Building a successful career — is it possible without childcare?

7635486872_9e7de8f064_zLaura’s note: This week, I’m answering some of my Frequently Asked Questions — questions that I often hear from readers. As I email my answers, I sometimes think, hey, that would make a reasonable blog post! So here we go. If you have a question to add to the series, please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

Q. I’m thinking of starting a freelance/work-from-home business. Do you think you can have a successful career without regular childcare?  

A. Well…maybe. If you have very young children — ages 3 and under — and your partner or another household member is not available to care for the children regularly, you will really struggle with doing any significant amount of work. Caring for young children is exhausting. Yes, you may technically be able to work during nap times and at night after they go to bed. You can get up early to work. You can certainly work on weekends if you have a partner who can care for them then. Many parents do this. But again, caring for young kids is exhausting, and you will need a lot of discipline to work during your hours “off” when all you want to do is drink a beer and read a magazine (at least that’s all I want to do on the days I am solely responsible for my kids!).

So if you have young children and want to make a serious go at starting a business, I’d turn the question around: why are you averse to childcare? Is it the cost? It is certainly difficult to pay for childcare when your business is not yet producing revenue, but many entrepreneurial ventures have start-up costs. You’re not building a factory, you’re just paying a babysitter, but it kind of goes in the same bucket. There may be ways to reduce costs, like trading off with a neighbor or friend, but then you’d need to know that your friend can be completely reliable in this situation. Because here’s the issue: it’s really hard to build a business if you don’t know, with 97% certainty, that if you schedule a client call at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, you’ll be able to take it with no one screaming in the same room. I’m not saying it can’t be done. Maybe your kids are much better sleepers than mine. Maybe all your clients love listening to screaming babies! I worked through the newborn phase with all three of my kids, and divided the world into People I Can Call With A Baby On My Lap and People I Cannot Call With a Baby On My Lap. But building a business is hard enough as it is. Doing it with one hand metaphorically tied behind your back is even harder.

Now, if your kids are in school regularly, this is a different matter. For some reason, people often consider preschool to be in a different category than daycare, even though they’re pretty much the same thing. I won’t bother going into this, but once your kids are 3 years old or so, it’s quite possible to put them in some sort of regular preschool program for 5 mornings a week. Some schools have afternoon hours, too.

At that point, you can start getting some pretty significant work time. Even more important, from the perspective of building a business, they’re regular work hours, so you’ll probably be able to plan for a 10 a.m. call. And once the kids are in official K-12 school, all kinds of time opens up. My 1st grader gets on the bus at 8:42 a.m., and gets home around 4 p.m. When all three kids have that schedule, that will be a bit over 36 hours per week available — more than the usual definition of full-time — for 9 months of the year. And that’s without having to resort to the usual tricks for finding more time (working early in the morning, after the kids go to bed, on weekends, etc.). If you do resort to those tricks, you can get yourself up over 40 hours pretty easily.

So yes, many people I know who freelance or have home-based businesses do fine with building their businesses once the kids are in school. It’s not perfect, of course. You have to arrange for summer care, so figure you’ll be paying for a lot of camps unless you can figure out a way to make your business hibernate during the summer. There are random half days and kids can get sick. If you have regular childcare arrangements, there’s a back-up for school — the person who takes care of your 2-year-old can also keep an eye on your 7-year-old if he’s home. If you will need to travel for your business, or go to evening events, you’ll have to figure something else out. But you will at least have a fair number of hours to work without the cash outlays associated with full-time childcare.

If you work at home, what kind of childcare arrangements do you have? How have these changed over the years? 

Photo of ridiculously cute baby courtesy flickr user ambernectar 13

23 thoughts on “Building a successful career — is it possible without childcare?

  1. I’ve worked roughly 8 hr/week from home after having 3 children in two years. I’ve had preschool for one or two of them a couple mornings a week but never childcare for all at the same time. (and when the twins were at preschool, I usually spent one-on-one time with the kindergartener) I work mostly after bedtime with occasional hour-long snatches while the kids watch TV. I edit research papers for people about 10 hr off our time, so e-mail correspondence is expected and adequate.

