Despite the revolution that the internet has brought about, allowing so many of us to work at home, let’s be honest – culturally, we’re not all quite there yet on how it should work. How many times to you hear people say, ‘Yes, but I work one day a week at home’ in that apologetic tone, as if they think everyone else suspects them of being a slacker? If you work at home all the time, then the chances are you feel like you have to prove yourself to everyone else all the time, too. Nobody ever says to the work-at-home parent, ‘Oh my God! You must be frazzled. You must work so hard.’
But that’s the truth. Whilst working at home gives welcome flexibility to many careers and allows many women like me to work after having children, those of us bashing away at our laptops in the kitchen, or trying to make a call in the freezing loft-conversion study, are actually working much longer hours than we would do if we commuted to an office.
The work guilt seems to be much stronger in the work-at-home parent (although this might be termed a work ethic). We work through lunch because breaks don’t really exist. And if you do happen to make a sandwich in the kitchen, it also involves clearing up breakfast and unpacking the dishwasher. There’s no leisurely company expenses lunches in swanky restaurants, or an hour of mooching around the posh shops, or gym-trips like my friends in offices have. I found myself snarling at a friend who was flying business class to New York, but happened to have conveniently booked a ‘me-time’ day on the company either side of her actual meeting.
OK, so it’s not all easy for her. She might get the glory of being a career girl in a highly paid job, but she also has to pay a nanny most of her salary to pick up her kids and help with their homework. But the trade-off for working at home and actually being there for your kids is not that easy either because quite often you neither do your job in the most effective way possible, nor parent terribly well.
You can always tell the work-at-home parents because they turn up consistently late to the school gates with a five-mile stare, and the anxious frown of someone who hasn’t even got half way through today’s to-do list. As a writer, I’ve often just got into my flow by the time I have to leave for the school run, and having just written a murder or a sex scene suddenly find myself presented with a painted egg-box, or a handful of gluey pictures to inspect from my five-year-old and have to react appropriately. It’s jarring to say the least.
The problem too is that, with your home as your work environment, there’s no switch off and work seeps into home-life no matter how much you don’t want it to. The amount of times I spend shushing my children as I try to write a pitch, or burn the teatime fish-fingers whilst I’m on a call to my agent, or am furiously mouthing for the kids to creep quietly through my study to the garden, when all they want to do is play, are too many to count. With no shut off comes no planned down time and work seeps into evenings, weekends and even holidays.
People with office-based careers seem to earn automatic respect and many do, I’m sure, work long hours and find it depressing that they’re not at home. But they also get the camaraderie of work colleagues and the mental switch off of walking out of the house to a new – and probably cleaner – environment for the day.
As more and more women change their careers to opt for working at home, I would caution them to check over the fence to really make sure that the grass is greener on the other side. Because they might just find themselves in their kitchen at lunchtime in their tracksuit bottoms, mourning for their powersuits and Pret-A-Manger.
My new novel ‘A Twist Of Fate’ is published by Macmillan 2nd August. Perfect holiday reading. Order now.