Time makeover: From SAHM to WAHM

4121829972_5770fa16d4_zBack in January, I put out a call for reader time logs. Tiffany King responded and shared a bit of her life with me. She’s a mom of 4 kids, who she’s homeschooled. The oldest two are now in college. The youngest two were — in January when we first corresponded — 10 and 14.

For years, she’s identified herself primarily as a stay-at-home mom (SAHM in internet parlance). But in 2008, she started a website called Eat at Home. This site offers weekly meal plan subscriptions, as well as quick recipes for busy families (I totally see myself making this breakfast casserole this weekend).

The problem? It’s not so much a problem, but the website is starting to do…well. She gets several hundred thousand visitors per month, and from what I know about ad rates, this can produce high into the four figures of revenue monthly, let alone what subscriptions bring in. As she told me, she is earning the tuition for two kids in college.

In other words, from a sheer economic perspective, she has successfully opted back in. But her mind has had a harder time with the transition from SAHM to “WAHM” (work-at-home mom). After looking over her time log, she noted that “I really thought I spent more time on blog work (maybe 20-25 hours per week).” While it only totaled 15 hours, “it feels like I’m doing blog work all the time. Part of this may be because I chip away at small tasks often. When the kids are working math problems, I scan email. When I’m waiting for a pot of water to boil, I post to Facebook or Pinterest. I try not to do more involved work during school hours, because it just frustrates me and the kids too.” She described her blog work as her “biggest time issue,” which was causing her much stress, and said that “Right now, I’m fitting it in, but soon soccer season starts and that will involve driving kids to practices, staying there while they practice, etc. That will cut into my working time. I already feel like I’m squeezed trying to fit in the work.”

Is this juggle inevitable? I’m not so sure. I wrote back to King that I’d noted multiple uses and versions of the phrase “fitting it in” in our correspondence. I’m a WAHM myself (actually, I “WAH”-ed before becoming an “M”), but I never talk about trying to fit in my work. I work between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., and then often from 9-10:30 at night. Because I work, there is time carved into my schedule to work. The fact that I work at home is a nice perk, but work is work. I’m not saying King needs 50 hours per week to work — I have no doubt she is way more efficient than I am in terms of dollars generated per hour invested — but “if you’d like this to be a serious enterprise, then maybe fitting it in is not the right way to think about it,” I told her. “You need focused time to work.”

King did not disagree with this assessment. She wrote me that when she got away from the house — like to a coffee shop — “I’m amazed at what I can get done.” But she didn’t do that very often. “I’ve tried carving out some hours to work away from home, but I haven’t been too successful. I usually work in the family room with everyone active around me.” That was about as productive as you can imagine.

I came up with a few ideas for focused work time that would leave lots of space for homeschooling:

1. Waking up at 6 a.m. to go to the coffee shop (which she had done in her log once). She didn’t need to do this every day to make it worthwhile. Even twice a week would be good. Twice a week is doable.

2. Putting the 14-year-old in charge of the 10-year-old for a block of down time after their primary homeschooling time in the afternoons. King could go to the library.

3. Assigning the kids projects — maybe they could even start their own businesses or work on hers! — for the early afternoons. If her kids were little, she’d get this “off” as nap time, so it seemed like an option.

4. Letting the kids watch more movies or have more screen time. School is sometimes inefficient and teachers show movies too. She could work during this time.

5. Getting help. Her husband or another relative could take the kids for 2 long evenings per week. Getting to work from 5-9 p.m. for two nights per week would probably allow her to do as much as she was doing in 15 hours of scattered work.

6. [I didn’t suggest this in our original email, but Anne over at Modern Mrs. Darcy wrote of hiring a mother’s helper to assist with some of their homeschooling. This would be an option too — bring in a college student to supervise some of the school work while King worked on her business.]

King agreed to try some more coffee shop time. She wrote me back soon after and said she’d gone to the coffee shop that morning and had achieved turbo productive status. I cheered her on and told her to check back in a week.

She did… and said she’d had mixed results. “Mixed because I feel like I’ve found some success, although I didn’t make it out of the house again to work since last week. But I did get up early last Saturday to work at home. I worked in a separate room at the desk. It doesn’t have a door, but the kids respected that I was working before we took off to have a fun day. I got quite a bit done then.”

I wrote her this week to check how things were going. She told me that “This summer has afforded me quite a few good working opportunities where I found myself alone in the house. All the kids were often occupied with activities or friends and I was able to get a lot of work done.”

This was still a work in progress, though. “I’m entering a challenging season,” she said. “We start homeschool again tomorrow. And all the sports and classes are starting up again too, which means lots of driving and carpool duty for me. I hate to say that I don’t really have a good plan for this.”  

As she wrote in an earlier email to me, “I’ve been a SAHM for so long, and I’m so used to placing kid needs above everything that I’ve found it hard to switch gears.” Changing one’s mindset about what mothering means sometimes takes longer than starting a successful business.

