Are you trying to balance homeschooling and working from home? You’re not alone. It seems like more and more parents are taking on the responsibility of basically three full-time jobs: running the household and parenting, homeschooling all those kids, and working from home. We want to talk today about the challenges and the blessings that that can bring and how we’ve done it. Here to join me is my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.
Sonya: Amber, you’ve had a lot of experience with working from home, right?
Amber: Definitely, I’ve been doing that from the beginning, I had a business that I started and was working on full-time before I met my husband. So all I’ve known has been working from home and running that through pregnancies and births and homeschooling from the very beginning.
Sonya: And fast forward, you now have how many children?
Amber: I have four children.
Sonya: And age range now is?
Amber: Five to 11.
Sonya: So you’ve been homeschooling about six years or so? And you’ve been working from home that whole time?
Amber: Yep, non stop.
Sonya: What are some of the blessings you’ve discovered?
Amber: A few things. One, it’s given me an opportunity to pour my passion into something that I feel really good about. When I was working, I worked in corporate America before, you get a lot of positive feedback, “Good job, thanks for contributing to the team.” That was a way to feel like I had something aside from mothering and wifing and homemaking, which are all things I love, but this is something that is just my little slice of an opportunity for me to use some of the skills that I’ve built over time. When you’re a mother and you’re doing something like this, it feels like a hobby that you’re getting paid for. It’s a way to unplug a little bit, and I’ve seen the benefits of that for me for sure. Another positive thing has been it makes money, you know what I mean. I don’t want to overlook that. Many times we feel like we don’t want talk about that, but it’s not a volunteer position. Those museum memberships and aquarium memberships and traveling that we do, and the volleyball, or if someone’s taking ballet or piano lessons—those things are being paid for through the money that I make in that way. So it’s been a blessing to my family in that way as well. Also, my children have been able to see what happens when you do have a passion project, or you do have something that you enjoy doing, or if you just have to do it. Sometimes I just have something else I have to do: “I would love to sit here and play this with you, but I actually cannot right now.” I could take that and feel bad about it, but I’ve really thought about that a lot and sometimes I think that’s good for them to see that mommy has something else that she has to do and they’re going to be okay.
Sonya: Because that’s not the all-the-time constant: “Go away, kid; go away, kid.” Not at all. We are still pouring ourselves into them. I’m in the same position, I’ve been working out of the home since before my first one was born and I had a job in an office. When it came close to time to deliver the first baby, they sent me home with a computer (which was “wow” back then; that was pretty cool). From then on, I was working from home for them; and then several years later, many years later, that transitioned to my own thing. As you said, creating something that was a little hobby on the side. I usually talk about Simply Charlotte Mason as a hobby that’s gotten out of control.
Amber: We’re glad it did.
Sonya: So I’ve always had another job to do at home. One of the blessings that’s related to what you were saying is that I have seen my children grow in their independence in a good way. They’re not always depending on mommy to entertain. They learned to take responsibility, that, “Okay, we’re all in this together to make this household run, and I can’t do it all, because I’m also having to do this on the side. So let’s all divvy it up.” And it changes over the seasons. We didn’t do that when they were preschoolers, of course. But over the seasons, you see that component of their personality developing.
Amber: I love it! And I think that you bring up a really good point. It has changed so much for me. This has not been a flat-line thing, nor has it been constant growth. It’s up and down and up and down, and there are times where I pull back. I think that’s a difference about being a mom that’s homeschooling while working. One thing that’s different from when I wasn’t a mom is that I have to realize that I can’t always go full-throttle. Most of the time, my ideas outpace the time I have available to work on them, and that’s something I have to deal with myself.
Sonya: It’s hard. Oh it’s hard!
Amber: Because I’m like, “Oh, what about this? What about this?” and I’m raring to go! “Now’s the time; the market is hot!” and I just can’t do it because—I guess I could, but what I would have to sacrifice in order to do that. I’ve hit my pain point. And that point is different for every mom. I think we can’t look at someone else and say, “Well, she’s doing all of these things. I should be doing all of these things.” We also can’t look at someone and say, “Well, she only spends a couple hours a week on her business. Maybe I should pull back.” It’s different for each person, and it’s different depending on what you have going on. I’ve heard a lot of moms talk about when they have newborn babies, they pull way back. In some ways I did that, but I also saw a lot of growth when I had newborns, because I was awake all night.
