The advantage of working at home is that you’re there when your kids need you. The disadvantage of working at home is that you’re there when your kids want you.
I was a writer before I married, and well before I had children. I had, if I may say so, a disciplined schedule: I rose, exercised and then wrote for three or four hours. (People asked, “What did you do the rest of the day?” but if you are a writer you know that there is no “rest of the day.”)
Then my husband and I decided to have a baby.
This is how naïve I was about babies: I imagined that I could continue to work at home without interruption, because the baby would sleep in a bassinet next to my computer and, when a little older, he would entertain himself by jiggling a rattle or counting his toes.
Feel free to laugh at me. I laugh at myself. Well, now I do.
In the Lamaze class my husband and I attended before our son’s birth (My husband was the one in the suit and tie, hiding behind the sports section while the other dads were massaging their wives’ necks.), I dutifully wrote down that a newborn eats every two hours. Hey, I’ve been dividing 24 by two since I was in first grade. But the numbers were abstractions. They had nothing to do with me.
For the first few weeks of my son’s life, I did try to work and then I … OK, I’ll say it. I gave up. You can’t work at home with an infant, at least not until they start listing, “Wet Nurses for Hire” on NextDoor.com.
Eventually, I ended up with four children, a son and three daughters, because my husband is a lawyer, and they’re a persuasive breed. It put a crimp in my output—my writing output, that is. Obviously, I was doing all right in the baby department. Then, too, I breastfed them for what seemed like 20 years, but which might have been only six months each.
Fast forward a few years, and they’re in preschool. Mornings alone! It was still pretty difficult for me to work. By the time I convinced them that really, honestly, they would be glad that they went to preschool instead of watching that Thomas the Tank Engine marathon, and then maybe (just maybe) I went back to sleep for 20 minutes, I mean an hour, it was time to pick them up again.
Fast forward a few more years, and they’re in elementary school, and there’s an after-school program that they love. Now I can really work at home!
By this time, we lived in a San Francisco Victorian. Most San Francisco houses do not resemble those pictured in the opening of Full House (which is Alamo Square), but ours does: There are three bedrooms on the second floor, and there’s a third floor, smaller than the ones below, but more than roomy enough to serve as a home office. This was where I set up my computer. There was even a separate, smaller room up there, that was perfect for hiding all the candy that I didn’t want my kids to see me eat.
With a son and three daughters it seemed natural that the girls share a room and the boy have his own. No one wanted my Candy Storage Room, I mean, the extra bedroom, because it was creepy up there alone at night.
So began the whack-a-mole years. The kids would come home, and yes, I had to microwave, I mean cook, something for dinner, but there was that precious window in between when I was just getting some momentum. Their sweet little heads would pop up over the banister and I would yell, “What part of ‘Mommy’s working’ don’t you understand?” Not perfect, but doable.
Then came the Rap Music Years. That was when my oldest daughter hit middle school and decided that the extra room on the third floor wasn’t creepy at all—it was private! And separate from her sisters!
She moved in; the candy moved out.
She was gone a lot of the time, not only in school, but pursuing an active social and extracurricular life. Still, when her head popped over the banister it was to fix a laser-like stare on me, no longer wanting my company, but silently demanding to know, what are you doing here? Then she’d go into her bedroom and turn on her favorite playlist. That’s not music, that’s noise, I thought, but didn’t dare say. She was a teenager by then; they are hormonal and dangerous. Besides, I knew that every parent has had the same negative opinion of their children’s music since Neanderthals first banged rocks together and danced to the rhythm.
My oldest daughter went to college. My middle daughter took over that room. Her taste in music is the same, but her attitude toward my work is more charitable. She even calls us roommates.
Now, at last, I have disembarked from the E Ticket Ride (Google it) that is the Work-At-Home Roller Coaster. I still have two kids at home. They don’t want me the same way they did when they were little, but I’m always here if they need me, which was the whole point of working at home.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot:
I am not a Supermom, nor was meant to be;
I’m an ordinary woman, one was trying
To write on the third floor, as long as no one was crying.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, including He Could Be Another Bill Gates, published in October 2018 by Chickadee Prince Books. She lives in San Francisco.