Sunday, December 30, 2012

A year on blog

So, tomorrow is the last day of 2012. It's been some year for me and mine - a really different year than the past few in more ways than one.

I'm hoping to do a reflective post tomorrow, a summary of the year that was - my extended family and overseas friends always enjoy those, and it substitutes for the Christmas / New Year letter that I'm too lazy and disorganised to write :-) But I thought today I'd do what I did last year, and have a look at how this blog fared in 2012. I always find it an interesting, and occasionally startling, exercise, as I don't stats-watch through the year (one of the upsides of not monetising - I don't actually have to care about eyeballs per se, and no one asks me for the numbers).

So, I had a looky at Google Analytics, and was firstly mildly astonished to find that this has been a much bigger year (in terms of unique pvs) than the first two years of this blog's life, or any of the 6 years on my old decommissioned blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis.

Why this should be, I have no real idea. Post numbers were virtually the same as in 2011, with the same bulge pattern in November (for NaBloPoMo) and January (when I blog more because I'm not working). My comment numbers were, if anything, a little down on 2011 - a phenomenon that is, I think, common in the blogosphere at the moment. But despite all this, the blog is getting read, and by more people (or, shall we say, unique entities?) than it was last year.

It probably speaks to my lack of marketing nous that I can't really fathom this, or work out how to nurture it, should I want to. It's still a bit gratifying though - after all, I write on the Internet to share ideas and be read, so it's rather pleasant to think that some people, somewhere, are reading what I put up here.

The "10 most read posts of the year" part of my stats checking was both surprising and not. I expected the Dorothy the Dinosaur gluten free cake how-to to rank highly, and it took #1 easily, with view numbers well into five digits across the year. (How-tos always attract page views, in my experience). Likewise, the Back to the Future picture post on the DeLorean was linked on a number of Facebook pages, while the Black Ruby restaurant review was linked on a couple of websites, so I wasn't surprised to see them high in the list. I suspected my professional services contractor post would get good traction, and it did, and I knew people would read the 2-post profile on Nicole of Planning With Kids, especially as she linked to the posts (and they did!)

You could've knocked me over with a feather, though, at the placement of the book review of The Language of Flowers. Book reviews always attract a gentle but consistent readership here, and they do grow steadily over time, as people Google titles. But this innocuous little review had a monumental surge in October this year - why, I do not know - and was the third-most-viewed post of the year. Go figure, huh?

Likewise, my post on a little acrostic poem my daughter wrote, and my thoughts about it (Mother-Worker), was very widely read, and my musings on the whole "activated almonds" snafu got a lot of pvs. Both of these were a bit surprising, although I guess the topicality of the almonds post lent it some fuel. I was very pleased that my post explaining Coeliac Disease got read; I saw this one as an educative post, and I'm really happy it was seen.

So here's the list:

1. Dorothy the Dinosaur cake (February)
2. Back to the Future in the DeLorean (January)
3. Reading Notes: The Language of Flowers (January)
4. Black Ruby restaurant review (April)
5. On being a professional services contractor (November)
6. Mother-Worker: An acrostic poem about me(April)

(All six of these posts are in my top 10 all-time posts, too, and the Dorothy cake post is currently my number 1 hit post ever).

7. Self-employed and working at home with kids profile: Nicole Avery (Pt 1) (November)
8. Self-employed and working at home with kids profile: Nicole Avery (Pt 2) (November)
9. Activated almonds (November)
10. Coeliac Awareness Week: What is Coeliac Disease? (March)

So what makes a difference to the level of traffic a post gets?

Well, I don't really know. However, a few factors I can identfy as having an impact are:

- Twitter - I tweet links to most of my posts, but not all. If I tweet the link, that will double the pvs. If it gets RTed by someone else, that triples it.
- Linking - Any post that got put up on Facebook or Google +, mentioned in someone else's blog or website, or linked in an online discussion does well.
- SEO (when I accidentally do it :-) - Apparently some combinations of phrases are good at attracting Google hits, how about that! Sometimes I accidentally call a post something that matches to a common search string on Google or Yahoo, and then I get lots of hits.
- Black magic:Then there are the times that I *just don't know* why the heck people read it or where they come from. The Language of Flowers is one of those.

