Friday, on my Facebook Page, I shared this video of Professor Robert Kelly being interviewed by the BBC, and having his children walk into the room:
It’s quite the funny little moment (although probably not so much for Professor Kelly), and any of us who have tried to work at home with kids can surely empathize regarding being interrupted during an important call – if not while being interviewed on live international television.
There’s been some judgement about Professor Kelly’s reaction and whether or not he should have been “kinder” to his daughter, but I’m not going to say too much about it aside from a general observation that most of the highly critical individuals have probably not been interrupted by their children during a potentially stressful, career-defining moment with the world watching. In my book, there’s nothing to criticize here, just a moment to savor (and chuckle a bit at) the very real struggle that is being a work-at-home parent.
Seeing this video reminded me of something I’ve been thinking a lot about…
It’s not possible to be a work-at-home mom with no childcare.
Luckily for Professor Kelly, his wife was home and able to (quite quickly) remove the children from the room. This interview could have ended much differently if he were a work-at-home parent trying to present himself professionally and get work (BBC interviews!) done without another caregiver in the the house.
For a long time, I tried to juggle owning a business and working from home with parenting full-time. Who needs childcare, I thought, I can do it all! I often hear from other mothers – either friends or women who come to events for my nonprofit, Allied Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) – that they are trying to do the same thing, typically with little success.
For entrepreneurs struggling with mommy-guilt, we want to think it is possible to have it all: that we can start and grow a successful business without losing a moment of time with our kids. For individuals looking to save on childcare, we want to think having a 9-5 job from home means being able to avoid the high costs of daycare. We might wish for this, but it’s just not possible, and here’s why:
It’s Not Good for Your Kids
As moms we want to put our kids first, but whether you own your own business or work at home for an employer, there are going to be moments when you have to put the job first. Deadlines have to be met and unless you have an epic sleeper, work can’t always be done during nap time. There’s only so much television that a child can or should watch, and younger kids require a lot of input. It’s not fair to continually ask your child to wait for your attention, and in fact it might be downright detrimental. There are plenty of studies about the potentially negative long-term consequences of divided attention on child development, and smartphone use, in particular, can be associated with increased injury to children, lack of patience and poor parenting.
For a long time, I thought that it was better if my kids were home with me rather than with a babysitter or daycare provider. Who could be better than their mom at taking care of them, I thought. Surely no one could be better than me at caring for my kids 24/7. And that would be true, if I were always 100% fully present, tending to their needs immediately when needs arose and creating interesting/engaging experiences and activities for them.
No one is better at caring for children than a fully present parent, but when I finally took time to honestly evaluate the situation, I realized that it’s simply not possible to be fully present 100% of the time while also working. And honestly, not only is it better for my kids to spend some time away from me in favor of time with a fully engaged caregiver, but they also prefer it. It is way more fun for them to spend time with someone who is actively playing with them and caring for their needs, than someone who is continually saying, “just a minute.”
It’s Not Good for You
“But I’m not a distracted parent,” you might say, “I only work when my kids are sleeping or my partner is home.”
I tried this. For way too long, I tried to only work during nap time, when Chris got home from work, or after the girls were in bed. In the beginning, when I was a freelancer doing occasional small projects, this was manageable. For a long time, as I was getting into blogging on Nantucket, nap time and after bedtime was when I wrote.
For something that never requires any immediate response and only requires less than 2-3 hours per day of effort, it might be realistic to only work when your kids are sleeping or cared for by your husband/wife/partner. But if you’re serious about growing a business or working even a part-time job from home, 2-3 hours per day is not likely to cut it.
What happens when you need to work longer hours but don’t want to work when you’re supposed to be playing with and caring for your kids?
- You lose sleep.
As my business grew more demanding and I didn’t want to or wasn’t able to work during standard business hours, I started working increasingly later and later into the night. I would regularly work until 2, 3, 4, or even 5 in the morning just trying to get work done that needed to be done. Not getting enough sleep caused a multitude of problems, the least of which was that I wasn’t a super present or patient parent during the days because I was too tired to really do anything. Worse, not getting enough sleep can wreak havoc on your immune system and overall health. And, to top it all off, not getting enough sleep can be downright dangerous.I had my own “wake up call” to the dangerousness of working instead of sleeping when one morning, after dropping Nora off at school following an evening of only getting 3-4 hours of sleep, I turned left out of her school’s parking lot onto a very busy road, and started driving down the wrong side of the street without realizing it. Luckily, someone honked at me and I snapped out of my fog and was able to very quickly get into the correct lane, but that moment terrified me. Had traffic been worse, my lack of sleep could have put me and Zara into a life-threatening car accident. As an entrepreneur I still sometimes have to work late, but I never get behind the wheel and on mornings following a late night of work, Chris takes the lead at getting the girls to school so that I can sleep in.
- You lose time with your partner.
