Balancing work with the demands of a young family – it’s the Holy Grail of modern parenthood. For a lot of people, me included, the answer seems to be freelancing. Flexible working hours, the ability to be present (if a little preoccupied) in your children’s day-to-day lives, the option to turn down work if you need to, or take more on as your family grows and changes, are all appealing. And I have to say, for the most part, it has proved a good option for me and my family.
But – you knew there was a but – there are a two things you need to bear in mind if you want to get the most out of it.
Firstly, children are unpredictable. Certainly it gets easier as they get a bit older. The all-consuming needs of a small baby are much harder to negotiate than the kaleidoscope of interests enjoyed by most toddlers, but it’s still impossible to know how long an activity will engage them for. One day they might spend hours painting a picture or building a robot out of cereal boxes, the next they might spend the entire morning bursting into disgruntled sobs at your every suggestion. One day they might nap for two hours, the next for 20 minutes. There’s no way of knowing.
They also seem programmed to play up for every deadline. How they can possibly know with such pinpoint accuracy the exact moments you most need them to be quiet for an hour or so, is as baffling as their complete inability to meet that need. My two-year-old son seems only ever to want to sit on my knee if he spies a laptop on it. The mere sound of it booting up sends him running in from any corner of the house, ready to shuffle his way through a pile of papers to take his rightful place on my lap.
So here’s my advice:
1. Set your routine
The answer to all this is to be organised, but more importantly to be consistent. This isn’t always easy in the world of freelancing, where work arrives when it arrives and deadlines aren’t decided by your domestic situation. I find setting aside certain chunks of certain days and making sure that everyone understands these are the times “when mummy does her writing” works wonders – both in terms of the kids and my own productivity. Even if I don’t have work to do, I make a point of sitting down and looking like I do.
I also make sure I play with them for at least a few hours on the days I know I have a job to do. It just doesn’t work if I try to fit in doing the laundry or vacuuming the house too. I try and keep chores to the days when I don’t have to spend the afternoon writing so the children feel there’s some kind of pay off. Casual visitors might mistakenly believe I’ve been burgled, but at least I hit the deadline.
Another thing – and this has been something of a revelation to me – is that I try to communicate to my toddler exactly what I’m doing and why. It’s easy to forget that even little children understand a lot more than they can say. If I sit my kids down and say that I have to do some work, tell them how long it is going to take, and mention something fun for us to do afterwards, they are much more likely to play ball.
3. Know your limits
Of course even the best-laid plans can be thrown into disarray by the rounds of childhood illnesses, temper tantrums and changing moods that have to be accommodated. It’s important to accept that fact if you want to stay sane. You will have to resign yourself to working some evenings and may even have to employ a babysitter on occasions.
You also need to be realistic about which projects you can make work and which you can’t. You might be able to write a blog post during your toddler’s afternoon nap. You’re less likely to be able to conduct a two-hour phone interview, transcribe it then write it up. You’ll need some help if that’s your assignment.
You’ll also need to write things down more often than you used to, because you’re guaranteed to be battling more interruptions. Invest in decent note taking software, or even carry a voice recorder. I find the park is a great place to do my thinking and planning.
I think my final message is to just keep going. The more you work around your children the more they are going to understand that you work. It will become their normal. While it might be a new normal for you, it’s the only normal they know.