I took the blog in a slightly more literary / thinky direction this year; while I still did plenty of slice-of-life posts, I did more than twice as many book reviews, twice as many poems, and more opinion pieces, than in 2011. For me, personally, this worked well; I was happy with the tone and emphasis of the blog and will probably continue in the same vein in 2013.

I was a little surprised and heartened to see that my poems, traditionally a weak performer in terms of pvs, did quite well at being read this year. I love to write poetry and I write much more of it than ever appears on the blog. It's nice to share your work sometimes and I get more of a kick out of comments on poems than on any other kind of post.

The three most read poems this year were:
Who are you? (June)
Running (November)
Love, actually (August)

I'd have to say that my biggest personal blog highlight of 2012 came in a post in February, which was a review of the stage show of Yes, Prime Minister. Not only was I happy with that post, but I got a comment from the wonderful Jonathan Lynn, author of the play (and the TV series and books), indicating that he liked the review and felt I'd captured the essence of the satiric message it conveyed. I was giddily delighted by this interaction, and held it up for the rest of the year whenever any of my non-blogging friends asked me why I bothered :-) (Of course there are other reasons, but that one's pretty compelling, right?)

So that was 2012 on Play, Eat, Learn, Live. I am comfortable here; this is my online sandbox, to write and discuss and inform and share and be silly and be serious and feel connected. I am content to be un-monetised (or is it non-monentised?) - I feel I've made the right decision for me in seeking my income elsewhere, through my professional writing business, and keeping this amateurish little space just a treasured hobby and record rather than an income source.

In 2013, I'm going to do the Australian Women Writer's Challenge (I've signed up to review at least 4 books), and will do the Booker Longlist read-review again too. I plan to publish more poetry, more photos, and more work-life / working tips posts. I'm sure I will also opine about many things, at great and no doubt tedious length, as issue arise. I also will continue to blog in support of Good Return, one of the main charities I support, and on gluten free food issues, including recipes.

I hope to see some of my readers back for the new year, and that the year was good to you all, on-blog and offline too!

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Hubs and I went to see The Hobbit yesterday with friends. I really enjoyed it, but I also fell asleep in the car on the way back to my parents' house to get the kids ... at 7:15pm no less. What this has underlined is a central truth about my state of being at the moment: I am so tired. Deeply, bone achingly fatigued.

I have been running and running at full pelt since May, with very little downtime and very few weekends. That was immediately preceded by a month of being quite sick with heart problems in April, and two months of intensive work before that from late January to late March. Barring a week without work in early November, I have been working at least 30 hours and sometimes as much as 50 each week since May, with a 3 year old still at home except for 2 days a week at creche (one of which is short day of 6 hours).

I have still had community / volunteering commitments, too, although I did ease them back mid-year. But there are some things I couldn't, and didn't want to, avoid; things that were important to my kids and me. Like helping in the school kitchen during the 9 year old's cooking classes, or helping with the school's night market and the church's Christmas festival. I also continued to teach Sunday School monthly, because I felt it was putting too much pressure on others to pull out.

Volunteering and work and family life aside, the amount of energy and effort that goes into kids' extracurricular activities can't be underestimated. Gymnastics, swimming, ballet and music involves commitment from me and hubs as well as from the participating children, and its overall time impact on the week is at least 12 hours all up if everything goes to plan (considerably more when comps, exams and performances are coming up).

Of course, injuring my back in October, and getting flu in December, has not helped my cause greatly when it comes to maintaining health and energy levels :-(

Top that lot off with hosting our traditional last-day-of-school party for the kids' friends, and family Christmas Day at our house, and the highly strung pace has not had a chance to slacken even for a moment. We're also having a NYE BBQ this year, just because it seemed like a good idea at the time, so I am busily prepping for that.

So, in short - I am TIRED. Really, crashingly, exhausted. I need a sustained rest, and I am going to do what I need to do in January to make sure I get one, and to make life as stress-free as possible.

