Not many of us have the opportunity (ahem) to work when we’ve got a baby to take care of, and there’s nothing quite like being in that position for the very first time. The questions, the trial and error, the constant second-guessing, the vortex of “no right answer,” the guilt, and the ever-shifting goal posts brought on by infant development… it can all culminate in one protracted experience of frustration and overwhelm.
It often does, in fact. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
You can work from home with a baby. It’s not necessarily a cakewalk, but you can do it. What you need is some ruthless time management, and this one fundamental understanding:
Asleep Work vs. Awake Work
If you’re going to be working from home with a baby (or a small child), you need to come to an understanding with yourself as quickly as possible: there are things you simply will not be able to do when there’s an awake, active baby in your care. The flip side of that is, there are things you will only be able to do when the baby is sleeping.
I don’t mean things you’d rather do when the baby is sleeping, like laundry, putting the chicken in the marinade, or catching up on your blog reader. I’m talking about the important things you can only do when there’s silence — these could include writing, making phone calls, recording videos or podcasts, or any deep-concentration activity that doesn’t do well with interruption.
What you must do is know what your “baby is sleeping” work. Everything else falls in the category of “baby is awake” work. (Or if it’s actually “I’m not doing this” work, let it go.)
Sleeping time is the secret
Once you’re clear on your “baby is sleeping” work, you need to commit whole-hog to doing only those things while the baby is sleeping. Once the baby goes down, make a beeline to your to-do list and get to gettin’ on those tasks.
It’s absolutely critical that you don’t let yourself get distracted by any non-urgent “it’ll just take a second” tasks, like unloading the dishwasher or answering some personal emails. This is your only true work time — treat it like work time.
The “magic” bonus of time constraints
You may find that doing these concentrated bursts of work within a solid time constraint like naptime will spur you to greater productivity. This is called Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the amount of time you give it. If you give your allotted workload a set limit of two hours because that’s how long your 10-month-old naps, then you’ll get a lot more done than if the timeframe you sign is just a nebulous “today.”
When the baby’s awake
There are a few things you can do when your baby’s awake to make up for “losing” that naptime productivity, especially if you came to rely on it for catching up with housework. But there’s a difference between a baby who actively needs you and a baby who’s just awake. Once you can tease out the difference in your own baby, you’ll be able to make progress around the house without cutting into your working naptimes.
Try a few different things that will keep your baby close and content without requiring both your hands. If you need to camp out in the kitchen or on the sofa, set up a play yard or a swing for your baby close by. The proximity may be all the baby wants, and you’re hands-free. If your baby loves music the way mine did (and does), play some baby-friendly tunes that won’t drive you mad in the process (we like Wee Sing and Putumayo recordings). If you’ve got any kind of baby carrier, like an Ergo or a Moby, strap that little bundle on your front or back and chat about what’s going on as you go about getting things done.
Waking up to autonomy
Ultimately, one of the best things you can do for yourself — and your children — is to develop a sense of autonomy.
Some kids are cut out for autonomy intrinsically and need some space right from the get-go. Other kids definitely are not programmed for autonomy in their first years. And somewhere in the middle, a good number of kids can learn to be autonomous.
As a single mom trying to work from home, I did a lot of gentle experiments with my son’s autonomy from infancy. Bit by bit I developed in him a sense that alone time isn’t necessarily bad. It started with providing him as much “alone time” with his baby gym as he could comfortably tolerate, eased into brief periods of time in his crib (usually after naps) with me in another room talking to him over the baby monitor when he’d get agitated, and continued with providing him a safe and engaging environment where he could play freely without me constantly waving toys in front of his face — complete with little potty and a snack table for some post-nap alone time.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to holding your baby — babies need to be held and interacted with a lot, and besides, babies don’t keep. But if you’ve got a baby you’re trying to work around, experiment with little ways to give him or her a little bit of autonomy.
Working with a baby underfoot takes some careful planning and there are some sacrifices you’ll have to make. But as you both adjust to this new way of doing things, you’ll likely find that you both benefit: more traction for you, and a more well-developed home life for your littlest one.