The home office high wire: techniques and routines for balancing kids and clients

The home office high wire: techniques and routines for balancing kids and clients – includes related article on child-safety

Don Wallace

Over the years, Neil Rabinowitz had created the perfect home office for himself in a house on a wooded island in Washington’s Puget Sound. “A room with parquet floors and eight-foot windows, bookshelves, a desk, a computer, and a light table,” says Rabinowitz, a photographer who specializes in sporting events, including the Olympic Games and the America’s Cup. Then came baby Chad–nine pounds, six ounces of insatiable curiosity and unflagging energy. “For the first six months, it was okay,” recalls Chad’s father. “When he became mobile at six months, we got a gate guard for my office. But although we could physically keep him out, he was a verbal presence. Even when I closed the door.”

As he says, only partly kidding, “If a baby’s crying in the background when you’re talking to a New York client, you have to drop your day rate in half!”

Although Rabinowitz is such a doting father that he trimmed his travel time drastically to be with his wife, Beth, and boys (a second son, Cole, is now 16 months old), he was taken aback at how a child’s presence pervaded his working environment. “It wasn’t that Chad was a difficult baby; because he wasn’t he says. “The problem was my own anticipation that he might do something disruptive-half of my energy was going to worrying that he might pick up the phone in the middle of a conversation with a client.”

Rabinowitz resorted to rising at 5:00 a.m. to make his East Coast calls, but he could never quite balance the family equation. Sometimes his wife took Chad with her to her job, sometimes he spent the day at a local day-care center. “It bothered me a lot,” Rabinowitz says, “because I really wanted to be with him, but I couldn’t get as much work done when he was around–so I was having to work more.”

Eventually, child-care and space resolutions were found. Rabinowitz built a detached studio fight in his backyard. Now five years old, Chad comes up and knocks on the door after working hours. “He comes in, pulls over his own little stool, and edits slides,” his father says proudly. “He’s very careful with the equipment.” The boys spend two days a week with a baby-sitter, two days at a neighborhood play group, and one day with their mother.

What Rabinowitz went through as he juggled work and family priorities is achingly familiar to most parents, and especially to those with home-based businesses. Even with child care, your life can resemble a family circus unless you come to grips with your expectations and the realities of the child/home-office dynamic.


Your first step is to confront your expectations, which have been influenced by how your own parents raised you and by the media’s glossy images. It’s a fact that, coming from an era of one-income families who probably didn’t work from home, your parents had more time for child raising, housekeeping, and community activities than you ever will. This is not wholly a bad thing, since many people find fulfillment through work. But when the media combines those 1950s expectations with America’s unforgiving success ethic–in which only perfection is permittable or there must be something wrong with you–you get the Superparent Myth.

The reality is quite different. Working at home, writes Kathleen Christensen, in Women and Home-Based Work: The Unspoken Contract (Henry Holt), “has unique advantages and disadvantages. The idea that it is a relatively simple solution to complex work and family problems is a cruel illusion, implying that a woman will be able to resolve these problems by simply changing the place where she works.”

Take the novelist Jessie Hunter. From the moment her newborn daughter woke in the very early hours of the morning until she finally fell asleep at night, Hunter was at her side to care for her. But she was also supposed to be writing her first novel– which she did, mostly, in her head. “I’d imagine scenes, dialogue between characters,” she recalls. “Then, when Leah nodded off for her morning nap, I’d jump in and write furiously for an hour.”

Blood Music was indeed published. For her second novel, however, Hunter had no problem with changing her system. “This time Leah’s going to preschool and I’ve gotten a babysitter,” she sighs.

Although Hunter’s work story has a happy ending, her decision to change illustrates the stages many parents go through: a first determined attempt to have it all–time with child, time with work–followed by exhaustion, retrenchment, and child care of some sort. Most people fall into one of three types of home-based workers:

* The Superparents. They want to believe that it is possible to single-handedly provide preschool children with love, attention, and education while simultaneously running a successful home-based business. Those in this category are either trapped in a myth or seeking their own ego gratification. Either way, when they plop their infants in playpens or in front of the television set for hours at a stretch, they may be denying their children’s developmental needs.