    I break work into 3 parts.
    1) paid employment/overhead for paid employment, like bookkeeping and taxes
    2) interactive childcare- caring for and disciplining your kids
    3) housekeeping/childcare overhead (like lunches/snacks, doing and folding 2 loads of laundry and washing peed out beds)

    You should discuss before you get married how you plan to share/hire out the 3) category tasks. Hiring a nanny/sitter, as most upper middle class families do, can help enormously with 3) category tasks. In time studies, I think they count as “housekeeping” not as “childcare”

    I haven’t seen statistics on how many people who attempt free lance writing careers are successful, but I’m guessing the fraction who earn enough to afford childcare for multiple children after taxes is small. I concur with Laura that pursuing such a career after school starts can be a wise path.

    During the first 5 years, children are needy and they are no less needy because you have multiple young children at the same time.

    Unless your spouse is in the top 5% of income, your spouse will probably end up doing more 2) and 3) tasks than if you didn’t pursue a writing career. Is your spouse supportive of your career? Do you need health insurance/a reliable income stream from a “regular” job.

    In my opinion, starting a free lance career, especially if you have to pay for childcare, is only possible if you have a spouse whose job covers the regular household expenditures.

  2. GREAT topic. I have a friend who works FT with THREE kids (ages 4 months to 4 years) at home with her. She swears she makes it work. I don’t know HOW.

    Here’s what I do.

    My oldest is 2 and she’s in daycare 2 days a week. Those days, I stay home and telecommute with my 6 month old home with me. She’s still super easy to manage and I get a full day of work in with her. 1 day a week, my husband stays home for a half day (makes up those hours another night or two during the week) and we have friends from church watch the kids from 2-5. Other than that: naptimes, early mornings, an hour at night. Total time worked: 30ish hours. Not super FT but it works for now.

    It takes a lot of creativity. For us, the creativity came in when we realized our youngest is so easy and doesn’t need to be in daycare for me to focus and get stuff done.

    1. @Rachel- yes, I’m not quite sure how that would work for your friend! It would not work for me, but I’ve found my work requires long stretches of focused time. I imagine you’ll figure something else out when the 6-month-old starts moving!

      1. I know – that’s what my SIL keeps telling me. 🙂 I’m just sort of hoping that she’ll be a self-entertaining kid forever….and by the time we have to put her in daycare, hopefully her older sister will be in school at least part of the day.

        Or maybe I’ll just be the breadwinner and my husband will start staying home. 🙂

  3. I’m due with my first child in a few months, and have spent the last 9 months building up a small freelance writing career. I’m honestly not sure what “work” will look like once little one arrives, but because I don’t work 40 hours a week (more like 10-15), I’m hopeful that I’ll still be able to make it work while taking care of an infant. I might just be incredibly naive. We don’t depend on my income but our finances would be a lot tighter without it, and it’s not enough to justify paying for childcare.

      1. Yes, definitely. I also spent about 9 months building a new freelance career before having my baby (my second), and I have found I’ve been doing some rebuilding after taking 4 months off — it’s certainly not starting from scratch, but I wasn’t able to just let clients know I was available and have work start rolling in again. It’s not a bad thing, as it’s giving me some time to figure out how to make my schedule work, and you may not have this problem at all, but don’t be surprised or discouraged if you end up back in a marketing and building phase for a bit.

        And yes, 15 hours a week is definitely possible.

  4. I work from home one day a week without regular childcare. I have a 3 1/2 year old who just started preschool and I have an 18 month old. My girls play pretty well together and when my 18 mo old naps, my 3 year old gets her tv time. Also, the interruptions they cause are much less task-switching as the interruptions I get when I’m in the office. (For example if I’m thinking/writing something and need to get them a cup of milk or change a diaper, I can continue thinking while doing this task.) I also get up earlier on work at home days so that my day gets off to a productive start & I do anything super important. If needed I will work after they go to bed, but I can usually get all my hours in. Also, I find I’m much more productive since I’m not just “showing up a the office,” And I want to be able to continue to work at home so I produce more and keep better track of my work hours & what I’ve done/accomplished. But it’s a bit different since I’m not just working for myself. That being said there are days where it’s stressful, but most weeks it goes well.

