Thursday, October 27, 2011

Work-at-Home Parent vs. Stay-at-Home Parent

Do you find a way to blur the lines between
working at home and staying at home?
Photo by Carlos Porto


This post is in no way intended to insinuate that one of these should be construed as "better" than the other or more noble in any way, shape or form.  For that matter, the same thing goes for parents who work outside the home.  As a parent you are the only one who knows what is best for your family and situation and nobody ever has the right to tell you otherwise!!

Okay, climbing off the soap box now...

As much as I would like to claim that I ditched my full-time job and went into freelance writing out of some romantic starving artist notion, it simply isn't the truth.  While I didn't go into this kicking and screaming (and rather enjoy it, in fact), it was a decision that involved a lot of discussion, testing and compromise.

The driving force behind the decision was the fact that I was needed at home.  My son has special needs and I am frequently needed to deal with situations at the school.  When you work outside the home, phone calls from the school and leaving frequently to pick up a child from school isn't exactly the best way to score points with the management.  An FMLA is helpful, but it can't solve every situation.

As the situation got stickier and stickier and I spent more time "visiting" with human resources, I realized that I was going to have to make a decision.  At the time, I had started dabbling in freelance writing and I'd had some success earning money.  Could I do this full time?  I wasn't sure, but I suspected I was going to be finding out soon.

I took a sabbatical from work in May to try and see how leaving work would go.  I felt lighter almost instantly.  Having the ability to get up and go whenever I needed without running it past my boss, which usually involved a great deal of anxiety on my part, complete with hammering heartbeat and dry mouth, was such a freeing experience.  I knew right away that, for the sake of my son and for my own sanity, we were going to have to find a way to make this work.

For many families, the story would end there.  One parent stays home to handle the situation with the child while another goes to work.  In our case it wasn't quite that simple.  One paycheck simply doesn't cut it.  Bills still have to get paid, especially since our medical bills can be quite high.

I'm fortunate enough to have a talent and a desire to work from home.  But I've found that separating "work from home" with "stay at home" isn't quite as simple as I initially thought. I've indulged myself numerous times, starting work late, taking the kids to the park, procrastinating to watch a movie with my daughter, stopping work to play a game with my son...  everything still gets done on time, but I could probably get a lot more done if I would do better about buckling down.

And then I remind myself that my daughter won't always be three, and she won't always think that snuggling on the couch with mom is a great way to spend a morning.  My son won't always want to show me his new guitar chords or his latest science experiment.  So maybe it's okay to blur the lines between working at home and staying at home.

So maybe it's not such a black and white issue after all.  Maybe it's a spectrum, like this:

Stay-at-home                                                            Work-at-home

And I'm happily somewhere in the middle.

If you are a parent working home, where do you fall on the spectrum?

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Art of the "No"

When should you turn down a request for help?
Photo by Tungphoto

I confess to having a weak spot for a person in need.  I've certainly had to rely on the kindness of others more than once in my life, and I like having the opportunity to pay it back whenever I can.  Since I generally don't have a lot of cash handy, I usually offer my time.

Here's the problem with that.

I sometimes forget that time is just as valuable a commodity as that green paper you keep in your wallet.  (Notice I said that you keep in your wallet.  There's certainly none of it in mine.)  And others forget that work at home doesn't equate play at home.

Recently I got myself into a situation where I was way over my head.  A friend asked for help and I did my darndest to oblige.  A month turned into three months and I soon found myself exhausted and frustrated by the favor I was doing.  And I had no idea how to get myself out of it, since their livelihood depended on my assistance.

I was complaining and moaning about it, but I couldn't find the guts to simply say "no."  Or rather, I did, but the friend came back with a counter offer, and I said "okay," cursing myself the entire time.

Finally last week I had an epiphany.  I was putting my friend's family's needs over my own family's needs and certainly far above my own needs.  A favor was fast turning into a full time job.  I took a day to get my guts together and then the next day I sat her down, ready to hand her my awful verdict.

And got the surprise of my life.  She had already solved the problem in a way that would no longer require my assistance. She had already realized that she was asking for too much and had taken the steps to fix the situation, not wanting to feel like she was taking advantage of me.  I was incredibly relieved, since I was worried that saying "no" could put a strain on the friendship.  But instead, she gets to keep her job and I get my life back and all's well that ends well.

So what does this have to do with writing?

1.  If you work at home, before you agree to help out with a volunteer commitment that is likely to take up your time, remember that the keyword is "work."  Any job you take on that doesn't directly contribute to your income (and even some that do contribute to your income) is likely to cause your income and productivity to take a hit.  Trying to recoup that income is likely to leave you stressed and exhausted.

2.  Before agreeing to help out, consider the reality of the situation.  How much time is this really going to take?  Will helping out cost me money?  In my case, I learned that four kids really are not just as easy as two, and feeding the ravenous hordes was digging into my grocery bill.

3.  Negotiate.  Sometimes a trade can be more valuable than cash.  When someone needs assistance and can't offer you money, try to set up a barter system.  Everyone has a talent.  Sometimes a favor in the future can be beneficial.

Just to be straight -- I'm not saying never help out a friend in need and never volunteer.  Volunteerism is good.  The world would be a better place if people gave of their time and money more freely.  But do so on your own terms and don't overwhelm yourself with duties.  Burning out benefits no one.

