Shhh, I'm on the Phone...
Many women choose to work from home in order to balance their work lives with the lives of their children. Intermingling these two demands is extremely tough and a daily struggle for most brave souls who attempt it. Running away from screaming children while on the portable phone while trying not to appear out of breath and professional, and above all, listening to the client while berating yourself for being such a bad, bad mother – typical at my house with my four children.
While there are no foolproof methods to ensure total serenity during those important calls, there are steps which can be taken to minimize interruptions and make the most of your work time.
Many parents (aka cynics), would suggest that the best way to work at home with kids is to have the kids shipped out of the house. This is not a bad suggestion, but it isn’t always workable. When you have to have the kids on the premises during work time, it is extremely important to set expectations: yours and theirs. Accept that if the kids are around, you cannot be as productive as when they are not. There is a reason why many companies expressly state in-home office contracts that children are not allowed to be on the premises during work hours. They aren’t being mean, they are just recognizing reality.
Explain to the children clearly what you are doing and why it is important they do not interrupt you. This may seem like talking to a brick wall, but you will have the moral high ground later when hell is breaking loose and you are yelling about having told them how important leaving you alone was!
Try to chunk up your work into smaller project segments that you might be able to accomplish – not only does this make you feel better (i.e. I have two items checked off my list of ten items, versus not completing one big item), but it has the added benefit that if you focus on smaller tasks, you might be able to proactively take breaks with the kids. Expect not to have three to four hours of uninterrupted time, but perhaps 20-minute segments you can easily fill.
Even with expectations being set by yourself and with the kids, it will still be necessary to distract the children, if they are present and conscious.
Use television and videos, but use them wisely. A new show (either on TV or by video/DVD is great for an older child – over the age of five or so), but an old favorite can work really well with younger children. They can watch the Wiggles Dance Party 114 times, by my estimation. It is especially important with young kids who can’t tell time to use time substitutes that they understand – like TV shows. Otherwise, you get interrupted with, “Is it time yet?” “No, it will be time after you watch Barney sing the good-bye song.”
If they aren’t interested in TV, create a schedule that keeps them busy and tells them when mommy is going to be playing with you and when you need to play on your own – you can fill in the time slots in different colors so that they can recognize them. Kids need this structure, and it will help you too. When they interrupt, then you could point to the time slot so they know that it is not ‘play with mommy’ time. Fill the time slots with activities such as coloring, arts and crafts, playing with a certain toy – make sure you save the ones they can do by themselves (i.e. coloring) for their alone time, not their ‘mommy’ time.
Even when you’re not on the phone, practice the ‘approving smile and nod’ as a way of telling them they’re doing okay. Many times, kids interrupt us because they want some kind of affirmation/reinforcement. Don’t always give them a ton of words – try the smile and nod. This will come in handy every time they come to show you another button on the Fisher Price toy, a new piece of priceless art, or a hole in their sock – and you’re on the phone.
Have snacks ready for them so they can either get at them themselves; or it’s a quick trip to the kitchen for you. Create a low shelf where they can find juice already in sippy cups or juice boxes, and opened packages/cut fruit that they don’t need your help with. Plan for breaks when you will spend time with the kids, and intersperse the breaks throughout the day. Share the schedule of that with the kids ahead of time – i.e. tell them if they watch, for example, Arthur and Scooby Doo and then we will do something together – even 15 minutes will do it. Let them know when the next stop is coming.
If you have reading or thinking work that needs to be done, and you can do it outside of the house, take them to a park or go for a walk to a new environment (indoor playground, mall with riding toys, or other distractions).
Taking it up a level, or to the extreme distraction methods which are required during important phone calls: Nothing is as nerve-wracking as waiting for that call that’s coming in a bit late and praying that the kids ‘wasted’ five or ten minutes of quiet time won’t come back to haunt you. I’ve done over 40 radio interviews on the phone and have only had to resort to hiding in the closet once.
Teach them sign language! Or at the very least, have at least one symbol that means “shut up!” I like the zipping of the mouth one myself. Or with older kids, I like the slicing across the neck – or with my 12-year-old-surfer-dude son, the universal signal for getting a haircut.
Have the ‘hold-back’ item – whether it is a special movie, game, food, whatever bribe necessary – that they only get when you have that very special meeting on the phone. This only works if you really only give this item when you really need it. Basically, I will nod my head and agree to almost anything when I’m on the phone. I’ll deal with ‘mommy’s contradictory nature’ when I’m off.
For really, really important calls, arrange them during naptime (you don’t have to tell your caller why a certain time during the day works really well for you). If they’ll take your call at 5:30 in the morning, go for it.
Above all, don’t assume your client wants to hear about your children and their antics. If the situation is really untenable, simply arrange, as professionally as possible, to call the person back at another time. Then, scream at the child and take back all the bribes you’ve been giving to them during the day.
Another key element to working at home successfully with children is setting up a support system and using it wisely. There are times when you simply need to get them out of the house – even ten minutes will do it in the case of a quick phone call or interview. The network of Women in a Home Office is the perfect example of how you can find other women in the same situation as you are, and how you can help each other. Next time you’re at a local chapter meeting or at a playground or other meeting area, see if you can find someone who is interested in trading off a little childcare time with you. It’s helpful to do this with someone whose children you can actually stand.
Closer to home, arrange to have your spouse/partner intervene as soon as they are available so that you at least know you can clean up all the stuff you didn’t get at some point during the day. Let them know they are on bath duty, storytime, lesson driving, etc. so that you can plan your time accordingly. Switch into power mode and really concentrate as soon as you can, for as hard as you can, and don’t get distracted yourself by the laundry, emptying the dishwasher, or answering the phone (unless it’s your husband asking for permission to come back from the mall with the four kids … on second thought, don’t answer that one either!)
This brings me to my point of not letting your own distractions eat up the precious work time you do have – the laundry, emails, and personal phone calls, can all be done when the kids are around. Save those chores for then, even if you’ve tripped over the vacuum cleaner in the hallway ten times since you got up that morning. Once you break the chain of concentration it can take up valuable minutes trying to get back in the mode and getting some real work done.
The final tip is to give yourself a break. You’re balancing both parts of your life and occasionally the balance will be tipped and it will seem like the end of the world; it isn’t. We’re all just human. Make repairs where you can (with your colleagues, your child, and potentially parts of your house) and carry on. The rewards of working from home, not to mention those that come with having children, are well worth the hiccups and side trips we take along the way. If nothing else, it makes for good material at office parties, neighborhood gatherings, or in this case, an article.
Kathy’s book, The Secret Life of SuperMom is available at all bookstores, including Chapters, Indigo, and online at amazon.ca. Journey to the Darkside: Supermom Goes Home will be released in April 2007. Visit kathybuckworth.com for more information. Kathy is a member of Women in a Home Office, a support network for women in home-based business with 14 chapters across Canada. womeninahomeoffice.com.
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