  5. I started working from home when my son was 2 and I was pregnant with my second, who’s now 5 months old. Before the baby was born, I managed 6 hours a day of solid work time — 3 while he was in preschool, and another 2 while he napped in the afternoon, then 1 or 2 in the evening. Now my older son is in preschool most of the day, and I’m lucky the baby is a decent napper (his brother sure isn’t), so I divide my work up into 30- or 60-minute chunks. I figure the same stuff needs to get done every week, and it doesn’t really matter when most of it happens each day as long as I meet deadlines — laundry, exercise, work — so I try to be flexible. I have a sitter I can call if I need to meet a non-baby-friendly client or make an important call, but most of my work is done via email.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is yes, it can be done with a baby around, but in much smaller bursts and I have to be very good at focusing intently during naps and not spending that time doing other tasks. Household chores and runs happen while the baby is awake. I try to do short work emails and professional reading while nursing, so my mind stays on task and I can transition quickly to work as soon as he’s down in his crib. By the time the boys are in bed and the dishes are done, I’m too tired to do much requiring concentration, so that’s when I do professional reading. As soon as the baby is sleeping more predictably at night — probably not for another 6 months or so — I’ll be able to start waking early to get work done, but until then, I just try to be flexible and limit my task list to hour- or half-hour-long bursts so I can fit them in when I have an opportunity. I know I’ll have at least 3 hours a day of productive time; I just never know exactly when they’ll be.

    (I hope all this makes sense … I’m nearing the end of my functional brain time for the day!)

    1. @Meghan – It’s fascinating to hear how you’ve made it work. I think I just like knowing for sure when my productive time will be. But I’m also on the phone a fair amount with people, and that has to be scheduled.

  6. I work about 6 hours/week at home with my son, and so far it’s going okay. I don’t ever have to take important calls, so that’s not an issue. I just have to be disciplined about working when my son is sleeping or playing happily (man, he loves his bouncer) or my husband is home. I also try to bring home papers that I need to read but not super carefully, which I can do before bed or on the floor while my son is playing.

  7. I think it really depends on what you do for work and how quick you are at it. I have a target hourly rate but I usually bill by the project, so if I get something done quickly and well I can make a full time income with a part time commitment (for example, today I did 12 hours worth of work during a two hour naptime, but earlier this week I only managed 45 minutes worth of work in the same two hour time frame–win some, lose some). I homeschool a 7 year old, 6 year old, and 4 year old, and have a 4 month old baby. The big kids have quiet nap/reading/playing in their rooms time every afternoon for two hours, and I also do a big chunk of work on the weekends. Theoretically I could work in the early mornings and after bedtime, but with a baby who is still up pretty often at night the reality is that I’m too tired to get up early or stay up late.

    One of my constant dilemmas is whether or not to hire regular childcare. I use babysitters when I have a client meeting or need to be on-site for something, but committing to $15/hour babysitting when I don’t absolutely have to feels scary to me. On one hand, I could possibly be so much more productive that having even a couple of afternoons a week of childcare could be a big income boost, but on the other hand I work on a contract basis and I can’t guarantee that the extra work would be there.

    Anyway, my point is that working would certainly be easier with childcare than without, but it might not be absolutely necessary.

    1. @Catherine – if you’re debating it, you could try figuring out a budget for a few months that would include childcare. If you paid for 8 extra hour a week at $15/hour that’s $120/week. Times 10 weeks, that’s $1200. That’s certainly not nothing, but it’s a finite amount, and you could look for ways to trim other things to get yourself close to that. Then — over those 10 weeks — keep track of your billings and see if you’re at least $1600 over normal (x-25% for taxes…yes, self-employment rates are usually higher, but this is rough to see if it might be worth it). If you are, then that will at least assure you that you’re not losing money. If the sitter could supervise some of the administrative work of homeschooling (checking work?) you’d win there too.

  8. I think it depends on your definition of “successful career.” Like several people have already commented, working part-time hours in a non-phone heavy job is doable. Working full-time, traditional hours that may or may not require lots of phone time is highly highly unlikely to work without some form of childcare.

    I recently quit my full-time corporate job when #2 was born and am trying to find what a comfortable balance for our family at this stage is. We have a 3 month old and a newly-turned-2 year old. I’m thinking that childcare one day per week will allow me to schedule calls/meetings that need to be at set times and I can work around the kids the other days. But I’m also only planning on 15-25 hrs/week.

  9. I think every family should do what works best for them and their children. Each child’s needs is different. Some play happily alone, and some do not. The thing I wonder about though is there seems to be an emphasis on kids being with their moms, but if the moms are distracted with work, is that really so good for them compared to focused care from another care giver? I just wonder if both don’t suffer — the work (or employer) and the child.

