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Bringing Work Back Home

May 9, 2009 | by Lisa Belkin

Confessions of an unbalanced mom. An excerpt from the new book, "Life's Work."

I tried. I really did. I got up every morning, kissed little cheeks, left lists for the baby-sitter, and headed for the train. But before I even found a spot at the station parking lot I felt my stress barometer rising.

So I tried something else. I started skipping the train and driving to work instead, an improvement, I reasoned, because I wouldn't have to operate on someone else's schedule. But because a lot of other people in the New York metropolitan area had the same idea, I battled mind-numbing traffic.

I bought books on tape.

I tried commuting at different hours.

I listened to NPR.

I changed baby-sitters.

I changed my diet to one that promised I'd have more energy.

I changed my wardrobe so that I'd feel less confined and more comfortable.

I stopped at Starbucks on the way home to decompress.

I drove the boys to school myself so I would have more time with them.

I tried and tried and tried and tried. But I kept having that dream where I ran down empty alleyways in the fog, never finding my unspecified destination. More accurately, I had that dream only on nights when I managed to get to REM sleep. It's probably not a coincidence that tried and tired are two words rooted in the same letters.

Our quality of life matters at least as much as our success at work.

There was no single cymbals-and-drum roll moment when I decided to move my work back home. Like all the other major changes I'd made over the years, it was less a decision and more a matter of gravitational pull. I was not yet covering the workplace when I did this, but I was an early example of what would soon become a full-blown trend. I began as a telecommuter, a grateful beneficiary of the technology revolution that began with my first clunky cell phone. Eventually I became a SOHO --industry shorthand for "small office/home office" -- a reflection of the as yet incomplete societal revolution that says our quality of life matters at least as much as our success at work. I inched my way from one to the next slowly. I started by working from home one day a week, then two, then as often as I could get away with it.

Eventually I cut the cord entirely and gave up my job at the Times. Like the first time I quit (to follow Bruce to Texas), this sounds much braver than it actually was. I kept writing for the paper, first as a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine and later as the scribbler of the Life's Work column.

I came to realize that the loss was mine more than my children.

If you'd asked me back then why I did this, I would have said it was because of the children. They were getting older and I could already see that I would be needed at home more as they grew, not less. The bigger the children, the bigger the problems, Grandma used to say. I worried about being away from them when they were babies, but I came to realize that the loss was mine more than theirs. A baby-sitter can kiss a boo-boo. But what surrogate can make it better when they come home to report that the school bully has set his sights on them, or that the big kid down the street has offered them drugs, or that their best friend has a new best friend, which means they will never have any friends ever again?

The welfare of my children was my stated reason for leaving, but it was not my only reason. I also did this for me. I learned during those days I worked at home that I work better that way. The home-office life won't fit every job or suit every personality, but I found that I was more creative more productive, and (relatively) more disciplined (we'll get to that in a few chapters) when I was the boss.

I launched my new life by accumulating all the necessary technology: a new computer, printer, and fax, and a very complicated and not entirely dependable voice-mail system. In the years since then I've also acquired tools I never expected to need. Like the OPEN/CLOSED sign over my desk that I flip back and forth to let the boys know whether I am free to talk or too busy to be disturbed. Or the portable heater in the corner (along with a new electrical outlet), because who knew that this was the coldest room in the house? My initial home office plans didn't include a pile of dog toys either, but workplaces evolve with circumstance.

By moving work back home, I gained everything I'd hoped I would gain -- the freedom to set my own hours, to turn down assignments, to be home when I needed or wanted to be -- but I also lost things I still miss. The office telephone line, for instance, where the charges went directly to the metro desk and I never had to spend hours with a calculator figuring out which call went with which article and who to invoice for what. I miss the reassurance of a salaried paycheck, too, and my employer's contribution to my Social Security and Medicare taxes. I miss the ability to keep work at a physical distance from home, and I really miss the camaraderie of the newsroom during the many, lengthy pauses between spurts of work. That's partly why my phone bill is so high: I spend far too much time talking to the friends I used to meet in the elevator.

Once in a while, when they've had a trying day, some of those colleagues tell me they wish they were at home. And once in a while, especially when adrenaline-pumping news is breaking and the newsroom is crackling with energy and purpose, I tell them I wish I were at work. If there's a theme to this entire book, that's it. My own life's choices don't represent a solution, because no choice is a solution so much as a new packet of complications.

There's a fable I learned in childhood. I'm not sure of its origins, so let's credit the squirrelly Belkins from Russia. Everyone in the world, the story goes, puts his shoes in one big pile and then each person gets a turn to choose any pair from the pile as their own. They each have a chance to slip into shoes that are fancier or shinier, but, according to the fable, they all wind up with the shoes they brought because that's what fits them best. What's true for shoes is true for so many of the choices in our lives. Whatever we choose will have its share of scuffmarks and holes. But they will be our scuffmarks, our holes, the ones that come to fit us best.

From LIFE'S WORK by Lisa Belkin. Copyright (c) 2002 by Lisa Belkin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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