Are there two words that strike as much fear and panic into a work-at-home-parent (WAHP) as “snow day?” Yes, actually. How about “sick day,” “PD day,” “spring break,” or the worst – “summer vacation.”
Before I started working from home, I had no idea how much anxiety these days would cause me. I was a kid once – I get how exciting these days are (even the sick days, let’s be real). As an adult, before having kids, these were still exciting – yay time off!
When I became a parent and was working outside of the home, I thought, man, these WAHP have it made. They don’t have to figure out what to do with their kids when school is out, they can just keep them home and not worry about missing work or finding childcare. As it turns out, this had a similar outcome to my declaration that, “When I become a parent, I will never take them to daycare on my days off – I will want to spend every free moment with them.”
I look back on both statements now and realize just how ridiculously naive those thoughts were.
It’s true, there are definitely some advantages to being a WAHP when it comes to kids being off school. I don’t need to worry that I will be stuck without childcare, because I am home. If there is a snow day or my kid throws up at school, I am not begging a boss to let me leave work, or begging someone to take my child. That said, when I worked outside the home, if I had to be home with my kid, I was home with my kid. It was expected that I had the day off to care for them, and that was that.
As a WAHP, whether or not my kids are home, it’s expected that I am still getting work done. I’m still at work – because I never leave work. I live at work. There is no disconnect or buffer. There is no nine-to-five. I can be contacted at a moment’s notice for something work-related, and while I can say no, doing so will cost me an opportunity – something that as a freelancer, I can’t afford.
I have deadlines, I have timelines, and I have work that I ration out based on the six hours a day my kids are in school. When they are home for a pre-planned PD Day, that’s manageable. When, as we did this winter, we get multiple snow days added to school vacations and PD days within a single month, or my kid is home with a week-long fever, that is far less easy to navigate.
“How is that different than any working parent?” you might ask. Well, in many ways, it isn’t. Being a working parent is tough, being a stay-at-home parent is tough, being any kind of parent is tough for many reasons. My intention is not to play Hardship Olympics. It isn’t a competition. The reason I bring up being a WAHP specifically is that what we do is often misunderstood. There can be this image that we are working from home and caring for our children at the same time, seamlessly, and isn’t that ideal? Who wouldn’t want that?
But the truth is, when you are working from home and your kids are home, you are not giving your full attention to either of them. Rather than defying physics and somehow working and caring for your children simultaneously, you are stopping work to tend to the needs of your children, or you are working with an ear, and part of your consciousness, on them instead of your work. I can’t speak for other occupations, but as a writer whose job involves thinking and flow of thought, having kids even playing in the next room can become distracting to the point I can’t work.
While someone who leaves their workplace to care for their children might be given some consideration, WAHP often experience the same expectations on their workload whether their children are with them or not – and there is a difference. Imagine bringing your children to your workplace if you work outside the house. Would you get the same amount and quality of work done? Imagine being expected to.
When my children are in school, my day has boundaries, at least flexible ones. My work day generally begins when they leave for school, and my family time begins when they get home. When they are off school, instead of having these blocks of dedicated time, I end up alternating between caring for my kids and working from sun up until bedtime. It feels like working a double-shift at two jobs, and it is exhausting. WAHP whose children are not in school experience this every day, and I am tired for them.
I find myself experiencing increasing anxiety leading up to summer, starting as early as February. The anticipation of coupling having no break from my children - the break that school, or even working outside of the house would provide – with the pressure to keep up with my workload, puts me on edge well before school lets out.
I know that when my kids are home, I will spend the hours with them feeling guilty for not working, and the hours working feeling guilty for ignoring them. I will end up working late into the night and sacrificing the time I need for myself and my sanity. The dissonance will diminish the feelings of job satisfaction and the joy I get from spending quality time with my children that I get when the two worlds are separate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work from home. Being able to care for my kids when they are not in school, thus sparing the cost of childcare, is the only way I am able to do my dream – but low-paying – job. There are unique advantages, absolutely. But the next time you see a WAHP stressing over a snow day, or because their kid has a sore throat, or about an up-coming school break, resist the urge to think “Well, at least they are home, so it should be easy for them.”
I promise, like every other group of parents, WAHP struggle, too.