Christensen, a professor of environmental psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the director of the Work Environment Research Group, surveyed 14,000 women who worked or wanted to work at home. “The illusion that you can do it all single-handedly is shattered pretty quickly,” she says. “In our survey, most women–twothirds of the professionals, one-third of those doing clerical work–used child care. If they didn’t, they worked around family sleep schedules. And if the work required tight deadlines or short turnaround times, they found themselves facing burnout.”

* The Foreparents. They employ their children at tasks, from sorting raw materials for the parents’ business and watching siblings to doing their own homework and cleanup. Not to be confused with delegating chores and responsibilities– which is a valuable and necessary thing– this situation arises when the family unit is harnessed as a work unit for substantial portions of the workday, with Mom or Dad as foreman. You can bet that if a Foreparent says, “Everyone has a job in this family and your job is to entertain yourself for the next three hours, fix your brother’s dinner, and do your homework…” he or she is putting a child on the treadmill far too early in life. Kids suffer burnout, too.

In these cases, Christensen says, “there’s generally something in the system that ends up collapsing. Someone ends up paying the price, often the eldest girl child. Sure, the family pulls together-but children should be allowed to be children.”

* The Realists. This is where most parents who work at home end up eventually. They struggle to adapt routines that allow them to satisfy clients and to be there for their children. Here’s how they do it.


Homeworkers typically face one of two types of routines. Either you work a fulltime, 9-to-5 schedule or else you have a flextime arrangement that allows you to take breaks, work late, and so on. Once you make your choice and factor in the age of your child or children, you can quickly size up your courses of action.

For a flextime worker going without child care, the first question is: How much work can you expect to get done with children in the house? One useful rule-of-thumb measurement was offered by Christine Davidson in her book, Staying Home Instead (Macmillan Press): from baby’s birth to four months, zero work; from four to 18 months, two to three hours a day; from 18 months to three years, two to four hours a day; from three to five years, two to four hours a day, sometimes more; and school-age, five to eight hours a day.

But if you’re running a demanding flextime or full-time business with young children around, you’ll want more time– which means that you’ll need more child care. Whether you use a part-time sitter, full-time sitter, nanny, parents co-op, or day-care center, it still depends on the demands of your job and how much you , are willing to pay.

Barbara Palmer, for instance, left a high-profile office to start her own public relations business at home in Scarsdale, New York. With large corporate clients in hand and expectations of substantial revenues, she knew what was needed: “My profession is a service-oriented busi- ness; you have to be available when the client needs you.” Her daughter was one, her son four–ages that require plenty of attention. Yet the same could be said of her clients. “I have to be very organized and my hours at work have to be predictable. They also have to coincide with m3: client’s hours.”

Palmer and her husband, whose job requires intensive traveling, decided on a full time careperson. “I need to be free to concentrate. It’s tough to work at home anal even have the plumber come. Just being downstairs for 10 minutes is very stressful.” Helping Hands of Greenwich, Connecticut, supplied them with a babysitter: so far, they have used two, the same one for the past three years.

When children are older, less of a presence is needed at home. Nancy Lungren, a vice president with Hannaford, a Washington, D.C., public relations firm, and her husband, Brian, a consutant in political, tourist, and sports marketing, needed a full-time caretaker when they worked in offices in Sacramento, California. Last year, both Lungrens began the transition to a home office after the family moved to a mountain house perched above the ski slopes of Squaw Valley, California. With older children and the need to pare expenses, they parted with the full-time careperson.

Now they work at two desks side by side in the downstairs office. They have an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, ages nine and seven, each of whom attends a different branch of the Lake Tahoe City School District. On weekdays. Nancy prepares breakfast and packs lunch, then Brian drives them to their three drop-off destinations. During the school year, after-school activities keep the children busy until 4:30 p.m. “All three of our children are involved in the Far West Ski Association junior ski-racing circuit,” says Nancy. “Then in early fall, it’s soccer.”