    1. I run two businesses (often from home), with a total of 13 current employees, and I earn in the high six figures. Daycare was awesome (we now live in a place where there isn’t much). Preschool is awesome. Paid childcare for children who are mobile but are still under Kindergarten age is an absolute must if you have employees and need to face clients during standard business hours – worth every penny. Great ROI.

      Distraction just does not fly for me. I’m a big believer in the value of a 3-hour uninterrupted work period – be it for my own children in their Montessori schools, or for my employees, or for myself. My team is constantly improving our work environment so as to minimize distractions during dedicated chunks of work time – I’m obsessive about it, really. Then we take a break, play on the internets, have some fun, then jump back into one more uninterrupted work period. I’d like to think we work fewer hours but get more done.

      When my kids were tiny, I also wanted the woman caring for my kids in our home to be reasonably engaged with them until they started Montessori preschool at 2.5. One of the biggest signs that she was is the fact they soon became fluent in Spanish, and our home was filled with cool projects they did together. If our nanny had requested that we let her simultaneously work part-time in her own non-childcare business during the same hours we were paying her to care for our kids in our home we would have said no, because our kids never napped. (Then I would have probably had a discussion about ‘is this truly fulfilling work for her? should we be paying her more?’ but I digress – and to each their own…) Yet loads of SAHPs arrange their lives exactly that way, without childcare help (though PBS Kids is a great babysitter in a pinch, too) and hats off to them for making that work and not being distracted.

      1. I agree that with employees or clients you need to be uninterrupted and this is interesting that maybe one thing that holds female owned or parent-owned businesses back is this issue of how you run HR and employees etc while being a good parent and this I agree you can’t do without full time childcare that is not you… interesting how this issue then becomes and economic development issue as so few small business in america really have 13 employees and even fewer of those are women or minority-owned… hush you should let laura do your time log — I’d totally read it!

  10. The child care tax credit we accept is grossly inadequate and it is funny how many middle class people think it is a good deduction.. it should be a higher deduction and reduce taxable income at the top… It’s a shame that quality childcare is so relatively expensive and so increasingly inaccessible to what remains of the middle class -not even to say what it is like for the single mothers, and the working poor or those above free care… probably this is a huge failure of the women’s movement and it is always funny how women don’t have any issues in our society .. that is how we take all these issues as personal choices when in fact they are not and are dictated by what we choose to subsidize — corn and processed food for example – and what we really do not — quality childcare etc. – maternity leave or some form of requirements that allow parents to contribute to GDP
    I’d like to see more intellectual and fact-based info on issues that perhaps women could unite around… other than weighing what you weighed before you had kids lol
    it is interesting also the extent to which the internet and the “being on” and work work/material culture makes things seem possible that might not be the best idea..

  11. Thanks for posting this, Laura. 🙂 What I’m finding is that even part-time child care @ a daycare is extremely expensive until the kid is preschool age (2.5 for most places here).

    If my elusive part-time dream job materializes (I’m on candidate #6 now, hoping that its funding exists), it’s going to require focused work time I can’t do with the baby around, even if it is mostly a work from home gig.

    OTOH, I could definitely put in 15+ hours on my own businesses if I just wasted less time online when the kids are sleeping. But that’s a different kind of work and I can do creative stuff better in small bits and pieces.

    1. @ARC – very true on the daycare front. I remember the schedule for our daycare in NYC, and 1 day a week was basically half the price of 5 days a week. It makes sense — there’s overhead — but it is another steep cost to working part-time. You could pay a sitter a few hours a week, though.

  12. I think this dialogue is super interesting. I am a full time real estate agent and realized that I needed flexibility over a total number of hours for childcare. It has been a real journey with my kids at ages 6.5, almost 5 and 2 years old. I never took a real “break” and once I got someone to live in as an au pair to help with early mornings, and some weekends. My husband was becoming a pretty big crutch before I did this and I could see him becoming resentful…. and so we decided to invest in a system that improved both of our quality of life and made me feel less like a “chicken running around with my head cutoff” as my schedule was constantly changing and I was working full day Sundays. The expense has started to pay off, and it took some time to get the schedules as efficient as possible. I found that Laura’s book about working women made me feel a lot better about how this can be thought of as an investment so I can stay in the game until my kids are older and my income potential will go up even more because I stuck it out during this hard time. I think I must have some ADD because I need to have real uninterrupted time to get work done and having my kids around without childcare AND getting stuff done is almost impossible! I am in awe of any woman who can…

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