Working at Home and the Single Parent; or, the Art of Multi-Multitasking

Working from home always looked so appealing to me. I remember a phone company TV commercial in which a freshly-showered young woman, wrapped in a robe, sat at her home computer while taking a call from her boss. My dear late mother used to watch this commercial and say to me, “Fran, I wish you could work at home like that.”

I did too. After 20 years in the corporate business world, I was so tired of it.

A few years later, when an opportunity came along to change directions, I took a job writing communications pieces for a local school district. Although it was only part-time and the pay was nowhere near what I was used to, my new boss had said that I was welcome to fulfill my duties at home. I couldn’t believe it. My work-at-home dream was about to come true!

But that blissful 30-second spot, accurate as far as it went, didn’t fully capture all the nuances, shall we say, of a day spent working at home — at least, not a single parent’s day.

Take one typical day, for example. My son, 11 at the time, was out the door at 8 o’clock and the day looked promising. I figured I had three to four good hours to work (lunch date with my aunt) while he’d be at school. It was so much easier to concentrate (no offense, darling!) when he wasn’t around.

I sat down at my computer (yes, in my robe) and organized my papers. My two little Pug dogs, sweet companions who follow me everywhere, decided that this was the perfect time for a sibling squabble. Their growling and yipping made it impossible to concentrate, so I took a break to mediate the dispute.

A thought was forming in my head and I was ready to type a few words when I heard the sound of vomiting downstairs. I got up to investigate and found that my cat had barfed on my living room sofa and chair. Of course I needed to stop and clean up the mess.

Settling back down, I banged out a few sentences and was really getting rolling when the phone rang. I jumped up and ran to the room where my caller ID was so I could see if I needed to take the call or not. I did; it was a man I’d asked for an estimate for cleaning my windows. He’d be by in an hour.

Returning to my desk, work on my article was progressing and I was deep in thought when the phone rang again. Again I raced to check the caller ID (why didn’t I just move that thing into my office?) and answered it because this time, the call was from my son’s school.

It was the guidance counselor. She wanted to chat about my idea of working together on a community service project at school.

While we were talking, my dogs, doing their precise imitation of human children, barked and chewed a pad of paper in an effort to get my attention. I shushed them and rescued the pad. Fifteen minutes later, our conversation was done and it was back to work.

Meanwhile, the window cleaning guy was late. Where was he? I wondered. His tardiness and the uncertainty of his arrival time distracted me.

Finally he did show up, over an hour late. I accompanied him as he toured my home, counting windows. He’d get back to me later with the estimate, he said.

OK, back to work again. My mind wandered to lunch with my aunt, which reminded me that I needed to schedule lunch with another aunt. I figured I’d better do it while I was thinking about it or I’d forget.

So I called my aunt, who was happy to hear from me and wanted to catch up. She was an amazingly active 91-year-old with a full social calendar. She could fit me in in two weeks.

While we were chatting, I decided to invite her for Easter dinner. Hmmm, Easter…what will I make? Sit-down or buffet? How many people will that be now?

I checked the clock and it was almost time for lunch with my other aunt. I said goodbye to my aunt on the phone and got ready to go, putting the Puggies down for their nap before I left.

Two hours later (more catching up), I was home again. It was almost 2:30 and I had to pick up my son at 3:10. How much work can I really get done in 40 minutes? I thought. So instead, I took advantage of the opportunity to scratch a bunch of household “to dos” off my list.

Oops – it was 3:08 – time to get going. Soon my son and I returned home to an enthusiastic greeting from the Pugs. Then we all snuggled on the couch for a few minutes of post-school down time.

After we’d unwound, my son asked me if I’d play a new card game he was learning with him. How could I say no? One hour of incomprehensible card-playing later (I did NOT understand that game), it was time to make dinner.

Yes, it had been a typical day of working from home: inefficient, interrupted, incomplete.

So why, five years later, am I still doing it? Why do I cherish these days and vow never to return to the corporate world?

Because I’ve come to realize that what I really want — my real dream — is a balanced life. The quality of my family life is more valuable to me than any raise or promotion.

And although I didn’t know it at the time, I think it’s what my mother really wanted for me too.