Monday, October 10, 2011

Working from home, Part 2: Answers to Ask Me Anything

This is a continuation of my answer to an Ask Me Anything question about how Sam & I came to be working from home, and what we do. Read Part 1 here.

{So when we left our story yesterday, Sam & I were pregnant with Mikko and were contemplating what to do about cat sitting vs. our burgeoning business of DVD sales.}

At first, we had this dream of carrying our infant in a sling as we went about our cat sitting duties.

And then we woke up and realized a few things.
  1. People might not want us bringing our kids into their nice houses. (Our clients ran the gamut from college student to millionaire, but just in general they might not have relished the thought of a youngster on the premises. Plus, we carried our own liability insurance, but maybe there were other factors to think of when bringing kids onto a job site.)
  2. Sling babies don't stay sling babies for long. Eventually, we'd have a crawler or toddler who wanted to get into everything and be…um…enthusiastically affectionate with all the kitties.
  3. Our job was a whole heap of driving. That's a whole heap of carseat time, not to mention the wrestling in and out.
  4. We thought about hiring employees and starting a cat sitting empire. We had a good system, and we knew it — our clients loved us. But we tried hiring a couple friends, just temporarily when we went on vacation, and it was so much work. The payroll issues, the paperwork for the state and federal governments — it was a nightmare and so not what we wanted to be spending our time on. Our friends did a good job, but it was nerve-racking to train them and then step back and hope they upheld our high standards. Hiring less invested employees would have been even scarier. We decided we weren't cut out to be emperors.
  5. Selling DVDs gave us our Christmases back. It would let us work from home…from actual home.
  6. Selling DVDs made us more money for less work. This was the ultimate deciding factor.

So, after two years of cat sitting, we quit, when I was about five months pregnant with Mikko. We gave our clients advance notice and used the baby as our excuse and helped shuffle them over to other pet sitters. (Nice of us, huh? And a lot of work for no particular reward. I'm not sure why I offered that.)

We had tried out a few different businesses besides the cat sitting and DVDs, incidentally, but none of them had panned out the way those had.

Now it was down to all DVDs, all the time.

family business — cat next to wrapped packages
We kept Mrs. Pim on as a mascot.

family business — inventory in apartment
Too much stuff!
When Mikko was born, we were still shipping each DVD individually, and we were storing boxes and boxes of inventory in our apartment. We had been living in a studio apartment (fancy-sounding term for one room total), but we got flooded out during a winter storm. Fortunately (?), our inventory was packed so tight that it kept a lot of the water from seeping in. I kid you not. Our landlady was clearly agog when she came in, though, to see what kind of fire risk we had made ourselves.

Out we moved, into a much roomier one-bedroom. Our family all breathed a sigh of relief that we had "moved up" for the baby, even though that wasn't the reason. Of course, they still wondered why we hadn't chosen a two-bedroom.

We tried to take off a few weeks for our babymoon, but soon enough, we really needed to get back into the swing of the business, since we still had no savings left and were still paying off generous family members who had supported us through the lean times.

Sam's sister, Natalie, came over nearly daily for awhile to help us wrap DVDs — her payment being opportunities to hold Mikko. (She loves her the babies.)

I remember a lot of anxiety in that first year that we were doing the whole parenting-while-working-at-home thing wrong. I'd been reading The Continuum Concept
and hanging out in the discussion email list, and there was a lot of emphasis on holding your baby as you go about your daily tasks. As it turns out, you can't hold a baby while you wrap DVDs, if said baby does not want you to sit down. Against all my better instincts but to Mikko's everlasting delight, we bought a bouncy seat. Then we could foot bounce him while we wrapped, and he was a gurgling, pudgy, bouncing ball of contentedness. Did this assuage my guilt? Oh, not at all. I envied the people who had family farms or the like, where they could truly strap on their babies and head outside to work manually all day. We had definite dreams that Mikko would learn to pack DVDs as well, but that was for many years into the future.

mikko mnb 6 week old baby in bouncy seat sticking his tongue out
Baby gets what baby wants.
How things have changed since then:

First of all, I don't feel as guilty about working while parenting. We're not the first people to (need to) do it, and it doesn't ruin your kids. There, I said it.

Would it be awesome if Sam and I were independently wealthy and could both spend every second with Mikko? I guess. Then again, we both like opportunities to do things other than parent, as well as the opportunity to parent. In other words, we both want to be balanced in our parenting and working and passion-following lives.

