Over Christmas this year, I stayed with my then-almost-3-year-old while my husband took the three big kids skiing in Colorado. I thought this would be less stressful than taking two long flights with the little guy, and then attempting to keep him safe and non-destructive in a rental house. On some level, this should have been fine, except I also needed to turn around copy-edits for Off the Clock over the same period of time. Since I could not get the Word track changes function to work on my Mac laptop at anything faster than a snail’s pace, I was stuck using the home computer. As I was going to be traveling to NC over New Year’s, and then to California immediately after, I needed to use the days that he and I were there alone together.
It reminded me why I generally don’t try to work when I am responsible for a small child. I felt horribly fragmented. I raced to get done what I could during his (unpredictable) naps and night time sleeps. I was frustrated with his normal 3-year-old behavior, and I missed things on the copy-edits (hence a very embarrassing math error that made it into the galleys…but won’t be in the finished copies, thank goodness).
Anyway, I was thinking of this when I received a question recently from a woman who was trying to get work done while also coping with this fragmentation. She had two children. One was in full-day preschool, but the other, a baby, was generally with her during the day. She did freelance work that arrived unpredictably. A client would ask for a rush job, which she would want to do (extra income!) but the chances of the client work coinciding with the baby not needing anything were…low. If she was dealing with the baby, and then wasn’t done with the work when it was time for her older child to be home from school, she’d be trying to finish that while tending to both of them.
She found this all stressful, and I did too, reading about it! She said that hiring a full time sitter wasn’t an option, but she had other tools in place that she was possibly not optimizing. For starters, her husband had opted for a more limited work schedule during their baby’s first year. Second, she had family nearby who were willing to help out.
My first thought is broadly applicable to anyone who works from home and works flexibly: It’s not a badge of honor to do everything oneself. While sometimes the decision not to pay for childcare is solely about finances (and it may be in this case), I often have people who do have extra resources write to me about their incredibly elaborate schedules designed to limit the use of childcare. I think they think I’m going to high-five them for their genius time management, but I generally don’t. That’s because I don’t subscribe to the underlying belief: that paid care is a bad thing that should be minimized. If you work from home and work flexibly, but have the option to use paid care sometimes, do. You’ll be less fragmented. Your kids will be less stressed out when you’re less stressed out. A fragmented parent has very limited patience.
As for this specific situation, this woman wrote that she wasn’t sure her husband could handle both kids. I suggested that he needed to learn to handle them, and he wasn’t going to learn if he never had the chance to try. If he had limited his work hours, he probably wanted to have that experience! In any case, she was going to have to leave the house at some point, so best for everyone to get comfortable with the concept. Start with an hour or two. Build up from there.
Using willing grandparents is also a great idea. To avoid fragmentation, the goal would be to have a few hours on each day that she chose to work that she would know she could have coverage. That way, if a client asked for a rush job at 10 a.m. due at the end of the day, and she knew she had coverage from noon- 3 p.m., she could relax and enjoy her time with her baby, knowing she had a time when the work would get done.
How much coverage she had in place would depend on the grandparents’ generosity and her husband’s schedule, but my guess is that between those three sets of extra hands, she could get 3 hours on 3-4 days of the week.
She could then work to proactively get jobs on those days when she had time available. Even unpredictable work is seldom truly unpredictable. Her clients were choosing which freelancers to reach out to. If they knew she was available Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for sure, they’d be more likely to put her on top of their lists for those days. If she was getting work regularly on those days, and turning in high quality work (because she was less fragmented!) she might earn enough that she could tell her clients that the other days of the week would be less good for her. Or she might earn enough to consider hiring a sitter for a few hours on those days. Either way, she’d be getting plenty of focused time with her baby, and focused time for work too. That beats the constant crazy-making back and forth that comes from trying to do both at the same time. She might even be able to disconnect for an hour or two after her older child came home from preschool. I don’t urge disconnecting all night, because I know it’s not reasonable for many people, but knowing you can check in after a certain period of time usually lessens the pressure to be constantly in and out.
If you work flexibly, and from home, what sorts of childcare arrangements do you have? How have you avoided fragmentation?