Righting the Work-at-Home Stigma
I am a mother of three children, ages ten, eight, and five. I “stay at home” to take care of them, but I also work as a writer. My office happens to be in my closet; my desk, cleverly installed by California closets, is tucked in amidst shelves of sweaters, ripped jeans, and bars where my nicer clothes hang: Nanette Lepore suits, Zadig & Voltaire sweaters and beaded skirts, Tse wool dresses. These are optimistic threads; I live in yoga pants and tattered t-shirts. My children don’t go to schools where I have to “dress” for pick-up or drop-off, so I suppose my upscale clothes represent hope that someday I will leave my closet, dressed-to-kill for meetings with editors, book signings, appearances at book clubs. I rarely do. Instead, I just stare at my big Apple monitor, check my e-mail, and peck at the keys to accumulate enough pages to make a novel.
I finished my first one two years ago, and despite all odds, sold it. It has now been published and people are even reading it, but there is no ensuing promotion. No new business cards, no corner office. I am back where I started, working in my closet on novel number two. I have worn exactly five of my fancy outfits, all purchased with a credit card with a balance that grows bigger by the month, eating away at each portion of my advance.
Despite the respectable success that has come from my novel, including favorable reviews in O and People, my status of “Stay at Home Mom” still seems to trump my reality of “Working at Home Mom." If you don’t leave your house, people still seem to consider what you are doing a hobby. If you schlepp to Starbucks or a Barnes and Noble café to draw a line between work and home, it doesn’t get any better, but seems collegiate, or even leisurely. To be considered a “working mom,” you need a boss, or at least an assistant.
President Obama works at home, in the White House, but no one would ever call him or Michelle “stay at home” parents or dare say that they “work at home.” He is the “boss,” after all, and in our best democratic tradition, the leader of the free world. Should our mayor be taken more seriously because he supposedly takes the subway from his luxurious Upper East Side townhouse to City Hall? I think not.
How can “Work at Home” mothers be taken more seriously by their peers? How can they not be seen as having sub-par careers, or opting out? Maybe it is a question of semantics. “Work” and “home” are technically antonyms. True, work is challenging, taxing, and an activity where we present a false self, a professional one devoid of intense feelings, whiny complaints. The best workers are self-sufficient yet team-oriented. Home is the place you go to be your authentic self. Where you can cry, take cozy naps when you are tired, reward yourself with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream when you have finished a tough piece. You can be both disciplined and self-indulgent, as long as the work gets done. Would “I have a home office” be better? All of the big corporations seem to. How about “No Commute Worker?” That suggests eco-friendly yet industrious. Or “Professional [put your job here.]?”
Whatever you do, I think it essential to take it seriously. Mirror work in the “real world,” whatever you think that is. Get business cards. Stock your office with proper supplies: pens, paper clips, Post-Its, computer paper. Have business lunches with others in your field; compare notes. Make productivity goals. Dress up. Don’t go to a local coffee shop, but a real restaurant. Incorporate your business. Expense things. Fill out tax returns. But don’t let go of the perks of having a home office. I am currently make-up-less, pantyhose-less, pumps-less. Just a baggy pair of jeans and a comfy waffle shirt. Bare feet. I am going to walk to my kitchen, grab a Diet Coke, and get back to work on my novel. When it comes time to pick up my kids, I can call it a day.
Despite my frustration with what others think, would I change my status? Commute? Enjoy office gossip or after-work drinks? No way. I’ve got work to do. —Ashley Prentice Norton
Ashley Prentice Norton lives in New York with her husband and three children. Mariner has recently published The Chocolate Money, her first novel.