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You’re a Mother. You Work from Home.  Do You Need Child Care?

Congratulations! You’re a mother who’s about to start working from home. At last you’ll have the chance to make some money but still have your children home with you.

You’ve set up your office. You’ve developed a dynamite sales pitch and a list of potential clients to call. You’ve contacted your first prospect, gotten past the initial awkward greetings and launched your pitch. Just as you’re getting warmed up and sensing your prospect’s growing interest, you hear a high-pitched wail from a few feet away: “Mommeeee...”

This isn’t the best way to start a business relationship — or a business, for that matter. After this happens a few times, you wonder whether you need help. You wonder whether you need child care.

Child care? Didn’t you decide to work from home so that you could stay with your children? Why, then, would you even consider getting child care?

Welcome to the great irony in the life of many a work-from-home mother: the continued need for child care. That’s the (maybe) bad news. The good news is that, as a work-from-home mother, you probably won’t need to utilize as much child care as moms who work outside the home. And once your children go to school all day, you may not need it at all.

If you’re a mother who’s considering starting a home-based business, this Info Guide will help you determine whether you’ll need to utilize child care. If you decide the answer is “yes,” we’ll explore different types of child care and how to find it. If you decide the answer is “no,” we’ll discuss ways that you can do your work and still have your children around.

Myth versus Reality

Many people believe that working from home represents the best of all worlds for today’s busy parents: an opportunity to earn income but avoid the expenses and worries associated with utilizing child care. However, the reality may be very different from that belief.

For example, while more and more companies allow employees to work from their homes in telecommuting arrangements, those same companies also require telecommuters to engage child care for their children. These companies believe that employees cannot accomplish 40 hours of work from their homes if they also must supervise small children.

Children’s needs also must be considered. Perhaps you can keep your children occupied for a couple of hours if you pop a video into the VCR and have them watch it while you get some work done. However, this probably isn’t the best way to supervise your children, at least not on a steady basis. Children need to be in contact with the people who are supervising them. Problems can result if their caregiver is not actively engaged with them at least some of the time.

Still, this doesn’t mean that in order to work from home successfully, a mother must resign herself to enrolling her children in a day care center for 40-plus hours a week. The answers to the following questions will help you determine whether you need child care for your children while you work from home — and if so, how much.

Determining Your Child Care Needs

First, you should analyze what type of business you have. Does your business require you to schedule blocks of quiet time — an hour or more — in order to do your work?  For example, a writer or journalist who spends lots of time in front of a computer would find it difficult to tend to her children at the same time she’s trying to write an article or research a story. However, a distributor of children’s products such as Discovery Toys might find that she could ask her children to help her.

Related to this issue is how your potential customers or clients would react to the presence of children in your work environment. The journalist who is interviewing a corporate CEO for her article probably would be very embarrassed if she had to interrupt that interview to tell her toddler not to play with her computer’s surge protector. However, the Discovery Toys distributor who is taking an order from another parent probably would feel much freer to excuse herself and correct her child.

Second, determine how much time you want or need to devote to your business. If you have income or other goals that will require you to work more than, say, 10 hours per week, you’re more likely to need some help than someone who doesn’t need to work so many hours.

Third, consider the ages of your children. It may be surprisingly easy to work at home with a young infant in your office. An infant under six or seven months of age may be happy to be in the office with you (especially at feeding time!) while you work. However, as your children enter the toddler years, this situation may change. A toddler’s mobility, curiosity and increased need for stimulation may conflict with your need for quiet blocks of time in which to work.

Changes may occur again when your child enters kindergarten. A mature kindergartner in a half-day program at school may be able to entertain herself for the other half-day if she is given clear guidelines (such as the number of television programs she may watch) and if she knows she can come see you any time she needs you. And once your children enter first grade and are in school for most of the day, you may find you have enough time to accomplish all you need to do while they are at school.

A final consideration is how you work and how flexible you can be. For example, if you are a “night person,” you might be able to work for a couple of hours in the evening after your children are in bed for the night. A “morning person” might be able to spend an hour or so in front of her computer before the rest of the family arises. Although it’s unrealistic — and probably not very healthy! — to believe you can do all of your work this way, allocating a few hours in the early morning or later in the evening to office tasks can ease some of the pressure you might feel.

Child Care Options

If your answers to the above questions lead you to conclude that you do need child care, you should determine how much help you need and what types of care are available to fulfill that need. Here are some options:

Trading with a neighbor. If you have a neighbor whose children are close to the ages of your children, you can try scheduling play dates at each other’s houses. This arrangement works especially well if you only need one or two mornings or afternoons per week in which to work. And the cost is unbeatable: it’s free!

However, there are potential disadvantages to such an arrangement. For example, you may find you need more time to work than this kind of arrangement allows. You may also find that you need to have an extended quiet period (for example, to return phone calls or to meet with a client) at a time when you haven’t scheduled a play date. Additionally, your turn to reciprocate may come at a bad time for you — for example, when you are trying to meet a deadline.

In-home sitter. This option actually consists of a range of options. An in-home sitter can be a young teenager who comes to your house a couple of afternoons per week to a full time au pair or nanny.

By contacting your neighbors, you might be able to find a middle-school-aged young person (12 years of age or older) who would welcome the opportunity to earn some extra money by playing with your children while you work. The advantages of this arrangement would be that your children would have in-home care at a relatively low price. One disadvantage might be a lack of flexibility; for example, you might need help on a day when the sitter is not scheduled to come. Another possible disadvantage is that you might have difficulty concentrating on your work if your children are in the house, even if they are being supervised.

