One of the hardest parts of being a work-at-home parent is managing the interruptions.
Not that we don’t love our kids, or want to see them and help them when they need us. But we need to be able to step into the “work mode” and stay there in order to get quality work done.
Managing interruptions has always been an issue for me, since when I’m working at home I’m either writing & editing, analyzing data, or talking with a colleague about something serious that requires my deep attention.
It’s bad enough that I have to manage my own temptations (e.g., surfing the web, hanging out on Twitter, answering that phone call from my girlfriend, online grocery shopping, etc.). But when I’ve successfully resisted those, and I’ve gotten into a deep mind groove with my work, I go nuts when I’m interrupted. That work groove is just too fragile and too precious to treat carelessly.
- Being available for my kids when they really need me vs. being un-interruptable when I are deep into my work.
- Letting my au pair be ‘in charge’ and being ready to step in if I am really needed.
Being available vs. Don’t interrupt me
You don’t want to hurt your kids’ feelings and leave them thinking that you don’t care about them, simply because you cannot put Skype on ‘pause’ to get them a band aid or see their latest drawing.
At the same time, though, you can’t be completely accessible or you will simply get nothing of value done. There is only so much work you can do during their naps, after they’re in bed, and before they wake up. Indeed, that’s why you have an au pair.
To manage this tension I’ve got a few ‘rules’.
- Kids may not interrupt me when I am on the phone, on Skype, or when my fingers are moving on my keyboard.
- Kids must knock on my office door and wait quietly until I come and open it.
(My door has big glass panels so I can see if they are crying, or bleeding, or anything crazy. And, If I’m on the phone I can communicate with hand signals, smiles/frowns, and the occasional post it to let them know how soon I’ll be free.)
- I have a set time that I AM available to be interrupted.
I make a point of getting up from my desk and walking out of my office to greet the kids when they come home, so that they see that I am available in a predictable way. Plus I get to enjoy that reunion time with them. Sometimes, I even have some coffee or a snack with them and then go back to work.
These three rules work reasonably well, most of the time.
Au Pair ‘In Change’ vs. Mom Steps In
The second tension, between letting your au pair be ‘in charge’ and being ready to step in if you are really needed, is one that waxes and wanes with the au pair’s relationship with the kids. It’s always an issue when an au pair is new, or when an activity is new — the au pair needs advice, training, observation or support, and since I’m working at home it’s (relatively) easy to give this right when it’s needed, versus at the end of the day or in a family meeting.
However, this tension remains even after your au pair knows what s/he’s dong, so you need to have plans in advance to manage this tension. I’ve had to make sure to wean myself, my au pair and my kids from any expectation that I’ll step in when any one of the three of us is unhappy. This means that I sometimes have to let my au pair deal with bickering kids when I could just open the door and yell at them. It means that I have to let them take too much time on their way out the door to soccer practice so that they experience the ‘natural consequence’ of being late.
It also means that I have to respect my au pair’s authority and her personal way of doing things. I can’t interrupt her for doing something differently than I’d do it myself. And, sometimes I even have had to let her do something ‘wrong’ (e.g., say yes to the Good Humor man) and wait to discuss with her later. This is what it takes to keep her ‘in charge’ in the eyes of my kids and others, so that they see her as a person with authority and a person whose directions should be respected.
So that neither my kids nor my au pairs have felt abandoned during this weaning process, I’ve made sure to be explicit, saying things like: “Remember, Elrina’s in charge now” or “Elrina, you’re in charge now.”
To help with the ongoing tension of being available but not on duty myself, one day I scrawled the sign you see above, stuck to my office door. (Since the sign’s been up for over 3 years now, it’s too bad I didn’t make a nicer one.)
The sign reminds everyone (me included) that when I’m working in my office with the door shut, the only times to interrupt me are when
- It’s an emergency, or
- You really can’t wait for an answer or make a decision on your own.
I should also mention— I break for hot cups of coffee, cold Diet Cokes, and warm cookies straight from the oven. Both my kids and our au pairs have figured out that I’m completely happy being interrupted for any of these, and most of all, for a ‘hug’nakiss’. After that, it’s back to the digitized salt mines for me.
For you other work-at home parents, what are the tensions that are challenging for you?
What are your strategies for managing them?
Please share your ideas!