I've been a self-employed, work-from-home mom for the past 11 years. People are often curious about the idea of working from home, and one of the most common questions they ask me is "how do you get so much done with the kids at home with you?" The answer to that question has changed over the years, so let's back up to the beginning. (The ideas I'm going to share can help keep kids happy and busy while you do work-work, housework, yard work, exercise, hobbies, just about anything!)
When I started my home-based graphic design business 11 years ago, we had two kids, ages 5 and 2.5. The corporate cubicle was suffocating me and even though we had an amazing daycare provider, I just really wanted to be at home with our kids. However, I loved my work and we needed two incomes, so self-employment was the answer. In those early days of my business, my work amounted to part-time hours, so I was able to do the majority of my work from 8pm-midnight, when our kids were in bed. At various points during the day, I'd quickly check and respond to emails as needed to maintain communication with my corporate clients who worked normal daytime hours. For the most part, my daytime hours were free to spend with the kids, and most people assumed I was a stay-at-home mom...they didn't even realize I worked at night.
The next year we added a third baby to the family, and my work was picking up. I still aimed to get as much work as possible done at night and spend my days with the kids, but on heavy deadline days, I'd be waiting at the door when my husband got home from work, ready to pass the suppertime and bedtime duties on to him so that I could start working earlier in the evening. I was also able to sneak in an hour or two of work during the day while the kids napped, and I quickly got the hang of nursing a baby while working at my desk. :) Admittedly, this was an exhausting schedule with very little room for "me-time" or "couple-time", but we were committed to making it work because having the kids at home with me was our top priority. The idea was similar to spouses who work opposite shifts to avoid daycare...you can do anything for a season if you're committed and the results are worthwhile.
Two years later, baby #4 arrived, and that's when I really learned to juggle. At that point, we had an 8 year old and a 5.5 year old in school full-time, and a 2 year old and a newborn at home with me while I was working nearly full-time hours as my business grew. My "office hours" included lots of evenings and weekends, as well as various pockets of time during the day when my little girls were happily occupied with the activities that I'll talk more about below.
And now here we are, in my eleventh year of being self-employed. We started a handmade farmhouse decor business last year, which means that now my husband is a work-at-home dad too! Each year has been a little different for us, especially now that our kids are all school-age (16, 13, 10 and 7.) They're home on summer break currently, and Matt and I spend the majority of our daytime hours working. Matt works in his basement workshop so he doesn't get very distracted, but my office is in the main area of the house, which makes me easily accessible to the kids. We've used a variety of chore charts and activity lists over the years, and we keep tweaking things to work with our growing and changing family. Currently, I have a daily list on the fridge so that each child can see at a glance if anything is scheduled for the day, what their chores are, and how long they can expect mom & dad to be working. This helps eliminate a few of their questions and helps them to be more self-sufficient. I still utilize some of the techniques I developed when they were little to keep them happy, busy and productive while I work.
Whether you're doing work-work, housework, yard work, or another type of project, I think you'll find that some of these ideas will help you to be more productive while also teaching kids to be self-sufficient...I'll elaborate on each idea below.
How to keep kids busy while you work...
1. Teach them to play.
2. Teach them that you're in charge.
3. Set a timer.
4. Fill up their tank.
1. Teach them to play. I'm a huge fan of kids just playing. With all the screens that are available to today's kids, it's becoming less and less common to just PLAY, and that's concerning. Children should be able to sit and play with toys for a length of time without needing their parents' undivided attention and without needing a screen. (Think back to the "old days"...moms were always working around the house, not entertaining the kids all day.) Kids are capable, but they need to be equipped. From the time they were babies, I started giving them "blanket time", where I'd plop the baby on a blanket (or in a bouncy seat if they were tiny and needed to be out of the way of older kids) with a few toys, and I'd work nearby, where I could easily see and hear them. Baby is stimulated with toys and learns independent play from an early age and mom can get something done. Win-win.
By the time they were toddlers, I was able to give them a basket of toys, blocks or puzzles (which I rotated daily or weekly) and they'd happily play for 20 minutes or so while I got something done. At the time, their play area was in the corner of my office so I could keep a close eye on what they were doing. Rotating the toys prevented boredom and kept things fresh...they looked forward to seeing what toys were in that day's basket. I also occasionally incorporated themed "invitations to play", learning activities and Montessori ideas, when I was really feeling like supermom. Book baskets are another fun idea. Choose a selection of books from the library or your at-home collection, and sit the kids down for a little quiet reading time. You can designate these baskets of toys and books to only be used during your working time, to make them extra appealing.
At one point, I set up our old desktop computer on a small desk near my work area. That old dinosaur of a computer was only capable of playing a few Leapfrog learning games on CD-ROM, but the kids thought it was fun to "work" alongside Mommy. The same idea could be used with an iPad, cell phone or Chromebook, whatever you have. We allow very minimal screen time in our home, even for learning games, so they would also use their desk area to do preschool workbooks, printable activity sheets or coloring.
Our kids love watching Arthur on PBS, so they'll happily eat a snack while watching that 25 minute tv show, giving me another chunk of working time. (And since I'm anti-couch-potato, I send them outside to play once Arthur is done.)
