My daughter graduated high school last week. By late August, she’ll be on her way to college, and, since she’s the younger of our two, I’ll be an empty-nester.
The prospect of our quiet house, devoid of the wonderful chaos children (even the nearly-grown ones) leave in their wake, saddens me deeply. But I’m also suddenly realizing the peculiar advantages and pitfalls this stage of life may have for someone who, like me, works from home. Any working parent will have lived through the “get-your-children-out-the-door, race-to-work, race-home-to-get-dinner-on-the-table” scenario. But for me, and, I imagine, many others with home offices, the kids have had a more immediate and direct effect on the structure of my time. For years, my work day couldn’t get started in earnest until they had left the house. If my kids were running late—even when they were plenty old enough to make their own lunches and put on their own boots—my day would get off to a late start, too. There was just too much commotion and confusion and possibility for interruption (“mom, can I use your printer?”) to settle down to work.
Then, working through the day, I’d be ever-aware of their return. When they were younger, they’d go to an after-school program, or head to playdates or the park until a babysitter brought them home. Later, they’d just arrive by themselves, at all hours, depending on afterschool activities both formal and impromptu. But as the afternoon wore on I’d be aware that sometime soon the front door would burst open and one or both of them would come spilling in, all energy and noise. Even if I was shut up in my office, the quiet of the day would be broken. Besides, even during their high school years I made it my practice whenever possible to put down my work and come out to greet them, to hear how the day had gone and what homework or other plans lay ahead.
With two kids and a husband who works outside of the house I’d also, eventually, have to head to the kitchen and start thinking about dinner. Long ago, when I was single, dinner was more often than not a cheese sandwich or a bowl of cereal, but with live, ferociously hungry children in the house I had to produce an actual meal, nearly every night. Having kids around also sometimes meant finding myself exiled from the home office. It didn’t seem fair to demand quiet during school vacations, or when I had weekend work, so I’d find myself heading to the library, borrowing a friend’s place, sometimes even hitting the local cafe.
My kids have structured my time in other ways, too, that will be familiar to even those who don’t work from home. For better or worse, having school-age kids certainly simplified vacation planning. The tyranny of the school calendar meant we went to Costa Rica smack in the middle of rainy season, Italy when the heat was so stifling that few actual Italians were in residence, and Crater Lake when it was wall-to-wall tourists. Weekends, of course, were planned around Little League, recitals or band gigs, rehearsals, school projects and parties. Chunks of the evening were given over to homework help, baking cupcakes for the school event, “running lines” (my daughter is in a teen theater company), or just hanging out together.
Then there were the nights of lost sleep—for years because of crying babies or kids with nightmares or late night onsets of the flu (once, even, appendicitis). Later, the sleeplessness stemmed from waiting to hear the key turn in the front door, or waking to the sound of a text updating me on a child’s whereabouts. (I know “good sleep hygiene” includes leaving my phone anywhere other than by my bed, but that happens for me only when both kids are at home, here in the house.)
Already this year, with my daughter a high school senior and my husband expanding his part-time private therapy practice on top of his full-time job, I’ve begun struggling with how to structure my days. Already, getting up early in the morning has become less urgent and dinners on some nights have devolved into tuna melts or scrambled eggs. Already, I look up from my work some days to find it is 8 p.m.
This may sound like a new freedom, and of course in many ways it is. But it is also a source of anxiety. I worried about becoming an empty-nester because I knew I would miss having my kids around. But only recently did I realize how much my children have structured my days, ever since I started working for myself nearly twenty years ago. Suddenly, I’m needing to find new ways to both structure my work, and to fight the isolation that is a constant danger for those of us who work from home. Suddenly, instead of worrying about work-and-family, I have a new worry: work-and-work. Many have gone this way before, but for me, it’s a whole new frontier!
Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible “great place to work” competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.