A piercing Facebook notification alerts you to a friend request awaiting your approval. Apparently you have a few mutual friends with this energetic-looking woman whose bio includes the phrase “Bossbabe Mom.” Her most recent status update is a picture of her working at her living room desk, a steaming cup of coffee and her laptop in front of her and a baby asleep in the bassinet at her side.
Involuntary eyeroll as you delete the request.
Unfortunately, that’s the knee-jerk reaction toward the work-at-home mom, or WAHM.
It’s impossible to ignore what’s going on around us. As we adapt to the new normal of COVID-19, moms everywhere are finding themselves in uncharted work-from-home waters, frazzled and looking for a life preserver.
The option to work from home was becoming more common even pre- pandemic, with many companies beginning to offer remote positions, especially for moms seeking more flexible careers. And there are plenty of “mompreneurs” who run their own businesses out of the home office.
Yet before the flood of #WFH listicles in the wake of the coronavirus, a quick Google search for “moms who work from home” yielded many results: the working mother, stay-at-home-moms and -dads, second-shift moms, moms in politics, Mr. Moms … and crickets on the actual WAHM front. It’s like they didn’t exist.
The conspicuous absence of WAHMs in modern research studies means there are minimal data-backed sources for parenting advice geared toward WAHMs and the challenges they face—for example, conflict with spouses. The experts I interviewed for this article didn’t even have enough evidence or examples to feel comfortable saying their clients’ relationship woes stemmed from the mom working at home.
Instead, what the WAHM does and the challenges she faces are typically conflated with those of the more commonly known stay-at-home mom, or SAHM.
Let’s get something straight first: Neither role is for the weak, and moms nationwide are finding that out in a way they never anticipated.
But for a long time, it’s been too easy to lump the WAHM in with the SAHM. Both get to stay in the comfort of their own homes, remain in pajamas, tend to the kids, watch a little daytime TV. The only difference is the WAHM stays on her phone more. Right?
As a former SAHM and current WAHM myself (even prior to COVID-19), just typing that made me cringe. My husband and I run a business together that operates one day a week. The other six days are spent marketing and advertising, networking, creating projections, managing finances, counting and ordering inventory, responding to emails, adjusting budgets … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I have a 10-year-old stepson, 9-year-old twins and a baby on the way, which means there is always a load of laundry and a sink full of dishes that need to be done. Oh, yeah—I’m also a full-time undergrad student, so throw some research papers in with my third and fourth graders’ impossibly difficult math homework.
I’d like to say that I have the secret of how to get it all done, but the reality is that my days are typically spent jotting down to-do lists on the back of junk mail while trying to be a present mom by listening to my kids’ never-ending stories, and waking up at 3am from nightmares about emails I never responded to.
Sound familiar? Breathe a sigh of relief—you’re not alone, and there are ways to bring balance to your work-at-home life.
Communicate Your Needs
I know I can’t be the only one who goes behind my husband after he puts dishes into the dishwasher in order to reload them the “right” way, or to check my kids’ rooms and give them the A-OK to go play outside so I can go in there and actually clean it how I like it.
On my bad days—when I’ve got homework due at midnight and three clients asking for revised quotes, and the boys still haven’t hung their wet towels up—I hold on to this stuff. I mentally compile a list of everything I had to do that day, from reloading the dishwasher to hanging up the kids’ dang towels, on top of I needed to get done for my business.
Basically, I intentionally overwhelm myself. The kicker, though, is that I don’t have to do it all.
From firsthand experience, let me tell you: Unnecessary martyrdom is not attractive.
Why did I feel the need to rearrange the dishes? Why couldn’t I just tell my kids that no, their rooms were not satisfactory, then go about my business while they continued to clean? Why can’t I trust my husband to fill up the water filter dispenser, or allow my kids to make their own breakfasts in the mornings, or ask my neighbor if my kiddos can play with her son today while I get some work done?
And if I can’t communicate these things to my family and friends, then how is it even remotely fair that I resent them for not doing their part?
AnnaMarie Christian, Ph.D., of Stanford Couples Counseling in Plano says the biggest issue a lot of her parent clients struggle with is communicating their need for help. She says that WAHMs in particular sometimes just have to rely on delegating.
