Reality check: The Work-At-Home life

Stuffed animals in disarray.
What my life feels like right now.

Greetings from the home front! Weekly routine has resumed, after much disruption and unusual activity in late December due to Christmas and my husband being on leave, etc.

As the caption above clearly states, this is how I feel about my current state of affairs right now. Everything is in disarray and all muddled, with unfinished business piled up high into one huge To Do mountain (the word “list” seemed too mild a word to describe the mayhem heh).

But I’m not really here to complain. We have enough negativity online, don’t we? To the contrary, I’m just here to share some candid stories with you.

If it’s your first time here, let me just give you little background by saying that I am a mother to a 2+ year old son and I maintain a home based career as a freelance writer while managing my child on my own during the daytime (until my husband returns from work at the end of the day, that is). That’s most of what you need to know, really.

Alright, let’s get on with it. Here’s what this post is essentially all about:

Working at home and its wonky consequences

Part of the reason that I started this blog was so that I could encourage you, my dear reader, through tales from my own life. This is one of my attempts to do just that.

Right now, my current lifestyle involves being homebound so let’s talk about that.

In particular, if you’re someone who’s contemplating whether the Work-At-Home arrangement is suitable for you, perhaps what I am about to say will help.

Let’s talk about what working at home really looks like, shall we?

For starters, there is no such thing as a typical day at home. Ironically. Haha.

However, I can share with you some regular features in my daily and weekly routine. Here are some of them:

1. Scrounging for time to work wherever I can. This is usually during my toddler’s nap times, after he has gone to bed at night or while he is absorbed in some play activity all by himself. The pockets of time that I normally manage to seize range from 5 minutes to perhaps 45 minutes. Anything block of uninterrupted time of a duration close to an hour or beyond is very rare indeed.

2. Multitasking: The unavoidable, lesser evil. For example, this morning, I had to prepare my invoice which I needed to send out to my client while nursing my still sleepy and slightly grumpy son at the same time. This meant balancing him on my lap while trying to type at the keyboard. Other examples of feats I have had to perform include cooking with multiple interruptions from my son or having to pause to check whether he has gotten up to anything mischievous while doing my best not to burn any food. Also stuff like eating lunch while standing or moving around the home doing chores (such as hanging out the laundry) at the same time.

3. Staying available on the phone to reply work related messages. I often settle work related conversations via WhatsApp which means sometimes offering divided attention to my son. What this looks like in reality: We would be eating lunch and as I coax him to keep feeding himself and keep a conversation going with him, I’ll also be hashing out ideas to a client about what content to put up on their Facebook posts.

4. Working in odd circumstances or conditions. Basically, not being fussy about when or where or how you work. When I’m desperate, I’ll write social media copy while relieving myself in the toilet or in bed when I get up in the middle of the night and realise I’ve unfinished work that’s soon due. Sometimes, I also write while sitting at the back of the car as my husband drives us to our destination.

5. We don’t cook as often as I’d like to. We manage only 3 homecooked meals weekly, and we eat 2 dinners each week at my parent’s place where my Mum would cook. Although we only cook several times a week, we somehow manage to salvage enough leftovers to cover lunch times on weekdays. So most days, Jamie and I eat leftovers for lunch in the daytime. Whichever other meals that are not homecooked or eaten at my parent’s are store bought.

6. The first thing to be neglected is usually chores. Since my time is divided between house chores, freelance work and minding Jamie, this is how things often gets prioritised. If you are the kind that cannot stand physical mess, this will likely irk you as it does me. I can tolerate a certain degree of untidiness, but what we experience over here often exceeds my threshold. But I have to live with it. Because being at home and working only on a freelance basis means we don’t have much extra cash to play with so hiring paid help to handle household chores is highly unlikely.

7. Child minding takes up most of my time. This is especially so if you have a toddler. They haven’t really learned patience yet. And they are almost always needing you or clinging to you. So if you can’t stand someone always being in your face, maybe leave childcare to a babysitter and keep that full time job so you can afford the corresponding fees. A win-win for you, since you will not go crazy dealing with the demands of a young child. Trust me, there’s a lot involved.

8. Lack of personal time. This is probably the pessimistic part of me speaking, but more often than not, you will not have any time to yourself. Even glancing through the notifications on your mobile device is a luxury. Being able to eat whenever you’re hungry is another thing you might need to sacrifice. Hobbies? Sure, but normally that’s only once all the necessaries have been dealt with, eg everyone in the family has been fed, essential chores are out of the way, no client is waiting for any deliverables from you.

