The childcare dilemma: Working from home (or not) with minimal coverage

photo-178I worked from home today in the way that I know many parents do regularly. I had preschool hours, potentially nap time, and what I could squeeze in. It wasn’t a bad day, but it reminded me why I don’t attempt this more regularly.

Our nanny is on vacation this week. My parents had been here to cover while my husband and I were both traveling, but then they left. The older boys go to camp from 9-3:30, and this week my 2-year-old daughter has her camp at the preschool she’ll be attending this fall. She goes from 9:30 to noon (she totally loves it, which is reassuring).

This isn’t zero coverage, so I thought I’d experiment (rather than trying to find a back-up sitter for a few hours; hubby is traveling again). I had the hours of 9:30 to noon, and then my daughter naps about 75 percent of the time. The kids are old enough to play semi-independently for 15-20 minutes here and there. It seems like this should all be possible.

And some of it worked OK. I planned the day out as well as I could. I did the work I needed to focus on during the morning shift. I planned something for the afternoon…but then my daughter elected not to nap. She wanted to, but she couldn’t settle down and so she was crabby about the whole thing. I got her interested in a few TV shows, but she won’t sit still for a 90 minute movie. I was hopping up every 20 minutes to change shows, and usually more frequently than that as she demanded water, snacks, etc.

From a personal perspective, it was a good day. My 7-year-old got up early and I played a Pokemon-influenced game he invented with him. We found a giant jalapeno growing in my garden, and with the cilantro and tomatoes growing nearby, we had most of the ingredients for homemade guacamole. The 4-year-old, the 2-year-old, and I made banana bread. There was tree climbing. If I’d managed to get all my work done earlier this week it would have been lovely. I would have gone for a run or something during the morning day camp shift.

But I hadn’t made that happen. So there was a lot of trying to write emails in snatches of time between requests. I barely wanted to get up from my desk to use the bathroom during the morning shift, since I knew I couldn’t guarantee any other focused time.

I am sure other people do better with this set up. I know the reasons WFH parents try. Childcare is expensive, and it seems like this should work. If you get 3 hours of preschool, 2 hours of nap or enforced quiet time, do 30 minutes here and there while dealing with the kids, and maybe 90 minutes after bedtime, that’s 7 hours a day. That’s basically full time.

But this time is fragmented and it’s hard to concentrate. Perhaps this is why some feel that working from home is the worst of all worlds. I think it’s great — but if you work you probably need childcare, and where you do your work probably doesn’t matter as much as many think it does. 

Photo: The pepper, tomatoes and cilantro came from the backyard. Onion and avocado, not so much.

32 thoughts on “The childcare dilemma: Working from home (or not) with minimal coverage

  1. I have no childcare, and I wouldn’t do well if I had to put in 7 hours a day, certainly.

    As it is, I do my blogging work early in the morning before the kids are up for breakfast. And I sneak in some time here and there throughout the day, but that’s usually for more mindless stuff like moderating comments and sharing stuff on social media.

    For actual writing time, though, the quiet of early morning is where it’s at!

    I do think the ages of kids have a lot to do with how well this works. My youngest is eight and my oldest is almost 15, so they’re way more independent than your kids are.

    1. @The Frugal Girl – Age has a lot to do with it, for sure. If I just had my 7-year-old here, he could disappear for hours into Mario Kart on the Wii or watching movies if I let him. I could easily work 7 hours. Maybe 10. Whether I should let him do that is a different matter…but that’s why he’s at camp!

  2. This dilemma is precisely what led me to read your book. While I don’t try to work as many hours as you do, I am working from home and homeschooling my children. We have no family in the area and we only hire a sitter once a years so we can attend my husband’s company Christmas party. The hardest thing for me is that when I use every quiet moment I have to get work done (which does require quiet time to focus), all of my “discretionary” time is in the midst of chaos (aka caring for children). Yes, I enjoy what I do. But I need quiet time for other things as well. I can read while the kids play (independently, for the most part), but it’s not the same as reading a book after they’re in bed. That is the fine line that I walk. For me, tracking my time at least makes me aware of the fact that I am getting personal time or that I am not and my need for it is legitimate. And making a point to use discretionary time for myself – even if it isn’t accompanied by peace and quiet – helps as well. Between homeschooling and working from home, I “work” 35+ hours per week. I try not to let too much time get trashed due to the inevitable chaos, but it happens. Using the chaos time and chaos time only to do tasks around the house helps. Also, breaking my work into 60-90 chunks (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) helps – I can focus well for about that long, and my children can also play fairly independently for about that long. Then our homeschool day is divided as well around my work time. Saturday morning when my husband is home or the neighbor kids are out to play (sending my children outside) is my catch-all for finishing up work for the week. But your book was an immense help in figuring all this out.