“Look at everything that a stay-at-home mom normally does,” Christian says. “Cooking, cleaning, child care, playdates… All of those daily pressures plus the demands of whatever job you have is a lot for a mom to take on alone.” She suggests outsourcing some of these daily tasks to others, be it a spouse, a family member or close friend, or even hired help if financially feasible.
I know, it’s a tough pill to swallow. We are Mom. We have lived up to that title through years of hard work and sacrifice. We are not helpless.
However, Christian says the “I should be able to do this” belief is what inevitably breaks the WAHM down. (Say it louder for the moms in the back.)
Katey McFarlan, Fort Worth mom and owner of the lifestyle blog Chronicles of Frivolity, agrees that it’s important to split the parenting and household to-do list with your spouse. “I’m really good at asking my husband to do the dishes or help me cook dinner,” she says. “Tell your family what you need from them.”
She’s had to outsource tasks like grocery shopping and soccer game chaperoning to her husband in order to meet the deadline of a high-profile client who may not understand that she isn’t operating out of a standard office. “You’ve got to ask for help,” she says. “Your kids don’t care if they’re with Daddy at the grocery store or with Mommy at the grocery store, they just know that they’re being loved at the grocery store.”
Christian advises erasing gender roles and expectations, and just looking at what the family needs in order to function. She says spouses should discuss who is responsible for what in the home so there’s no confusion. But even two parents might not be able to do it all. That may mean asking your mother-in-law to take the baby for the afternoon so you can make that conference call. But don’t expect her to offer if you don’t ask.
Again, it’s all about communicating your needs (and limitations).
Fort Worth work-at-home veteran Lauren Keefe homeschools her teenage daughter on top of running her company, Happy Tomato Fresh Salsa. For Keefe, it’s not always feasible to complete what her business requires during her “normal” scheduled work hours. “Some days, I had things that I just couldn’t work around, and I had to rely on my other homeschool moms to help me with my kids,” she says. “I have an amazing group of friends who kind of step in for me when I need them to.”
Having a circle of people who understand your position as a WAHM is critical—so much so that Christian advocates full transparency and vulnerability with family and friends who may not entirely understand what your day entails.
“You have to level with your people and say, ‘Look, this is a day in the life of me,’” she says. “It actually takes an extremely disciplined person to work from home. You have all the responsibilities plus the distractions of the comfortabilities of your own life and being in your own space.”
Even your spouse might not realize you don’t have time for chores during the workday.
“It’s not something my husband and I ever fought about,” Keefe says, “but he just didn’t really get, like, ‘Why didn’t you have time to do these certain things around the house?’ And it’s because I was focused on whatever work I was trying to get done that day. It may have taken me longer because of interruptions from my daughter, or maybe I had to go pick up my son from practice. A lot of the time, housework gets pushed to the wayside.”
Let your circle know that you still have the tasks, deadlines and someone to answer to—just like any in-office employee. (Of course, you may need to remind yourself of that sometimes too.)
Create a Designated Work Space
“Picture being in the middle of a conference call, your child projectile vomits, you have a client who keeps calling you on the other line because they emailed you at 8am and they don’t understand why you haven’t replied yet, and the dog is barking because the neighbor is knocking on the door asking if you can watch her kiddo,” laughs McFarlan. “That’s what it can feel like to work from home!”
Because the sounds of life are unavoidable, Christian emphasizes how imperative it is to have a specific place in your home set aside for working only. “You can’t talk to clients on the phone while you’re cleaning pots and pans in the background,” she says. “In my own personal experience working from home, I had to have a designated office space. I had to feel like I was at work, because I really was.”
I can personally attest to this: My work area is sacred. My kids know that when I am at my desk, I am in the zone. They are not allowed to ask me for a snack, use my printer paper to draw, or play games on my computer once I have entered that zone.
I shut the door behind me, turn on Thunderstorm Nature Sounds Radio on Pandora and put my nose to the grindstone. Having that intimate space to mentally transition from Mommy to business owner is a crucial part of my productivity.
It takes tons of self-discipline to silence the distractions of kids, chores and daily activities going on around you, but carving out an area in your home that is purely yours to work in loosens the binds of domesticity and makes it easier to focus on your job tasks.
