I still remember my very first phone call working from home as a new mom. I was standing in the kitchen of our basement apartment with 5-month-old Benji on my hip, my laptop open on the counter next to his sea-green Bumbo chair and my white headphones plugged into my iPhone with the mute button selected.
I was so nervous.
I had just returned to work full-time at Adobe following a 6-month paid maternity leave. I was given a very generous option to initially work three days from home so I could conveniently be with Benji whom I was still frequently nursing at the time.
People often ask me about my work schedule as a mom and when I explain that I enjoy a flexible schedule, now working two days from home and three in the office, they respond with, “Oh, that’s so nice that you get to do that.”
Well it is, and it isn’t. The truth is, it’s really, really hard
By returning to work, I’ve discovered what I’m truly capable of. I can do hard things. And I’ve continued to make it work, even as Benjamin has grown into a rambunctious toddler.
It doesn’t come without some very strategic planning, though. In the past year, I’ve learned some tough lessons on what not to do, that may make working from home as a mom with little ones a little bit easier for you…
1. Don’t leave your schedule to the wind.
Instead, plan your days at the start of each week so you can carve time for your priorities and leave room for the unexpected (i.e., an unanticipated meeting invite or your toddler not taking his/her nap).
Knowing specific windows of time that work particularly well for you to multitask, like nap time, lunch time, or whenever your toddler is easily occupied, can also help you arrange your schedule in a way that works best for you.
For example, when I was still nursing Benji, I’d block off my calendar during the times I knew I’d be feeding him, that way my co-workers would never schedule a meeting with me during those times. I’d block those same times to pump in the mothers room on days in the office and I never felt guilty for proactively arranging my calendar to accommodate those needs.
Likewise, if I know certain meetings are easier to do in-person with my co-workers, I’ll suggest that we meet on days when I’m in the office, to make the most of my time there.
Additionally, on days at home, I have pockets of time where I know it’s easier to work from my computer than it is to take a phone call, so I’ll block 30-min here and there to ensure I’m able to get done what I need. Then the rest of my calendar is open for others to schedule time with me, as needed.
Remember this viral video of the dad taking a BBC TV interview from home and his kids come barging in?
The parody video of a working mom very accurately depicts what my work-from-home life feels like. It’ll give you a good laugh (but be sure to watch the first video if you haven’t seen either of these before).
Lastly, if I know my week is going to be busy with lots of meetings and less time to do work, I’ll wake up extra early to get a head start on my inbox and to-do lists. I also stay up late some nights to wrap things up or get ahead of the next day.
Because I know surprises can come at any moment, choosing a couple of days a week to give a little more always pays off in my peace of mind that it’s all getting done.
Oh, and don’t forget to take breaks. Just like you’d break for the restroom, a drink, a snack, or a visit with someone in the office, allow yourself to take breaks throughout your day at home. Play a quick game with your toddler or go for a 10-min walk outside. It’s okay to take breaks.
2. Don’t underestimate mom brain.
Now that I’m a mom, I have way too much going on in my head at all times to ever be able to remember it all, so I constantly rely on various productivity apps to stay organized and take notes.
A few of my favorites are:
- Wunderlist – Desktop and mobile app that helps you categorize all of your to-do lists (personal, work, groceries, etc.). It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a hand-written to-do list for those who get satisfaction from crossing things off when they’re completed.
- 1-3-5 List – A website that helps you prioritize the one most important thing you need to do that day, followed by 3 things of medium importance and 5 things of low importance (ie., they need to get done, but could wait until tomorrow). I hope they create a mobile app because that would be easier for me, but the site still helps me differentiate between the big and little priorities on my list.
- Evernote – Desktop and mobile app that I use for all of my note-taking. I have notebooks for work-related tasks and my personal blog tasks. I even have shared notebooks with my team and create notebooks for recurring meetings so I can capture brainstorm ideas or action items and then copy them over to my Wunderlist!
Without these apps helping me keep track of my to-do lists for work each day, I’d never be able to master my efficiency when working from home.
3. Don’t expect it to be a desk job.
Instead, make your work at home mobile. I still often work from my kitchen with my laptop on the counter and Benji doddling at my feet. I did upgrade my headphones to wireless headphones, which I highly recommend.
Sometimes Benji needs a change of scenery, so we’ll go in the backyard and I’ll take a phone call while he runs around. Or I’ll work from my phone as he climbs up and down our stairs.
Learning that I can work from anywhere has been liberating and helped me to be more productive when traveling for work as well. I no longer have to be sitting at a desk to be able to focus and that has boosted my confidence tremendously.
A few team apps we use that help make my mobile work life even better are Slack and Jabber. I’m able to communicate instantly with my entire team over Slack messages, and do video calls over Jabber since we’re all spread across different states anyway.
4. Don’t go it alone.
Instead, identify your support resources and ask for help when needed.
I have days and weeks where my schedule is just too busy to do from home without completely neglecting Benjamin. When that happens, I plan ahead to work from a family member’s house or have a family member come to my house so Benji receives the attention he deserves. Sometimes it’s just for a few hours.
I also coordinate with my husband when I need to be in the office on a day I typically work from home. If he has flexibility in his schedule, he’ll help cover.
