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I Was So Wrong About Working From Home

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Before I had kids, I suffered from some severe delusions about working from home. For one, I dreamed of working and parenting from home as some sort of perfectly balanced situation. I imagined that I'd be able to toggle seamlessly between my work and my children, devoting attention to each party in a way that was mutually satisfying.

Oh, and there would be almost no whining. And many hours of uninterrupted work time.

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It was a dream based upon multiple, unfounded assumptions: namely, that children would only demand my attention when I was ready to give it to them, and that work would only require my attention when my children didn't need me.

Obviously, my first problem was that I completely misunderstood the reality of working while raising children. Moreover, I had no idea about the constant state of imbalance that goes hand in hand with parenting.

The Family Medical Leave Act, though important, only offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents.

On a broader level, I didn't appreciate the lack of structural and systemic support for parents in the U.S. I also didn't understand some of the unique challenges that independent, freelance and/or self-employed workers face when it comes to working while parenting.

Freelance work is on the rise

According to a recent study commissioned by the Freelancers Union and Upwork, nearly 54 million Americans now do freelance work. That's approximately 17 percent of the population—a percentage that doesn't even include the ever-increasing number of otherwise employed telecommuters.

Many of us, freelancers and telecommuters alike, work from home. And as the workplace continues to shift, the needs of working parents are shifting, too.

The setup is a challenge—especially when you are a parent

Carving out a designated workspace in one's home isn't easy.

Over the years, I've used a guest room as an office. It became my second child's room once he was born. I've also used a mobile office of sorts, toting my laptop and a stack of papers and folders from the couch to the dining room table to my bed. Now, I have a desk in my bedroom that, for the most part, is entirely devoted to work.

Yet with the exception of those who have full-time childcare and/or a separate home office, these designated workspaces aren't always so clearly defined. Kidstuff often spills over into one's workspace, and workstuff often spills over into the rest of the home. (Hello, scribbled-upon scraps of construction paper littering my work desk!)

Increasing options for paid parental leave for all working parents can only help to put into practice the values that the U.S. claims to hold so dear: namely, family values and hard work.

Getting anything done when working at home thus requires the support of everyone living at home: spouses, partners, and, as much as they can, children, too. If no one is respecting the workspace, then the space itself can disappear.

Affordable, reliable, and flexible childcare is scarce

Creating a designated workspace isn't just about securing adequate physical space in which to work. It also means securing enough mental space to get the work done.

Often, this means finding flexible childcare options. Many work-from-home parents are familiar with the idea of cobbled-together childcare: using their gym's childcare center while working in the gym café', sharing nannies or babysitters with other flex-workers, hiring part-time childcare workers, seeking out safe and reliable drop-in daycare, or even relying on those precious preschool hours to get work done. For some, they want flexible childcare because they want to be home with their children for part of the day. For others, they want flexible care because their job is inherently unpredictable. For both parties, five days of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daycare doesn't fit their particular needs.

In my own current configuration, I rely on preschool and elementary school hours, a few afternoons of babysitting from my in-laws, a handful of childcare swaps with other work-from-home neighbors, and many early mornings and late nights in order to complete my work. I'm lucky, since each of these options is affordable and reliable.

Expanding these sorts of affordable, reliable, and flexible childcare options is necessary to help meet the needs of the increasing population of at-home workers.

The United States lags behind most other developed nations when it comes to adequate maternity and paternity leave. In fact, the U.S. is the only advanced economy in the world that does not mandate paid maternity and paternity leave. The Family Medical Leave Act, though important, only offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents. Moreover, only 60 percent of employees meet the criteria for FMLA coverage and eligibility, according to a recent Department of Labor survey.

To be clear, we might never solve the work-life balance issue.

For freelance and self-employed workers, the reality is even grimmer. "Unpaid leave" can mean losing clients, losing work and losing money.

In many ways, the U.S., as a whole, suffers from the same delusions that I did back when my pre-child self imagined what it would be like to work from home. We espouse a cultural misunderstanding of the 21st century realities of working while raising children. We pay only lip service to the value of care work, including child-rearing. We perpetuate the myth of the bootstrap-pulling, rugged individual while ignoring the fact that it truly does take a village (or a socially reinforced support network) to raise a child.

Increasing options for paid parental leave for all working parents can only help to put into practice the values that the U.S. claims to hold so dear: namely, family values and hard work.

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To be clear, we might never solve the work-life balance issue. Frankly, there is no balance when it comes to raising young children.

But as a country, we can bring greater flexibility and support to working parents and non-parents alike. We can introduce affordable childcare, health care and parental leave options that fit the needs of an ever-changing workforce.

It might not give us work-life balance, but it should give us much greater work-life satisfaction.

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