For a little over a year, besides losing sleep, our solution to me working at home and not having any childcare for Zara was that I would work when Chris was home from his job. In theory, this sounded great. I was the primary parent during the mornings and early afternoons. He worked for a school district running their food service program, and was home by 3:00 pm, at which point he took over being the fun parent while I worked or attended networking events. If I had more work than could be accomplished between 3:30 pm and whatever time I managed to go to bed, then he also was the primary parent on the weekends. Initially, this worked well – the girls got way more time with him than they had ever gotten before, and I was able to get more work done during daylight hours, but over time this wore on my marriage.If one partner is always either working or parenting, that leaves no time to spend time together as a couple. It also means very little time together as a full family unit. There are times when kids have to come first and when business or work has to come first, but not leaving enough time for your partner doesn’t do anyone any good. For us, this arrangement made it harder to stay on the same page, and we felt like we only ever talked about problems or struggles without time to engage with one another on a more fun or intimate level.
- You lose time for yourself.
Just as you have to leave time for your partner, you also have to leave time for yourself. Everyone needs to decompress, spend time with friends, and explore things that are fun and interesting to them. In my experience, owning a business even with childcare can make it challenging to find time for hobbies and personal interests. Entrepreneurship is demanding and starting a business is incredibly time consuming – throw in not having anyone to watch your kids while you work, and any possibility of time for yourself completely evaporates – unless you go back to #1 and decide to lose sleep just so you can have an hour or two of being mindless in-front of Netflix.Not having daytime childcare means you do a lot of work at odd hours, outside of standard business hours. It means that just when your friends are getting off work and thinking about grabbing a drink to chat, you’re starting your work day. Potentially, you might be able to maintain some friendships during the day with stay-at-home mom or dad friends, while your children play, but the working-from-home with no childcare situation still leaves very little time to do something as simple as read a book.
It’s Not Good for Your Business
Let’s say you actually figure out how to not shortchange your kids, partner, and yourself in the process of trying to combine working and 100% parenting. The reality of a 24 hour day – really 12-14 hours if you’re getting a full 8-10 hours of sleep – is that something has to give. If you’re putting your kids, your marriage/household, and your personal sanity first, the thing that suffers is your business. If you aren’t working when the rest of the business world is working, you’re losing out on valuable growth opportunities. Your business is likely to stagnate.
I started freelancing part-time for website and marketing clients in 2010. At the time, it was just a way to occasionally make some extra money, so working odd hours and not always being available wasn’t a huge deal. This was especially possible because most of my first clients were friends and personal contacts. But when I decided to get serious about business in 2014, it quickly became apparent that trying to work and not have childcare was hurting my business.
- When my kids were around I was far less productive, constantly having to start and stop tasks in order to pay attention to them or get them things.
- I lost some prospective projects because of my limited work hours and lack of availability.
- I limited myself in when I could meet clients face-to-face or in what networking events I attended, because I knew it wasn’t professional to take my kids to meetings.
- I had a client phone call or two when Zara was literally screaming on the other side of a door, and my clients could hear it. One even said to me, “When I book time to talk to you in the future, I hope you will not be distracted by your kids.”
- I didn’t put enough effort into marketing, business growth, or improving internal business processes, because there was literally just not enough time in the day. At one point I even forgot to invoice clients for more than two months!
I hear this all the time from women who come to AWE. Whether it’s the photographer who has to limit the number of shoots she can do because she knows she can’t take her kids along, or the artist who knows she isn’t putting enough effort into marketing her work, they all say the same thing: not having enough child-free hours hurts business growth.
Putting my kids in daycare was both the hardest and best decision I made.
At some point as a “mompreneur,” you have to decide if you’re serious about your business. You have to ask yourself, is this just a hobby I have that happens to give me a little extra spending money, or do I have bigger goals?
If you’re looking to grow a real business that provides a full-time income, then you can’t put your work on the back burner to everything else. Putting your business first will look different depending upon the industry you’re in and your goals, but one commonality across everything is that giving yourself regular, scheduled work hours during “normal” business hours will significantly improve your businesses success. And, a reality of startups is that the more time you put into them, the faster and better they will grow.
By fall of 2014, 8-9 months into my decision to get serious about my business, we started Zara in a Montessori toddler program two days per week, from 8:30-3:30. She was just 18 months old and I oscillated between feeling guilty that she was getting less time with me than her older sister (then in full-day kindergarten) had at 18 months, and feeling relieved to finally have some regularly scheduled work days. Initially, I worried how I would handle leaving her, but it turned out I barely even missed her on the mornings she was gone because I was so focused on making the most of my work time.
Initially, two days a week of childcare was enough, and I was able get a foothold to start building up business, but by early spring 2015, I was back to working lots of nights and weekends to compensate for all the work I was not doing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We knew then that Zara needed to be in preschool 5 full days per week.
