I’m blessed to welcome a special guest. Erin Healy’s experience includes editing a dozen of Ted Dekker’s novels, co-authoring two bestsellers, and penning four supernatural suspense novels of her own. In the midst of all her work, she’s a mother who works from home. Balancing family and work is one of the toughest challenges of a writer. Today, Erin gives us a glimpse into her life along with some insight and encouragement on how to make it work.
I’m writing this blog the day before it’s due, though I’d planned to do it sooner. This week my high schooler is ill and my preschooler has decided quiet time is for making noise. My trusted babysitter called in sick for our usual eight-hour Thursday, and school is out Friday. My water heater keeps overflowing and my dogs are going stir crazy due to rain. I had to schedule two appointments during my precious few work hours. Trips to the grocery store: four. To the gym: zero. The laundry still isn’t done and there is no clean underwear for tomorrow.
Just another week in the life of a work-from-home mom, right? At times like these I envy my husband each time he walks out the door to his eight-hours-a-day, child-free job. I’m lucky to get four disjointed hours of career time per day (not counting Thursdays, when they happen). And yet I am responsible for half our household income, plus health insurance for me and the kids. For me, this writing thing is no moonlighting gig.
I love my life. I mean that without irony. I hope I never again have to return to a little cubicle and inflexible work hours. This writer’s life, at home, with kids, is what some people dream of. It’s what I dreamed of. But it’s not without its challenges—like how to find the time to do all our jobs well.
The actress Annette Bening once said that balance is overrated. Maybe so. Nevertheless, because I’m a mom who values deadlines as much as I value sending my family out the door in clean underwear each morning, I spend most days reaching for equilibrium.
On my better days, I accept that “balance” is really about making peace with the tension between competing priorities. I used to think that all tension is bad, that it benefits no one but massage therapists and marriage counselors, but this is not so. Without tension in their strings a kite can’t fly and a piano can’t make music. Without tension, drama is dull and emotion is flat. Without tension, there would be no salted caramel treats to entertain my tongue!
After more than ten years of working from home with children, here’s how I’ve come to think of time, teeter-totters, and that ever-present tension …
Between the need for a schedule and the need to be flexible
I’ve lived on a pendulum that swings between control and abandon. I’m an uptight time manager who could schedule every minute of the day if the day would just stop coming undone by nine a.m. These days my prayer is based on Proverbs 16:9: “Lord, teach me to make plans that leave room for you to direct my steps.” My kids and I do best with routine, so at a minimum I guard the key hours: wake times, meal times, free times, bed times. Protect the routines that keep your family sane.
On Sundays I map out my work hours I need in the coming week, keeping in mind the dentist appointments, the school potluck, the church gathering, and the laundry that must be done. I highlight these work slots on my calendar, then say no to intrusions I can influence—the invitation to lunch (“maybe next week?”), the impromptu play date (“I can to a.m. but not p.m.”) and so on.
Beware friends and family who think that “flexible work hours” and “work from home” means you work fewer hours and have more time in your day than the average professional. Don’t hesitate to explain your reality to them.
Sometimes (like this week), each day has to be reinvented on the fly. Loved ones have crises. Snow falls. Cars break down. Productivity chokes. What can you do but go with the flow?
Between kids with you and kids with a babysitter
I budget for babysitting, but paying for too much additional help can feel counterproductive. My greatest source of help has come from my close community of other work-from-home-moms. We GET IT. We love kid swapping, and our kids do too. Find your peers at church, at your child’s school, at the coffee shop.
I think it’s okay at times to work while your kids play at your feet. It fosters their independence and lets them see an important side of who you are. Talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about what you do. Reading to them isn’t your only chance to let them into your world of writing.
Between work life and family life
My desk is in my living room, within view of my kitchen. When work and family lives occupy the same physical space, honoring boundaries becomes a tough mental discipline. If you can, put your desk in a private space. When possible, take the kids away from the house or into another room where YOU won’t be distracted when playing with them. I make verbal promises that I know I can keep (“When I’m done with this chapter I’ll take you to the mall,” or “I’ll play Candyland with you for twenty minutes.”) When family interrupts work, let’s face it: family’s more important. I turn my back on the computer and look them in the eye. If I have to, I stay up late after everyone else has gone to sleep.
Between stuff you love and stuff you really love
Once I added up the number of hours I would need to do everything I wanted to do in a day, from working to exercising to playing to socializing to meditating to volunteering to writing to romancing to sleeping to reading to grinding my own buckwheat for homemade pancakes. I needed something like thirty-four hours per diem to achieve this romantic life. I used to spend a lot of time stressing over how to get five-star meals and handmade Christmas presents done. This ended when I accepted my life as a series of seasons. Eventually I’ll get to do most of those things, maybe even all of them—just not simultaneously. Right now, my seasons are about mothering my kids (the time will fly) and building a career (slow and steady she grows). Once I accepted my limitations, I found them much more satisfying. This year I might not send Christmas cards. And that will be okay.
Between deadlines and downtimes
The writing life can be a crush of deadlines or a financial famine. We self-employed folks must constantly make adjustments. Have we taken on too much? Should we be expanding our skill sets and seeking new revenue streams? I don’t know any writers who’ve nailed the perfect balance. So maybe balance isn’t the point, after all. Maybe real wisdom—the kind that spills over into worthwhile writings—comes from the daily practice of living in the center of tension.
I’m finding that I kind of like it here.
Erin Healy is a bestselling novelist and long-time fiction editor. She is the author of The Baker’s Wife. She loves to interact with writers and readers, so stop by her Facebook page or her blog and say hi!