Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Working from home

Yesterday I dropped Frederique off at creche. I walked through the backstreets of Fitzroy in the early morning sun and into East Melbourne to spend a day reading manuscripts in The Office and I felt like a proper grown up working mother. It was quite a nice feeling. I have actually always been a working mother, doing freelance editing and writing novels. But somehow when you work from home it doesn't feel the same - it's hard to make any real distinction between the working part and the mother part. I know it's the dream for many parents, especially with new babies - a reasonable paying gig from home that fits in around naps and keeps a finger in the career pie. But in practice it doesn't quite work like that.

In the simplest terms: when you're with the kids you feel guilty about not working; when you're working you feel guilty about not being with the children. And if you have a cup of tea or call a friend you feel guilty about everything. Then there's the business calls where you're simulataneously chasing your nude, pooing, crying toilet-untraining two year old around the lounge room (yes that really happened). And they say, 'should I ring back at a better time?' and you're dangerously close to tears because there IS no better time. Yep. The dream.

So here is my contribution to the work from home dilemma if anyone is going through it at the moment. This is how we've managed it and I've retained a small part of my sanity. I totally get that working and homelife is a struggle for everyone and there are lots of problems associated with working in an office, so it's not a boohoo my life is hard thing, because this is the choice I made and I do feel lucky to have the life I have. But this is what I have to say on the matter:

1. I don't care about housework. In my dreamlife I live in a lovely house that's always clean with shiny surfaces and all the crumbly messy bits are artfully messy, filled with interesting found objects. In reality, my house is messy most of the time and I have this special blind patch that allows me to live with it.

2. I do care about housework really. Because when you have kids they spend a lot of time lying around on the floor and messing stuff up, so someone needs to do it. So you need a really helpful partner who will do at least 50% of the housework, a mother who will visit once a week and mop your floors, or you need a cleaner. Or at a pinch you need to be okay with doing housework early in the morning or late at night (but wouldn't this drive anyone insane? Still, I hear there are some stay at home parents who are okay with this, bless their pearly white, beautifully laundered cotton socks.)

3. You need childcare. Whether it's your partner, your mother, a neighbour, you need regular reliable childcare. Six month olds who sleep six hours a day and spend the rest of the time gurgling delightfully at the ceiling turn into 2 year old wrecking balls. There is no exception to this. Few two year olds will spend more than 10 minutes at a time engaged in an activity. They need to roam from one thing to another and most activities require some input from you (setting up, packing away, supervising etc). Regular is important, you need to be able to rely on it and plan around it.

4. Your children will watch television. They probably won't dine exclusively on homemade organic branseed muffins. Every other mother I've ever met seems ninety times more organised than me. I have to remind myself that I effectively hold down two jobs plus parenting Frederique and Una, plus doing my Masters part time in order to have some kind of life outside the home and develop myself professionally, and I was one of those people who lost their locker key on the first day of school every year (after I locked all my text books and stationery in my locker - I got through high school with pens and paper torn out of other people's notebooks). I try not to be all superperfectionist about food and tv and stuff, my kids eat well but it's not all natural homemade stuff because in the time it takes me to make muffins I can write and then delete half a chapter.

5. Their social life will suffer. Your social life will suffer.

6. Be flexible and opportunistic. If your child unexpectedly falls asleep face down in their rice cereal then use the time to your advantage. Get as much stuff done in the morning because most kids are needier in the afternoon, especially when they drop their daysleep (see point 3, once the daysleep goes some kind of childcare is essential for your sanity and your workload). You should probably try and extricate them from the rice cereal first though.

7. You will probably feel isolated workwise. Even if you are keeping a toe in, it won't feel like it. Work will feel a million miles away. You'll go into the office occasionally to drop something off and feel like a strange alien lady, or more likely, like a mum pretending to be someone else. You'll tell people cute stories about your kids. You'll have banana on your shoulder or baby spew in your hair. Every one else will look and sound worlds more professional than you, even the homeless guy who wandered in off the street to wee in the car parking space (it's not your car parking space because you don't warrant one because you live the dream and work at home. It's probably a good thing because your car is piled high with baby crap and covered in princess stickers and has really uber daggy thomas the tank engine sunshades on the back windows.) You'll feel out of touch with the industry. Every time you go into the office it will seem like everyone there is new. People will say, wow, how are you? and you won't have anything interesting to say. (If you are a man, replace father and he for mum and she for all of the above. But heck. Feel free to call yourself a strange alien lady).

8. In the middle of a business call your three year old will shout out from the toilet 'Come and have a look at the poo!'. Your 9 month old will vomit down your cleavage. The reverse of this is that you have to sit and do work when you'd rather take the kids to the zoo or meet friends for coffee and play. Other mothers will seem to have all this time and energy for their kids that you feel like you don't have.

9. You need to know at least one person in the same boat as you so you can whinge meaningfully about the lows and cheer each other's happies and skive off together by email.

10. Take every professional development opportunity you get, even if it means serious kid juggling. I had the opportunity to do a day-long course and Martin brought Fred (then 11 months) in at the break for her breastfeed. This was where I met Kate (see 9) so it was sooooo worth it, even if it did send us into a spin because it was the longest time I spent away from her.