Making the Emotional Investment
Over the summer of 2015, Chris and I spent a lot of time discussing our life and work goals, and realized that we wanted my business to support our entire family. We wanted him to also work full-time in a business that he and I ran together. Getting the business to the point that it could support our whole family financially meant putting increasingly more and more work hours into it, which meant being OK with having other people care for my children during the day.
I did and still do occasionally feel like I am shortchanging Zara on time spent with me, but I’ve come to realize that choosing to put her in daycare so I can focus on my business is actually better for her. She likes being at her Montessori school during the days, and often asks to go there during school breaks. She gets to spend time with other kids and doing activities that we would never do at home, and when she is at home, we’re more focused on her and her sister. Instead of having half (or a third) of my attention 100% of the time, when she’s home she gets much closer to 90-100% of my attention.
On top of that, now that we have achieved our goal of having Chris work from home too, both kids also get to spend way more time with him than they ever did before, and we’re taking steps toward our eventual goal of being able to work and travel whenever they are out of school. Making small sacrifices now in time spent with them will be worth it when we’re getting lots of family time showing them the world.
Making the Financial Investment
After becoming “emotionally OK” with letting someone else take care of your kids, the next step is get over the financial hurdle that is paying for childcare. In some ways, we had this easier than many of the mom business owners I’ve talked to: I already had clients and a reliable sense of how much money I could expect to make before deciding to put Zara in daycare. Additionally, I work in an industry where it is relatively easy to cover my costs – unlike product-based businesses, there is very little overhead, and (at the time) my hourly rate was just a bit over the cost of a day’s worth of care. That meant that even if I only worked one billable hour, I was able to cover the cost of childcare. If I worked 4-5 billable hours, I made a decent profit.
Even knowing this, Chris and I still debated the financial responsibility of committing to the cost of full-time childcare. My volume in the early days (and even to some degree now), is not always consistent, which can make cash flow challenging. But here is what I’ve learned over the past 2.5 years: paying for childcare is like making a financial investment in your business.
Every time that we let fears of childcare expenses limit the amount of care we paid for, we ended up regretting it. Last summer was a prime example. We were afraid to invest in camps or care for two kids full-time, and only signed the girls up for occasional care here and there. Then, my work load picked up and I was back to working all kinds of crazy hours, the girls were forced to have to entertain themselves in a constantly messy house, several of my business projects were not done on time, and no one was happy.
This summer, we’re making a different choice and seeing childcare as a necessary investment to ensure the continued growth and success not just of our business, but also in our family.
It’s OK to Put Your Business First
When women ask me for advice about juggling parenting and entrepreneurship, I always tell them one thing: it is OK to put your business first.
I’m a huge fan of Simon Senek’s book, Start With Why, and recommend it both from a business and personal perspective. As a mom entrepreneur or a work-at-home mom, it’s simply not possible to “do it all,” but if you’ve spent time thinking about your core values, your goals, and the Why for your life, then you can always come back to them as you try to juggle time with your kids and work hours.
If you’re serious about growing a business, if business ownership is fundamental to who you are and will benefit your family in a tangible way, then it’s OK to put your business first at times – perhaps even most of the time in the early startup phase. It’s OK to ask your partner to increase their housework and childcare load so you can put more time into your business, and it is 100% OK to put your kids in daycare so you can grow your business.
In fact, not only is it OK to put them in daycare, it’s just about required in order to achieve business success.
Exceptions to the Rule
But-but-but, you might say, my business or my kid is different!
While I firmly believe that it is nearly impossible for work-at-home moms to have a successful career with zero outside help or childcare, I am aware that there are a few exceptions to this rule. One of the obvious exceptions being moms whose business is an in-home daycare. Why yes, you could clearly run a business of this sort without needing to pay someone to watch your own child, but for the most part this kind of business is limited in its growth or income potential. If you ever wanted to take this business to the next level, you would be looking at hiring employees to manage the childcare aspect while you handled more of the business side of things, in which case your child might be present on site but would be unlikely to be watched/cared for by you.
Another possible exception to the idea that it’s impossible to be a work-at-home mom with no childcare is moms of newborns and young infants, especially those who are breastfed. When both of my girls were under a year old, it was very easy to get work done in their presence. For the most part, they nursed and slept in my lap for hours, and our plan for baby 3 is to also have him or her home with us for the first 12-18 months (of course we have the added benefit of having two work-at-home parents who can trade duties as necessary). Exactly when having a baby with you “at work” becomes challenging will vary based upon the mother, the baby, and the type of business, but I am a strong proponent of keeping babies with mom as much as possible (especially in the early days), and believe it can be done.
What’s your experience?
Are you a work-at-home mom? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how or when you work and how you balance it with time with your kids. Do you have full or part-time childcare? If so, when and why did you realize it was necessary? Think I’m wrong? Feel free to share your thoughts on that too!