My mom watches Benjamin on the days I’m in the office, so I try to use her as a last resort since she’s already giving so much of her time to us. But I know if I were desperate, she’d be there for me.
If you don’t have family nearby, consider arranging an on-call nanny, connecting with a neighbor who is home with their own kids, or identifying an old friend you can call on. Having several options is crucial when you’re in a last-minute bind.
It truly takes a village.
5. Don’t worry too much about technology.
Every time Benji has a regular doctor’s check-up we’re asked how much screen time he has each day. It’s recommended that kids under 2 years old are especially limited with screen time because their developing brains are still learning how the world interacts with them (i.e., when they smile at someone, that person smiles back), according to our pediatrician.
Apps are safer than TV shows because there’s usually a reaction to an action, such as an app opening when they tap an icon, or a video/song playing when they push the play button.
My first choice to keep Benji busy while I work is to sit down with him and play blocks, magnets, play dough (homemade), letters or house until he’s engaged enough that I can slip away to my computer. He’s always been really active so he also enjoys this Step2 slide we keep in our living room (if you have a girl, my niece his same age loves this toy), climbing up/down our stairs or just walking around.
Before Benji could walk or easily entertain himself, he spent a lot of time in his bouncer, saucer, and activity gym. By the time he could crawl, I started giving him a pile of bottles and lids (he loved screwing them on/off) or non-toy items like paper cups and small boxes (pretty much anything safe under our bathroom sink) because he was so interested and they’d keep him occupied.
Whatever your toddler is interested in, keep it out and accessible while you work, so they can move on to the next toy without your assistance if they get bored.
When I’m desperate and don’t have an available family member to help, I’ll let Benji use our iPad for 30-minutes (sometimes up to 60 if I have a long call – yes, I always feel guilty) to watch his favorite KidsTV123 songs on YouTube Kids (I swear by these! Start with the Solar System song). We’ve been listening to these songs without showing him the videos since he was a baby and he’s always loved them. Now, he knows how to scroll through the different videos himself.
The key with technology, is boundaries and discipline (goes for all of us, right?). Our pediatrician recommends always monitoring the amount of time they spend on a device and setting a limit. It’s okay to put a TV show on, but you want to be even more intentional about interacting with them during the show so they’re still relating to their real world.
One more thing — I try to always be present with Benji when I’m on my devices. If he needs my attention, I’ll put my phone down or step away from my computer for a minute. I do think it’s dangerous to be on our devices and ignoring our little ones because it can confuse them the same way too much screen time does. They need to know their environment is real and that they’re being acknowledged.
6. Don’t isolate yourself.
Instead, look for extra opportunities to connect with your co-workers, other working moms, your mom friends and your support resources.
I took on a challenge this past summer of applying for two different leadership experiences at Adobe. Ironically, I was accepted to participate in both and was terrified that I’d fail before I even began. The last thing I have more of right now is extra time.
Both opportunities provided a mentorship experience where I was paired with a senior leader or executive to learn from and both happened to be working moms who could completely relate to the stage of life I’m in currently.
At first I feared that I’d somehow expose myself. That they’d ask me questions and criticize my ability to work effectively from home. But the opposite happened. I created lasting friendships that I can now turn to when I need career and life advice.
Participating in both of these opportunities required some extra communication with my husband and mom to help cover when I needed to adjust my office schedule for certain networking meetings or travel to the Bay Area for trainings. But it turned out to be worth the initial struggle because I feel that much more invested in my work and less alone in my daily balancing act. It’s helping me push through when times are hard.
And I’ve learned, once again, what I’m truly capable of.
7. Don’t try to be perfect.
Instead, recognize your shame triggers. These are the things that make you feel like you’re a horrible mom, horrible employee, horrible person, even when you’re trying your best.
During that very first phone call when I started back at work – I was nervous because I was afraid that if anyone heard a peep out of Benji, they’d know I was at home and immediately judge me for it. I mean, who can get any work done with a baby or toddler around?
Moms can, that’s who.
We’re incredibly resilient and capable of digging deep, tapping every available resource and getting the job done when our family is on the line.
Just remember, you can do anything, but not everything.
Identifying the situations, phone calls, meetings, etc., that tend to trigger feelings of shame and self-doubt for you, can help you plan for the support you need to get through them. Separately, learning techniques such as grounding, mindfulness and self-compassion can help you stay calm without overreacting to your feelings of anxiety or fears of judgment (we’ll talk more about these in future blog posts).
So, WHY are you doing it?
I have absolutely asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Wouldn’t it be easier to be in the office all 5 days a week?” And most days my answer is yes. It would be easier. But as a mom who struggled to conceive and was blessed with a successful IVF experience, I couldn’t bear the thought of working that hard for something and only seeing it on the weekends. What is easy isn’t always what’s right. And what’s right for you may not be what’s right for someone else.
So my question for you, you work-from-home warrior, is this: What makes it worth it for you?
I’m a lucky one. Most working moms don’t even have the option (to them I say, Come work at Adobe!!!). But knowing why you are doing it in the first place is a huge part of getting through each day with feelings of joy, gratitude and accomplishment.
You deserve to feel all of these every day, especially with how hard you work. So take a moment to celebrate all that you’re doing at home and in the office (even if they’re one and the same).
WHAT WE’RE WEARING (& PLAYING WITH)