According to the Pew Research Center, a flexible work schedule is important to 70 percent of working mothers.
Fortunately, in many professions, remote career opportunities are on the rise —although there’s still a long way to go until they are the norm. As of 2017, 3.7 million employees (2.8 percent of the U.S. labor force) work at home at last half-time according to Global Workplace Analytics. A recent Gallup poll found that 43% of working Americans work at least part-time at home.
This is good news for mothers. According to the founders of Werk, the first marketplace for pre-negotiated flexible jobs, 70% of women who left the workforce after having a child say that they would have stayed if they had access to flexibility.
Remote, flexible work helps women professionally. Yet working at home brings challenges, too.
A Bright Horizons Family Solutions Study shows that the “mental load” that mothers carry is real; 86% of working mothers report that they handle all family and household responsibilities. At the same time, interruptions as brief as 2.8 seconds can double errors; it takes 23 minutes to return to a task after a disruption, according to U.C Irvine researcher Gloria Mark.
So, how do work-at-home mothers minimize interruptions and maximize productivity? Here are nine tried and true secrets of success:
Hands-down the number one requirement for work-at-home mothers is childcare. But The New York Post reports that since 2009, the cost of childcare has grown at twice the inflation rate.
Most work-at-home mothers piece together a patchwork of solutions. Some women swap playdates with other working mothers to reduce costs. Others turn to relatives or neighbors or simply do whatever they can to squeeze in work when kids are napping, at school, or otherwise occupied. “One year I hired a mother’s helper—a high school senior—to play with my kid after school a few days a week,” says Michelle, a marketing coordinator. “This was perfect when my son wanted to go outside to play but was too young to be outside on his own unsupervised.”
But low-cost options aren’t readily available for many mothers whose kids have special needs or multiple young children. “I need one person who can handle all three kids at one time, which isn’t easy to find,” explains Melanie, a project manager who started consulting from home when her three children were all under the age of five. For Melanie, consulting’s unpredictable workload makes finding reliable childcare even harder. “It’s super stressful to hire someone and then not have work because a project is delayed.” When she began consulting on a regular basis, Melanie calculated every billable hour against childcare costs, “barely making enough to pay for childcare after taxes.”
But as her kids grew older (now three, four, and seven), Melanie shifted her approach; she built her work around childcare, not the other way around. She determined the maximum hours she could work, locked in sitters, and then hustled to create a steady client pipeline, beyond her anchor client. Because she had built a strong relationship over five years with her project manager, she requested a fixed number of hours, openly explaining her requirement that work cover childcare costs. “It felt unprofessional, but I felt like I had to. I explained that it was either guaranteed hours, or I would have to go somewhere else to find more work.”
Melanie felt she could speak up because she had proven herself professionally; it also helped that her client was a working mother of three kids. By successfully advocating for herself, Melanie secured her hours; she also demonstrated that childcare is a cost of doing business.
Olivia, a social media manager, media expert, and mother of two boys (age four and a half and one and a half) admits that working from home is “a delicate balance, and it definitely doesn’t always work,” but has learned that the key to work productivity is setting aside kid time.
Olivia splits her time so that she focuses on tasks that don’t require a lot of concentration while her children play but also blocks out kid-only time during each day. On ideal days, this includes 1:1 playtime, but on busy days, she’s found that stopping work to simply grab lunch or run errands together helps.
“I’ve found that as long as you give kids devoted time, they’ll give you some time to work, too.”
Clara, a freelance writer and mother of two children, ages 10 and 12, has learned that working from home works best when she polices her time.
“One thing I’ve learned is to be stricter about saying ‘no’ to meeting friends for coffee,” she explains. “I restrict whom I see and the length of time I’m with them or to try and tie socializing in with walking the dog.” She also uses a timer to help her focus.
Copywriter Michelle, the mother of an eight-year-old daughter manages her schedule to maximize efficiency.
“I’ve abandoned the idea that work has to be done during traditional office hours. With the exception of client conference calls, I’m all about getting things done during whatever pockets of time I feel most productive. Maybe that’s at night after my daughter goes to bed, or maybe that’s a Saturday afternoon while my husband takes her to a movie. It gives the two of them a chance to have one-on-one bonding time while I’m crossing major items off my list. Basically, I slice and dice my schedule to be as efficient as possible!”
Angel, a journalist and mother of five kids (ages 3, 4, 8, 10, and 11) uses a clock marked with sticky notes to teach children time. “Say, ‘When it’s urgent, come get me. If it’s not urgent, don’t bother me until the clock says 12:00. After that, we get ice cream!’” she advises mothers.
This advice is echoed by Grace, work-at-home mother of an 11-year old boy with autism. “During summer break, I have a clock hung up with other paper clocks showing mealtimes and snack times” to reduce interruptions.
Writer Anita, the mother of three children (ages 10, seven, and three) also uses a clock and timer and gives her youngest self-directed activities like puzzles. “Even a 3-year old can understand Mom-time,” she explains.
Michelle, whose son is now 11, has been working at home since he was an infant. “The best thing I ever did was teach him that there are times when I can work and he can chat or be in the room, and there are times when I need X number of minutes of absolute quiet.”
They also coordinate on set activities he can do while she needs quiet as well as a reward. “The key was teaching him to respect the quiet time because not doing so only prolonged my working.”
However, this doesn’t work for some mothers. Anita, whose older kids can stay self-occupied, says, “Never, never, ever try to do work that takes great amounts of concentration while you have kids anywhere near you!”
The trick is understanding if you can switch off or if you need to be totally isolated. For Charlotte, the public library is her guaranteed quiet workspace.
Angel sets aside snacks and drinks for her children to serve themselves, citing her children’s Montessori education as a model:
“It really cuts down in unnecessary interruptions because they know that they can do most things on their own while I'm working, or they know it can wait until I can help.”
“Two words: gym playroom!” shares Risa, a freelance consultant, who has done her work at creative work locations for more than six years since her son was an infant. “When I needed focused work time I would go to the gym, drop my son in the playroom for the max time allowed (three hours) and sit in the lobby with my laptop and iPod.”
Under deadline, she’d continue to a McDonalds with free Wi-Fi and play space until naptime. “Time it right, and that’s five to six hours of good work time.”
Whatever you plan, sick kids, school vacations, childcare gaps will happen.
Michelle summarizes: “Roll with whatever comes your way as best you can and hope the kids go to bed early so you can catch up!”
When all else falls through, work-at-home mothers swear by the holy trinity of coffee, iPad, and noise canceling headphones. Without them, this article wouldn’t exist.
Susan Margolin writes remotely for corporate clients. She researched and wrote this article at home while her 9-year old son was sick, and her 5-year-old daughter started summer vacation, with help from a new babysitter and episodes of Paw Patrol.