A full-time nanny could free you to work a full 40-hour week or more. Nannies are available by contacting a specialized agency (check in your Yellow Pages under “Nanny Service”). The advantage to having a nanny is being able to work when you need to. The disadvantages can include the relatively high expense (the nanny’s salary, her Social Security taxes, plus agency fees); paperwork (because nannies are considered employees; you as the employer must pay required taxes such as Social Security and file the necessary documents). And, again, you might find it difficult to concentrate on your work if your young children are in the house, even if the children are being supervised.

Mother’s Day Out programs at local churches or community facilities offer outside care one or two mornings per week for older babies and toddlers. You can find them by checking at local churches and community centers.  The advantages of these programs include their relatively low cost and the opportunity for your young child to meet other children his age in a supervised setting. The disadvantage is that they may not offer a work-at-home mother sufficient time to accomplish much.

Family day care homes can be a flexible, cost-effective option for work-at-home mothers. Under this type of arrangement, you bring your child to another woman’s home, where she takes care of one to five additional children.  Some of those children may be her own.

Family day care homes can be found in many ways: through the neighborhood grapevine, through newspaper advertisements or through listings maintained by local child care licensing agencies. Providers included on such listings generally must be licensed by the local government and must meet minimum standards such as caring for no more than a certain number of children and demonstrating knowledge of child care and life-saving techniques.

The advantages to such an arrangement — if you can find a good one — include a relatively reasonable cost; flexibility (part-time schedules are possible) and the opportunity for your child to play with other children in a home-like setting. The chief disadvantages center around difficulties in finding a licensed provider. Although unlicensed providers often provide excellent care, the fact that they have not subjected themselves to government requirements may lead to problems such as caring for too many children. In addition, an unlicensed provider may not want you to report your payments to her on your income tax return, thus making it impossible for you to claim the Federal child care tax credit and/or tax credits permitted by your state or town. Still another disadvantage is that many family day care providers do not provide care to babies and young toddlers.

Day care centerAny discussion of child care options ought to include day care centers, even though most work-at-home mothers may want to avoid utilizing them. Under this option, you take your child to an institutional setting where she is cared for by professionals for the day. The advantages to this arrangement are that you are free to work a full 40-hour week. The disadvantages include varying quality of care; high costs; a lack of flexibility (part-time schedules probably are not possible) and difficulty in finding such care for children under two years of age.

Preschools. Many families — whether the parents work or stay at home — are sending their children to preschools or nursery schools from toddlerhood on. Preschool programs help to prepare children for kindergarten and grade school through play activities and educational exercises. Some preschools have full-time schedules; others offer part-time schedules as well. They can be found in a variety of ways, such as through the neighborhood grapevine, churches or advertisements.

The advantages of preschools is that they offer flexibility for parents and a stimulating environment for children aged 3 to 6; in addition, the costs often are relatively reasonable. The disadvantage is that the quality of the preschools may vary from school to school; in addition, most preschools do not accept children who are not toilet-trained.

Full-time school. Children who attend school outside their homes can count on being in school from early in the morning until mid-afternoon starting in first grade — which means mom can count on having at least six hours of uninterrupted work time. Moreover, when children arrive home from school, they can entertain themselves long enough to permit you to work another hour or two, if necessary. The advantages to this option are obvious: you can put solid blocks of time into your work without having to worry about child care, but you also can be there when your children arrive home from school. Many work-at-home mothers also find they have the time and the desire to volunteer at their children’s schools during the day, giving them a needed break from working routines and the opportunity to participate directly in the education of their children.

The disadvantages to this option focus mainly on when school is not in session: vacations, snow days and summers. However, many arrangements are possible. Some mothers might find informal arrangements such as trading with neighbors work well; others might find that structured programs such as day camps (offered by both private concerns and local governments) are more suitable. Still other mothers might utilize a combination of arrangements.

What Works for You?

Now that you’ve analyzed your needs and explored the types of child care that are available, you may be feeling discouraged. That’s not surprising.

It’s difficult to contemplate utilizing child care if you thought the idea of working from home was to avoid using child care. You might also find it difficult to justify utilizing child care if your business isn’t making very much money yet. It’s tough to watch your hard-earned profits pass through your hands to those of your child care provider. Issues such as these may cause you to wonder whether starting a home-based business is worth the investments of time and money that such an effort inevitably requires.

The key to answering this question may lie in the word “investment.” For example, you can work to get your at-home enterprise going and engage part-time care for your children. Investing in child care will give you the time you need to give your business a solid foundation. That foundation will serve you well when your kids are in school full time and you’re working, but can give your kids milk and cookies when they come home.

You can also decide that you want to devote less effort to working from home — perhaps just engaging in preliminary research — and focus more on spending time with your children until they start going to school. By the time they are full-time grade-school students, you will have laid the groundwork necessary to put intensive effort into your home-based enterprise.

Finally, it’s important to remember that solutions to this dilemma not only are as individual as you and your family, but that those solutions are likely to change as your child gets older. The infant who happily spent time with his mommy in her office until he was six months old might be equally happy with a part-time in-home sitter between the ages of six months and two or three years. At three, he might be ready for preschool and/or to go to a family day care home on a part-time basis. By the time he’s six, he’s going to school full time — and his mom can easily drive him to soccer practice after having put in a solid day at work.

By utilizing these approaches and maintaining a flexible attitude, a mother can develop a home-based, income-producing enterprise and still remain available to her children — which is why many moms want to work from home in the first place.

Good luck!