From Chicken Soup for the Working Mom's Soul

The Ideal Situation

When I tell another mother that I work from home, and she says, “Oh, that must be the ideal situation,” I know one thing about her, even if we’ve never met before. She does not now, nor has she ever, worked from home.

She has never rushed to the post office to mail a manuscript while still covered in toddler vomit (FYI, there is a way to make those lines move more quickly).

She has never had an important phone interview with a well-known politician interrupted by her daughter screaming, “Mommy, come quick, James is peeing on the dog’s head!” Dogs drink from the toilet, and little boys can’t wait, no matter what’s in the way.

When I left my full-time newspaper reporting job to have my first child nearly fourteen years ago, I pictured myself, after a suitable recovery and bonding period of, say, a week, churning out journalistic masterpieces on my computer while my daughter burbled contentedly in her swing.

I’ll never forget the look on our Lifestyle editor’s face when I popped into his office to tell him I’d be ready for some freelance work in a couple of weeks. “I’ll tell you what,” said the wise father of three, “you call me.”

I never did. My son, James, arrived twenty-one months after my daughter, Elizabeth, so for the next four years I’m not sure I called anyone other than my pediatrician, my mother, and the local Chinese take-out joint.

But once I was able to shower regularly and think (fairly) clearly again, I decided to resume my writing career—working from home, of course, because it’s the ideal situation.

First, I set up a real office. Okay, it was (and still is) the spare room, and my desk was wedged between the stepladder and the vacuum, sort of behind the bassinette and boxes of maternity and baby clothes that never seemed to make it into the attic. But from this impressive nerve center I planned, yet once more, to churn out journalistic masterpieces as my two perfectly behaved toddlers played contentedly nearby.

Except, having not signed on to my grand plan, my kids yelled, hit, and bit each other, fell, and threw up, creating a work environment that made my former newsroom, with its blaring police radios, televisions, and cursing reporters, seem as tranquil as a New Age yoga class. And that was during the three days a week the sitter was around to help.

Even if I could have ignored the kicking and screaming, try focusing on a deadline when someone slips a little hand in yours and wants you, not the sitter, not Daddy, not even Barney, to come collect leaves, have a tea party, or wash and buff Matchbox cars.

I always opted for the tea party because I knew that in a few years my babies would be in school, and I’d have all the time in the world to churn out journalistic masterpieces while, under the supervision of their teachers, they evolved into prodigies.

However, on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, I signed up to help with the class holiday party. Being a new parent, I was unaware that a school sign-up sheet is the equivalent to one of those “sell your soul” contracts. Before I knew it, I was a field-trip chaperone, library volunteer, Brownie leader, Spring Festival clean-up committee chair, and the mother of them all, Room Parent. Soon, I was spending more time at school than my children were.

Occasionally, I would feebly try to explain that, yes, I was “at home,” and therefore, “available” at all hours, but I also “worked,” and therefore, I was not available at all hours. This was met with a suspicious stare, as if I was trying to concoct a bogus alibi that would allow me to shirk cupcake-baking duty.

When I missed an important deadline because I had to decorate the school gym with cornstalks and pumpkins for the fifth grade Halloween party (how time flies when you’re on committees!), I tried to take comfort in the fact that my children appreciated having an involved parent. Later that day, my daughter informed me that my presence at so many school events was becoming embarrassing.

When my children were a little older, I also tried to squeeze in some afternoon working hours, figuring they could do homework or relax quietly while I churned out those journalistic masterpieces. This worked so beautifully that often there were periods of up to five whole minutes when I didn’t have to define a word, help glue together a shoebox diorama, assist with a math problem, or break up an argument.

Of course, at times I laid down the law. Once, when I absolutely had to finish an article that day, I told my kids, “Don’t you dare knock on my office door unless the house catches fire—and I’m not making rice, so that’s not going to happen.” My children call my most frequently incinerated side dish “deadline rice.”

The moment I went into my office, the washer began to leak. Soon there was an inch of water on the kitchen floor. Then two. As the tide rose, according to my kids, the conversation went like this:

Elizabeth: I think we should get Mom!

James: I don’t know. She said “fire” not “water.” And she looked pretty mad.

Elizabeth: I think flood counts the same as fire. It says so in the Bible.

Yes, they got me, and the house, if not the deadline, was saved.

So you must be thinking after all this grousing that I’ve abandoned working at home for a safe and sane job in an office uncluttered by laundry, where I’m safe from interruptions and lunch regularly with interesting colleagues, while wearing something other than ratty gym clothes.

Nope. I’m still attempting to churn out journalistic masterpieces in the midst of domestic chaos. In the long run, I couldn’t give up the “sick days” when my son and I watch videos or play games, the important conversations my daughter and I have over after-school snacks, the summer afternoons when I drop work and we all hike, visit a museum, or hit the pool. My work and family life are woven together, a kind of crazy quilt that keeps us all warm and happy, even if the pattern is a little offbeat and it sometimes threatens to come apart at the seams.

The ideal situation? I think all working moms would agree that it just doesn’t exist. But on days when no one goes to the bathroom on the dog’s head and the house doesn’t burn down or flood, this one works for me.

Melanie Howard

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