I've ruled off my job book from 31 December and am not available for work again until 4 February. The kids and I will have a lot of home days. I'm sending the younger two to my Mum's overnight mid-month so I can take my eldest to a specialist appointment solo and have a day in the city with her. My Mum is also taking the three together for a Friday night late in the month so hubs and I can go out to eat and SLEEP IN!!

There will be cricket, books and poetry writing. There will be painting, crafts and swimming at the beach. The big kids and I will indulge in an Ace of Cakes marathon. I will take them to the movies, the Zoo and the Museum. We are doing summer old skool this year and I am so, so ready. Bring on Tuesday!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Card (Poem)

to those who are awakened before dawn by thrilling, trilling children,
those who woke with the sun to journey, there and back again,
and those who stretch out, like cats in the sun, in long morning sleep;

to those who saved and shopped strategically to have things to wrap, to give,
those whose difficulty was finding a gap in the over-abundance for a gift to fit;
and those for whom giving is only of the heart, with no coins to spare.

to those who will delight in a golden cacophony of love in top gear,
those for whom love is complicated, and this day more dread than delight;
and those who will pass it alone or nearly so, accompanied only by screen people.

to those who will eat the time-honoured feast, and eat too much,
those who will eat creatively, making traditions new with prawns and beets;
and those who may not eat at all, unless the kindness of strangers extends a hand.

to those who remember the birth of a probable child in a possible stable,
those whose attachment is sentimental, to a red-coated man and candy canes
and those who remember the Solsticing sun and celebrate its rebirth.

to all of these.

may there be sweetness here,
gentleness, a little rest
maybe peace. that would be nice.
joy to the world, and peace to all who walk her
a wistful, naive, hopeful seasonal wish
to you all
every one.

- Kathy, 25/12/12

Saturday, December 22, 2012

First day of the holidays: A post in pictures

8:15am: Watching cartoons.

9:45am: Making paper chains for the Christmas tree.

10:30am: Hanging laundry.

11:15am: Reading to Miss 7.

12:30pm: Kids - outdoor play. Me - sipping tea on the outdoor chair :-)

1:45pm: Last minute gift shopping with Miss 9.

2:35pm: Bubbles in the backyard!

3:20pm: Afternoon treat - raspberries, blueberries & strawberries with cream and a spoonful of nutella.

4pm: Kids scooting and bike riding on the street, while hubs and I chat to neighbours as they garden in their yards.

5:15pm: Watching a little Curious George as I read on my tablet.

6:10pm: Roast chook and veg for dinner!

7:30pm: Starting work on a new short story, while the kids dance to bluegrass music.

8:45pm: Off on our Christmas lights and decorated houses run!

9:25pm: The pride of the fleet, locally - the best house in the suburb for lights.

Now it's 10:40 and everyone but me and hubs is soundly asleep ... and I intend to correct that for myself very shortly indeed!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Last minute Christmas shopping: The pain! The paaiiiiin!

I don't really like Christmas shopping much, so I try to spread it out across the year (helps with balancing things financially, too).

I'd already got most of the kids' stuff by last week, which was predominantly books and clothes, with one bigger item apiece - an ebook reader for Miss 7 and an iPod for Miss 9. Miss 3's bigger item, which was to be a scooter, I had not yet procured, and I needed to get my mother, brother and father their gifts, which I planned to be a book or calendar and a gift card apiece.

So I nipped into the local shopping centre after school and creche drop off, intending to be there 20 minutes max and expecting to spend around $300, give or take, on the scooter, books / calendars and gift cards. I'd seen the scooter I wanted for $70 in a catalogue, and I do buy sizeable gift vouchers for the 'rents and brother - they are always very generous to my kids and I like to reciprocate.


The shops were busy but not ridiculously so, but Christmas marketing is in full, aggressive swing all right. Someone has put a damn lot of thought into product placement, because, as well as the items I intended to buy, I also got:
- nail polish manicure kits for the big girls (come on, $8 a pop! a good stocking stuffer)
- DVDs for the kids and hubs (perfectly placed to catch my eye)
- a pair of crocs for me
- MOAR BOOKS for the kids and me both. So many, so many
- a pair of earrings for the big girl
- a soap gift pack for a friend

So the $300-ish I was expecting to spend turned into (cough cough mumble) around $450 by the end, and the time expended blew out from 20 minutes to 50.


