Time for work

For those of us who work at home, the work can become a guilty secret, something we slip away from our families to do in private, like toe-picking or nose-mining.

During busy times, we're always searching for that few minutes when everyone else in the house is otherwise occupied, so we can sneak around and get a little work done. Our families call our names and demand to know what we're doing in there, and we (having learned from our children) say, "Nuh-u-u-uh-thing."

This constant sneaking to squeeze in more work is part of the balancing act of the home office, which centers on preserving the work time against the demands of the household. It's a teetery arrangement at best.

Some working parents put family and household first. They keep their homes tidy, they chaperone field trips and they bake cookes. They no doubt pull corporate coups on their cell phones while driving their minivans full of well-mannered children to yet another soccer practice.

I'm not one of those working parents. When I'm deep into a project, the housework, field trips and social activities all get overlooked. My kids are lucky if I can remember to pick them up from school.

I jealously guard my designated work hours, then chip away at the time that should be reserved for family/housework/recreation/personal maintenance. Sneaking off to my desk, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, until the household's gone to hell and I resemble Howard Hughes on his deathbed.

I recently completed seven months' work on a new book. (Granted, a novel's the type of work that lends itself to obsession, but the same would apply to any other seven-month-long work project that consumes every waking minute and invades one's dreams.) During the months I was writing, everything else got ignored or, at best, treated as an interruption. Family, chores, school and other responsibilities were given short shrift while I galloped toward "The End."

By the time I got there, I was a wreck and so was the house. The yard looked like the aftermath of some horrible accident at the dandelion farm. I'd ignored my friends and family so long, it was a wonder anyone was still speaking to me.

I emerged from my book, blinking like a bear coming out of hibernation, and turned my attention to hearth and home. It only took a month to get things squared away. I scrubbed and organized and patched up the house and the yard and my relationships. I even cleaned my desk, preparing for the next obsession to come.

Do other work-at-home types function this way? Burrowed deep into projects, coming up for air long enough to get their lives in order, then plunging into the next fanatical undertaking?

Part of my work pattern no doubt is simple insanity, but another part is driven by years of protecting my work time. When you work at home and everyone knows it, you must be prepared to say "no" a lot. People want babysitters or volunteers or chaperones, and they know you're just sitting around the house all day anyway and wouldn't it be nice if you'd help out. Whoops, next thing you know, your workweek's gone and all your deadlines were yesterday.

We must guard our work time, but it's easy to carry such vigilance too far. As the fixation grows, the project inches out other areas of life until everything, at least temporarily, is about the work. Then the project's finished, and we can relax. But no, there's all the housework, yardwork, parenting and shopping that's gone lagging while we sprinted to our latest deadline. So we spend another month or two getting our households and interpersonal relationships in order, making the most of the "down time."

Then we can relax, and we should. Because before long, another project will arise, with its deadlines and obstacles and endless demands. And it will become an obsession, consuming every private moment. Friends and family will be neglected while we sneak off to work. Outside responsibilities will be ignored. The house will be left in the dust.

So I'm teaching my kids, when they see a dusty tabletop, don't use their fingers to write "wash me." That only calls attention to Daddy's problem. Instead, they should write: "Work in progress."

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