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Telecommuting into Nonexistent Worlds

Apr 16, 2009 • general

Usually working from home -- telecommuting -- is one of the perks of any company job. You usually wake up later, because you don't have to commute, and you may skip taking a shower, or even getting dressed. In your pajamas, you kick your feet up on the desk, keyboard in your lap, and start fiddling around with whatever projects you're working on. For me, this is how telecommuting always starts out. But it's never how it ends.

The last time I worked from home, I experienced World War III with Jane. For me, working from home is always a mistake. I rarely do it and avoid it at all costs. I would rather commute for 3 hours and work a 5 hour day than try to work 8 hours from home.

Here's a bit of how it goes. Shannon wakes the kids up and gets the two older kids (4 and 8 years old) ready for pre-school and school. The youngest, Spot (2 years old), tags along adding  constant commentary. Seeing me at home, Shannon often cooks me French toast, brings me lunch, and tends to the needs of the children. Off they go to school, and then they return to clean and maybe do crafts.

As the day wears on, Shannon sees me at the computer while she serves in a variety of domestic roles. We're a traditional household -- I'm the breadwinner, she's the full-time mother. She not only cares for the children, but cooks meals, drives everyone around, cleans up the house … while seeing me at the computer.

At some point, it begins to dawn on her that I'm having a fine old time on the computer while she's essentially a nanny, cook, chauffer, maid, and servant. She thinks about all those 5's she scored on AP tests in high school, her college scholarship and English degree, her aptitude to be a lawyer, doctor, or other professional, and how she's sacrificing it all to glue together little hats out of construction paper on the table with two young kids who can hardly carry on a conversation, much less communicate with Shannon in an intellectually interesting way. All while I'm typing and clicking and creating things on the computer.

Last week Penelope Trunk wrote an engaging post about the unfun role of the stay-at-home parent. She writes,

Parents need to be able to say that parenting is not fun. The day-in and day-out of parenting is very, very difficult. This is not even news. There is a reason for the reams of research showing that having kids does not make people happier.

Although kids are cute, and Trunk has competing feelings about being a stay-at-home parent, ultimately kids are boring, she says. As a stay-at-home parent, it's all "intergalactic battles and no intellectual banter." It's why fathers check their BlackBerries at their kids' soccer games, she explains. Because they lose interest.

But that's not the notion I dream up as I'm documenting a confusing interface and struggling to organize the 200 files in my online help. From my perspective, I'd much rather be down at that craft table, making a little paper airplane or something. Escape into the carefree world of the child.

Tensions mount between the both of us -- each wanting to be doing what the other is doing. A request here and there is returned with an aggressive tone, and tensions rise until I find myself wondering what I was thinking when I decided to telecommute.

The funny thing is, we both deceive ourselves, because I know deep down that if I were sitting at that craft table, or making raisins on a log with celery sticks and peanut butter, or some other kid activity, I'd be checking my BlackBerry, just as Trunk says. Checking it because I'd be bored. And if that were my life, day in and out, I might go crazy, and turn into a neglectful father who worked from home on WordPress projects and only occasionally tended to the basic food-water-shelter needs of his TV-zombied children.

But of course that's not how I fantasize life as a stay at home dad. It's not the story I like to tell myself. I used to carpool with a friend to work each morning, and one day we talked about how we would live our lives as stay-at-home dads. We both decided we would get out of the house. Take the kids to the park. To the zoo. Take them hiking, biking, down to the lake. Collect sea shells. Visit astronomy shops. Fly kites in the park. Teach them how to play baseball. Shoot baskets. Walk the stairs to the top of tall buildings. Picnic on grassy knolls. Dance to crazy music. Go fishing. Yes, fly fishing on riverbanks. Buy a canoe and cross lakes. And on and on. Yes, we would get out of the house. We would have a good time. None of this entrapment within the four walls of a jail-like home. Freedom and youth first.

Fantasizing about life as a stay-at-home Dad
Fantasizing about life as a stay-at-home Dad

We couldn't understand how our wives could possibly complain about being stay-at-home parents. From our boring day jobs, sitting in chairs like sedentary mud all day, moving very little, staring at computer screens, theirs looked like the perfect life.

And yet you can see that, in my description of the perfect stay-at-home-parent life, I've included nothing describing the reality of it all. I didn't include washing dishes, folding laundry, driving kids to school, picking kids up from school, helping Sally understand addition and subtraction, reading Spot little books that rhyme, vacuuming, picking up toys, dressing cranky Susan who always refuses to wear what you pick out for her, dealing with playground struggles, potty training, cleaning up pee stains on rugs, pulling weeds from the yard, nagging kids to clean their rooms.

Likewise, in Jane's vision of what I do on the computer, I doubt she envisions me calling a person to ask if they got a chance to review my document, attending project meetings where I'm almost entirely insignificant, securing approval for images for a document, reviewing obscure error messages on prototypes, trying to configure header and footer page numbers in a page layout tool, responding to emails from users about issues they're having, and trying to figure out why my computer boots so slowly. Oh, the fun is almost too much.

Domestic dreams of professional fulfillment
Domestic dreams of professional fulfillment

We both envision non-existent worlds, to some extent. I don't know if working for a company or for a household is better or worse. I'm sure this is highly dependent on your personality or your company job. But I'm guessing that the non-home careers have more opportunity for excitement, more opportunities for recognition and reward, more interesting experiences that happen from day to day.

I'll miss out on the cute kid moments at home, the once-in-a-lifetime events, where Spot finally heads to the potty herself rather than being prodded, or when Sally suddenly realizes all her clothes are pink, or when Susan, with her big eyes and bright smile, spontaneously writes her full name.

When I think about each of my children's lives just a few years ago, it's a blur. I can hardly remember what they were like or what we did. Part of me cringes at that loss of memory.

And part of me wants to check my BlackBerry.----


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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.