Sonya: And the ideas just go!
Amber: That’s it! So it’s a strange thing. It depends on what kind of business you’re doing, or it depends on what kind of job you have. If a lot of your business depends on your creative juices, you may find that late nights and lack of sleep and lots of caffeine are pushing you through. For me, the toddler years are where my productivity may tend to dip a little bit, just because those are more demanding times for me.
Sonya: And they’re so formative in the children’s lives. You’ve got to be there for them. One thing that I did when mine were toddlers is maybe once a week, once every couple of weeks, I connected with a college-aged student in our church and said, “Could you just come over for one morning? I’m going be there, but I’m going to be in my office,”—which was my bedroom, but it sounds good—”I’m going to be in my office, so if you need me or have any questions, I’m there.” Now the first couple of times she came, I was all hands-on too, showing her the routine, showing her the limitations for the kids, watching how she interacted with them. But as she became comfortable, and I became comfortable, then I would say, “Hey, Rachel’s here! Here you go, have a good time,” and I would go in my office and say, “Thank you, Lord,” and go head down for as much time as I could.
Amber: That’s so funny that you say that. I remember in our old house I would do the same thing. I had someone who would come in one morning a week or sometimes two times a week for less time. I would pack up my laptop and everything and grab my cup and say goodbye, head out the front door, and come back in through the back door and go work. My children were totally different when they knew I was home versus when they thought I was away. So when they knew I was home, their eyeballs were under the door and they were crying for her and doing all these things. And she’s like, “You know, when you’re not here, they’re not like that.” I was like, “Oh really? Well, I can fix that.” So I just would go back in the house and everything. They were so small, it didn’t matter; and I was able to get a lot of work done. And then I would come back in and “Hey, mommy’s home!” I did that for a couple years. Whatever it takes. There were different times I’ve tried different strategies. I’ve tried having someone come while I’m there. I’ve gone to coffee shops at different times. I do work early in the morning; that’s where I am right now. The stage I’m in is getting up really early and packing in as much as I can before the first person wakes up. I used to stay up really late, but as I started getting older, it stopped working for me like the way that it used to. But I’ve done different things and I don’t feel like I always have to do it the same way. And sometimes I’m better at it than other times. Sometimes it’s not looking so good, and other times I’m jamming. So I think it changes, and we have to be kind to ourselves.
Sonya: Yes, seasons of life.
Amber: That’s right.
Sonya: Make adjustments. What other struggles did you come across in your journey?
Amber: Definitely saying no. If I’m choosing to say yes to working from home and I’m definitely choosing to say yes to the homemaking aspect and the mothering and being an intentional wife, then there are a lot of other awesome opportunities that come my way that I just have to say that, in this season, I must say no. I think that’s hard for me, because they’re good things. They’re not things that I don’t want to do. Maybe they are things my friends are doing or people in the community are doing. That doesn’t mean I never do anything else, but I tend to commit more to things that have a start and an end—maybe a project I can work on with someone, or something I can do from home that’s not time sensitive, things like that.
Sonya: Or something that I can take the kids with me.
Amber: Absolutely. Definitely when I’m serving. I typically don’t sign up for things where I’m serving that the children can’t come with me. But I say no more than I say yes, and that doesn’t come naturally to me. Saying yes comes more naturally. So I have to really force myself. One thing that I’ve learned to do is to say, “I’m going to talk to my husband about that and I’ll get back to you,” because no one’s going to push back on that. I actually do go home and talk to him about that, and he helps me: “You know what? Do you remember the last time, though, that you did something like that and you were so miserable?” or “Have you considered this?” or sometimes he’ll say, “You know, I could take the kids for the next few Saturday mornings if that’s something you want to do.” So we make the decision together. But telling them that I need a moment to think about it rather than answering right away has been very helpful.