I actually just offered my help in another arena last night.  I'll probably never be an expert on the art of saying "no."  But I did do a much better job assessing the time and energy commitment.  And if it gets to be too much, I will back out gracefully, standing firm in my decision.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Patching the Holes

Caution -- Work in Progress
image by Idea go

I have a tendency to jump into things feet-first, learning as I go, and fixing errors when needed.  Although I'm good at research, I am often impatient.  Plus, sometimes I never realize how challenging certain tasks can be and I bite off far more than anyone could possibly chew.

But I think one of my better qualities is the ability to take a step back, analyze the situation, find the mistakes and fix them.

When I decided that freelance writing was something I wanted to pursue, I jumped in feet first, as per my norm.  Need a website?  Got it!  How about a blog? No sweat! Out went the query letters and I started plugging away.  Then reality smacked me upside the face.

1.  I have no web design skills at all.
2.  I didn't know what direction my blog should take.
3.  I had no credits to impress potential clients with.

Well, that's a problem.

So I got to work fixing them.

I tackled #2 and #3 first.  I now have a stable-full of credits, even some ghostwriting work that clients were nice enough to let me use.  One of my biggest annoyances is that some of my work is still stuck on a "content farm" site.  I didn't want to make my blog a "catch-all," and I like to write about different things, so I'm still trying to decide how to approach that.  I'm writing more and more about Asperger's, since that's a topic rather dear to my heart, and I'm toying with the idea of creating a blog that deals specifically with that.  Then I would have a place to post those articles.  I've also got some pretty decent stuff up over at Comics Bulletin, and I need to find a way to showcase that better.

This blog has consolidated itself and found its purpose in the last several months and I'm glad for that.  An occasional off-topic post is fine, but I prefer stable subject matter.

This morning I went after #1.  I was hating my website.  It looked crummy and bland and had pretty much no visual interest at all.  I dug around and played with different features, and this morning I actually have a website I'm proud of.  It still needs some work, no question, but it's getting there.  I need to figure out why some of the links are green and some are grey (does it just show like that for me? I can't tell!), but it looks a lot more professional.  I want to get more visuals up there, but it's going to take some more playing and fiddling.  I tried to add a picture of me, but it got all weird and stretched out, so that's going to take some figuring out as well.

So my question for you --

Are you a feet-first person, patching the holes as you go?  Or do you research all the details and hire a professional for the things you aren't 100 percent sure about?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The "Go with the Flow" Phenomenon

Ever made a decision and had all the pieces click into place?
Image by Danilo Rizzuti

Life is full of choices.  Some are small ones:  what to have for breakfast, which socks to wear, whether to buy that book you want in paperback or on Kindle.  Others are potential life changers:  the decision to go back to school, change careers, have kids.  Often we simply have to make a list of the pros and cons, pick a side and hope like crazy that we made the right decision.  

But I've found throughout my life that the world has a way of telling you when you've made a good decision.  This can be ascribed to any number of conditions:  some may call it fate, others may think of it as God's will, others may consider it the balance of the universe.  The label doesn't matter, but I call it going with the flow.

Have you ever made a big decision and watched pieces click into place in a way that felt like it couldn't be an accident?  I've seen this many times in my life.  For me, it's the clue that I'm on the right path and doing what I'm meant to do in this world.  Or have you made a decision and been stymied time after time, with every turn a challenge and nothing working out like it should?  I've experienced this as well, with decisions that I've looked back on later and wondered what I could have possibly been thinking.

Ten years ago I was a single mom, separated after leaving a horrible relationship and responsible for a 1-year-old boy.  The only job I could get was a minimum wage gig working the checkout at a local drugstore.  I lived in a one-bedroom barely there apartment.  I knew I needed to make a change, for the sake of my son if nothing else, but I didn't know what to do.  I got to talking to one of the women who worked in the pharmacy as a technician.  It seemed like something I could do and it paid twice what I was making.  I made the decision to get pharmacy tech training.

And things began clicking into place.  I made phone calls to find a program.  Every school was full, but I got put on waiting lists.  A week later, one of the schools called to tell me that an opening had come available and I would be starting the following month.  I qualified for a grant that would not only pay for my schooling but would also help with some of my living expenses.  I was able to set up an arrangement with daycare and family that would allow me to go to school eight hours a day and follow that with a shift at the store.  After I had been in class for three months, the drugstore moved me to the pharmacy so I could start my training back there.  This came with a pay raise and nights that weren't so late.

I was where I was supposed to be at that time in my life.  I moved to a pharmacy in a grocery store and then took a contract job at the University.  After I had my daughter, when money was tight, the University called me at exactly the right time to see if I wanted to come back and work for them.  They bought my contract and I worked there for the next three years.  

When I realized I wanted to do more and wanted to use my writing and editing talents, the same coincidences started happening.  A Google search landed me a volunteer gig web editing, an easy way to gather experience.  I found inexpensive classes to work towards a certificate in technical writing that fit into my schedule.  I found websites brimming with advice that pointed me exactly where I needed to be.  And I had the pieces in place when my life took a turn and I needed to leave the cushy University position.

My husband has observed this phenomenon as well.  He says that once he met me, the relationship felt "effortless" and things went smoother than any relationship he had ever been in.  When I interviewed a friend for an article, she mentioned the same phenomenon, without any prodding from me.  She decided to open a kid's consignment store and all the pieces started clicking into place.  A year later, she is a successful small-business owner.  

Have you ever experienced this in your own life?  What do you call it?