office' and 'home' hours.Also that you do not value your children enough as PEOPLE to care about the things that matter to them in their lives right now. Yes they may not be able to have a full conversation with you, but if you don't listen to them now and really CARE about what they have to say,while it is those little things, then as they grow up they will learn quickly that you do not care to listen and will not share the 'big'things either.Instead they will likely seek out and be influenced by less than ideal role models. I see you are a NYTBSA and very driven, but I think towards the wrong goals sweetie.