Summer often represents the doldrums for home-based workers with children, but here is where the Lungrens’ choice of a mountain environment pays off. “We have an acre and a half of backyard forest,” says Nancy, “where the kids just take off and play on their own, and we don’t have to worry about them.”

Next door to the home office is a rumpus room, equipped with exercise equipment, a VCR, and a television. “They’re free to use it, but they have to keep the door closed,” says Nancy. “And there’s to be no yelling or screaming, there or by our office door.”

Most people’s schedules fall somewhere between those chosen by Barbara Palmer and the Lungrens. Parents will plug their kids’ schedule gaps with a mix of after-school programs, neighborhood trade-offs (both formal and informal arrangements), and organized groups such as Scouting and the YMCA.


The heart of any homeworker’s schedule is the family routine. Create one with care, and you’ll save yourself time and trouble. As motivation, think of your routine as a reflection of the skills and values you want to pass on to your children.

Routines include chores, responsibilities, rules of behavior, and all manner of expectations. It will help you immensely if your children get up cheerfully, learn to dress and to help feed themselves, do their homework without prompting or complaining– but you shouldn’t be too disappointed if they don’t. Just remember to explain why you need the rules (kids are big on explanations).

What kinds of chores can you expect to delegate to your children? Writing in Organize Your Family: Simple Routines for You and Your Kids (Hyperion), Ronni Eisenberg says that from ages three to five, children are capable of one-step tasks with a parent present; from five to nine, of chores that take 10 minutes or less (such as making the bed and picking up the room); and from 10 on up, of more complex tasks, such as baby-sitting a sibling.

Experts suggest taking a consensual approach to setting up routines: Schedule a family meeting and ask your children what they want to do. You may be pleasantly surprised at what they’ll volunteer for (as opposed to being told).

Davidson proposes that you write out a work schedule for yourself, read it to your children, and post it in a prominent place. Eisenberg recommends delegating chores according to ability and preference: “The most successful chores are real chores, the ones where children see a benefit: If I scrape carrots, we eat them.” Dusting, she notes, will probably rate low on their list of needs.

Most women, and many men, say they work at home at least in part to be closer to their children. But how much you want to involve yourself in their daily routines varies greatly according to age, the presence of a caregiver, and your work pressures (and your desires vis-a-vis your kids). Davidson says that the home-based workers she interviewed, who had little or no child care, felt that “children handle the idea of an at-home working parent pretty well as long as they know when they can count on the parent’s full attention.” She recommends parents spend an hour in the morning exclusively with the children, then get them going on a project before moving to their own work. (Those with children under eight may not agree with her optimism.)

Homeworkers with full-time child care also have to be clear on how much interaction they want with the kids. With children in the house and potentially underfoot, corporate public relations agent Palmer needed to make the following rules for herself: “I only check in on them when they’re sick. It’s actually easier on the children when you respect their time with the nanny, because once they see you, they want you. And it’s very difficult to have a parent popping in and out of their lives. I think it’s selfish for a working parent to do that.”

Children are sensitive to transition times, so Palmer makes her comings and goings as uneventful as possible. “If my daughter and the nanny are in one part of the house, I’ll take care to leave by another door.”

The rules for the children are equally cut and dried: “My son knows not to disturb me. Anyway, the nanny keeps them too busy to want to bother me. On the other hand, if something wonderfully exciting or awful has happened at school, he’s allowed to knock and interrupt. Not burst in, mind you.”

This discipline on the part of both parent and child is probably necessary for a demanding business such as Palmer’s and for anyone who has the goal of a successful full-time operation.