    1. @Tana- thanks for your comment, and I’m so glad to hear that my book was helpful to you. I do think tracking time can help in any situation. And yes, yesterday I was trying to take my own advice — doing dishes while the kids were dawdling over dessert, for instance, rather than after they went to bed (because the post-bed time is more valuable for other things. Though I didn’t plan it very well and still had to take out the trash and pack lunches. Oh well.) I admire that you are able to get as much done as you can, and that’s smart to concentrate focused tasks for the blocks you do get. I’m curious why you only hire a sitter once a year, though. I’ve been exploring this topic a lot lately. We often see childcare as an expense, but when you have quality care so you can work, it’s an investment in your business and your lifelong earning potential. Sometimes we feel bad or guilty about using it, but historically, people did live close to extended family and had other relatives to help out here and there. When we don’t have that in our modern lives, we have to substitute. You don’t have to answer that question — it’s obviously a personal decision for everyone — but it’s something I’ve been exploring.

      1. The reason I limit childcare is financial. I need to hire a sitter to cover not only the hours I’m at work (physical location 20 min from my house) but also the commute time. In my field (engineering), my salary is not going to increase significantly whether I work more hours (and pay for more childcare) or not.

        I know I’ve said this before, but if economists were serious about increasing employment, actual childcare expenses would be deductible, not just up to $5000.

        1. @Twin Mom – at the very least the deduction should be raised to reflect something approaching what it actually costs. Running my own business I have always found it a bit odd that I can deduct what I pay someone for marketing or web design, but not (all of) what I pay for childcare, which is what enables me to earn money to pay for the other stuff in the first place.

      2. If I had regular childcare, my life would be far more scheduled and subject to availability of childcare. As it stands, I work 60-90 minutes in the morning and then do a couple hours of school with my kids; same for the afternoon. My day is split into chunks of work time that are efficient for me; I’d rather work two 60-90 minute sessions than one 2-3 hour session. I have more freedom this way. The extra hours I might work if I had a regular sitter would pay for the sitter, but I would have less freedom. I don’t have to worry about finding a sitter, training a sitter, keeping a sitter, and worrying about whether the sitter is doing what I want them to be doing while I’m working (my parents owned a small business so I know all about the hiring, tending, and firing of employees). And really, I like what I do for work, but I don’t have a burning desire to do more of it. I could certainly scale up and take on more clients if I needed to, but I don’t want to. I make enough money to give us an edge financially, it is an opportunity that could be built on or would look good on a resume, and all things considered I really don’t envy the lifestyle of women who work full time (bigger houses, newer cars, more clothes, more spending money, nicer vacations, weekly date nights with their husbands, etc. but all in all less time with their children). There no “career” I would rather have than the one I am enjoying spending time educating my children and working part time doing something I enjoy from home. Life is all about choices. In order to say yes to one thing, you have to say no to another.

        1. Unfortunately working full-time does not equate to more clothes, date nights, fancy vacations and cars, etc. for many of us. It just means we can pay the bills (and day care)!

  3. I think one of the best things I’ve gleaned from your writing over the years is that it is no surprise that our choices influence the results.

    This past year my schedule was dictated by half day preschool with about 5-8 hours per week of additional childcare. I didn’t manage to work as much but I value the time I had with my little ones. Its not always a choice of avoiding the cost of childcare. But it is a choice where unrealistic expectations can severely impact one’s happiness.

    1. @Calee – I think that about sums up my thoughts 🙂 I had lots of fun with my kids yesterday when I was focused on hanging out with them, and not trying to get stuff done. But since I had more than 2.5 hours of stuff hanging over my head for today, there was a lot of back and forth. You made a choice to grow your business perhaps more slowly than you might have and there were solid reasons for that (and next year, your situation will look different). But what wouldn’t follow is for you to claim that it’s impossible to grow a business quickly when you’ve got young kids. You made choices that would make that more difficult, and those were conscious choices.

  4. I personally can’t get any work that requires concentration done when I’m home with the kids. My 7 year old has figured out that I’m working from home two days/week and when she’s not liking camp (which comes and goes, depending on the specific camp she’s in that week and how stereotypically seven she is that week) she tries to convince me to pick her up early. She swears she wouldn’t bother me and would let me work… but the few times we’ve tried, it hasn’t worked out that way. So basically, if I have a child care issue that means I’ll be home with one or both kids, I just plan not to work. I might get to squeeze a little bit in, but I take that as an unexpected bonus, and plan on spending the day with the kids. I’m much happier that way. I totally understand that not everyone can afford full time child care when they’re working from home. So I’m not judging people who try to work with kids around. I’m just being grateful that I don’t have to try to do so! In fact, my knowledge of how it turns out when I try to work with my kids around is the reason I’ve chosen to make my current career transition in the way I have.