So, readers, what do you suggest as a plan for King to make regular time to work and — more importantly — to feel confident about doing it?

In other news: Do you like these time makeovers? There are several more in the paperback version of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, which will be out August 27. You can pre-order from Amazon here and Barnes & Noble here.

Photo courtesy flickr user Ant McNeill

34 thoughts on “Time makeover: From SAHM to WAHM

  1. I 100% agree with modern Mrs. Darcy’s mother’s helper situation. What you probably want most is a college student to drive the kids to practices, unless you really feel that chauffeur time is quality time with the kids. I don’t know if there’s a college around to hire from though. Still, if you’re in a carpool group you might be able to (and this is the economist in me speaking) substitute your driving time for money– pay gas plus extra money to the other carpoolers instead of driving yourself. But I understand those situations can be difficult to work out, or the price may be too high.

  2. Seems to me that by working, she *is* putting kid needs ahead of her own – she is paying for her children’s college tuition, after all!! That’s huge! I know for me, when my mom was home all the time, I didn’t respect her time at all – she was just always there. Once she started working (outside the home, in her case), I *had* to start respecting her time more – and she respected her time more too – and that was good for all of us.

    1. This was good for me to hear. My oldest kids live at home (we’re fortunate to have a University in town), but I don’t see them often. I find myself trying to be available to catch up with them after class or work, but it might be good for everyone if they know when I’ll be available and make time to seek me out.

    2. @Pamela – that’s how I view this too. If King had elected not to work because, hey, she’d done her job homeschooling all these years, and wanted to ease into retirement as her kids left the nest — that would be putting her needs ahead of the kids. As it is, working to pay college tuition is helping her children immensely. We still have this narrative floating around that when mothers work, it’s “selfish.” But kids need time and money and when you work to help support them you’re giving them both.

    1. @WG – oh good! I hope to keep running a few more. And I’m always looking for fodder if people want to send me their time logs.

      1. I, too, love these makeovers. There is always something I can take away for my own life (i.e. I need to stop feeling guilty when I need to work on weekends). I’d love to send you my logs, but only on condition of anonymity

  3. It seems like maybe she could recover some of that down time at soccer practice if she had a laptop with a mobile data connection or even used that time to plan out or write blog posts offline while waiting.

  4. This is a classic example of how you truly can’t do “it all”—you can HAVE it all, but you can’t personally do it all with your own two hands. Something will have to give: 1) face-time during homeschooling (with the age of her kids, she doesn’t NEED a mother’s helper, she can assign writing, research, “independent study” a couple half-days a week, and leave her kids to it while she does her own work), 2) driving around to activities—carpooling is a great idea, even if she takes some shifts herself, that still frees up some evenings when the kids are busy and she can work. She can also bring her work TO the practice and do that while the kid does their sports. Many moms knit, read, or cross-stitch while their kids are on the field, so what’s wrong with creating content for her site? or 3) outsourcing some of the chores to free up more time to focus on either family or work or 4) just LEAVING on evenings or weekends on a set schedule that everyone is aware of and other activities are planned around. It seems the main problem is that she has not articulated her needs to her husband/family and is still just trying to “fit it in” so as not to rock the boat. The biggest part of this might be needing to change her own mindset and allow herself to feel that she deserves this time, that it IS a priority (unless it really isn’t, in which case, why do it?). From an outside perspective, any business that is covering a significant part of family expenses (i.e. college tuition for two kids!!) sounds like a darn good use of family-members time and effort! And to top it off, the service she is providing aligns well with the family’s values (eating at home with family). Good luck to King!

        1. By the time I was 10, I was helping with chores on our family ranch and assisting my mother with her marathon mailings for the various non-profits she was involved with. By 12, I worked summers as a file clerk in my dad’s law firm. I fully anticipate that in the next 5 years, my daughter will begin working for me. It’s not child labor- it’s an Apprenticeship.

    1. You hit the nail on the head – the biggest part of it has been changing my own mindset. Slowly, but surely I’m growing into this new phase, and I’m enjoying it too, despite the time issues. Thanks for the ideas you shared for managing things.

  5. I do want to add that one thing we have done is to get hire someone to clean the house. This has done so much for our family life. My husband and I used to share this duty with the kids helping too. It took up a huge part of every Saturday. Having someone else clean has been well worth the cost. And the professional does a much better job than we ever did!

  6. I can identify with this since I also homeschool and work (mostly) from home. I agree with the comments above about having the 10 and 12 year olds work independently for a chunk of time in their day, maybe in the afternoon after you’ve worked with them individually. I’m working toward that with my children because I think it’s a valuable study/life skill, but it also helps me get a chunk of time when I can work. Where I run into difficulty is in my own mindset about what I can “legitimately” outsource. When I’m working on-site or having meetings I have no trouble paying a sitter, but because I can do most of my work from home, it’s hard for me to think about paying someone else when I’m on the premises. There is value to my kids seeing that I love my work and my family and that work and life and education can all blend. However, having a well-defined work time helps my family not to feel like I’m always distracted, and also helps me to be productive. I haven’t found the perfect answer (probably because there isn’t one) but reading about what other people do is always helpful!

