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Close to home: Work-at-home-moms juggle careers and kids and family

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2013: On ink and paper, working mom Jill Kaplan juggles her job, family and marriage, while trying to hold on to who she is as an individual. Her story unfolds in "“The Pajama Diaries,” by cartoonist and Washington University grad Terri Libenson. Libenson herself is a work-at-home mom, and it’s a situation she enjoys.

"I don’t have to worry about how I look,” she says. “I pretty much look the same as when I roll out of bed.”

Her work, and time, can be unpredictable, which she’s gotten used to. And if one of her children is sick or has to miss school, she’s usually the one to step in and be there, with the understanding with her husband that she’ll have to make up her time later.

For Libenson, life and work get braided together. 

"For me,” she says, "it’s kind of a never-ending work day.”

In April of this year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the labor force participation rate for all women with children under 18 was 70.5 percent. The majority of women with children do work, though the numbers go down when children are younger. In a 2012 BLS report, 24 percent of all employed Americans reported working some hours from home. And in 2010, they report, 24.5 percent of all women did some or all of their work from home, though they don't specify if those women have children or not.

For several St. Louis women, the decision to work from home allowed flexibility, increased productivity and, maybe most important, the opportunity to be present with their children.

There are upsides, like making play dates, games, concerts and being home when the kids are. And there are downsides, like early mornings and late nights trying to fit work in, plus a lack of social interaction.

But these women have made it work, and it meant that they didn’t have to choose between being a stay-at-home mom and working mom. 

Instead, they’re both. 

You better work

One evening recently, Rochelle Brandvein answered her telephone, then paused for a moment. 

"I have to yell out to my son," she said. "Hold on one minute."

Brandvein, an admitted workaholic, has worked in advertising or public relations for most of her career. She started her own public relations agency in 1990 and had her children in the years following.

Working from home, for Brandvein, is a luxury, but it’s one she works hard for. She’s up most mornings at 4 a.m. to get a start to her working day. She works in the evenings, when everyone’s home tackling their own homework. Because of that, she’s also able to drive carpools, make it to games and her children’s events.

"It’s just the flexibility to be there," she says. "I hit 98 percent of all my kids’ activities."

It’s much more common now, but when she first started working from home, Brandvein did not publicize it.

"Back then, you didn’t tell people you worked out of your home," she says.

Now, though, she sees a growing trend of more moms finding ways to work from home.

It’s definitely a trend that’s increased over the last few years, agrees Michelle Duguid, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University’s Olin School of Business.

Despite Yahoo’s announcement earlier this year ending a work from home program (which was followed by a similar one from Best Buy), more companies are offering flexible time to their employees, she says, and technology has made it possible for people to connect with their jobs when they’re not physically at their jobs.

Finding work/life balance can be hard for women who work at home, though, Duguid says. 

"For people who work at home, it’s just intertwined so much, it’s difficult."

It's also, for Brandvein, what she's used to. Now, she isn’t asking permission or notifying people of what she’s doing or when. She says no to jobs she doesn’t want, runs her own schedule, and usually shows up to meetings in jeans.

"I don’t want to dress up anymore," she says. "I’m past that. I feel like I’ve earned my jeans."

Corporate ex-pat

When she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Antona Smith left corporate America. 

"I do not miss the politics," Smith says. "I do not miss the double standards."

Working from home as a writer, educator and consultant now, she does miss lunches out, and dressing up for work.

"I had some great suits," she says.

And she misses the money, which was better with a full-time job. 

But what she has now is worth it — flexibility, time and the ability to be present in the lives of her children. 

"In some ways, I’m really enjoying this fluid way of working and experiencing my kids," she says.

She often starts her work early, while her kids still sleep, then takes them to school and works from a coffee shop until the school day ends. Smith then can work on projects at the park or playground while her children play. 

Working from home offers many upsides, Duguid agrees, but also some downsides, including not getting face time with bosses, no time for networking, which can help move you up in the company. 

It can be challenging, Smith agrees, to demonstrate that you’ve been working all day when you don’t have a boss there to see you.

But working from home, especially while raising children, can mean that many women who once had holes in their resumes now won’t, making it easier to someday work back into a more traditional environment, if that’s what they want.

The situation can also be positive for employers who don’t spend money on overhead with having people in house. 

Of course not every job is suited for working from home. Telecommuting and working from home tends to be easier for people who run their own businesses, freelance or consult. Nurses and teachers can’t necessarily do it, neither can doctors, construction workers, supermarket baggers or any number of jobs that require people to be there in person.

There are both occupational limits, as well as socio-economic ones, Duguid says.

Women with college educations, for instance, probably have a better chance of finding and making a work-at-home situation work.

"It definitely has skewed to that population more than the working-class moms,” she says.

Smith, Brandvein and Libenson all feel more productive working on their own. There aren’t meetings to get dragged into or lunches to spend too long at. There’s no water cooler time. But for all of the reasons working from home is great, there are reasons it’s also tough. 

For instance, there’s no meetings, or lunches, or water cooler time.

Libenson loves the silence, but as someone who’s naturally shy, she thinks working from home isn’t helping her social skills.

Brandvein often schedules meetings at coffee shops or restaurants, where she can fit in lunches with friends in between. 

“I do need the interpersonal mixing,” she says.

When Brandvein gets up at 4 a.m. to work, that often means she can get in time at the gym after her children go to school.

Must be nice, she hears. 

Smith hears that, too.

"Oh, you’re so lucky,” people tell her, as if she’s pursuing a hobby instead of a career.

All three women have to be organized, self-motivated and driven on their own.

"I’ve had to redefine work," Smith says.

Setting an example

Six years ago broadcast reporter and anchor Danielle Smith started working from home. Now with children of her own, Smith juggles many roles, including founding extraordinarymommy.com. She’s also the co-author of “Mom Incorporated: A Guide to Business + Baby.”

In a survey she conducted, Danielle Smith asked women why they were finding ways to work from home. Their answer: They wanted time with their families and time for themselves.

Her daughter wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, and Smith wants that for her.

"I don’t want her to think that she has to give up being a person when she has kids," she says.

Libenson’s daughters know what she does for a living. Sometimes they think it’s cool. But Libenson herself is aware and intentional about the message her life and work are sending them.

"I do try and make sure they understand I do what I do because I’m passionate about it," she says. "It’s not always fun, but most of the time it really is.”

And recently, Brandvein got confirmation from her own daughter that that message was coming through, too. 

Her daughter, who is a high school junior, told Brandvein that she wanted to be a graphic designer, and said "she wants a job just like mine because I got to do it all. It's the ultimate compliment,” Brandvein says. "And it shows I didn't screw her up too badly."

Editor's note: Just as the subjects in this story, reporter Kristen Hare is a work-at-home mom. She interviewed Brandvein after bedtime, Libenson at nap time, and the rest of the sources while both of her own children were at preschool.

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