The way we do business has changed, a lot, for the better. We now store most of our inventory off-site, and we make more money. I don't say that to brag — in fact, I feel kind of sheepish about it, like I'm denying my frugal cred. Because, as it turns out, it's a lot easier to have money than not to. Who knew.

Due to some changes Amazon's made just recently, Sam's been able to ramp up the business that much more, to the point that we're actually looking into making some very new, very untested changes:
  • We've rented office space in an attempt to separate out the business detritus that always, always is taking over our living spaces. For instance, when Mikko was two, we did in fact move on up to a two-bedroom — but that bedroom has been forever filled. We had this idea that eventually we would relegate the business shtuff to, at max, half that other bedroom, and our kids could have the other half. This has never happened. It hasn't been a problem as long as they're cosleeping, but we'd like to offer them the space by the time Mikko's, say, 12. (I'm kind of joking, and I do recognize my own privilege shining through these statements as well — that we have the choice of another bedroom and so forth — but we really have intended for the second bedroom to eventually be usable by someone other than loads of boxes, so…)
  • We're considering hiring employees. We're starting off small, with Sam's older brother, who will come out during our babymoon to take over the bulk of the manual work (packing DVDs to send to the warehouse). He'll basically keep our business going while we can't, and we're (over)compensating him for the help. After that, we're thinking, possibly, temps. That will take some of the payroll nonsense off our shoulders.

This means there have been other cosmic shifts, and will be more, as we move into this adventure of a second child and an ever-growing preschooler-soon-to-be-actual-schooler — or, as we would prefer, continuing unschooler.

I feel kind of silly admitting this, but I really haven't been working in the DVD business for lo, these many moons. I've been blogging. And working on novels that haven't been published. I'm making, basically, less than I used to make in my poorly thought out editing business — and Sam's been taking up the economic slack.

With a smile.

family business — mikko m1yo baby popping bubble wrap with dad sam
Sam coaching Mikko on the proper way to pop bubble wrap.
And it's not like he's been leaving the parenting to me. He still does his fair share, or more.

And I know there are people who blog and parent and work (you know, for money), and I don't know how they do it.

Though I might have to find out, because we're, as pointed out, having another baby. Sam will be going off to his separate office now and leaving me with two (count 'em) little ones. If we want to work together as in days of yore, I'll have to stop writing so much and take the place of those temps he wants to hire. I'll likely have to stop writing so much regardless. And by "writing," I mean all the activity that goes with running multiple blogs and trying to be a good blogosphere participant. I've been trying, slowly, to wean myself off my feelings of obligation so I'm open to more options going forward. Even if those options are to be a bad blogger and spend more time (shocking) with my family and take it easy.

So that brings us to the present. This is what our family does to make money, and we don't know what the future holds. Pretty much like our whole lives so far.

I don't know how I feel about the changes coming: our at-home business turning into an away-from-home business (granted, it's just four miles away, but it feels far, considering). Reimagining the sharing of family duties and work possibilities. Making decisions about whether earning money is or is not more important than doing work that earns very little, or nothing at all (read: parenting, blogging).

I've been feeling ambivalent for some time over the gender issues inherent in our division of responsibilities. Throughout our marriage, despite any (lackluster) efforts I've made, Sam has consistently outearned me. I know some was kyriarchy, truly. Like how the conservatively religious nonprofit we worked for was willing to pay him a living wage but caviled at extending the same to me. But a lot is just my own choice not to pursue financial success, and as Sam has secured that for our family without my help, I wonder if I'm letting down womanhood.

And as Sam consistently coparents, and does such a good job at it, I wonder the same thing, again.

And then at the same time, I tell myself how proud I am of him that he's always been willing to cut through the gender-role crap, that he's prioritized family over money, that he's never made me feel inadequate for being an underearner, that he's graciously allowed me all the space I need to follow my passions for writing and community, that he let me set the pace with our cat-sitting business, so I know it's not just that he has some ingrained sense that he must be the primary or sole wage earner.

And then I also feel a mite guilty that my own priorities are so…weird. Shouldn't I be helping out more with the business, as I did back in the early Mikko days? Or, conversely, shouldn't I be shouldering more of the parenting (or housekeeping, at which I am a total fail)?

One way or the other, things will change with this next baby, so I'm waiting to see what happens and to try to embrace the peace of unalterable change. As in, I can't make things stay the same, so I might as well embrace what is, and what will be.

