The Joy of Multi-Tasking
Working from home can sound like a dream to people who commute to an office everyday. Talk to most people about it and one of the first things they’ll mention is “working in your pajamas.” The young professional crowd loves the idea of not being tied to a cubicle with a boss huffing down your collar (who does, anyway?). And it sounds especially appealing to women who, like me, are also moms: “I could get so much done!” they say.
They also say:
- “Do you run laundry in the background while you’re doing things?”
- “You probably have cut out a lot of your eating expenses since you eat at home all the time.”
- “You probably get to spend more time with your kids.”
- “The boys probably know to stay quiet while you’re working.”
- “It must be great to not have to take a day off work if one of them gets sick, right?”
- “You get to be a mom and have a career at the same time!”
All of these things are true, more or less, except the image in your mind is probably a little neater and better organized than the reality around my house.
Children Aren’t Puppies
Yes, I do manage to run laundry while I’m working. Except sometimes I have to run the same load twice because I forgot I left it in the washer and now it reeks of stale wetness.
My eating expenses have either remained the same or increased (in avoidance of reality, I refuse to do the math). Because I’m working from home I have to leave the house at some point or I will positively go mad. This often means going to a restaurant in town where my kids will actually eat the food and I can grab a margarita.
My boys are ages 6 and 8, both rambunctious, loud and can’t seem to play enough Minecraft. I have often said they’re very similar to big puppies—adorable, clumsy, and completely time consuming. While working from home can be very comfortable in many ways working from an office isn’t, it also creates a scenario where both my home life and my work life are no longer clearly defined. My puppy-like children are, for better or worse, my new co-workers.
However, unlike puppies, they won’t stop talking about Pokemon and superheroes, regardless of whether I’m in a meeting or not. They also require cuddles and time-consuming trips to the doctor when they’re sick. Most importantly, I’m always ‘mom’ to them—yes, I get to have a career and be a mom at the same time and it.is.exhausting. I’m always “on call.”
Being a Working Mom is Different
I know men work from home as well, but this is not about them.Yes, I’m a single mom but I don’t struggle the way a lot of other single moms do, and for that I’m grateful. I live in a great neighborhood and have supportive neighbors. I have a job that I love and work at a forward-thinking company with a bunch of really smart and funny people. My kids and I even get to go on trips and we splurge at Target occasionally. I can afford acceptable childcare and there are always meals on the table (even if it’s breakfast for dinner for the third time in a row).
I’m trying to fit my work structure into the norm, which was built for men by men. Whether women work in an office or from home, their life circumstances have little room in the modern workplace.
However, the children are my full responsibility during the week. I don’t have the luxury of a stay-at-home partner to wrangle the kids to go to different activities or keep them entertained and off screens while I’m in a meeting or trying to focus. None of my family lives in the United States. I don’t make nanny-money either (I don’t think I personally know anyone who does). Housework is my own to take care of (or neglect, whatever), save for every other Friday when I have a cleaning service come in and scrubbing out any traces of my family’s existence from the kitchen counters and Pergo floors. Yet I’m trying to fit my work structure into the norm, which was built for men by men. Whether women work in an office or from home, their life circumstances (biological or otherwise) have little room in the modern workplace as we currently know it and many of us fail to acknowledge it.
A friend recently told me “you make it look easy.” I was immediately flattered. What else does a modern, millennial-aged, single mom want to hear? (I mean besides “you don’t look a day over 28.”) I took it as a compliment because it meant that in her eyes, I have it all. I work, I exercise, I maintain a household, I have an active social life, I travel—damnit, I’m the queen of the world!
So why do I constantly feel like I’m not cutting it? What hope is there for my career when even Sheryl Sandberg says she struggles with this?
Why Make It Look Easy?
The truth is, it’s not easy. I’m accomplishing a lot, but even I don’t know how! I guess it’s cool that I can look graceful while spinning 10 plates, but what’s the point?
It’s important for working mothers to speak up, and frequently, about the challenges we face. Not in expectation of pity or allowances, but for acknowledgement without judgment. In fact, I think it’s a disservice to those who aren’t in the same scenario. We’re shielding you from gaining a better understanding of how capable and dedicated we can be and how much we can accomplish.
I put in a lot of energy and thought into erasing my boys’ presence while I’m working. I put even more energy into erasing the guilt I feel for doing that.
The bottom line is a lot of working mothers end up putting too much energy into trying to separate our home life from our work life and it seems like it’s all for naught. We spend so much time shushing children while we’re working because we feel like they’ll be a nuisance to our co-workers. Much like the parents who have to bring goodie bags on planes to appease strangers for their children’s terrible plane ride, we put in a lot of energy and thought into erasing our kids’ presence while we’re working. We put even more energy into erasing the guilt we feel for doing that. It would be a heck of a lot easier to just roll with it.
In my case, kids will (often) burst into my office while I’m on a call and my coworkers will see them crying in the background. We might hear them arguing while my door is closed and you and I are trying to talk. I know, it’s not ideal. But it’s not the end of the world either. It is no different than sharing an office building with noisy upstairs neighbors or dealing with a loud co-worker who low-key listens to music in the cubicle next to you. Shrug it off, it’s not a big deal. The strict lines some people draw between family and work are becoming blurrier and blurrier as new work configurations become more common. The idea of a traditional office setting seems more archaic each year. It makes sense that this tension between home life and work life would arise but we can eliminate some of it by recognizing that the same standards of an office don’t apply to working remotely.
We’re here, overhead and all, so how do we get things done without making it harder on each other?
We’re here, so how do we get things done without making it harder on each other?
Well, for one, let’s admit that we’re not all equal in the workplace. It takes a lot more effort for a working parent (and a single one at that) to accomplish the things that a childless person can. When you’re clocking out, we’re reporting for our second or third shift. But we don’t complain; we don’t want to sound like we’re whining. After all, children were our choice. If we can’t handle the job then we should pick a different line of work, right? Wrong. That kind of thinking is flawed and sexist. A mother’s choice to work and pursue a career benefits all of us. We don’t live in a perfect bubble where everyone’s life somehow complements our own.
I worry that us working parents (especially mothers) are stripping ourselves of some of our humanity by acting like we have it all under control, because most often we barely do. It’s also a disservice to any other working mothers trying to make things happen for their families who wonder why it’s easier for someone else and not them. It’s not easy, period.
So, to those of you who work from home with kids around and also have a partner that helps wrangle them, thank that person profusely. Thank them for allowing you to devote the majority of your mental energy to the thing in front of you versus everything else happening around you.
To those of you who are trying to do it all—especially women—ask yourselves: what does “all” encompass and who does it favor? What would dropping some of those things look like and would it be that bad? Also, cut yourself some slack. We deal with enough existential guilt and dilemmas while trying to be the perfect everything to everyone. You shouldn’t have to choose between work or kids getting the best of you.
To those who are in neither one of these situations, I hope this gives you a glimpse into another version of a different working-from-home scenario. At some point, a co-worker’s children will end up walking into the office while we are in a conference. The good thing is you’ll only have to “deal with it” for 20 minutes before continuing about your day. Apologies in advance? We’ll apologize for the interruption, the way one would for a faulty Internet connection, but we should stop at that. We don’t need to apologize for being a working parent. And others shouldn’t expect an apology for that either.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go eat some leftover mac and cheese and start another episode of Justice League before my next meeting.