Cover Story

Why I love (I mean hate!) working at home

The time she saves not sitting in traffic leaves plenty left for parental guilt and family distraction

By Kara Baskin
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2011

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After my son, Andrew, was born, I faced a question as fraught as formula versus breast milk. Could I climb the career ladder in sweatpants?

It started when an acquaintance questioned why I was sending Andrew to day care. “But you’re a writer. You can work from home,’’ she said. “You wouldn’t need child care!’’ For a nanosecond, my heart fluttered. I could be a stay-at-home-working mom! I’d stroll with other moms, then toil while he napped. We’d play until dinner, and then I’d work all night —leaving just enough time to take a quick shower and go insane.

Moved by devotion to parenthood and career, I seduced myself into thinking I could be mom and employee at the same time. Working from home seemed like just the answer. And it was the answer, thanks to increased flexibility and no commuting time. But I didn’t give up my day-care slot. I couldn’t nurture a career and a baby, so I cobbled together an arrangement that (usually) suits me: I’m a work-at-home mom. Andrew attends care part-time, and my mom helps part-time. My office wardrobe is culled from the Kurt Cobain collection and I go hours without speaking to humans. Most days, I’m happy.

Except when I’m not. I’m alone in my living room, and sometimes I feel alone in the working world. While much has been made of mothers leaving the workplace to stay home to raise children, little has been written about women who work at home, full- or part-time. Theoretically, it’s an alluring option for mothers in particular, who still assume the brunt of child-raising responsibilities. Many women I talked to negotiated such arrangements to remain connected to the working world without time-nibbling negatives (like commuting). But while we might not battle traffic, we do struggle with the stigma that we’re “working,’’ not working, and have simply managed to find a cushy way out instead of putting in face time at the office.

Which is unfortunate since as family dynamics shift, telecommuting grows in legitimacy. In December, President Obama set a positive precedent with the Telework Enhancement Act, ordering executive agencies to allow employees to work at least 20 percent of the time from home. According to a 2010 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 percent of US employees do some or all of their work at home.

Yet the “working from home’’ concept remains fuzzy for reasons exemplified by the friend who wondered why I needed day care. I exist in an unstructured netherworld; I’m not at an office. But I’m not at playgroup, either, which leads to needling questions — from others and from myself. If I can throw in laundry between deadlines, how hard can life be? Can’t I play with my son, too? Yet nobody would suggest I set up a playpen in my cubicle, and I wouldn’t dream of it.

Kathy Robinson, a career consultant in Arlington, sees a spike in people seeking advice about working from home, mainly to do double duty. “People call looking for a career that will allow them to spend more time with their kids. They think work from home would be more appealing, but I think many people don’t un derstand the reality of it,’’ she tells me, while her own son naps. The reality? Straddling two worlds. “People who work from home actually end up working more hours,’’ she says.

Why? Because flexibility is dangerous. When I first contemplated working from home, I remember thinking how great it would be to play with Andrew at 5 p.m., if I could check e-mail at 11 p.m. The downside? I check e-mail at 11. When sanctuary functions as workplace, there’s little escape. I often abandon my laptop at 5:20, careen across town to retrieve Andrew by 5:30, plop him into his Exersaucer and check emails “one last time,’’ feed him one-handed while responding to those emails, and maybe preheat the oven.

When trying to be super-mom and super-employee, I’m neither. I’m sure my son detests the glare of my laptop, and my editor feels similarly about typo-laced, one-finger emails. Even during off-hours, my computer hulks like a lonesome dog, begging for attention.

“There’s a lot of freedom at home that you don’t have in an office, an absolute lack of external structure. At first, it made me feel like I lived in this world of chaos. There were no boundaries,’’ says Laurie Lyman, an online facilitator. “I think you have to be the kind of person who is OK using all of your free time to work or is willing to get child care despite the fact you’re physically at home. People feel they can’t,’’ she says.

Why? Maybe because there’s a lack of seriousness associated with working from home. “People think I’m doing something shady or telemarketing,’’ one woman laments to me. “Or sipping cocoa in my bathrobe.’’ Karen Wallingford, a public relations manager for medical companies, says, “I often leave conversations feeling lesser — less professional, less metropolitan, less 21st-century working mom.’’

She’s talking about the image factor — both self-image and outward perception, which often collide to create guilt. Because I’m home (and, when Mom helps, so is Andrew), I could conceivably have a stay-at-home friend visit during lunchtime with her child. For an hour or so, I could give my son that stay-at-home experience. I’ve dropped into Starbucks at 10 a.m. on weekdays and felt my throat tighten watching moms rocking their babies, chatting. Nobody would notice if I were gone for a half-hour, right?

And when Andrew is at day care, I feel like I’m betraying him. I hate seeing my infant’s toys dot the house like abandoned soldiers. He should be here, playing. What right do I have to be home when he’s gone? I’m cheating on him — with my Macbook.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for work-from-home mothers is assuring themselves (and others) that it’s impossible to nurture a career while nurturing a child at the same time. “I’m always amazed when people ask me if my child goes to day care, as if their first assumption is that I work at home all day with a child on my lap,’’ says Jen Norton, a marketing director whose office is based in Philadelphia. “The fact that I’m in a home office doesn’t make my job any less demanding.’’

There’s a social softness implicit in working from home, the “it must be nice’’ factor. No bizarre cube-mates! No hovering boss! But the psychological tax is there; it’s just different. One example: Working from home makes it difficult to perceive interpersonal cues. In an office, I knew when something was amiss with a colleague — body language made it obvious. These days, I’m reliant on e-mail. If an editor messages that a piece was “fine’’ instead of “great!,’’ I worry. Exclamation points have become dear to me.

It also requires discipline to convince oneself that, just because dust bunnies are dancing across the dining room, they needn’t be eliminated during business hours. I try to shower daily, just as I would if I were strutting into an office. I brew coffee, I organize my work space and I psyche myself up as if I were about to do battle in a boardroom — even though it’s just my computer and me.

And at the end of most days, I force myself to shut the laptop at 5 p.m. Then it’s Andrew time. Like all working mothers, I’m pleasing two masters. Sometimes I succeed. The upside? I’m wearing elasticized pants while trying.

Kara Baskin can be reached at