Self Portrait, November 2013

“You are so lucky to work from home! You can take care of your little one at the same time!”

“Oh, how convenient! As a freelancer, you don’t need to put Mark in daycare!”

Are people are really thinking? Yes, Feng and I work from home. We are happy with our choice and our respective work and non-conventional schedules. But we are not Wonderwoman and Superman.

Freelancing has its pros and cons. But let me get this straight: you cannot get work done and take care of a kid at the same time. I know—I have tried. It’s a recipe for disaster—the work doesn’t get done and you feel like a shitty parent.

Another basic fact: working from home is still… well, working. Sure, I am not behind a desk from 9 to 5 and I don’t waste time communing. But I still have assignments to complete, clients to deal with, and a network to build.

So, being a mom and a freelancer… how do we make it work? Here are my five commandments:

  1. Delegate and Outsource
  2. Be productive
  3. Build in small efficiencies
  4. Make technology your friend
  5. Remain professional

Delegate and Outsource

Working from home implies geographic proximity to your loved ones—including that kid screaming downstairs.

And trust me, that kid is more annoying than chatty Kathy, oversharing Mary, creepy Craig or any difficult coworkers you encounter in an office environment.

It’s simple: you cannot work with a baby or a toddler around. Seriously. Unless your kid can sit quietly beside you for hours and doesn’t require feeding, changing or any attention whatsoever (and if your kid is like that, please do share how you made such a convenient little human being!).

For the first few months, Mark was a Velcro baby. So I would put him in the sling and work on my laptop, same as when I was pregnant except, well, he was outside me. It worked out fine because as a newborn, he didn’t move much and was half-asleep. I didn’t have to do much except just be there… and yes, sometimes I would scream “anyone please, take him, I want my body to myself!”

It all changed when he started to crawl around six-month-old.

At first, my in-laws came for a couple of hours and play with him while Feng and I would catch up on work. But even with the door closed, I could hear Mark screaming and my in-laws trying to babysit. I just couldn’t focus.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work on a large translation and editing project. There was no way I could accomplish anything with Mark around, so I outsourced his care to Feng or my in-laws to focus on the work for blocks or two or three hours. Guess what? The world didn’t collapse. And that’s how we’ve been handling things ever since.

When Feng is busy, I take care of Mark. When I’m busy, it’s his turn. And if we are both busy… well, we send Mark to his grand-parents, in Barrhaven, where he learned Mandarin and the fine art of throwing rice and Chinese food on the floor.

Be Productive

Switching from mommy mode to freelancer mode in a matter of minutes takes practice but it pays off. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish if you have one, two or three hours of child-free time and can focus entirely on work. And when it happens, I make the most of it.

I know what I will be working on and I just dive into it. No interruptions, no checking my emails for just two seconds, and no watching videos of cats playing with cats. I go through documents and to-do lists like a pro because time is precious and I have none to waste. I’m productive and I’m 100% there.

It does help that while I may be tired, physically or mentally, my mind is fresh—it’s not like I have just spent hours in a meeting. Being a parent is exhausting but if you enjoy your work, it is a relief to focus on something else than Sophie la Girafe.

Build in Small Efficiencies

There isn’t much I can do with Mark around (except play peekaboo) but I take advantage of any opportunity. For instance, if I can get him to play with his toys for fifteen minutes (a small feat for a toddler), I stick around with my laptop and tackle small tasks that don’t require a lot of attention such as:

  • Cleaning my mailbox
  • Organizing my files and folders
  • Updating software and programs
  • Bookmarking articles in my feed on Pocket to read them later

I often take advantage of our walks to make phone calls—not important conference calls that require my full attention, but routine calls to friends, to the bank, etc.

Finally, I got addicted to podcasts and often listen to programs when I’m walking Mark around the neighbourhood. I’m a big fan of The Story, Freakonomics Radio and This American Life—I always learn something new and the stories are inspiring.

Make Technology Your Friend

My Blackberry doesn’t support fancy apps and my plan costs too much but this smartphone is a lifesaver. In my field, we do everything by email. Being able to accept or decline an assignment on the go is awesome.

My laptop is my second-best productivity tool and I customized it to my needs, making advantage of plugins, add-ons, shortcuts, etc.

For instance:

  • Useful Firefox add-ons like Pocket, to bookmark articles and read them later, Feedly to handle my RSS feeds and Yahoo Mail Notifier.
  • Language references such as Termium, WordReference, WeBiText and Antidote in my browser toolbar.
  • A rainmeter skin for to-do lists on my desktop (and weather forecast, etc.).
  • Shortcuts to most-used folders and programs pinned to my taskbar in Windows 7.
  • A Skype account to reach clients easily.

Remain professional

Some of my clients know I have a son because they saw me pregnant (some even sent cool baby gifts!). But I refuse to use Mark as an excuse and to overshare.

We all have commitments. We all have to eat, sleep, and do daily chores. Anyone can get sick or feel sluggish. But we are professionals, right?

If a client emails me an urgent assignment, he expects me to accept or decline—not reply “well, you know, I have to take Mark to the playground and then I have to go buy formula. Oh, and he hasn’t pooped yet today so—ah ah!—I may have to change a nasty diaper while I translate your press release. So yeah, I can’t really have it ready by 3 p.m.”

Instead, I usually say: “Sure, I can have it ready by the deadline.” Or “Sorry, busy day. Would that work if I complete it this evening and send it back to you later tonight? Your staff will have it first thing in the morning.”

If the client really insists, I said “sorry, I’m on mommy duty today!” a few times. People get the message. No need to overshare. I am a mother but I am also Juliette the translator/editor/copywriter/proofreader and when I am working, that’s the person clients want to talk to.

And this is how it works these days at home!

Do you have any tips to work from home with a kid? How do you handle your career? How is your work/life balance? Do share!


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  1. Jeruen December 2, 2013 at 9:21 am

    You definitely know more about this than me, but having the ability to work from home doesn’t always translate to having more freedom. I can work from home if I want to, but I don’t, because I know that if I stay at home, I would end up not working. I have too many house chores to do, laundry to put in the washer, dishes to wash, and so on. I could only imagine the multitudes of distractions that a toddler can give to someone who is working from home.

    1. Zhu December 2, 2013 at 10:35 am

      This is completely true! I do feel I am more productive working from home but I definitely work long hours too.

  2. Geraldine Green December 3, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Oh, so that’s how you do it! I always wondered how you managed to get so much done AND to blog interesting, well researched stuff 😉 I am printing this article and posting it on my fridge.

    1. Zhu December 3, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Meh… I learned from you, Wonder Woman!

  3. Holly Nelson December 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    I have always been impressed by how much you manage to fit in too! Now I know how!!! I am a fan of the delegation idea!

    1. Zhu December 4, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Yes… but it doesn’t mind I don’t complain or go crazy once in a while!

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