Sneaking in Work

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It will be up to my kids to determine in therapy someday if they can forgive a few minor flaws in the mothering department. I'm not referring to any particular instances, because no one can prove I ever served chocolate doughnuts as an entree, condoned a makeup-and-manicure-theme birthday party or yelled, "I hope you have daughters someday!" at one of mine who tore a big hole in my favorite pair of black tights. But I think it's evident there will be enough ground to cover.

So I was thrilled to learn that one of my worst habits--skulking off to check for voice mail on my office line when I am supposed to be helping with homework--is actually beneficial. I wasted years feeling so guilty about my furtive work routines that I might as well have been having a love affair or sneaking cigarettes. But perhaps it was a mistake to believe the conventional wisdom that calls for separating the worlds of work and home. Families that integrate the two have less stress, according to a new study from Pitney Bowes Inc.

Cynics might ask, What kind of conclusion did you expect from a company that sells mail and messaging systems to corporations? Not me. For one thing, whatever the merits of the study, I realized I wasn't alone with this dilemma when I read that 266 of 500 households surveyed were communicating even on Saturdays with their offices via phone, fax, e-mail or voice mail.

Of course, I'm not sure how this would be relaxing. (My kids treat a weekend business call as an invitation to start bickering and pinching within earshot.) But letting work invade their home made parents feel more in control of both, according to detailed, two-week logs they kept. They wrote that they were able to coordinate their schedules and their responsibilities, and so felt less anxiety, says Meredith Fischer, co-author of the study.

As a person who has worked at home for five years, I didn't need a study to tell me the two spheres are on a collision course. But as I fret over whether my frenzied, fragmented existence truly represents progress, I see that my kids plainly prefer our blended life to the days when I went to an office for 10 hours at a stretch. What I notice: pink frosting crusted under my fingernails as I type. What they notice: the cupcakes I delivered to school.

This trend is the logical flip side to bringing your home into the office, a movement I was a proud pioneer in as early as 1990, when I routinely and unapologetically phoned the plumber from work. Now, as workplace tools like beepers, pagers and e-mail make an inevitable incursion into your life, you can harness their usefulness in the home too. If you keep a calendar for work on your Palm, cannibalize the idea to create a master family calendar to keep track of soccer games and piano lessons. Give colleagues and teachers a single e-mail address, and use one pager to field queries from office and offspring.

The mingling will get out of hand sometimes. For the harried, Fischer offers various coping strategies.

"Like having an affair or taking up smoking?" I asked.

Fischer's ideas are actually more sensible. She suggests minimizing incursions by the rest. You can create a "message-free zone" by designating a time every week to turn off all the tools.

This will free you up for important things, like making pink icing.

Related Links:
Homepage of Working Woman Magazine
Includes a section on work/life balance

The Online Magazine for Work At Home Moms

Questions for Michelle? E-mail her at mslat@well.com