I’ve been on this self-employed journey of mine for more than a decade. As a freelancer, it’s perfectly normal to me not to worry about what clothes I’m going to put on in the morning. I fully expect not to have set office hours, just as I can’t count on receiving the same direct deposit from payroll every two weeks. That’s just the way things are.
Several years ago, before I got married, before we bought our first home together, and before we became parents, I listed a few surefire signs that you work from home. But having a kid changes things. It changes everything. And while I am certainly coming from the perspective of a work-at-home dad (WAHD), the following observations likely apply to work-at-home moms (WAHM) and other work-at-home caretakers (WAHC?) too.
1. You’ve Learned to Type with a Toddler in Your Lap
This naturally depends on the kind of work that you do, but if you were to ask my grandma what I do, she would just tell you that I work on the computer. You know, exactly the same explanation she provides when asked what my cousin does (he’s in marketing). She’s not wrong, per se, as I’d say the overwhelming majority of today’s professions involve “working on a computer” in some capacity at least part of the time.
When my daughter was still an infant, she could be napping in the other room and I could be clacking away on my keyboard. Now that’s she’s an inquisitive and rambunctious little toddler, she’s known to wander into my office BBC interview style, demanding my attention. And who am I to deny her? So, she’ll sometimes end up on my lap as I try my best to keep doing whatever it was I was doing.
2. You Get Your Best/Worst Work Done After Bedtime
If you’ve been reading this blog for the last three years, then you’ll already know that I’ve written extensively about the the third shift. Even though the nature of this “third shift” has understandably changed as my daughter has gotten older, the fundamental principle remains the same. If anything, it’s probably gotten harder.
When she was younger and didn’t yet grasp the concept of object permanence, I could close the door of my home office and it was like I was gone forever. She’s a lot smarter now. She knows where I am and she knows that I’m working (even if she doesn’t really know what “working” means). She will call to me sporadically and ask me to come play with her. And who am I to deny her?
The net result is the only real time I can “focus” on my work is after she’s already asleep. You know, when I’m already totally drained for a full day of fatherhood and freelancing.
3. You No Longer Have Sole Ownership of Your Desk
You know the That’s Not My… series of Usborne touchy-feely books? Like That’s Not My Panda and That’s Not My Penguin? They should really make one for us work-at-home parent types titled That’s Not My Desk, because apparently this isn’t really my desk anymore. It’s just an extension of her home-based playground.
Remember how I said my daughter is known to wander into my home office sporadically? She does that even if I’m not there. It also hasn’t taken her very long to figure out that my office chair is the greatest amusement park ride in the house. And it probably doesn’t help that I’ve largely encouraged this kind of behavior because I’ll gladly spin her around in circles on that thing.
And yes, those are blank DVDs she has on her fingers. I use them as coasters. She uses them as toys, just like everything else on my desk. Which leads us to…
4. You Never Leave Important Documents Out in the Open
I’m not really accustomed to sharing my office space with anyone. It may look like a total chaotic mess in here, but it’s my total chaotic mess. There is some method to this madness and I’m usually pretty good about finding whatever it is I need to find. Usually.
This has always been predicated on a simple assumption: if I leave something somewhere, it’ll still be there when I get back. Things can’t develop legs and walk off on their own, right? That’s completely thrown out the window as a work-at-home dad, because while documents and receipts don’t sprout legs, I know a certain three-year-old who has very fast hands and feet.
Thankfully, she’s been pretty good about staying out of drawers and cabinets so far, but I fear that may not last.
5. You See Your Friends Once a Year
Depending on your personality and preferences, one of the biggest drawbacks to working from home is the lack of social interaction. There’s no water cooler banter about yesterday’s episode of Game of Thrones. (You were probably watching Daniel Tiger or PAW Patrol anyway.) You don’t have a Dwight Shrute to pull pranks on either. There are no drinks after work at the local pub.
The good news is that most major cities have networking events for precisely these types of the professionals. As a work-at-home dad, though, you’ll find that your schedule and availability aren’t quite what they used to be. When you’re not too busy parenting, you’re frantically trying to catch up with (paying) work. It’s like playing Whac-a-Mole.
Once upon a time, I met up with my friends once a week. Now, it’s more like once a year. My social life consists of going to story time at the library or hanging out with the other parents at preschool pickup.
Balance Is a Myth
People without kids can get confused by their friends who are parents. We complain about all the hardships, frustrations and sleepless nights, giving off this impression that our lives are miserable. Yet, at the same time, we are quick to express just how rewarding and meaningful it is to be a mom or a dad. It’s utterly paradoxical. Tossing in the whole work-at-home dad dynamic just makes things even more confusing.
But hey, I literally wrote the book on the subject and have lived (thus far) to tell the tale. How many more third shifts my body (and mind) can endure remains to be seen, but at least you’ll hear from me again next year. Hopefully. Typing with a four-year-old old on my lap.