Working at Home

For those that work at home, the line between work and family has blurred, almost to the point where it’s hard to tell when you’re working and when you’re raising kids. Some people say that’s bad for the kids, but a growing number of work-at-home parents would strongly disagree.

The phone call finally comes. For a couple weeks I had worked to nail down an interview with Alice Miles, Ford’s VP in charge of e-business development. The phone call was designed to cap a lengthy article on car-maker e-biz. Just as the PR flack put Miles through, my three-year-old daughter runs over, looks up at me, her face three inches from the phone receiver and says, “Dad, I gotta go poop right now!”

Horrified, I apologize to Miles, explaining that I work from home while taking care of my young kids. Thankfully, she laughs and tells me she has two of her own at home. She wishes she could be with them more. The interaction warms her up, so the interview goes well. My daughter has to wait a few painful minutes. Welcome to the new American family.

There are more than 20 million people working from home or running small home-based companies. The Small Business Administration projects the number will reach 40 million in a few quick years. There is also a growing number of people who bring work home for evenings, weekends, even sick days. The line between work and family have blurred, almost to the point where it’s hard to tell when you’re working and when you’re raising kids.

Many commentators fret about these developments, claiming that work-at-home deprives the kids. In my case, it deprives the kids from a day in daycare. I’m a single dad. If I didn’t work from home, my time with the kids would be relegated to every other weekend and two weeks during the summer. Working from home allows me to be with the kids almost every day.

I also believe a day blended with work is a good day. Get breakfast, do a touch of research, clean the dishes, get the clothes out, draft an outline, bring out the toy boxes, make a few phone calls. During the summer, I pay my thirteen-year-old to baby-sit his younger sisters. The girls like their brother’s attention, which would otherwise be directed at video games, and they’re not farmed out to a sitter. They’re still in their own home and I’m still just a few feet away.

The downside is the lack of sustained concentration, which is necessary to most professional labor. So I get up at 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. This gives me a good three or four hours of uninterrupted concentration.

So, where’s the downside? Many years ago when I worked in an office, I would come home and play with the kids. Now I don’t have a regular time that I play with the kids. At first that was a concern. After all, isn’t it the parent’s role to get down on the carpet and wrestle? It is if you haven’t seen your kids in 12 hours. But if you’ve spent the last 12 hours with your kids, wrestling is optional.

A couple years back in this column, I compared the new American family to earlier American families, where mom and dad worked on the homestead and the older kids helped. The earlier model is essentially the way kids were raised for about 5,000 years. No wonder it feels so comfortable. Most commentators who wring their hands at the work-from-home movement don’t seem to get the fact that the alternative is mostly day care.

The arrangement has its moments of high frustration. I’m neither Ward nor June Cleaver. My primary income comes from my work on a weekly trade paper. Wednesday is “deadline” day, and it’s a short-fuse day indeed. When it’s down to the hour, I can get a touch crabby. It gets real.

In the end my kids will know their dad very well, down to my very last blemish. I’ve fretted over what’s the best way to raise these kids. What are the rules? What should the boundaries be? What is appropriate discipline? What lessons should I teach? I’ve come to believe that being a caring and constant presence is the most important part. The rest takes care of itself. Except for the bowl of macaroni and cheese that just fell on floor, upside-down, while I’m on deadline…

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