I might be working from the couch in my pajamas, but it’s real work. So, no, I can’t make it to that mid-day play date.
I’ve been working for myself exclusively from home for over a decade, my home office morphing from a sliver of kitchen niche, to a shoved in desk in the second bedroom, to, at last, my own office in our home.
When I learned I was pregnant with my son (now six), I dreamily plucked away at my computer in my little second story office, imagining the days when this work-at-home life would include this babe, lying beside me in his bassinet (whatever that was—I had a vague notion it was a frilly basket, like the kind you see kittens stuffed into on posters) gurgling happily while I worked. I would be the woman who had it all—child and career! How well prepared I was for this life of freelance mom!
If you have kids, you are cackling with laughter right now. You know that babies do a lot of things, but rest quietly in their little frilly baskets is rarely one of them—and when they do sleep, you often don’t, because, though you haven’t actually had more than four hours of sleep in a row—you know that this is the only time in a whole day you’ll remotely get anything done.
By the time my son was five months old—the first two months of which I did no work at all—I realized I needed help. For a creature that can’t talk, walk, or really move very far, a baby requires an immense amount of effort and exerts a tidal hormone pull on a new mother’s psyche unlike anything I’d ever experienced—his needs for comfort, food, and stimulation absorbed an enormous portion of my available mental headspace.
And so, in order to work, much less think or shower, my sweet infant went to a babysitter at five months old for four hours a day. And thus I discovered the first razor’s edge of being a working mom: the sweet cloudy relief of a quiet house with no anxiety of what your baby might do if you walk away for a few minutes; cut by the blade of guilt that you had to send your child away to do work that you do from your own living room couch (I abandoned the office in those first few months because I was too tired to walk upstairs—no joke). What a terrible mother I was that I couldn’t do both, said the evil post-partum thoughts in my head.
It wasn’t until my son was really walking—and he did this late, at 17 months—that it occurred to me one day I’d been misrepresenting myself as a “stay-at-home” mom. Sure, I didn’t go to an office job, and I was the one to drive my son to and from his daycare, but I worked, all right, enough so that my child spent six hours a day in a daycare by the time he was 18 months. My office just happened to be in my home.
As he’s gotten older I realize that it’s not just myself to whom I must explain this distinction. This summer, I opted not to enroll my son in any full-time camp, knowing it would put a certain amount of stress on my ability to fulfill my work duties, which increase in the summer months. My son will only be so little for a fraction longer.
Instead, I arrange for my son to go to friends’ houses, and to host friends at ours. Recently, the mom of a new friend has continued to try and arrange playdates where we all go together—to the park, the pool, the movies. She’s a sweet lady who I’m sure I’d bond with in a heartbeat if I had the time. Painfully, slowly, I’ve had to explain, “Ben would love to play with your son, but me? I have to work. Any chance he could come over on his own?”
There are usually long pauses in her response; subtle texts of “Oh…I guess that’s OK,” her disappointment barely masked.
I realize that when I say “work” people still imagine me on the couch in my pajamas with my laptop (and yes, I do work this way sometimes). Why can’t I just toss my son in front of the TV and get the same amount of work done? Well, I do use the TV, but anyone with a child knows that, just like the baby doesn’t lie quietly in the bassinet, the child—a thinking, feeling, intelligent person—is not content to sit quietly playing on his own when a mother is there to interact with him.
I love having my son around—and that’s why I don’t send him away in the summer, even though it means my work suffers, even though it makes for complex scheduling. As a work-at-home mom, however, it’s a constant juggling act…days upon days of trying to remind myself and others that, though my work looks about as difficult as a person checking their Facebook account—it’s real work, after all.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more.
This originally appeared on Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog. Republished here with permission.