By Ann Springer
Many years ago I watched one of the Chinese acrobats perform a careful balancing act.
A five-foot-tall, middle-aged man performed with a stack of 50 plates and a number of tall sticks secured from the floor of the stage. I watched as he delicately placed a plate into motion atop each stick. He added extra sticks atop the spinning plates and put even more plates into motion.
Once he had all 50 plates in motion, he ran back and forth across the stage trying to keep all of the plates spinning. I marveled as he ran side-to-side, wondering how long he could keep up this balancing act.
He managed it for a short time, but soon the act proved to be too much and it all came tumbling down in a giant crash.
As a freelance writer and mother of three school-aged children, it’s easy for me to feel like the exasperated acrobat running back and forth between the plates, attempting to keep all of my projects in motion. It’s easy to think of reasons to procrastinate on a writing project, particularly an unpaid project, which in the end can pay the largest dividends.
I can always postpone laundry or mopping the floor to sit down and pound out a blog entry that’s on my mind or to do research for an upcoming article I’m working on, but I always fold when my kids come into my office and need something. They tug at my heartstrings and the guilt pours over me.
After all, allowing them access to me all day is a big part of why I decided to work from home, but at the end of the day I do still have a job to do—beyond that of wife and mother.
After years of trying to juggle all of my spinning plates, such as writing articles from my laptop while enduring morning sickness or wrapping up a writing project in the car between after-school activities, I’ve finally figured out how to strike the balance between family life and work responsibilities:
1. Designate your own time and space.
As part of my goal-setting for my writing career, I’ve designated a certain amount of time to sit at my desk and write. My kids and husband know that I need to hit my hourly goals for the week and they try to respect that time because they know when I’m done I will devote my full attention to them.
Typically, I write while they’re at school and my husband is at work, but it’s more difficult to juggle everything on days when they’re all home.
I also have my own space that is sacred. I’ve even gone so far as to write, “Mom” on my pens and stapler because I have found that anything without a “Mom” tag grows legs and disappears.
2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
I’ve seen some great opportunities out there in the freelance market, but I am realistic about the commitments that I have to my current assignments and to my family. It’s hard to turn down work, but sometimes it’s in the best interest of my sanity and my professionalism.
If I get overwhelmed I won’t turn in a good product in the end.
It’s also a danger to bite off more than you can handle in other areas, too, and to have these extra projects eat into your writing time. Once people find out you work from home, it gives them a free pass to believe that flexibility equates to availability.
If you take an hour out of your week to volunteer at the PTA book fair, make sure you pay it back to yourself by getting up early or staying up late.
3. Don’t answer your phone. Let it ring.
My phone rings off the hook all day, every day. I have learned to let voicemail be my best friend. If the message is important, the person will leave a message or will call back.
If I answered every call I received, I would never finish anything.
I try to not take personal calls during my allotted work hours even though it’s tempting to take a break when I’m not feeling inspired or motivated (i.e. procrastinating). Friends know I am home and will call, but I rarely give in to the temptation to give up those precious hours of writing time.
I believe that real friends support and respect that time in the same manner that I do.
4. Let it go. Guilt is a powerful force and “mommy guilt” must carry the weight of the world.
While I try to have an “open door” policy with my girls while I’m working from home, I also know that some days I’ve really got to put my nose the grindstone and get it done. It can be hard to postpone their needs, but sometimes I can only schedule an interview during homework hour or I have a deadline that requires extra time.
While they don’t seem too bothered—and no one is going hungry—I tend to be the one who feels heartbroken about putting my career ahead of my children. It doesn’t matter that I just spent two hours walking the beach looking at seashells with them, it still makes me twinge a little as I close the door to shut them out for a bit.
It’s a classic case of “mommy guilt” that plagues work-at-home mothers because our roles as employee, mother and wife collide and overlap constantly.
The best way to cure this ailment is to let it go. Dwelling on it only splits my focus, so it’s best when I keep my perspective on the big picture.
When I find my worlds colliding more than I would prefer, I remember the plates crashing to the ground, and do my own balance check to see if it’s time to scale back.
5. Get some help.
Summer can be a real killer for me. Between the call of the ocean on a perfectly sunny day and my three energetic kids fighting boredom at home, it becomes even more difficult to fight the temptation to blow off my work duties and hit the sand.
In order to make up for those hours that I would normally work during the school year, I take the 10 weeks of summer down a notch. I don’t work as many hours and I make sure I hire a helper, or beg my friends for a hand, to assist with the kids while I buckle down to meet my deadlines.
My kids also tend to sleep in during the summer, so I try to arise early to get in a few hours of work before the demands for breakfast begin.
Working from home and writing about what you love is a dream come true for many writers. Most days I feel like I’m living the dream, but when I’m on deadline and have a million and one tasks to complete by the end of the day—both personal and professional—it feels more like a nightmare.
Just like the Chinese acrobat trying to keep all of the plates in motion, when I begin to take on too much in any one area I find myself failing in all areas. Striking a balance and setting boundaries will keep your writing career in motion, but not at the expense of your family.
About the Author: Ann Springer is a published author of many magazine articles. Someday her tombstone will read, “Killer of Plants,” because in her house, those who don’t don’t bark or cry don’t get fed. Check out her blog at www.3girlsandapug.com.