Last year, I quit my day job to work from home, for myself, full time. By doing so, I joined a growing crowd: From 1995 to 2015, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, the percentage of U.S. workers who say they have telecommuted for work has grown from 9% to 37%.
This was a nice setup for my husband and me: Our small children are in daycare and preschool, and we both work at home, which meant an improvement when it came to work-life balance. Or did it?
Nothing comes easy when it comes to either work or parenthood, even when both parents are freed from the constraints of commuting to an office and the children are in school or receiving other external care. As telecommuting becomes even more popular, here are some unexpected challenges to consider if you're thinking of making the switch.
Jenny Miller and her wife Katelyn operate The Body Electric Yoga Company from their Florida home. Katelyn’s office is in the second bedroom (which is also their baby’s room), while Miller works at a card table in the living room. "It is so small that I do not have room for a pad of paper next to my laptop," Jenny Miller says. "Our house is really Grand Central Station," she says, with clients, Katelyn, and the couple’s son (who is watched by a sitter 25 hours a week) frequently demanding attention. It can be a happy chaos, but Miller’s frustration is mounting. "I'm always sitting here at home, with the baby, and the mess, and all of the work."
"Designated space for anyone who works from home is important," says Laura Vanderkam, work-life balance expert (and Fast Company contributor). "Part of it is about taking your own work seriously." That’s why some parents end up seeking someplace else to work, even when they could work from home. Deborah Skydell runs The Singing Classroom with her husband Gregg—or they try to, anyway, when their young daughter is home. "He can get some work done in the apartment if we stay here, but we’re definitely a major distraction," she says. "As a result, Gregg recently rented a desk at Co Lab to try to increase his productivity."
Even when the kids aren’t at home, splitting up the home office might be a good bet for certain couples who are aware of their space and sound needs. Washington, D.C., attorney Ashley Alley and her husband are both able to work from home while their daughter is in preschool, but do so on alternate days. "We get along better when we have some time apart during the day," Alley says.
I typically work in the kitchen at my house while my husband spends his time in his office or offsite. We rarely eat lunch at the same time, and if we do, we read or watch part of a TV show. It’s not terribly collegial, let alone romantic. Some other WFH couples are better at grabbing a few minutes together during the day—as long as it syncs up nicely. Austin writer Kristin Vanderhey Shaw and her small-business owner husband sound like they have a real Jim and Pam thing going. "I run into him in the kitchen sometimes, where he might be refilling his water while I'm making lunch." The two recently finished running errands at the same time and decided to go for an impromptu lunch, "which was a great time to catch up."
Garry and Suzanne Shumaker run a design firm out of their Evanston, Illinois, home while their son is in school and their daughter is with a nanny. "We take advantage when we can to go out to lunch," Garry says. Otherwise, he says, "I’d literally never leave." Vanderkam sees even more possibilities when it comes to ways working parents can connect during the day. "You could go for a workout together during a break. I’ve even heard of people taking rather ‘fun breaks’ together during the day when the kids are older and in school," she says. (Yes, she’s talking about sex.)
If there is one good thing about working outside the home, it’s that you are not at home making a mess. "Every day is like this futile struggle against entropy. We'll get the place decent, and within hours it's right back to squalor," laments Miller.
None of the couples I spoke with seem to have this figured out, but all seemed to take responsibility for certain tasks—you do all the laundry, she does all the dishes, and so on. Having organic guidelines also seems to help create structure: The Shumakers’ basement is their primary workspace, and so, Suzanne says, "Downstairs is nine to five. The laundry machines don’t run during work hours."
Vanderkam suggests that work-from-home couples not make any assumptions about who will do what. "I think you also want to be very explicit about what is expected of each, and knowing that things might not get done during the day. If somebody’s got a bunch of calls, they may not get the breakfast dishes done." (Perhaps generally lowering one’s expectations in general is good advice.)
Sick children (and non-school days) create high-stress situations that push lots of buttons at once: kids’ health, stir craziness, and what usually breaks down to a discussion of which spouse’s time is worth more.
Again, Vanderkam advises explicit conversations between parents, instead of assumptions. "You take the morning, I take the afternoon. If we both have a lot of conference calls to be on, can the kid watch TV?’"
More typically, though, in unexpected scenarios, the parenting falls to one person over another. "With many couples, one parent winds up doing a lot of the primary parenting," says Vanderkam. "If that’s agreed upon, that’s great, but there’s often the assumption that mom should do it."
Most of the heterosexual couples I spoke with copped to emergency child care falling on the female partner. "If our daughter is sick, I simply don’t work. If I miss a lot of work, I have to reassess what I had planned to do that month," says Skydell. Similarly, if one of the Shumakers’ kids is home, Suzanne takes over. "I don’t get calls from clients, but I do light correspondence. My billable hours slow down."
Regardless of who is doing what and why, both parents need to cut their expectations back when child care falls through. "Not having clear boundaries between work time and family time can cause these two aspects of people’s lives to collide," says Leah Hibel, who studies stress levels in working parents at UC Davis. "The time and energy to manage and attend to one impacts your ability to manage and attend to the other."
It’s hard to imagine there’s anything good about fighting traffic or standing in the cold waiting for the bus, but for working parents, there may be. "While I think that a commute is typically talked about as stressful, or a waste of time, it might actually serve as a physical buffer between work and family," says Hibel. "The physical separation might allow people the time and space to replenish and recuperate, before diving into what is next."
Some WFH parents are good at ending the day, like writer Kera Bolonik and her attorney wife Meredith. "We have a hard stop when we pick [our son] up or he comes home with the babysitter. We go right into mom mode the moment we lay eyes on him." Others, however, have a harder time going from work to family, quickly. "It can be really hard to stop working, especially if I’m really in a groove," says Skydell. "I might be right in the middle of a critical spot, but I have to stop. It can take a few minutes for me to stop thinking about what I was doing and focus on mom stuff."
Just the way many people have a work-their-way-into-work routine (maybe a cup of coffee and some Twitter), having a transition-out period might be helpful as well. "When things are more in control, I stop work with enough time to read a magazine article for 10 minutes and then go into mommy mode," says Vanderkam, a work-at-home mom herself. More realistically, though, "I’m often working right up to the last minute when my nanny needs to leave."
For small business owners especially, it can be hard to stop work, because who knows if this month’s feast is next month’s famine. "When [our son] goes to bed, we’re trying to read, or do some chill yoga, but too often we open a bottle of wine and sit down at our computers," says Miller.
Sometimes it is simply not feasible to stop the workday at 5 p.m., but there are ways to at least incorporate the easiest or most pleasurable parts of the workday into the actual day. The Shumakers save certain tasks for after their children go to bed, and find relaxation in that work. "I find designing soothing, so I save that for evenings," says Suzanne. "I’ll have headphones on, half-listening to a movie, and kind of get into a groove," says Garry.
So far, our experiment in working from home has been mostly a success. I love being with my sons more each day, I don’t miss driving to the office, and I appreciate that my husband knows exactly what it’s like to be in the weird space where your home, work, and family are all under one roof, and understands its particular stresses. Having a good relationship (and the number for a good babysitter and maybe housekeeper) is key to pulling it all off.
"We've been together for 15 years, shared an office on and off for four years, so we know how to work our stuff out," says Bolonik. "I'm lucky to have married a very reasonable person."