    1. @Catherine – Since I’ve always worked from home, I got over any hang-ups about having a sitter around while I’m on the premises pretty quickly. I’ve heard from some people that they’re cool with it, except for the idea of paying a sitter while the kid is napping (if they have one kid). They come up with elaborate ways to schedule sitters so they’re not paying from 1-3. I get it…but I also know that it would inevitably be the day one has a critical call at 1:30 p.m. that a previously excellent napper would elect to stay up.

      1. To make it feel more “worth the money” one could negotiate with the sitter to use that nap time to do specific child-related chores, like washing bottles, cleaning up toys, cutting up fruit for future snacks, or even prepping for some cool after-nap project.

        1. The thing we missed most when daycare started for each kid was having a clean kitchen at the end of the day. (We actually let the mothers helpers do whatever they wanted while the baby napped, but they did light chores while the baby nursed.)

  7. We employed different nannies over the years and agreed upfront that light housecleaning was part of the job. Of course kids came first and we always wanted her to spend fun time with the kids, along with feeding, diapering etc… But in all cases, they did find some down time to sweep, fold kid laundry etc.. Again we tried to focus on kid related chores but many would also mop on occasion, put dishes away etc… That extra help was and is invaluable!

  8. This is great, because it’s more similar to my situation than any other time log I’ve seen you write about Laura.

    I must say that Tiffany’s site is earning more than mine do, and if I were her I would have NO problem insisting on time away or alone in another room to work. What’s hard for me is being in the building phase with my sites and projects. It’s psychologically very difficult for me to insist on that time. And my husband is extremely supportive! He doesn’t “babysit”, he fathers. 🙂

    1. Carrie, I think she may have given a bigger impression of income from my site than reality. I don’t earn high in the four figures from ad network. I do earn enough to pay tuition to state schools for my kids, help with books, study abroad etc.
      I understand what you mean about the building years of a business. It feels more like a hobby at first, because it isn’t earning much. My husband was always supportive of my work on the site, but it’s still hard for me to justify the time away from family for it. It’s easier now that it’s bringing in income, but why should it have to earn money to be worthy of my time? My husband didn’t have that expectation, so why do I?

      1. I run a small business from home and have sons 6, 4 and 4 and a puppy. I liked this makeover too because I could relate to it.

        I’m returning to part-time work outside the home and my decision process might be useful to you.

        1) What time is important to me with my kids? What time would I not mind that they spent with someone else (Dad, preschool, sitter, etc.)

        2) How is my life going to change in the next few years, whether I prioritize my career or not? In my case, my children will get progressively less needy.

        (I felt for Laura when she talked about her child’s eye specialist appts. Taking boys 1, 1 and 3 to opthalmological specialists 90 miles away is not one of my better memories of toddlerhood.)

        Are there home school co-ops, programs or time with your husband that would be beneficial or neutral for your 10 and 15 year olds? To me, minimizing college debt is a big priority and worth the time you’re spending on it.

        1. @TG – homeschool co ops are a fascinating concept to me. It certainly makes sense if you have a group of homeschooling families, and some of the parents have expertise in different areas. Have the Spanish major teach Spanish! There’s a lot of gray area between full-time school and full-time home.

      2. @Tiffany – interesting on the ad network rates. I was basing my estimate on some work I’ve done in the past blogging where I got a bonus payment based on page views. If I had your traffic there, I would have gotten several thousand bucks per month — meaning that my client would definitely have been bringing in more (since it makes no sense to lose money on incentive payments).

  9. I may have missed this, but can you drop off the kids at sports practice and pick them up when they’re done instead of staying? Same for the games – choose which ones you want to see and do drop-off for the others? Can they take the bus together to some of these things? (Where we live the bus is dependable and safe, so middle and high school kids take it regularly.)

    Laura also gave me some advice a while back that has been really great – make sure the daily to do list is short and accomplishable. (Oh and that you HAVE ONE.)

    Otherwise it’s easy to get caught up in bits and pieces of things here and there, Facebook, Pinterest, blah blah blah and then you arrive at the end of the day feeling like you didn’t accomplish much.)

  10. This: Changing one’s mindset about what mothering means sometimes takes longer than starting a successful business.

    I agree with the narrative. We’re supposed to feel guilty or miss the kids, and we reinforce this idea with each other. I hired a middle school mothers helper to play with my baby For a couple hours while I wrote my dissertation And professor said, I could never do that. I wouldn’t feel comfortable. (I’m I the next room over! What’s there to feel uncomfortable about?)

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