You know, that all sounds like a bit of a whinge and it is good really, it is a dream, just sometimes it's a dream with a talking spider eating buffalo cake in it*. At least I'm here and I'm with them. I get to be a part of their lives, their everyday. Because in a few years they'll both be at school and I know I'll miss them. I feel especially lucky that we've managed our lives in such a way that Martin is home more than he's not so we're all here a lot of the time, and Martin stops the dirty clothes from taking over the world and makes muffins and takes the girls to the zoo so they're not missing out. But I'm glad I love my job, because I think if I was doing something I didn't feel passionate about then the trade-offs might not be worth it.

Going into the office, sitting on a couch in East Melbourne reading manuscripts without children climbing my leg and with the added bonus of intelligent funny interesting people to talk to in between manuscripts...well, I see the appeal of the day job (I know, most day jobs don't come with couches). Sometimes I feel like my whole life takes place in my lounge room, sometimes the walls feel like they're closing in. Being a writer is lonely enough, it can be hard to access a community - sometimes it feels like you're talking into a vast, empty darkness. So being tied to home by two relentlessly gorgeous but needy children can make that loneliness manifold. But in the end, I love my job and I love my kids. Although they don't always combine well, I feel more comfortable with chaos than I do with structure so it's the right life for me and as hard as it feels sometimes, as much as I sometimes feel I have my feet in two different worlds which have an alarming tendency to accelerate away from each other, this is the life I love.

*Actually Fred's dream last night. It talked to her. Sounds scary but she assures me it wasn't.


  1. Oh Penn, I was seconds away from posting 'get busy lady i miss your posts' ... you know Asha dreamed the other night of a pink sparkling cat ...

    as you know I can't relate to your working mum post but i can relate to the four walls closing in :) and what happens to children when they turn two. I'm seriously thinking of writing a Letter of Offer to Angelina and Madonna .. they don't have an Aussie/Kiwi kid to add to their collection to my knowledge as yet???

  2. Anonymous10:16 PM

    can i add a revision here to the b it about when your kids sleep unexpectedly?

    -its ok for you to go to sleep too, as there is much to be said for looking after the mother here, as well as earning dosh and keeping offspring alive.

    I have been doing this far more, even though the clothing line is zooming along locally, being preggers and quite ill this time, I'm really understanding that the work CAN actually take a back seat if you can't turn out someting that is worth being paid for.

  3. re number 10:

    hurrah! i'm so glad our PD had such lovely, longlasting effects. we've formalised the process now, and are running our first literary speed dating event next week!

  4. Working from home when pregnant and with little ones is a whole different ballgame again and to me it was something to be endured, especially since we were renovating a house to sell which was a terrible place for Fred to play. Often for me deadlines meant I couldn't sleep during the day. If you can manage to fit in a sleep then that's definitely ideal.

    Lili, Martin and I met doing the RMIT Prof Writing and Editing course. I think you're onto a winner.

  5. Dusty Jo, send photos of Lulu around and you'll have celebrities clammering for her.

  6. Holy crap. I'm a bit more scared of parenting than I was ten minutes ago. I'm not good with chaos. I'm not good with relinquishing my excessively high expectations of myself to the grim reality of what I'm actually capable of. I think that is going to be the hardest lesson for me to learn when my time comes. But thanks for the heads-up. Mind you, I don't have a job I love (yet), so I might not have quite the same demands.

  7. How did you get into my HEAD? Sheesh.

  8. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Awwww. Right back atcha, fellow toiler from home. There's a wonderful line in an Ursula Le Guin short story (can't remember which) which says something like, men think that grumbling means you're not coping, they don't realise that grumbling is a way of coping. So hoorah for the necessary whinge.

    Re housework: I don't care it about it either (obviously) but I must say when I did a blitz clean-up of the livingroom and threw out all the crap that had piled up on bookcases, under the couch, on the kiddy table, overflowed on every surface, it lifted my spirits remarkably, far more than I expected. There is something about living in squalor which is profoundly depressing. So maybe a little housework occasionally is a good idea.

    And I am in total awe of the fact that you can write and edit and be clever while your children play around you, because I need total peace and preferably an empty house before I can even start thinking about work. You must be superwoman really.

    -- Kate C

  9. Anonymous11:44 PM

    Yes, yes and yes to it all.

    Oh, and definitely yes to the going to sleep bit when they sleep unexpectedly. And I have recently discovered that even if your 3 year old has 'quiet time' after lunch on the couch in front of Toy Story, you can indeed fall asleep sitting in the chair opposite and he will survive. A 10-minute catnap is a wonderful thing. Especially when you're up working until 1.00am...

    The thing is, though, I can't work in chaos. I've tried, but I just think chaotically if I do. So the dishes need to be done, the desk needs to be cleared and the beds need to be made. But I am having to be a bit less structured out of the sheer panic of reaching the deadline.

    Ah well. I'll sleep when the piece is finished. Thanks Penni. Glad to know I'm not the only one struggling.

    Maria (composer of muzic)