Sonya: That’s a great idea. As the kids got older, one thing that helped me, or that I struggled with and tried to figure out, was how to get all the schooling in as well as the working. I think the Charlotte Mason approach just marries beautifully with this, because your goal is to get everything done in the morning or before lunch. Then the children are working on those afternoon occupations, pursuing their own interests. They’re still being productive. They’re not sitting around and watching TV and eating bon bons, . . . at least they didn’t as far as I know.
Amber: They’re doing it quietly.
Sonya: If they did, yes. No, I was keeping an eye on them. But while they’re pursuing their interests, I’m also being productive, and I think that’s a big example to them.
Amber: Definitely, and I think in order to get to that place, it took a period of transition. We have to set our expectations for that. My children do work really well independently on afternoon occupations, but they had practice when I was giving my full attention. So I’m there with them giving them examples of how this might flow and also setting up our home to make it easy for them to pursue those things—so having our supplies organized. Having lots of options and opportunities for them to dig into something without necessarily requiring me to be sitting right next to them now. But in the beginning, I was. Sometimes we’re comparing our valley to another mom’s mountain. Sometimes someone will say, “Well, look at how smoothly this is running in your house,” and I’m like, “Oh, honey.”
Sonya: “If you could’ve seen us.”
Amber: And I’m like, “You’re seeing my mountain. You’re here in the valley, but you’re going to have to walk up that. It’s going to take time.” Sometimes I find myself right back down in the valley, because children change as they age. I have a tween now. She’s not little, so she’s not going to do little surprise boxes and stuff. That’s not working for her. So we have to remain flexible. The things that help me with working from home are the same things that help me with being a homeschool mom: it’s remaining flexible, being kind to myself, having realistic expectations about what I can do. It’s also speaking into myself, because I am working from home and I don’t have a ton of feedback from other people, telling myself the things that I tell other people: “You’re doing a good job. You’re doing the best you can right now while still being the mother that you want to be.”
That’s just a balance. You could go hard here, but that’s going to happen. I know it’s so cliché for people to say, “You’re balancing all of these things.” I’m really not balancing them, I’m making decisions. And for me, typically I’m choosing to lean into the children, but there are times when things are just smooth there and I can lean a little bit more into my work and come back here for a season and ramp up. But I’m always home; I’m always available to them, except when I’m on the phone.
Sonya: Which is something they need to learn about respecting other people. And you’re not on the phone all day long. That’s the difference.
Amber: My business doesn’t really require much phone time, but when I am on the phone, I’m talking to clients and they’re paying for my attention and they need that respect. I don’t want them to feel like they’re getting a subpar product or service because I am a homeschooling mom. So for me, the sign is a bedroom door. Our bedroom door pretty much stays open; but when my bedroom door is closed, I usually don’t even have to say anything. The children will not knock. Little children have been trained to go to their father, now working from home, but also to big siblings. “If you need something small—to reach the cereal or something—an older sister can get that for you.” But I don’t stay on the phone very long. I think it’s just short lessons. I don’t require them to be in that space for very long. So I think it ends up working out, but there’s been some training for them and habit training.
Sonya: Yes, that’s what we’re talking about, is habits that we’ve put in place. When you said the door open and closed, I was just talking with my oldest daughter the other day. She’s 30 now, and talking about seasons of life, she mentioned, “I remember that you always had an open office policy.” And I’m like, “Did I say office? I thought it was an open door. My door is always open. I may be working, but if you have a problem and you need to come talk to me, I will set it aside and give you my full attention, because you are my number one priority. It’s not the job, it’s you.” But she said, “An open office policy.” I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Amber: That’s funny.
Sonya: Let’s talk a little bit more about habits that we put in place. I love how you emphasized these do not just magically appear overnight. You have to intentionally train, step by step, toward them. One big thing for me was having a routine in place in the day and having an organized surroundings in our home. I think if you don’t have a grasp on organized surroundings and an organized…I’m not going to say schedule necessarily . . .
Amber: A rhythm, program.
Sonya: Rhythm, yes, because a schedule is tied to the clock. You need a routine or a rhythm to your day, so the kids know what to expect at different parts of the day. I think those two habits—or if you break them down, those 200 habits that are made up for those two things—are key to being able to do both.
