Work It Out

Q. Jordan,

How do you handle childcare for your son and working from home? I am expecting my first child, and own my own business. I have a home office but spend about 15-20 hours a week out and about meeting clients. Also, when I’m working from home, I actually need to work, of course.

I’m feeling like I will need full-time childcare in order to get everything done but also feel like there should be some benefit to owning my own business/working from home that I could get away with less. I’d love to hear how you balance things?


A. I’ve talked before about how I tend to circle emotional issues – especially ones involving my son – in my head for awhile so that I can arrive at something that at least resembles a rational conclusion before sitting down to write. This is a topic that I’ve been wanting to discuss for some time now, but I’ve been shying away from it, because honestly? It’s still something I struggle with every single day. It’s not easy to talk about.

The photo that I originally wanted to use for this post is of me in the hospital a few hours after giving birth. In it, I am holding my son, and I am checking my phone; I had a time-sensitive email to return, and my newborn son was sleeping on my chest, and that’s how my life is and it’s okay with me. I like it this way, and I know that my love for my son and the value I place on fulfilling my work obligations are not mutually exclusive.

But I was too scared to put up that photo, scared that someone would look at it and put into words the fear that is so much a part of my mind: that a “real” mother would not ever take her eyes off of her baby for something – anything – else, not for one second. She would never look at an email when she could be looking at his face.

working in hospital

This is the photo I was originally going to use (and that I went back and did decide to use, as you can see). I don’t want to be scared to show you how things really were, not ever. Fact: I checked emails (more than once) in the hospital. While holding my newborn son. Probably before I even took a post-birth nap. And that does not make me a bad mother.

But sometimes it feels like it does.

As time goes on, I’m starting to realize just how many women – not just women who return to the workforce, all women – feel this way. How many of us have difficulty finding a balance between family and external obligations that feels right, how much anxiety and guilt and stress can arise from being pulled in so many directions…and I’m not entirely certain that I’ll ever get to a place where I am completely at peace with my choices, so I suppose now is as good a time as any to talk about it.

Having me be a stay-at-home mom (or Kendrick be a stay-at-home dad) was never an option for us: we’re just much more comfortable as a two-income household, and besides: my work is not something I’m willing to give up, even if I could. But in some ways, it feels like it would have simplified things somewhat had I gone the more traditional route of maternity leave and a return to full-time employment outside of the home: I would have gotten at least a few months where my focus was completely undivided, and after that full-time childcare would have been an obvious requirement, not something that was really even up for debate. Working for yourself has lots of benefits…but the flexibility that it confers also comes along with its own emotional challenges, especially when you make a choice that is something other than “be with my child all of the time.”

In the months leading up to my son’s birth, one of the primary things I worried about was how I would balance working with what I felt that I “should” do, as someone who works largely out of the house: be his sole caretaker. I had this fantasy in my head of typing away on my computer while my son played happily nearby, taking breaks to go to the playground or a diner, getting things done while slotting in quality time…not to mention saving a ton of money on nannies or daycare.

It does not work like that. Or at least we don’t work like that.

You know how they tell new moms to “sleep when the baby sleeps”? You can’t do that if you’re self-employed. The second the baby falls asleep you make a mad dash over to your computer and try to get as much work done as you possibly can in the hour – or minute, you really never know – you have before he wakes up. After a few weeks of next-to-no rest and toting my son around with me to meetings and appointments that too often ended up being disrupted, I hired a nanny who I adored to come in for 17 hours a week (the absolute bare minimum that I thought I needed): she could watch Indy when I had to leave for a shoot or a meeting, and then occasionally stay with him when I was home and needed some extra uninterrupted time.

It wasn’t enough. And beyond that, the setup was difficult for both of us: if I tried to work at home while our nanny was there – even if I was in another room – Indy fussed, and every time I heard him cry I wanted nothing more than to put down my work and go hold him, making it even more difficult to concentrate. I also felt strongly that our son would benefit from being around other children more; very few of our friends at the time had children, and I wanted him to be comfortable interacting with kids his own age.

After we moved we decided to try a part-time group program, and it worked for awhile, but I found myself desperately hoping that my son’s afternoon nap would last as long as possible so that I could squeeze in just a little more work…and I hated that. I hated that if I had a conference call when he was home the only way to be sure I wouldn’t be interrupted was to turn on the TV. I constantly felt like I was falling short in every way, and I didn’t want my son to grow up feeling like he had a mom who only saw him with one eye.

And then our circumstances changed: I started writing a book (which upped my daily workload exponentially), and Kendrick enrolled in business school full-time, making me the (temporary) sole financial provider for our household. I was always stressed, always rushing, always worried that I wouldn’t be able to get everything done in the short amount of time I had to do it. And beyond that, I started to feel like our son was picking up on my stress, and having trouble with the constant disruptions to our routine (if a shoot kept me in the city all day long, for example, and he had to stay at his program beyond when he usually did). I talked to his teachers about it, and they agreed: the inconsistent schedule wasn’t ideal for anyone.

Ultimately, what happened was this: I realized that while I had thought that I was thinking about what was best for our son, what I had really been thinking about was what was best for me: what would make me feel less guilty about being pulled away by work, more like a “good mom”. Once I realized that I was able to see more clearly, and we decided that what was actually best for him was a more structured routine – not a part-day here, a full day there – but a consistent schedule each and every week. We enrolled him in a full-time four-day-a-week program, and it has made an enormous difference in the happiness and stress levels of all involved.

Are there some days when we could get by with less help? Yes. But the peace of mind for me and the consistent, stable routine for our son feels more valuable, to me, than wringing childcare down to the barest minimum. He’s made significant developmental strides being around other children, and I’m able to sleep better at night knowing that the next day will contain enough hours for me to get what I need to do done.

That said, it’s not easy. I feel sad every single morning, when I return home to an empty house that I wish so badly was full and sit down in front of my computer. When I pick up my son in the afternoon and he runs into my arms grinning, my heart breaks with how much I wish I could have seen that grin all day long. I’m painfully jealous of my friends who are full-time moms, and who can plan playdates in the park and trips to the aquarium with their children. Even though I know that that’s not the right choice for me, there’s a part of me that wishes it was.

I’ve struggled over and over, every single day, with feeling like the “benefit” of working from home should be being with my son all the time…but that ended up not being so. Not for us.

What I’ve found is that the real benefit to being self-employed – for me, at least – is that it means I can be flexible: I can drop my son off late, pick him up early, take him somewhere fun for an afternoon if I have a light workload that day, make sure that we have at least one day a week that’s just for the two of us. I can also stay home with him if he’s sick and not have to take the whole day “off” (or contend with the wrath of an employer who doesn’t understand that kids get sick and that you need to stay with them when they do). Today, for example, I was able to move around my schedule so that I can drive him to the doctor in Connecticut this afternoon. I feel very lucky to be able to do this.

But even though I logically feel that this is the right decision – really the only decision we could have made – all the logic in the world can’t take away the guilt. I think it might be that way for all moms, though – moms who work in an office, moms who work at home, moms whose work is to care for their children: the desire to be with your child and the need (or desire, which is equally valid) to do other things can be at such odds that they feel like they’ll just about rip you in two. I cannot think of a single situation in which I could balance work and raising a child and not worry that I was doing it “wrong”, that I was falling short on one side or the other.

So what I’m struggling to do is genuinely internalize the things that of course I know: that one cannot simultaneously work full-time and care for a child full-time, that my work is important to our family and to me, and that what is right for one family may not be right for another; it’s all about finding what is right for you.

This process has not gone the way we expected, but I think where we ended up is okay. Not perfect – it never is – but good. Right. For us.

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