My Life as a Work-at-Home-Mom Was Hell

The heater blasted in the car as I typed furiously on my laptop. I was psyched because I was about to meet my deadline. Suddenly, my baby started wailing. I shut my laptop as if clocking out early, crawled into the backseat, whipped out my boob, and fed him. Over his head, I typed up an apology to one of my bosses on my phone—my work would be late.
The first year and a half of my son’s life, I was a work-at-home mom, known as a WAHM. I thought it was the best way to have everything I wanted—a career as a freelance writer, a child, flexibility—but it took an immense emotional and physical toll on me. Our culture prides working from home as the holy grail of job arrangements. But doing it with a newborn, my vision was blurred from exhaustion. I worked when we could afford a babysitter and when he slept, if he slept. With few breaks from each other, he tended to nurse every other hour. I felt like a busy water cooler for a parched coworker. And after he turned one, my son had five months of back-to-back viruses or infections. A feverish toddler literally screams “no” when you need a bathroom break.
But being a WAHM still felt like my best option. Even if both my partner and I had full-time jobs, we would barely scrape by paying for day care, which costs about $1,500 to $2,400 a month in Boston, where we live. My partner works 40 hours a week at a UPS store, then comes home to do housework and play with our son. I do a lot of the unpaid, unseen work—shopping, paying bills, scheduling our lives, and managing mundane child care duties. When our son is sick, I take off from the work I didn’t get done and stay up at night.
"That kind of multitasking, that emotional labor—it wears on you. I rarely feel fully rested or restored."
Similarly, Leah Charney, 34, cares for her infant son while working at home as a marketing and operations consultant in Colorado. Postpartum, she returned to a demanding job but quickly left to scale back and work from home while her husband still worked full-time. Her son goes to day care two days a week—that’s when she schedules meetings and tackles larger projects. On other days, she works while he eats and naps.
“It's not impossible to work from home with children, but it requires planning and a willingness to be more flexible than Gumby,” Charney says. “I pride myself on being adaptable, [but] that kind of multitasking, that emotional labor—it wears on you. I rarely feel fully rested or restored.” She describes being a WAHM as “brutal.”
The American workforce needs women, but neither the government nor most employers make it easy for mothers to actually work. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development analyzed maternity leave in 42 countries and found that the U.S. was the least generous of all the industrialized nations, guaranteeing no leave or pay. Bulgaria has the best policy with almost 59 weeks of paid leave. The International Labour Organization says that protecting expectant and nursing mothers from job discrimination is “a precondition for achieving genuine equality of opportunity,” yet workplace discrimination against mothers in the U.S. is rampant—from getting paid less than men to having a job offer rescinded because of a pregnancy.
Women who don’t work in fields with high earning potential and cannot afford full-time child care are often forced to craft their own work lifestyles at home. Women are more likely to leave the workforce to care for children than men, according to a 2016 survey by the Department of Labor. When asked, 43 percent of women with children under the age of five said they passed up a promotion or asked for reduced responsibilities at work to care for a family member. Some women then work from home.A 2017 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of employed Americans spend some time working remotely, a rise over previous years.
The real struggle lies in trying to ensure you’re fulfilling the duties of being a good parent while showing employers you can handle their workload and meet expectations—all on little sleep and an unpredictable schedule
Professor of psychology at Arizona State University, Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D., examined the work-life satisfaction in new mothers. Her research shows the most satisfied are those who wanted to go back to work and did, as well as those who wanted to stay at home and did. The study didn't address WAHMs, but she says from her own parenting experience, being a WAHM is “just not doable. It’s a distraction. One ear is always listening for them. The kid is looking for mom to feel safe…. You’re not going to get your work done properly, and you’ll end up being a mass of nerves and guilt.”
The challenges of WAHM-hood are plentiful, but the real struggle lies in the emotional labor of trying to simultaneously ensure that you’re fulfilling the duties of being a good parent while showing employers you can handle their workload and meet expectations—all on little sleep and an unpredictable schedule. You are nanny, mommy, and employee—at the same exact time. It’s a constant tug-of-war.
“My mom tried telling me I couldn’t have it all—but as it turns out, it’s possible to have it all but it’s impossible to do it all well,” says Meredith C. Carroll, 45, a Colorado-based freelance writer who’s written about her WAHM challenges. Carroll has two daughters, ages seven and 10. As a WAHM, Carroll felt she missed much of her eldest daughter’s early childhood, so she stayed home with her second child to fill in the gaps. “The stuff I missed wasn't necessarily tangible,” she says. “It was more about being emotionally absent in the many small moments that quickly add up.”
Olivia Howell, 33, works in social media management and cares for her two sons, ages two and five, in New York. She works throughout the day, every day, on her phone until around 1:00 A.M. and tries to wake up before her kids. ”I feel so blessed I get to be flexible for my boys,” she says. “But I never have time for myself ever, and I never sleep, like, really.”
“My mom tried telling me I couldn’t have it all—but as it turns out, it is possible. But it’s impossible to do it all well."
Howell does have a babysitter who comes six to 10 hours a week and family nearby that helps occasionally, and flexibility from her clients is key. “Most of my clients are women with children, so often they understand my hours,” she says. “I need people who understand the work will get done, just on my time.”
Another real challenge of WAHM-hood for me was the loneliness. I used to walk around stores just to chat with clerks for a break from baby babble. Luthar says that women with young children—especially those working from home—need to connect with people for their well-being. She suggests parent support groups, including virtual ones, like her Authentic Connections program. “Moms are not like the Energizer Bunny, an endless well that stays filled without replenishment,” she says.
Like other WAHMs I spoke with, I have a partner who supports my career. But the fallout from my stressful situation did strain our relationship. In the evenings after work, my son wanted “dada” and I wanted dada’s arms—to carry the baby away from me. We tried not to have the “who does more” fight, because we were both always “on.” But I shouldered more emotional work, which did make me resent him at times.
Some WAHMs have a smoother system down—like on-call relatives, they live near a coworking space with on-site child care, they set up working playdates, or have mom friends with whom they swap babysitting duties.
For me, nothing beats full-time day care. After a year on a waiting list, we received a voucher through Boston’s Department of Early Education and Care to cover one third of my son’s tuition. Though he’s generally a happy kid, I enjoy my son more now that I have time to focus on my work and also devote time just to him.
Plus, in these past three months, I’ve been able to make more money while enjoying the luxury of going to the bathroom without little eyes watching.
Liz Tracy has written for The New York Times, Vice, and Refinery29.
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