Amber: I agree with that. I’ve seen that, especially in times when I’m actually away from home—and the funny thing is, when I’m away from home, I’m usually not working. I’m usually doing mother culture. I’m having fun in some way. Maybe my mom is in town; we might go out for a day of shopping or something like that—and the children are home with my husband or with another family member, and they’re always commenting how the children went about their day and did what they were supposed to do. I love to hear that, because I know how far we’ve come. But they do have an expectation of what comes next; and it’s not prescriptive, but I think of it, . . . to me it feels like the ocean waves: waves up on the sand and they go down. It’s soothing for them. They know what to expect. This is how our house is: we do this, we do a little of that, and we go on to the next thing. And they meander through their days. And most of the time, I’m right there in the thick of it with them, but I can step away and the waves keep going. They might crash up on the shore a little harder, but they do keep going, because they know and they have a sense of how our house runs, how our house operates, what school looks like, what lessons look like, what are the opportunities within our home. What can I do with my day-to-day or how can I spend my time? I think those things are all very helpful. Again, when I say it took time, a lot of those things took years.
Sonya: Years, absolutely.
Amber: Not days or weeks, and I think we started with the weeks. You talked earlier about the children all pitching in. They pitch in with things around the house, but I also pull them into my work as well. I narrate my work to them a lot, so they understand very intimately what it is I’m doing. They’re curious about it; they ask questions. When I can, if I go somewhere, I’ll bring them, or maybe not all of them, I take turns about who gets to come with me to be able to see what I’m actually doing. If I’m writing about something, I’ll talk to them about what I’m writing about. Sometimes I’ve included them in videos I’ve been doing, or other things, not because it makes the video better, but because it allows them to be involved in what I’m doing and help them to really understand how our family is working in this business or how my work is helping them. I also share honest feedback with them. If we do get to do something really special, sometimes I’ll remind them, “This is such a blessing that we’re able to to do this. I’m really glad that we had this from our business, that we were able to take this trip, or that we were able to buy this membership that you really wanted,” so that they can see the tangible payoff as well. “Sometimes that bedroom door is closed while I’m on the phone, and you also got to take this great opportunity over here.” So I think tying those things together so that all the benefits are not just felt by me, but that the whole family can see why this is a good idea.
Sonya: That’s very important. Another feedback: it really helps when your children are grown and they make these comments that help you look back at what their perspective was of those years. One of my daughters, who has her own preschoolers now, third one on the way, made a comment the other day about, she thought that I worked and homeschooled just because I could, that was her impression. It wasn’t, and I’m saying, “No, honey, I worked because I had to. We needed the income.” And she never knew that, because I never said it to her. I never told her as she was growing up with this. Now as a young mom, she had this, unknown to me, burden on her shoulders of, “If I’m goin to be like my mom, I need to do both.”
Amber: Oh yes, I understand.
Sonya: “No, honey,” I said, “If at all possible, if you can do homeschooling and mothering, running your household and not take on that third full-time job, if that’s possible for you, do it with my blessing. That’s what I want for you.”
Amber: Go for it.
Sonya: Because it can be a huge burden as well as a huge delight at times.
Amber: That’s right. And like I said, you also can’t always be as good at what you want to do, and that’s also another burden, particularly if you, maybe before kids, were really going with a gusto with something, and now to look at the work and say, “Okay, well I feel like I need to do this, but I can’t really go all in on it.” You’re kind of in a limbo state at times. It can be stressful. But I agree, I don’t think this is something that everyone has to aspire to, and I also think you can change your mind. The business that I’ve run for 14 years, for a while I was running two businesses, and I just sold my longest business, my 14-year business, to focus on my other business. I had to let that go, because I got to a point where I realized I can’t do these two things at the same time and do what’s most important to me. So it might not be your season. It might not be the right time. On the other hand, if you have to do it, you can. So I don’t think there’s one prescription. I think it depends on your circumstance, it depends on who you are, depends on where you are in life, your children’s personalities, their ages—there’s so many different things that could possibly play into it. But I’ve found that if I just take things slowly and if I give myself grace, that no matter which decision I make at any time, it ends up working itself out.