So that's our (long) story. How about you? Do you work for pay for yourself, for someone else, or for no one at all? Have you wanted to start your own business, and does this story encourage you or scare you away? Keep in mind it's taken us seven years to get to this point of financial more-or-less-stability… Sorry I don't have any great insight to offer into how to easily work from home and parent at the same time — I don't think it's ever easy. Ever.

It's good. But it's not easy. And it requires ever-evolving compromise, no matter what — just like any family's setup, I suppose — work out of the home, stay at home, work from home, whatever. It's always a balance.

family business — mikko m12mo eating dvd
Mikko has always been an indispensable worker in our family business.
{Just a note from the fuuuture! So we had that there second baby, and Sam is spending more time working in the office most days. However, he's been taking Mikko with him some of the time to give me some space still to write. We're still working things out, because this summer was taken up with visitors and babymooning — which was both good and bad. Our bills are piling up, due to not having paid maternity/paternity leave (one of the downsides of both living in the U.S. and working for yourself), and hiring Sam's brother was…uh…well, it fulfilled some of its familial purposes but not many financial ones, unfortunately. We're holding off on hiring anyone else for now. I don't have anything else to add to this tome, so I'll leave it at that for now and talk more generally (and briefly?) in my carnival article tomorrow. Stay tuned!}


Rachel said...

Thanks for sharing all of this information about your home (now office based) business. I need to go back and read the first post in this series.

I hear ya on being the low income earner in a partnership. There was maybe a brief period where I earned a bit more when the US dollar was seriously slumped (er, still is I guess) and my husband wasn't on the road that much (touring musician) but otherwise he has way out earned me. I'm currently a SAHM doing a bit of WAHM that has yet to bring in any significant income.

The flip side is that my husband is 7 years older than me. I am betting on him retiring, or partially retiring, around 60 and I will work FT for another 7 years while he putters about. =)

Inder-ific said...

This was super interesting - I'm always fascinated to hear about how other folks make a living and divide parenting duties.

Partly because my own arrangement is fairly unusual - I'm the income earner, husband stays at home - and I see that other people see it as "unnatural," or worse, romaticize it, and think I have "the best of both worlds."

But yeah, I pretty much think it's hard however you work it out. It just is what it is.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing! It sounds like a kind of cool concept; it never occurs to me that sellers online are, you know, people.

I write web content (hooray, web content) and it's a mixed bag. Ideally I'm a freelance writer, but I'm such a timid person that I haven't diversified. Basically, I suffer from not enough eggs in enough baskets. :D

That said, my husband still has as 9 to 5 job. While it wouldn't pay the bills if I lost my major gig tomorrow, it does make it easier for me to take risks as a writer. If, you know, I did.

...sarah. said...

I'm one of those bloggers- and parents- and full time workers all-in-one kind of folks. I tell you, balance is elusive sometimes. I have to step back and prioritize every minute of the day (and sometimes I fail big time). I spend too much time wishing I could be a sahm or a wahm and too little time just enjoying... being a MOM. We live and we learn! I'm inspired by the way your family has kept "it" together over these years: thank you for sharing your perspective!

Kelly said...

Really enjoyed both of these posts Lauren - you have an awesome family! :)

I always thought I would like to be a SAHM (and adored it during my shamefully long year at home mat leave) but have been very surprised at myself to find I'd actually really like a career (as a midwife) and have totally flipped to being fine with the idea of my hubs someday staying at home with the kids - I was adamantly against that for a long time. Not like either option is happening any time soon, but I've been interested to see the attitude shift.

In the meantime, having returned to work in a fairly non-brain-tasking 9-5 office job, I still find it next to impossible to blog anymore on a regular basis. All about finding that balance I guess... :)

Hannah @Wild Parenting said...

Loved reading your story. I badly wanted to participate in the last carnival but ironically - I was too busy working and earning money! My partner and I have also worked at home together on and off for 8 years or so. He does web design and I'm a copywriter and we both look after our kids (5yrs and 2yrs). We're not very disciplined unless there's a deadline in the balance. We'd much rather be parenting or hanging out or pursuing our hobbies than freelancing. Sadly our income reflects this and our parents are permanently freaked out but we bumble along OK. I sometimes worry about the instability and the future but I (mostly) spend my days doing what I love and following my bliss. That's priceless. Wishing you guys continued success in carving out your own path...

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