9. Be prepared for interruptions anytime. This means that you will often have multiple tasks at various stages of completion at any one time. The interruption I am talking about is the kind that comes from your child. The sort of interference that you wanted to be at home for in the first place: To be there when your child needs you. But this also implies that other things will need to be set aside in favour of that. Tasks that might take only a few minutes can end up requiring double or triple the time to get done because of the said interruption.

Does all of that sound mighty gloomy to you? Well, it shouldn’t because being at home with your child has its generous share of blessings too.

Here are some of them:

1. I did not miss a single developmental milestone for my son. In fact, most times, I was the one who was right there to see him do something for the first time. The one I remember most vividly was when he sat up on his own for the first time. I couldn’t imagine how he might learn how to do it and was stumped on how to encourage him to achieve it. Then one day, while he was playing and rolling around on a mat which I had set up on the living room floor, he suddenly did it. The look of surprise and pride on his face when he had just realised what he had done was priceless. As was the memory of that incident which I hold to this day.

2. I was there whenever my son needed me. Being at the tender age of two that he is, he often seeks me out for all sorts of reasons: For comfort, to share with me a thought or feeling, to invite me to play, to ask for a hug or to be held. Although I cannot always meet his needs right away, I am available and near him and hopefully this helps him to grow up with a deep sense of security and confidence.

3. Because we are around each other 24/7, I get to observe his behaviour all the time and hence, am aware of tiny nuances of change in him. Children grow up so fast. Nearly every week or every few days, something potentially changes for Jamie. His preferences for food. The vocabulary that he uses. His thought processes. His physical skills and inclinations. I am also more likely to notice when he is about to fall sick or if anything is bothering him eg he is not sleeping well or has any insect bites or injuries.

4. A closeness that cannot be obtained any other way. I like the fact that Jamie is closest to me, and prefers me for most things. This isn’t always a good thing, and I still need him to be able to accept my husband handling him as well whenever I am not able to, but it’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. That special connection that can only come from my son being around me 24/7.

5. Freedom from the superficiality of the corporate work environment and avoidance of time wasters like epic traffic jams. All because I am at home and can be more selective of who I work with and when I choose to be out and about (not during rush hour, as much as I can help it).

Alright, duty calls so I have to scoot. Hope you read all the way to the end. And that it has been eye opening. Hehe. See you again soon!

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Choosing to be a Work-At-Home Mum

I could be wrong, but I personally feel that only a really small percentage of people out there truly understand what it means to be a work-at-home parent.

Say that you are in full time employment, describe the main responsibilities of your job in a few sentences, and you will have others nodding their heads. They can imagine how you pass your days. They conclude that you are living your life productively.

Or tell people you are a stay-at-home parent, and they will envision house chores and self managed childcare. They might still make wrong assumptions about what your daily routine is like, and may overestimate the actual amount of free time you have, but they will at least have a somewhat concrete idea of what you would possibly be doing on a day-to-day basis.

But tell someone that you are a Work-At-Home Mum (WAHM) and I believe they can’t really reconcile what it is that you do at all. The concept eludes them. You are either a plain vanilla housewife, or you work like the rest of them and usher in hard earned money that’s needed to keep your family alive. But WAHM? How does that even work?

What’s horrible about this is that I often feel the need to justify what I do. While in conversation with others about my WAHM status, I often tend to emphasise the fact that I do work, even while caring for my son at home. They may not have actually asked about this, but I will be anxious to point it out, as though it is terribly idle of me to only be focussing on house chores and being available to my son. This feels like a terribly wrong thing to happen. But it keeps turning out this way.

Let me illustrate my point. Here’s an example or two of how a chat with a friend might go:

Friend : So, you’re taking care of your son at home full time now?

Me : Err yeah… and I also do freelance writing too.

Or this…

Friend : So, what do you do every day nowadays?

Me : Well, I am at home, taking care of my son… and I try to work at the same time too.

I got asked a similar kind of question again recently. So I figured maybe it’s about time I wrote about this. Maybe it will lend some clarity to my thoughts so that next time, I can explain it all much better to someone else.

And perhaps it may benefit you, my reader, in ways I cannot yet comprehend. It might somehow be useful to you to know what a WAHM does, or why a woman might become one in the first place. Who am I to know?

So, without further ado, let me tell you about why I am a WAHM and what this means for my life.

Our reasons

While waiting for the arrival of our son into the world, my husband and I had many good chats about what we would like our family life to be like. We talked about childcare options, hit some dead ends, and concluded that, based on the options we had and our personal sentiments towards it all, that me becoming a WAHM would be a feasible choice.

