Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The fury of the work-at-home mom

A novel I read recently has a character, a freelance journalist, who always answers the phone with a snappish "YES?". It is important, she explains, to sound extremely busy and stressed when you're working in a home office, or you run the risk of being treated like an unpaid concierge.

Oh, I can relate. I try to be civil, but I often answer a ringing phone or a buzzing intercom with an outraged 'WHAT?'. Churlish, I know, but you have to work at home before you appreciate how maddening it is to be interrupted a dozen times in a morning by the gas-meter reader, the mielie lady, a delivery, a Jehovah's Witness, an estate agent, the dentist's receptionist, the plumber and - quelle horreur - a friend who thought she'd nip in for a chat and a quick cup of tea*.

If you're a mother with school-going kids, as I am, you have only the five gleaming hours between 8 am and 1 pm to do your work, because the afternoon is entirely consumed by lifting and carrying, homework, appointments, catering, shopping and many other grindingly dull chores.

(Look, you can try and get some work done, in five-minute bursts as you race between car, kitchen and kid, but there is no point because you will achieve nothing apart from a vicious headache, a galloping heart and a feeling of rising panic that can only be quelled by a stiff bottle of white wine and a packet of cigarettes at 5.30 pm on the dot.) No, afternoons are not for working.

I started working at home a year or two before my first child was born, as a freelance writer and editor, and the first few years - even the toddler years - were fine, because small children are pliable and (yes) easily bribed. I fondly believed (hah!) that as the kids got older and turned into tweens and teens, they'd get more self-sufficient, and leave me in peace in the afternoons as they obediently did their homework, or melted on their beds and listened to music.

What I didn't realise is that my kids would need to talk to me. Often. Every few minutes, in fact. And not Serious Talks About Serious Shit. Just plain old shoot-the-breeze stuff. Comments, observations, quips, questions and (most of the time) demands for stuff they really need right now. If I'm lolling on the couch for a 20-minute post-prandial stab at the crossword (yes, there are some perks to working at home), they ignore me completely. But the minute - the very nano-second - they see me sit down in front of my keyboard, they begin their assault. Not all at once, you understand, but at 3-minute intervals, and in rotation.

Each kid (and there are three of them) has four or five urgent requests per hour. (Can I go to horse-riding lessons? Can I have an iPod? My brother's dissing me, can you kill him? Did you buy me an exam pad? Can I tell you a joke? Can you take me to Pretoria in half an hour? Why is there no milk in the fridge? What is there to eat? Where's my homework diary? What's for supper? What's your favourite animal? Can I use your printer? Have you seen this new video on YouTube? Where' s my hoodie? What does fellatio mean? and so on).

I start out diplomatic. (Okay! Sure! It's on the hall table! Yes, of course! Come back in 15 minutes! Oh, har, har, that's hilarious, darling!) After ten interruptions, I start to get testy. (Go and watch some TV. I'm SO not interested.) After fifteen, I lose the plot. (All I ask is ONE HOUR to finish my work. Is that too much to ask? Stop dangling around my study. No, I don't know where the fucking sticky tape is! Shut the door, and don't come back for another hour. Have a sweetie - shit, have a packet of sweeties! Go and play on the railway line! Have a beer! Take some drugs!).

After twenty interruptions, blood begins to trickle from my ears, and it's at this point I switch off my PC, give a fat middle finger to whoever's waiting for the work, and resume the horizontal couch position. 'Come and give me a big hug, kids!' I say warmly, trying to make up for being such an old grouch. 'Tell me about your day! Who wants some popcorn?'

All three kids then melt into the woodwork - 'Uh, duh, we have homework to do, you know.' I wait five minutes, and then sidle back into my study, and they burst out of their bedrooms with fresh lists of demands.

Please don't think I'm bellyaching. I'm lucky to be able to work at home, and to have time with my kids before they leave the den forever. I chose to work from home, and I've never regretted it. But if you happen to phone me at 4.30 pm, and ask me what happened to the work I promised you three days ago, be prepared for... well, let's say you'll be safer poking a hungry bear with a sharp stick.

* Friends who pop in for tea are quite rare these days. I think they got the message, and the message was, fuck off, can't you see I'm working?

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meggie said...

I often answer the phone with a curt "Yes!" A friend always barked "Speak!" & it made me laugh.

Audrey said...

Juno you're a genius. That's the first time I've ever heard the story of a-day-in-the-life-of-me put so succinctly. Wow. So other people live like this too.

You have my undying support. Ching ching, bottoms up!

Juno said...

Meggie, from now on I'm answering the phone with 'Speak!. Thanks for the great idea.

Audrey, you made my day. So good to know I'm not the only one!