    1. @Cloud – it is all about the expectations. When I expect to get nothing done and get 30 minutes of stuff done, yay. If I expect to get several hours worth and am trying to claw it back by using Sofia the First episodes, that = unhappiness.

  5. I think the situation is different for entrepreneurs vs. those working for a larger organization, too.

    Many large companies make you sign an agreement that says you’ll have full time childcare before they let you work from home on a regular basis. I think it’s a reasonable thing to do, and with working from home still being an unusual situation in many organizations, it only takes one or two bad experiences for a manager to decide “it just doesn’t work” and then never let anyone else do it. (Same is true for part-time, or any other flexible work arrangement.)

    For me the difficulty was taking that leap of faith (and expense) to engage childcare when I didn’t have reliable income and was working on my own projects. I know now that if I want them to succeed, I would have to find some regular childcare to get some work hours in at “peak” times.

    1. @ARC – that would make sense that organizations might ask you to prove you have childcare. Because yes, one bad experience can ruin it for everyone. That’s the unfortunate reality of things that seem outside the norm.

  6. And personally, I ADORE working from home, even with the nearly 45-min “commute” of driving each child to their respective daycare/preschool. Coming home to a quiet house to focus on work for half a day or so is pretty damn dreamy.

  7. This blog post stressed me out. Days where time “counts”- I have a deadline or something- and I have to balance that with being home with the kids…well, it just brings out the worst in me. You didn’t say anything to this effect, but were I in your situation I would be grumpy as hell at my child for asking for snacks, a new show, etc.

    These days I will do almost anything to avoid the scenario you just posted:)

  8. @Calee – “Unrealistic expectations can severely impact one’s happiness” is going to be my new mantra! Happy weekend all!

  9. This is my exact situation and this fall my youngest begins preschool three days a week. Does anyone have tips for maximizing my time for work?

    1. @Mike- If your work requires times when you can focus, I think you’ll need to plan your weeks really well to do the focused stuff during those 9 hours. And if that’s not sufficient (and it may not be) plan on doing another shift either in the early AMs (if you’re a morning person) or at night after the kids go to bed (if you’re more of a late night sort). Low-key emails and social media can be done here or there while the kids are playing independently, but those focused hours are probably best preserved for things that can only happen during that time…

        1. @Mike- nice post! Yep, lots of planning, even for random 15 minute spots that might arise. As you said, like using a found $20 for purposeful things, rather than an impulse.

  10. I would never work from home without childcare on a regular basis (as a one-off, it can work) because my job requires sustained mental attention and the ability to make and respond to urgent issues on a timely basis. Also, I would not permit one of my employees to work from home regularly without full-time childcare.

    1. @Rinna- it was a one-off for me that day (well, really a two-off, but Fridays are easier) and it reminded me why it wasn’t a regular thing.

    2. Rinna, while not about working from home per se, you should check out Cal Newport’s blog. He talks about the value of deep focus while working and prioritizing time to do work like that.

  11. What an interesting string of comments! I work 20-35 hours a week, with 12-20 hours of childcare, depending on my meeting schedule. But I do creative work on contract, so I’m paid to create a marketing strategy or a website or a solution to a particular problem, not for the number of hours I put in. Since I get paid by the product rather than by time, I do have more flexibility, and I’m also incentivized to be laser-focused when I’m working, because I get paid when it’s done and excellent, no matter how long that takes. Theoretically, I could work longer, but instead I prefer to work more efficiently to free up time for my other job, which is spending 30-35 hours a week homeschooling. Having the minimum 12 hours a week of childcare lets me take on big projects without stress, but it also leaves me with plenty of flexibility. I would resent being told I couldn’t work unless I had full-time childcare, but I think that probably depends on the type of work you’re in and also on what you’re used to doing. I like the challenge of putting a full workload into a partial work-week, versus the frustration I used to have in my previous jobs at having to sit at a desk for certain hours.

    1. @Catherine – I agree that output matters more than hours. Unfortunately for me, I tend to find that output is a function of hours. I work fast and try to work efficiently, but when I have more time, I think more and come up with more ideas and think about what I’d like to be working on and better ways to approach problems. I wish I had a way around this (since I don’t always get the space and time I’d like) but I haven’t figured one out yet!

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