As well as my photography business, I am a freelance writer, and I also offer SEO and social media advice and management, and a bit of design work here and there.
Oh, and then there’s maintaining this blog, which is clearly more of a therapeutic and personal endeavour, but it is also the springboard for the all the paid work that comes my way.
Arlo is at preschool. But Rory isn’t. And his naps amount to no more than an hour in the car during Arlo’s pickups/drop offs. This means that 100% of the time, I am juggling work with my children at the same time. There is no guaranteed, scheduled time just for work, and on the other side of things, I have to actively make sure that I give the children enough of my focus without work-related tasks taking over all the time.
Given the amount of people I know who were unable to return to work post-babies due to childcare costs, the people I know who can’t afford to save a deposit for a house, and all the other things that have become increasingly tricky in the last decade or so, I figure there must be a lot of people out there like me. People for whom it’s necessary to bring in money to cover all the essential living costs, earning a living at home, at the same time as caring for their young children, Because paying for childcare would offset any earnings made. Or because the amount of work you have varies from month to month.
But how come ALL the articles I read about being self-employed, freelance, or working from home always assume that there is some form of childcare in place?
Because it would be bloody impossible to do both at the same time, wouldn’t it?
I hardly ever see a work / childcare / life balance piece that doesn’t read along the lines of “Keep work and time with your children separate. Turn off your phone when with your children. Don’t try to work around them, use their childcare hours wisely”, etc.
But what about the tips for those of us working from home around their small children? We know we are never going to have a clear distinction between work time and family time, it is always going to be hectic and most often leave you wishing you could do more of both.
Granted, there is no advice that can actively revolutionise the productivity of those of us working from home around small children, but here are some things I’ve learnt along the way about managing expectations.
Tips for self-employment / working from home with no childcare in place:
If you have children that don’t nap / unreliable sleepers, adopt a ’10 minute schedule’ approach to avoid the frustration of starting a task and having to pause. Lots of tasks CAN be accomplished in 10 minutes, and although creative tasks sometimes take a lot longer (and, if your me, require uninterrupted concentration to really give it my best), if you can find a way of subdividing those creative tasks into 10 minute segments, you will feel a lot less frustrated at the interruptions.
If you have children that reliably sleep past 7am (what?), consider getting up at 6am to get an hour’s work in before they wake.
If you have night-wakers, or are sleep deprived, I don’t recommend this approach unless you have no other option, because it WILL lead to burn out. You need SOME sleep to work and to function. Sleep comes first, although it’s tempting to sacrifice it.
Of course you will need to work in the evenings. Which is also the only time you get alone to yourself or to spend with your partner. If you can, schedule in advance the evenings that you will be working so you can more easily see any windows of opportunity to have a ‘date night’ or, y’know, a decent shower.
Cleaning is the last priority. Your job is taking care of the kids, and your work. Save for the washing up, wiping down highchairs, and clearing up food mess, I don’t clean or tidy during the week. It is a task that Sam and I blitz together at the weekend, or that Sam does in the evenings if he has the time. Yes, there are toys EVERYWHERE, and mid-week visitors might be taken aback by the state of the unhoovered floors. But really? It’s the least of my concerns.
If your partner is taking the children out so you can work, make sure they know in advance that there is no time allowed for dawdling in the morning (No leasurely breakfasts and browsing the internet). Let them shower and get ready first. And DON’T attempt to start work until they are 100% ready to assume ALL childcare duties.
Communicate with your partner and be clear on your roles and what you need from each other in order to maximise your time. When you work from home around the kids during the week, you are used to jumping in on the kids requests all the time. It won’t be automatically assumed that this will be any different when you partner is around, unless you are both clear on your roles and your set times for ‘uninterrupted work’. It may be that your partner takes over the whole of the bedtime routine so you can get an hour’s work in for tasks that you are behind on and need to be completed THAT day, or it may be that you need a good few hours at the weekend to work. Whatever set times you decide, make sure that everyone knows their roles, and that all kid requests for drinks / general whining / entertainment / whatever are deflected immediately by your partner.
(Communication is the key with this point. It can be incredibly tricky to execute. Especially because it’s confusing for young children to understand why your work balance is different at the weekend than it is during the week, when you are also doing lots of tasks for them too. And especially if your workspace is in a common living area in the house, where your children may be in the same room as you whilst you work. Generally, I’m FAR more productive if Sam takes the children out – but this is not so simple in winter / when you don’t drive / when you have a small breastfed baby. More often than not, I end up working with the noise and chaos and demands of my children two feet away from me. In this case, you just have to get really good at shutting off from all distractions.)
If your children have a ‘quieter’ time of day when they are more likely to be happy playing independently, use that to your advantage. Our usual routine is to go out and do something fun in the morning, and then have an hour or two of TV time in the afternoon. Because I know they will (usually!) be happy to sit and do that with little input from me. This is when I do the bulk of my ‘Urgent. Needs to be done TODAY’ work.
I try to avoid sitting down to work in the morning, even if I think I have a good window of time where the kids are pre-occupied. Because I tend to find that the emails breed more emails and the ‘Urgent. Needs to be done TODAY’ work starts stretching into the afternoon, and before I know it, the kids have been fobbed off for a whole day with nothing fun planned for them.
Be realistic about your short-term ambitions, and don’t give yourself a larger workload than is possible to do when you are also the sole carer for your children during the week. Yes, this may mean that you feel like a very small fish in a very big pond, or that you can’t imagine EVER earning a decent living, or that you have to do something that feels very wrong business-wise and turn down work that doesn’t fit with your schedule. But if the long-term goal is to increase your earnings so you CAN afford childcare / to expand your workload once your children hit school age, then the short-term ambition is to not burn out before you get there.
Don’t panic if people chase you for emails before you’ve had time to respond that same day. Don’t worry that they will feel abandoned. Unless it is really a matter of grave importance or the difference between you losing or keeping a client, they can wait a day. I’ve considered putting an out of office disclaimer in my email footer: ‘I have young children, emails may take more than 24 hours to be answered’, but I’m pretty sure that is NOT recommended in Business Sense 101.
Use an organisational system that works for you. In a complete flout of my rule above, I am ALWAYS checking my emails on the go. But I find the iPhone mobile email system kind of crap, and it’s all too easy to open an email, read it, realise your reply needs a bit more thought than you are able to give right now, and then forget all about that email 3 hours later. I’m currently using the Mailbox app, which allows you mark emails or move them to folders with one swipe, and is also really great for removing unimportant emails from view, so you can concentrate on the ones that DO need attention.
You won’t be able to make time for yourself without it being at the sacrifice of family time, work time, or partner time. If you class your three yearly smear check as ‘me-time’, that’s OK. This stage won’t last forever.
Allow yourself to feel guilty that you are not giving your children your ‘all’ at all times. Acknowledge your worries that they perhaps watch more TV than they should. Let yourself feel sad that your family time is compromised because you need to work at the weekends.
And then remind yourself why you chose to work this way in the first place. It might be the best option, it might be the only option. Either way, you are doing the best you can.