I’ve worked exclusively from home1 for the last 6½ years, and when I first started, my older kids were 7 and 6 years old. For the last 3 years after the arrival of our two younger children, though, I’ve worked from home with infants/toddlers in the house, and that’s a wholly different ball game.
The basic rules of working from home
If you’ve dealt with the idea of working from home, or have done it before, then you’re surely familiar with a few basic rules to follow:
Make sure that you have a home office, that is a working space to yourself that allows you to close a door and be undisturbed when you need it.
Set aside some time to go outside. Office workers have a commute that ensures they get out of the house; as a home worker you’re running a certain risk of turning into a hermit. Make sure you run errands, take walks, go for runs.
Keep tabs on your working hours. Home workers are frequently at risk of working too much or too long, which puts a strain on yourself, your significant other, and your family.
Maintain relationships with others who work from home. Chat with them, call them, invite them over for dinner if they live close by. Working from home is still not a common thing to do in general (however common it might be in the tech industry), so exchanging thoughts with people in the same boat is a good thing.
Be ready to try out working-from-home strategies that have worked for others. Fortunately for all of us, there are quite a few people who talk about the experience publicly — for example, John Dalton did so in a 45-minute talk at linux.conf.au 2018.
Now, the challenging part: little kids
If anyone reading this wants to pre-emptively freak out and berate me for being an irresponsible or unloving parent, you are politely asked to chill and if incapable of doing so, to GTFO. I absolutely love being around my children, and I wouldn’t even think to trade my job for an office-dwelling one. Being able to work from home is generally a wonderful privilege, and so is being around my kids.
You need to be aware of two things: one, working from home with a family is different from working from home when you’re alone or living with an adult partner or roomie. Two, working from home with a family with little children is very different from a family with school-age kids. School-age children don’t permanently need an adult in the room, they spend a significant amount of their time outside the house, they’re usually not particularly prone to tantrums, and in the event that you really, really need some quiet, they can be asked to give you that for a limited amount of time. Kids under two? Good luck with that.
If you’re not striking a balance here, here’s what’s likely to happen: you’ll think that you are a completely inadequate parent, or a terrible employee, or both. So, never lose sight of the fact that you’re probably a wonderful parent and a highly productive employee — but that you can do anything, but not everything.2
My most important piece of advice here is that you should not attempt to simultaneously be a primary parent and an employee. (Please note the emphasis on “simultaneously.”)
I think it’s fundamentally impossible to be a mindful parent of your kids, and at the same time a productive knowledge worker. And the repeated attempt will lead to frustration and burnout. Of course, you can split your day in half with your significant other, if for example you happen to be a night owl and they are not, and you can put in a full day of work between 1pm and 9pm (but do ensure you get enough sleep, which is probably a topic for another post). Or you could rise early and start working at 6 while your other half drops your kids off at daycare, from whence you pick them up at 2. But whatever it is that you decide, please don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can work productively, and be a good parent for your kids at the very same time.
Productivity tips during work hours
So, we’ve established that work time and parenting time shouldn’t overlap. So what can you do while you’re at work, and your kids are in the house (under the supervision of your spouse or partner, or other trusted guardian)? Spoiler: “please, kids, be quiet for a bit” isn’t going to work. Not with toddlers. And sound-proofing your room is quite expensive, and also remarkably ineffective for the deep bass whooomp of an exuberant kid jumping off a couch upstairs.
I find myself being able to focus extremely well if I play pink noise through my headphones.3 It drowns out practically all background noise, and is uniform enough that my brain eventually drops it as an input, and I barely notice it.
I also habitually close my door when I need to work. Obviously, my family knows that they can call on me when something urgent comes up, but little kids rightfully take an open door as an invitation. And as much as I would like to be able to tolerate interruptions of my thinking flow to play with a little one for a few minutes, and then immediately pick up where I left off, I am not.4 So, this is a classic trade-off: I can either enjoy the interaction with my kids and then deal with the frustration that comes with not getting things done, or I can get things done and regret that I didn’t spend more time with my kids. There’s no right answer. The wrong answer that I choose is that my door stays closed.
Striking a balance (or trying to)
There are a few things I do to try and balance my in-house family absence (I’m dead serious, that’s what working from home is):
When I’m home, I don’t miss lunch.5 I can’t say that I’ve never missed lunch because I have done so when a customer’s or colleague’s environment had just reached the HCF instruction, but I won’t miss lunch for a meeting that can also be scheduled to an hour earlier or later.
Also, tucking the little ones in is my job every night.
I don’t travel when it would mean being absent for a child’s birthday. Which is actually not that easy to do when you’re on the conference circuit, travel about 100 days per year, and you have a big family — thus far, if my math is right I’ve successfully navigated 28 kids’ birthdays.6
Am I succeeding?
Let’s be real: I have no way of knowing. Whether I’m being a decent parent will ultimately be judged by my children when they’ve grown up. Whether I’ve had a successful career is something I’ll decide upon my retirement.
But hey, such is life. And thus far it looks like I don’t suck at it. I hope.
Well, not just from home. Throughout the last few years I’ve traveled rather extensively, so I’ve also worked from planes, airport lounges, trains, hotel rooms, customer offices, cafes and parks. What I mean is that I haven’t had to go to an office on a daily basis, since 2011. ↩
On a Linux box with SoX, you can generate an Ogg Vorbis file containing 25 minutes of pink noise with
sox -n pinknoise.ogg synth 25:00 pinknoise
— the 25-minute length may come in handy if you’re using Pomodoro. As with music, I play my pink noise from Audacious with the MPRIS-2 plugin enabled, which allows me to pause and play from gnome-shell with the Media Player Indicator extension. ↩
I do not consider myself a programmer. But the issue described in the cartoon applies to any knowledge worker. In fact, it probably applies to any worker, it’s just that I’ve been doing knowledge work for the entirety of my career, and can’t comment authoritatively on anything else. ↩
For those of you who grew up outside central Europe: over here, lunch (not dinner) is traditionally considered the “big” meal of the day. ↩
I also took uninterrupted travel breaks of 6 and 10 weeks, respectively, when our younger kids were born. (When the older ones arrived, I was traveling way less overall, so those travel schedule adjustments were easy at the time.) ↩