Rocking it as a Work-at-Home Mom (WAHM)

I've spent the last two years of my career as a work-at-home mom (WAHM) and I would not have it any other way. I mean, what's there not to like about a 1-minute commute, spending time with your kids at their best times of day, and doing the groceries when the shops are quiet? But it's a constant work-in-progress and I find that I'm constantly having to learn as I go.

So one of the perks of being a WAHM is that I get to go to Thursday Mom's Group, where we find something to entertain the kids and then chat about various aspects of being a mom. This week, since it was my turn to host, I decided to talk about being a WAHM. So this post covers some of the main takeaways of our discussion, plus there are some questions that you can answer that will hopefully help you to navigate your path as a WAHM.

You are a trailblazer

Step aside suffragettes and bra-burners, we are the new revolution! Well, maybe not quite, but I think that as WAHMs we are forging a path that is quite new. Technology has allowed us to do a wider range of work from home, so there are many options available to women who want to stay at home with their kids, but not completely cut off from the working world. The thing is that there's no textbook on how to do this. And I think the temptation is to "have it all" and "do it all", but it's not as simple as that, and in fact trying to "do it all" can lead us into burnout. So I think that as WAHM's, we need to share our experiences so that we can help each other navigate this new path together.

Change your achievement framework

So, when you were working full-time, you probably had a nice job description with clearly defined KPAs and the rest. It was easy to know what you had to do, when you were meeting your targets, and when you were exceeding expectations. You would get rewards like a promotion or a salary increase when you'd performed well. Even a complement from the boss would make you feel like you were amazing. 

Now, one of the very significant parts of your job description is being MOM and there are no KPAs for that. And if you're looking for traditional rewards, you're going to be very disappointed when the fish bake puree you spent hours preparing gets summarily rejected by your 18-month old!

I've had to work hard at letting go of perfectionism - it was just ruining all the fun and I was left with a list of "perfect" half-done tasks. [Ironically as I write this Garren is asking me whether I'm going to finish this blog post this afternoon - he knows I like to go overboard!] I think I must write more on this in another post, but suffice to say that your 50% is someone else's 101%, so let go of "perfect" and start embracing "good-enough" - he's actually a lot more cuddly!

So you've got to change the way you view achievement. And sometimes getting you and your family to the end of the day in one piece is a major achievement. I now pat myself on the back every time I have a course ready to present without any late nights. And when my son remembers an activity I did with him months ago, its like a metaphorical incentive bonus for taking the time to do activities with him.

Choose your work wisely

When going back to work after a baby, most of us will gravitate towards the work that we did before baby and obviously you can't stray too far from your skills set, experience and qualifications. But sometimes your old job just won't work in a WAHM setup.

Let me use my own situation as an example. Before I had my son, I wrote and edited school textbooks. It was at a time where the curriculum was changing and the publishers needed to meet the most outrageous submission deadlines I've ever had to work under. The thought of trying to meet these deadlines now fills me with horror. It's not just the hard work, but the fact that nothing can go wrong between now and that deadline. Every minute has work allocated to it and there is a ration of sleep available (for the weak!). So of course if you're working in your home, with your kids, stuff can go wrong. Oh yes it can...

So for the time being, I've had to turn down textbook work and offer my writing skills in a different context. I've continued with writing training material that I self-publish with one main client (and thus have far more say about deadlines). I've also used my writing skills to do website design and some online marketing, which I've found fits in nicely within a WAHM setup. I find that website design is (for the most part) something I can work on when I have 10 minutes, then come back to it tomorrow when I have an hour, and so on. Textbook writing required long blocks of uninterrupted time.

Another thing to think about when choosing your work (or if you're already working, refining what you're offering) is your availability. Don't offer to be available 24/7 and whenever possible, favour asynchronous communication (like email) over synchronous communication (like a phone call). That way, you can deal with client questions at a time that suits you and your family.

Think about how much you're going to be needed away from your home office base. Often, meetings, or work on site is a part of what you're offering, but if it forms the crux of what you're offering, it might not work for a WAHM. Having said that, if you can force some predictability into the equation with reliable childcare (see below), then you can probably work around it.

Takeaway: Think about what work you're going to do. Aspects include typical deadlines, your expected availability, work that you can do in short blocks of time, how often you're going to be needed away from your home office.

Childcare and scheduling

Before I had my son, I had visions of my child sitting on my lap while I typed happily and productively on my laptop. Ah, so funny...

Back in the real world and two wise years later, what I've found works best is to block out work time and time for my son in my schedule. Of course the two are bound to mix and there'll be last-minute changes on the day, but I've found that having a basic plan beats multitasking by a mile! I've tried to do a bit of work on my laptop while my son plays in his sandpit, but I've found that the more urgent the work, the more fervently he pulls me away from it! Multitasking is also horrible because you can't be fully present in either of your activities.

That does mean that you've got to make an arrangement for childcare. I am lucky to have both of my son's sets of grandparents within a kilometre of my house and that they are very willing to help look after my son. So he goes to Granny for two mornings a week and to Gran for two afternoons a week and so far this is working splendidly!

I realise of course that I'm one of the lucky few! But there are other childcare options. We had an au pair come to the house three mornings a week for a while and that worked well too. It took a little while for my son to realise that I was going to be working upstairs while he was downstairs playing, and I would say that the out-of-home care setup we've got now might be a better arrangement, especially for those periods of separation anxiety that tend to come up.

If you do need to do work outside of the home, then many of my friends have found that a nanny/au pair at home works well. They then schedule their meetings for the days and times that the nanny is working.

WAHM's stick together!

Don't hide the fact that you're a WAHM. This will help you to attract the kind of clients that you actually want. Also, don't underestimate the value that you bring as a WAHM to a business relationship.

I've also had the opportunity to work with other WAHM's, both as clients, as colleagues, and as contractors providing a service to me, and it has been great. So I think there's a lot of value - both business value and in terms of a support system - in building our WAHM network.

Plan, Do, Reflect, Improve (aka Iterate)

It's quite difficult for me to write this post in a sense because I don't want to generalise and I can't really preach a set of rules that will work in eery WAHM's situation. So you've actually got to judge for yourself how things are working. That's why I'd highly recommend scheduling a weekly planning and reflection session, where you:

  • reflect on the previous week - assess what worked and what didn't; highlight and celebrate your achievements (in all areas of your life)
  • plan the next week - if you planned to do more than you got done in the previous week, then plan to do less in the week ahead; look to change the things that didn't work in the previous week

Get used to iterating – you’re never going to be able to sit pretty and say, OK I’m now into this, I’ve got this WAHM thing. There are too many moving parts – you’ve got to keep adjusting as you go and some days are going to be a disaster, but be kind to yourself – you’ve probably achieved more than you think.

As you reflect and then plan ahead, try to find the CHOICE in everything you do. If something is making you unhappy/stressed, then come up with at least five alternatives, even if you would never actually consider doing some of those alternatives. 

Discussion questions

At Mom's Group, we discussed our answers to some of these questions. Why don't you answer some (or all!) of them in the comments?

  • Describe your ideal day as a WAHM. How much does this differ from reality?
  • What are your most significant challenges as a WAHM?
  • What do you enjoy most about being a WAHM?
  • What efficiency/time management tips can you share?
  • How do you cope with unforeseen events?
  • What help/advice/resources would you like as a WAHM to make your life more enjoyable?
  • What do you plan on changing as a result of what we’ve discussed today?