One of our main reasons for arriving at this conclusion is that we felt uneasy about sending our son to a daycare or to hire a babysitter to look after him. Babies are incapable of communicating to you whether they have been well cared for or whether there has been an abuse of some form taking place, so rather than have to worry about all that, we felt we would rather that one of us be at home to take care of him.

Another reason why we went with this WAHM decision was that we wanted to be available to our son. That when he reaches out for help or wants company or any other need he may face at this early stages of his life, we would be the ones there to meet those needs. Sure, any other adult whom we appoint could stand in and do the same thing for us in the daytime, leaving us free to carry on with our jobs as before, but it would not be the same as if it were us, his very own parents, being there for him.

And just so you know, my husband and I are the type that evenly shares out responsibilities such as house chores. We also make a lot of decisions together rather than dividing up tasks and managing them independent of one another. So the process of pregnancy, delivery and child raising has always been something we were both actively involved in, as it has been for other aspects of our life together.

The decision that it should be me quitting my job and not him was mostly because he earns a better salary than I do. Also, the nature of my career lends itself to better freelance work options than his.

So that is what we went for and our rationale for it.

Another thing to add here is that we are not rich. Surviving on a single income as a family is scary, given the economic situation of our country at the moment. In some ways, I felt that it would help compensate for my loss of full time employment to a certain extent if I at least were to try and work on a part time or freelance basis. I also wanted a backup in case somewhere along the line my husband is unable to work or cannot secure a job.

Work arrangements

To give you some background, prior to becoming a mother and quitting my full time job, I was a journalist. So, when I transitioned to freelance work, I naturally wanted to take on writing jobs. Which I did.

Initially, I managed to get some journo gigs too; not just for my former employer, but also for other publications. It felt good, because I thought I would not be totally giving up on my skills and earning power.

But as time went on, I found it was getting harder to do journalism work while having my son in tow. For one, I doubt most interviewees would fancy a bubbly little toddler frequently interrupting their conversation with me. Being on time for appointments would also be a challenge with a tiny tot around. Then there was the arduous task of transcribing which would require a significant amount of time and focus; something I do not have enough of most days. And this is not even taking into account the actual writing process yet.

So I resorted to changing things up a bit and only accepting certain types of writing work.

Currently, this means only taking up copywriting or PR related work. In some ways, the returns are better than journalism assignments actually. But the nature of the writing involved is rather dull. So, in other words, it’s mostly about making the moola and little else.

Daily duties

Before I end off this post, a little on what I do every day.

Just like your average SAHM, I have my lion’s share of house chores and childcare related tasks to tackle all the time. I think you can roughly imagine what that might involve: Laundry, doing dishes, making meals, tidying up after my child, bathing, feeding, etc.

And then there’s the ongoing demands of my toddler to manage too. Like when he wants me to play with him. Or he wants to engage me in conversation. Or he has lost a random toy that he absolutely cannot do without. The thing about a young child is they do not understand the concept of waiting too well so they will likely want a response from you straight away. And to top it all off, they have no inkling of whether the current activity you are doing is urgent or otherwise, so they will just interrupt you anytime they need you. Which means your attention gets divided a lot and things you are working on often get abandoned halfway.

Many times, I’ll have a few tasks running and at various stages of completion during any given time of the day. It’s a bit maddening and takes some getting used to. The fact that your priority list has to keep getting adjusted to suit the demands of the hour. Consider it like a job which requires you to do a lot of ad-hoc tasks. Or one where you could be on call at any hour of the day.

Then comes the actual paid work bit. As with any other form of work, there are clients to please. This means deadlines and promises to keep. A certain degree of discipline to get work tasks done, regardless of whatever else is happening in the realms of house chores and your child’s wants and needs.

Oh, and I think it’s worth mentioning too that since these are freelance gigs, you will very often be dealing with new clients. And with every new one, there’s that long, arduous task of getting acquainted, familiarising with their communication and work styles, and negotiating the entire work agreement. This is in itself VERY TIRING and the part I am least excited about when it comes to freelancing.

Now, what does working at home look like?

Having my tablet or handphone always close by, and keeping an eye out for any messages or emails coming in which are about work. Replying them within a 24 hour timeframe (this is a work ethic I set for myself).

Planning ahead to finish work with some buffer in terms of time, because you can never tell when something unexpected will happen at home that will knock your work schedule off its course. Example: Child/spouse/yourself falling sick.

Working at any time of the day and at any corner of the home (toilet included), no matter how ridiculous it might be, as long as it’s a span of time which is fairly uninterrupted so that you can actually think properly and produce relatively good quality work. This also sometimes requires staying up when you want to sleep. Foregoing naps you desperately need. Ignoring the child in the background who keeps inviting you to play. Putting off your own meals till later and then (potentially) suffering gastric from the folly of your actions.

