(210): On the Stresses of Working From Home

A few shelves of my dining room, er, bookstore.

I was reading an article by Rosamund Lannin about how she hates working from home, partially because of all the distractions, the little undone tasks that call to you tacitly simply by your being there. It’s a conflict of work-work and home-work. As a woman, I think there is a chance that we feel this conflict more than a man might.

My husband doesn’t much care about how messy a place is unless 1-there are lots of dead ladybugs lying around or 2-he can’t find the one thing he absolutely must have right now but hasn’t seen since 2005. He has no angst about a full sink of dishes or the masses of soiled laundry draped over his schoolbooks from last semester. Because he is under no obligation to keep the house clean, it doesn’t bother him — it’s someone else’s job (mine); he is not obliged to feed the dogs or keep the bathroom clean. I am.

And despite the fact that I live in a VERY cluttered house, I am constantly working on it. I wash dishes maybe 5 times a day (sometimes more); I cook at least one meal a day for humans and am like a constant conveyor belt line for making “dog soup” (my dogs’ version of wet food) and their home made sweet potato treats. I keep tabs on the bathroom and make time to scrub the sink, toilet and shower, as well as vacuuming the floors of the house. In the interstitial spaces of time, I try to tidy up. This constitutes one of my jobs.

The other “job” is voluntary (for now); I maintain a dedicated Amazon bookstore (I no longer have a dining room — it is a bookstore), and I also maintain an Etsy store, which is stocked in boxes in the bookstore area along with a couple of shelves in the living room. I absolutely have to keep these parts of the house (mostly) organized.

In a way, these two “jobs” mesh together, and I am never truly not working. But the fact that I do not have a traditional outside job means that I can be said to be “unemployed,” even though I call it “part time online sales.” Add to that my own self-imposed projects like writing on Medium every day and trying to maintain a minimal porch and box garden. In a more stark environment, these would be luxuries, but they are my few bulwarks against insanity. It is hard to allow time for myself and myself alone. I have prioritized time that does not require my taking care of chores and jobs (if one could separate such), and I think it adds a layer of serenity to my life.

I do not know if I could perform a more interactive, scheduled home office job like Ms. Lannin does (the commonly understood “work from home” scenario as opposed to my slacker version). In a way, I may be comparing apples and oranges, but I do agree with her that we are more and more tied to our jobs while we are technically not “at” our jobs. Our carry-everywhere personal phones ensure that work can follow us wherever we go and sometimes even wake us out of sound sleep. And she is wise to save her bed for strictly non-work use. I’m obliged to use mine for writing quite often, as I must lie down to avoid excess strain on my back from sitting up.

So, would this dilemma be different for a man working from home without someone to do his housework for him? I am not sure; I suppose it depends on just how much clutter and filth he is willing to tolerate in order to get his work done before he decides the dishes must be done and the clothes washed. There is the stereotype of the college boy who lets his dirty laundry pile up before bringing it home to Mom on the weekends; would forcing him to do his own washing build character or increase stress, or would it tear his attention from the job he is performing?

The idea that “women’s work is in the home” is often still tacitly accepted, even when the woman has a full-time job outside the home, but at least, in that case, the jobs to be done at home are not staring her in the face as she goes into her important board meeting or as she makes a crucial presentation. That seemed to be Ms. Lannin’s point, and it is a good one.

In this era of telecommuting, I believe it is more important than ever to be able to draw definite lines of privacy, to disconnect and focus on one’s own needs. I’ve been practicing just that here at home, and while I still don’t like Mount Filthibachi staring at me just beyond my keyboard, I can tune it out for a short time and enjoy a sort of encapsulated serenity.

As for the effects of working from home on men vs. women, I can say this: My husband has often complained that his students and supervisors can contact him at any time, and this has adulterated his home time; he feels the stress of work even after he has come home from it. I’m not sure he can fully separate work and home life in his line of work though. He is a college professor, and the hours of the job are by definition irregular, and there has always been a take-home component of the job. I know — this take-home component fills several large boxes in our too-small house.

The comments section in Ms. Lannin’s article is a hodgepodge of “love-its” and “hate its” concerning working from home, so I think oftentimes it is more of an individual taste, but it does seem to be the wave of the future: we are afforded less and less privacy and alone time, whether we work from home or commute to an office. We are always on, and it is taking a toll; the modern careerist, whether man or woman, must draw explicit lines to avoid the eventual crash and burn that comes eventually with lack of down time. And the home office blurs the lines of home and work by definition. It takes a different sort of discipline to survive and thrive while making a good go of it.

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