Work-from-home parenting: Some dos and don'ts


Nearly fourteen years into my freelance career, I'm still wrangling with challenges rooted in bad decisions I made early on. So I hope you won't do as I did when I began working from home full-time.

On the other hand, I wouldn't still be self-employed if I hadn't done some things right—things that you should do too if you're working and parenting in the same space.

I could write a book on the perils and pleasures of work-from-home parenting. Here I will offer just a few dos and don'ts.

Don't overestimate the number of hours you can bill

When I ran the numbers to determine whether I could be the primary supporter of our household for a time as a freelancer, I assumed that I would be able to bill 40 hours a week. I did consistently bring in enough work to meet that goal, but I also rushed myself toward cerebral burnout.

The billable freelance hour is not the same as the on-staff hour. When you go into an office, your focused work is interrupted by meetings, coffee room chats, and various office affairs. When you're freelancing, you only bill laser-focused time. Most freelancers I've talked to bill 25 to 30 hours a week. A consistent 40 billable hours is not sustainable for most people over the long haul.

And remember, you need to put in more time than your billable hours. As a freelancer, you need to market your services, maintain your computer, network with colleagues, and develop new skills. Chances are you didn't decide to work from home so you could be heads-down with work 60 hours every week. So plan a 40-hour schedule that includes marketing, skill development, networking, and lunch away from your desk.

Don't overestimate the amount of support you'll have around the house

If your switch to at-home work is part of an overall realignment of household duties, be aware of the risk of unfulfilled promises. For example, if the game plan requires someone to put in long hours with the children who has never done so before, I recommend easing into the new earning plan gradually to see whether your housemate rises to the occasion.

Be absolutely honest with yourself. If your partner seems unlikely to sustain the household effort over time, budget for child care and other household help. If you think you will need such help and you can't fit it into the budget, then step back from the work-at-home plan and evaluate whether this is the right path for your family.

Do do great work

Because of my initial miscalculations, for years I worked unhealthily long hours, and I didn't sleep enough. It was very difficult. But I always did great work for my clients, and I always met my deadlines. Because of that—and a smart diversification strategy—my hourly earnings climbed over time and I was gradually able to reduce my billable hours to a more sustainable level while earning more each year.

Do remember the people you're doing this for

I am a work-from-home parent because I believe in present parenting. But working from home doesn't guarantee that you will be present to your children. For a while my girls and I enjoyed watching the reality show Supernanny, and I noticed that many episodes featured work-from-home parents who were always distracted and rarely engaged with their children. It makes no sense to work from home to be with your children, then refuse to be with them.

So build a wall around your family time, and don't let work interfere. Use the time you save by not commuting to cook healthy meals and enjoy family banter in the kitchen. When you're not behind a door working, be interruptible. Relish the fun surprises and teachable moments you're lucky to be present for while other parents are at the office or on the road.

If you're committed to the work-from-home life for the long haul, remember that it's never going to be cushy. As kids grow older, they need you just as much as when they're small, though in different ways. They're away more once they start school, but they need more focused attention in the evenings with schoolwork and next-day preparations, and over time they'll sleep less and less. Now I have teenagers and I work more while they're home and awake, but I'm also more willing to be interrupted and to have my day broken up by midday time together. This works best for our relational rhythms in this season of our lives. I expect that we will continue to share work and living space until my nest is empty. It's not always easy, but what a lucky mom I am!

Join the conversation

Are you considering working from home while parenting? What motivates you to make the switch? What are your biggest concerns?

Are you already working from home? What do you wish you'd done differently? What are you glad to have done well?