With a baby in tow, working at home takes on new meaning – and new challenges. Whether you're resuming a freelance career, starting a new one, or telecommuting, you're in good company. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2015 more than 25 million Americans – almost 25 percent of the work force – are choosing to work from home at least part of the time.
We talked to veteran work-at-home parents to discover their secrets for balancing work and family.
Juggling career and family is challenging whether your office is miles from home or in your basement. But if you're working at home, you'll need to experiment to find what works best for you and your family. The big question: Will you accomplish more if you set uninterrupted weekly business hours, or can you manage a less predictable schedule?
Writer and editor Annie Barrows, of Berkeley, California, falls into the first camp. "If you don't make the time to work, no one will give it to you," Barrows says. "An external structure with deadlines helps." To this end, she works three days a week in her sacrosanct, no-children-allowed converted garage.
But if you're disciplined enough, you may succeed with a more flexible schedule. Chris Demarest, a children's book author and illustrator, found that he enjoyed the flux of each day while he worked at home in New Hampshire. "I wasn't too strict about separating myself from the family," he says. "I'd work for a certain amount of time each day, but I liked to play with the baby or tinker around the house."
One point veteran work-at-home parents agree on: Childcare is a must. And whether you go for a strict work schedule or a more haphazard one, do plan some transition time. It's not easy to move from diapers to deadlines and back again. Give yourself time to make phone calls, open mail, or simply collect your thoughts.
Likewise, make sure to schedule family time into your workday, perhaps feeding your baby, joining your older kids for lunch, or taking a walk together. As your children grow, include them in your work life – many work-at-home parents appreciate that their children see their work as part of the rhythm of family life.
The secret to such a transition: Get organized! Swap childcare with other parents, and consider joining or starting a babysitting co-op. Spread the word to nearby friends and relatives that you need childcare help. They'll probably appreciate the opportunity to do something concrete for your family – and help you launch your new career. If people ask, "What can I do to help?" tell them: Watch the baby for a few hours, prepare a meal, do the laundry.
Another important strategy: Learn to work in short blocks of time while your baby is playing in a swing, napping, or sleeping at night. Arrange a play area near your desk, complete with blankets and toys, so you can keep your baby amused – at least for a few minutes – while you answer emails or draft a letter.
When it comes to your house, encourage your partner to take on more of the cooking and cleaning responsibilities. If that's not an option, the easiest path is simply lowering your expectations. If you can accept life with some degree of messiness, you'll have more time for work and family.
Try not to see your changing standards as a loss of control. Rather, take the change as your attempt to go with the flow and adjust to a new situation. Don't get distracted by putting away toys or vacuuming. Leave the tidying until the end of the day or put it off altogether and then do a big cleanup on the weekend.
Most importantly, set realistic goals. You'll need to ease into working under these new circumstances. Don't try to write a novel when you're most likely good for just a few paragraphs. Agree to make that presentation in three weeks, not one. Everyone will be better off.
The answer to this question depends on many factors, including the layout of your home, the temperament of your child, and your own tolerance for noise and distraction.
You may discover that you simply can't work with your child around – even when a babysitter's on duty. In that case you'll need to make off-site childcare arrangements – or establish a home office out of sight and earshot.
Even if you can work with your children nearby, you'll need a reasonably private space, preferably with a door that closes, in order to accomplish anything. Once behind that door, some parents want to be disturbed only in case of an emergency.
Other parents, like San Francisco writer Susan Davis, find that some interruptions alleviate worries and tension. "If the babysitter feels free to ask me questions or to tell me when it's time to breastfeed, I can relax knowing the baby's needs are being met," Davis says.
Whatever your style, resist the urge to minister to every cry. Find someone you trust and let her do her job. If you come running whenever your baby needs you, she won't learn to turn to the caregiver and the arrangement won't work.
Do make sure, however, to set up a schedule with regular breaks to visit with or feed the baby. This way you get the best of both worlds, which is probably why you chose to work at home, remember?
Discipline and clear communication are essential. Therapist Christa Otter, of Montpelier, Vermont, sees clients at her separate home office and prevents interruptions by setting specific office hours. "Everyone – friends and family included – knows not to disturb me during those times," she says.
If you're in a profession with murkier boundaries or you've set up shop on the dining room table, you may have to work harder to stake out your territory.
A separate business phone makes life much simpler – let the answering machine take care of your home line during work hours. Or give out your cell phone number for work and don't answer the home line (or vice versa).
If you get a personal call during working hours, ask the caller to ring you at a more convenient, specified time. If you're unavailable for visits, hang a friendly sign on your door or ask your sitter to play sentry.
Be unapologetically serious about your work. If you don't take it seriously, neither will anyone else.
Chances are, you'll find no shortage of human contact. Remember, you'll be seeing a lot of the folks who are caring for your baby as well as your fellow parents if you're using a childcare center.
If your work doesn't naturally involve other people, consider joining professional organizations, scheduling regular lunches with colleagues, participating in parent or play groups, and taking exercise or work-related classes.
Many work-at-home parents find isolation isn't the problem – it's that they have no time alone. "Make time for yourself," says Irene Facciolo, an architect in Vermont. "Between work and caring for your children, it's really easy to forget about yourself, yet it's so important not to."
So as you become a master at scheduling work, family, and household responsibilities, be sure to pencil in time for yourself as well.