I hope this gives you a glimpse into what my life is like as a WAHM. If it is beneficial for you, I will attempt to talk about this experience more in future posts. Let me know what you’d like to know more about and I’ll do my best to put it into words to help you out.

Perhaps you are considering going down a similar path. Or would like to better understand your neighbour, relative or friend who dons the WAHM label. If something I have already been through would be useful for you to learn from, I’d be happy to share.

Anyway, I really glad to have had you stop by, and hope you enjoyed reading this.

Midway point

Midday breather.

This is us at 1.40pm in the afternoon. He has just fallen asleep. 

What happened prior to this was a pretty much non-stop blur of activities. Right from the time he opened his eyes and woke up as I carried him into our apartment, having just returned from dropping my husband off at the LRT station, where he would catch a train to work. 

I have not yet had my lunch. He hasn’t either. But he had a pretty sizeable breakfast, involving 2x as much bananas as I expected him to consume. 

He also wanted to do art activities with BOTH markers AND paint right after breakfast, much to my dismay. 

But overall, there’s still plenty of daylight hours left to salvage so off I go. 

I shall attempt to tell you more true to life tales of my everyday adventures soon. 

Just so you know though, this is what life at home feels like. Not as leisurely as you’d imagine. Pretty packed with chores and mundane things. But with some occasional magic to spare.

Awkward alien

Image source: Flexo

Becoming a Work At Home Mum (WAHM) is a double whammy. Not only are both those roles tough to navigate, there is this additional problem of becoming an awkward alien. 

What do I mean by that? 

Well, basically everyone else in your life who isn’t a mother and/or isn’t living a homebound lifestyle (which is probably like 90% of your social circle, if you’re in your 30’s like me) will be unable to understand you and the things you go through on a daily basis. This transforms you, essentially into an alien. And this then leads to some pretty awkward situations and conversations. 

To give you an example, here are some questions and/or comments I had to field lately: 

“So you guys don’t eat out much anymore nowadays, right?” 

– Hmm, while that is the truth, what this question reeks off is the underlying assumption that because I am now at home, therefore I must be cooking all the time. And also, since we have less household income, that we would probably want to be frugal and eat in seclusion, thus morphing into kataks di bawah tempurung.

“So when are you going to go back to work?”

– Thing is, I am working. Just not in a way that most people would comprehend since I don’t have fixed hours or fixed clients (except for one that I have been doing work for since last year). Read: I freelance. It’s not much compared to what I used to do in my old full time position, but I like to keep my career alive and options open. AND I’d like the freedom to be around to raise my son rather than let someone else do it for me. 

“Ah, so it helps you keep your mind active lah, gives you something to do.” (In response to finding out that I am taking on freelance work wherever I can.)

– I guess you can’t blame a person who hasn’t really spent day after day at home at all hours, because they would not have realised just how much there is to do at home. Even if I don’t come up with a list of things to do, or my son doesn’t throw a tantrum or mess up something and give me things to clean up after, there will ALWAYS be things to do at home. My home is my office, and whenever you are in the office, your working mode will be on. Which pretty much means I am almost always working on something and the chores never end. This isn’t even taking into consideration my actual freelance work. And, the fact is that just managing the household requires plenty of brainwork, because instead of doing it mindlessly, if you are a mature, educated adult, you will always want to find ways to improve things at home, be it the efficiency and speed of accomplishing chores, the organisation of furniture, storage solutions or other things. 

There was also this incident where I was having a conversation with two other ladies around my age. The two of them were going on and on about how kids are like this or that, citing examples of nieces and nephews and children of other friends. Perhaps it was them trying too hard to identify with me, the only one in the conversation who was a mother. Mmm. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about young children since I have one myself, but there is an invisible boundary somewhere, which once crossed, makes it uncomfortable and unnatural to carry on discussing this topic. It is especially so when the people keeping the topic going are those who don’t have kids in the first place. 

Just to clarify, being a WAHM doesn’t make me hate all these other more normal and sane people in my life (yes, I’m probably getting more and more queer with each passing day, if I have not yet morphed into an oddball) . But it does make it feel like a large chasm just opened up between us. And that makes it a bit harder, though not impossible, to connect. 

Well, I guess I should apply the same rules of conversation as a WAHM that I had used in the past: Always seek to understand more than to be understood; to ask about the other person and to care for them, rather than to expect them to be concerned for you. 

And then, all will be fine, and no one will suspect what an awkward alien I really am. 

It’s just that… it would be nice if everyone in general understood the WAHM situation better so less misunderstandings and explanations would need to be provided.