Clock In and Out
After all, setting (and respecting!) personal boundaries is the big issue for the WAHM. Working from home means we sometimes have flexibility in our schedule, but we also have the constant temptation to do non-work tasks—or to let work time bleed into family time, to the detriment of both. This means setting work hours and sticking with them.
“That’s always been hard for me,” says Keefe. “I can’t tell you that sometimes I don’t go switch out the laundry in the middle of what’s supposed to be my working time.” She says that ignoring laundry and other household chores can make her feel neglectful as a parent. “If I have a project that I’m working on for Happy Tomato, I have to tell myself that for this designated period of time, this is what I’m working on—and that’s just that,” she says. “Then when I’m done, I am done until my next self-allotted work time.”
Christian is adamant that if you fully commit to the work schedule you have created for yourself, all household chores can wait. “If you were not working from home, would you really have the urge to stop and do laundry?” she says, chuckling. (I’d say it depends on the workday!) “Starting or folding a load of laundry isn’t something that would normally be accessible to you,” she continues. “That’s why my No. 1 tip is to find that secluded space to work in and to adhere to the work boundaries you assign yourself, including your hours.”
Of course, you may choose to get some home and family tasks done during a formal work break. “If a WAHM finds it easier to cook dinner on her hour-long break so she can spend more time with her family when they all get home, by all means, do so,” notes Christian. “Just don’t feel like you must do it.”
When it comes to on-the-clock time, writing down your schedule can be a huge help in sticking with it. Sometimes just visually seeing where your hours go can jump-start your motivation.
“I live by time-blocking,” says McFarlan. “Maybe one day I’ll shoot content from 4–6pm, then from 6–8pm I’ll just be Mommy, then I’ll get [my daughter] in bed and I’ll answer emails until 10pm. Whatever I decide to do, I have to stick to the boundaries I created for myself.”
Clocking in and getting what needs to be done, done, is equally important as clocking out and staying done.
“By dinnertime especially, I’m done with work,” says Keefe. “I’ve been lucky in that not much has gotten in the way of that so far.” She’s noticed that people often see the work-from-home schedule as a luxury (I’m not going to lie—it can definitely be a gift at times), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“The delusion in society is that the work-from-home mom has it so easy and she’s so lucky because she gets to spend time with her kids whenever she wants,” says Christian, “but if she continues to work through the evening, just because she’s physically in her kids’ presence doesn’t mean that she’s really there.”
McFarlan says that her downfall is that she is a “horrible people pleaser,” which can be harmful to her family life. “I’m blessed with a really great manager who had to tell me—and still reminds me—that I have to set boundaries with my clients as far as how quickly I can turn something around,” she says. “I have to account for my other job responsibilities and my child’s life, and that includes setting boundaries of when to call it quits for the day.”
Part of the Conversation
Perhaps as moms everywhere grapple with these same boundaries during their temporary work-from-home stints, WAHMs will become a permanent part of the conversation—and subsequent research. Talking about our challenges and clearly defining our needs now is one step toward realizing future resources for parents who go searching for help in this new age of work.
Maybe this craziness is the start of WAHMs getting the recognition and support we need.
I, for one, am ready.
The Social Network
One of the cons of being a work-at-home mom is that you can easily feel lonely without the company of adult coworkers. Social media can sharpen these feelings of isolation by facilitating the “grass is greener” notion … or it can be used for networking and spreading encouragement.
Check out these local groups for WAHMs and mompreneurs:
- North Texas MomPreneurs is an active Facebook group for socializing and support run by a local mom and business owner. Occasionally the group hosts in-person events. Search for the group on Facebook.
- Dallas Femalepreneurs has social gatherings about once a month (including last December’s “Office” Holiday Party for women without an office) and an active Facebook group. Search “Dallas Femalepreneurs” on Facebook and meetup.com.
- The PLANO (Professional Ladies Actively Networking Outrageously) Breakfast Club meets at local venues throughout the year and has a Facebook group for connecting online; search “PLANO Breakfast Club.”
- The Mom Success Circle, hosted by Elayna Fernández, meets regularly to offer support, relationships and business strategies to WAHMs in the Fort Worth area. There is an associated Facebook page with tips and encouragement called Marketing Mastery Meetups.
Try browsing Facebook or meetup.com to connect with other WAHMs in your area and find your people.
Image courtesy of iStock.