Having clarified your expectations, settled on child care, and established your routines, you still have one last area in which to impose order: your children’s relationship to your work space. It is a fact that children and equipment don’t mix, whether we’re talking about the Cuisinart or the 386-XT PC. Establish your no-fly zone early, reiterate your reasons often, and enlist your child’s sense of self-worth in observing the taboo. One photographer with a home studio filled with $100,000 of equipment gave his son a Polaroid camera at an early age and promised him steady promotions if he showed maturity; you can do the same. It also helps to define your space with dividers, bookshelves, and planters, so that it doesn’t become an off-duty playground by accident or design.

Once your circus is up and running, your own work will reap the benefits. Of course, no matter what your best-laid plans are, the day will come when all the systems fail: the sitter’s sick, school’s out, the VCR is in the shop, and PBS is on pledge break. If that happens, all you can do is to set up a children’s corner all the way across the room, stock it liberally with toys and books, and smile frequently. With luck, you may find this the beginning of a beautiful working relationship.

A novelist and editor, DON WALLACE has written about business and parenting, but never before in the same article. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and son.


As home offices become the preferred work environment for millions of people, child-safety products and practices are finding an unexpected market niche.

Makers of such products sold 6.2 million units in 1991, the year the Marlton, New Jersey-based Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association started keeping track of sales, said their spokeswoman Debbie Albert. And baby-proofing companies such as Baby Protectors Inc. are getting more requests to place safety devices in home offices, according to David Wyse, owner of the St. Lucie County, Florida, company. Baby-proofing companies usually offer free home inspections and charge between $150 and $400 to outfit a home with the latest safety products. Most of them offer the following advice.


* Don’t assume that because you are at home, your child is well watched. Time flies when you are absorbed in work, and it only takes a minute for a child to find his way into a swimming pool or out the front door. Consider hiring a baby-sitter for mornings or afternoons, even while you are in the house.

* Anchor cabinets, bookcases, files, desks, and other office furniture with screw-in wall braces. Standard “L” brackets cost about 80 cents each and can also be used to fasten such furniture to walls.

* Place PCs and other electronics out of reach; secure them so they won’t topple.

* Pad sharp cornered desks and tables.

* Protect your sensitive data, even if it means making the home office an off-limits room. You can install expandable door gates, which run about $10 to $30, depending on materials and size. An inexpensive, plastic-and-wood model, 24 inches high and expandable from 2 to 41 inches, is made by Gerry Wood Products of Denver.


Here’s where to find some specific baby-proofing items.

The Home Depot hardware chain carries the following products:

* Rev-A-Lock security lock, the Cadillac of child-proofing latches, is made by Rev-A-Shelf Inc. of Jeffersontown, Kentucky. At $28 for a box of five locks and two keys, these aren’t cheap, but they are practically undereatable and come with a 1O-year replacement guarantee. They lock cabinets and drawers and use a cylindrical magnet as a key to release an inside latch. Some drilling is required for installation. The magnets can be stored on a refrigerator or metal file cabinet. And don’t forget the usual warnings about keeping magnets away from computer storage media.

* Kiddie Keeper drawer and door catches, at $3 for a package of six. Interior-mounted spring locks. Kiddie Knobs, at $1.50 for three. Protect exits and off-limits rooms from little explorers. They fit over knobs and are designed to spin ineffectually unless squeezed by an adult hand. Both items are made by Belwith International Ltd. of City of Industry, California.

Toys ‘R’ Us carries these items by Safety 1st of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts:

* Safety Grip door-knob covers, $1.80 for a package of three.

* Comer cushions, four for $1. Fit over child-height desk edges.

* Safe Socket, $2 each. This electrical-outlet guard costs more than the usual double-pronged plastic inserts but offers more protection. Its push-and-tum release works like the cap on a child-proof medicine vial.

* Screw-on-outlet cover, $2 each. This deep cup fits over a plug-in socket, but doesn’t look like it could accommodate a surge protector. Better to install it over the plug for your power strip, then keep the strip out of reach.

ANNA THOMA runs a home-based educational consulting business in Stuart, Florida.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Freedom Technology Media Group

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