For older kids who don't need as much direction but who can also be prone to boredom, try an activity jar. Ask the kids to brainstorm a list of every activity they can think of...maybe an indoor and an outdoor list. Our lists include things like playing store or kitchen, playing dress up, board games & puzzles, sidewalk chalk, jumping rope, relay races, etc. It's a long list of every activity imaginable. Cut the list up into separate pieces of paper and put them in two jars...one for indoor activities and one for outdoor activities. When boredom strikes or when you need some time to work, have the kids draw from the appropriate jar and do that activity. It will save you from having to come up with an idea on the spot, and it will encourage them to play, even as they get older.
2. You're in charge. If your kids are accustomed to having you at their beck and call, or you're just starting out with the idea of working while the kids play (whether that's desk work or housework), you'll need to establish some expectations. Explain to the kids at their level that Mommy and/or Daddy are going to do some work while they play for a designated amount of time. Kids will learn quickly that they are capable of playing independently and that they will still get attention from their parents. It's easy for us to get into the habit of being at the mercy of our kids. Parents can be tempted to do whatever the kids want to do, whenever they want to do it because we think it's easier than dealing with whining or complaining. It's easy for us to make our precious children feel like they're the center of the universe because we adore them. But this can make them think that they rule the roost, resulting in kids who constantly demand attention. Kids who have learned limits and expectations are more likely to become good listeners and on-task students in elementary school, coachable athletes in their teens, and impressive, motivated adults. (I know this can be a controversial, unpopular and old-fashioned opinion, but I truly believe that letting kids be the center of attention at all times is not doing them any favors.) Teaching some independence is a great gift to children.
3. Set a timer. Kitchen timers are great for keeping parents accountable and for providing a visual for kids (rather than having them ask you every five minutes "how much longer?") I like the concept of the Pomodoro Method (read more about that idea here.) In a nutshell, the Pomodoro Method is a time-management technique that incorporates 25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5 minute break when your timer goes off. After four of those "Pomodoro" sessions, you'd take a 30-60 minute break. The idea is meant for workplace productivity, but I find that the idea transitions really well to getting things done at home with kids. It's easy to tweak this idea to fit your tasks and your kids' attention spans.
Choose an amount of time to begin with (start small if needed). It might be ten minutes of working followed by ten minutes of togetherness, and you can build from there. Adjust your working times as your kids' attention spans allow, and adjust your break times to allow for tending to the kids' needs and/or spending a little quality time with them before embarking on another chunk of working time. You'll be surprised at how much you can accomplish in just 10, 20 or 30 minutes of focused, uninterrupted work time, and you can add more blocks of time into your day as your kids get used to the idea.
4. Fill up their love tank. The "love tank" idea comes from the "Love Languages for Kids" book by Dr. Gary Chapman. (If you're not familiar with the Love Languages concept, I'd highly recommend you read about it. It will change the way you look at all your relationships.) Let kids know that after your working time is up, you'll have a snack, read a story, or do a fun activity together, and then follow through with that. You might even want to give kids a bit of focused attention (and maybe a snack) before you start working, so that they can begin their playtime with a full love-tank and not feeling starved for attention.
If the purpose of working from home is to enjoy more time with your kids, make sure you allow windows of time to do just that. It can be really easy for us to get wrapped up in work, especially as our kids become more and more independent and accustomed to us working. Be intentional about family time to offset the working time (and know that some days include more working than others, and that's ok too...the idea of "balance" is tricky and I'll talk more about that in a future post).
Now that our kids are all school-age and at home for summer break, I like to have an activity or two in mind each week, so that when I take a break from working, I can do something fun with the them. Crafts, cooking and science experiments (and yes, even slime-making) are great things to do with kids of all ages.
And since self-employment often involves sacrifice, we try to make sure our kids see the benefits as well so that all our hard work is a blessing to our family. For example, we take advantage of our flexible schedule by occasionally playing hooky for an afternoon or a day. The kids love it when we pack up and head to the pool, go out for ice cream or a hike, or on a little day trip.
Kids don't need their parents' undivided attention all day long. Small chunks of quality time can go a long way toward making a child feel loved and valued, while also still allowing them time for learning independence while we do other things.
And one bonus tip to wrap up this looooonnnngggg post...
5. Remember your purpose. Working from home can be hard. Working outside the home can be hard. Being a stay-at-home parent can be hard. No matter your situation, there are challenging and exhausting days. It's up to us to make the best of it, to juggle our responsibilities, and to enjoy our kids while we have them. Focus on your purpose, whatever that may be. Do you work from home so that your kids can have that at-home childhood while you contribute to your family's income? Do you work outside the home so that you can focus your evening time on your family? Do you stay at home so that you can spend these precious years focusing on your children? We all have a reason for why we do what we do, whether it's by choice or necessity. Remember your purpose, and use it as fuel to keep you going on the tough days, and to motivate you to streamline your systems to allow for family time amongst the busy-ness. Because isn't that what it's all about?
Ang & Matt & Family