Then I get home, do a bitta work, and lay out all the presents to be wrapped on my bed - that's this afternoon's job - only to discover that I have unaccountably failed to get anything for my MIL. Whoooooops ... Glad I picked that up today!

Given my lack of impulse control, I think I'll task hubs with choosing something for his mum when he and the 9 year old go out Saturday morning to do the Christmas Day food shopping. It's best if I don't go near the shops again before the day, really. Looking at the teetering book mountains on my bed, waiting to be wrapped for three eager readers, I don't need any further opportunities to go OTT with the gift buying...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Writing lives that aren't yours

Everyone seems to be talking about this piece at the Huff Post today. Opinions and emotions are running high, which isn't surprising, given both the subject matter and the timing. Originally posted on her own blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom, this is Liza Long's story of her teenage son, his problems, his violence, and her fears - for him, and of him. At the Huff Post, the piece is entited "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother."

There is so much that can be unpicked (or, as is so often the case with our beloved Interweb, picked upon) with this story, and I've already read impassioned defences of Long, scandalised takedowns, and really unsettlingly detailed forensic examinations of every blog post she has ever published - in quest of what exactly, I'm not sure, unless it's 'evidence' that Long is a) A Bad Mother, or b) A Liar. Neither of which characterisations are exactly novel when it comes to women writing on the Internet, let's be honest.

The thing that struck me the most forcibly about the whole business, though, was how sharply it illuminated the dilemma of writing life online, when your life involves (as everyone's must) other people. Long was making a powerful, albeit incomplete, point about the consequences of mental health care inadequacy, and offering the counterpointing of Adam Lanza, actual murderer, and her violent son, who she (possibly unjustly, and certainly pejoratively) invites us to see as a murderer-in-potential. I think the point itself would be hard to argue with - although it does rather beg a question, as Lanza's mental state has not been and may never be established with any accuracy. Nonetheless, the lens through which she presents it, her teenage son's rage and violence, and her fear of that, is at once profoundly compelling and profoundly disrespectful of her son's privacy as a human being who has not yet, and hopefully will never, committed an act of severe violence, let alone killed people.

It made me think of how this tangled knot can ever be unwound in life writing (that's what personal and parenting blogs are, really - streams of life, flowing on the screen, sometimes cloudy, often choppy, occasionally dangerous, and carrying sunlight too). When you write your life, it's not like you write everything - you select, you self-censor, you recast, you shape your stories.

The thing is, other people are part of your life - in the case of your children, a critical, consuming part - so to write your own life, your own experience, means writing about them and of them, at least sometimes and in some ways. And sharing what's difficult and scary can be a potent way to both garner a community of support - online communities can be incredibly important to many people - and to release the anxiety in a tangible way. I think this is something that people who don't blog in the parenting / personal space don't perhaps quite see or understand; that, for bloggers like Long (and like me), life writing comes to both inform and infuse how you both perceive and represent your own relationship to the big questions of the world and the hard struggles in your own life. It becomes natural to have those conversations on blog. And it's your life, it's your choice.

Except, of course, when it isn't.

I think, at the end of the day, that what I can't reconcile in Long's piece is not that she's written about her son and his struggles as such, but that she's done so immediately after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and has explicitly tied her son and her fears of / for him to that horror. I think that, in trying to make a doubtless passionately felt and valid point about mental health, she has fallen into a storyteller's trap of using a person as a cipher, of inviting readers (strongly) to see a before / after cautionary tale at work. To say that the notoriety this is attracting will do him (and ultimately her) no favours is a massive understatement.

Even when the case is not so extreme, it's a dilemma we all have to face. What can I, ethically, write about another person? What should be the limits? Are they different when I write about children? How does or can consent work in this space? And if I don't write about others in ways that shed light on my own experience, how does this limit my life on screen?

I don't have great answers to these questions, but I ask them, every time I write here. (This may be why I am writing a lot about books, politics and baking, aka Less Personal Stuff, right now :-)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Having one of those boring Luddite revulsions

Every so often I have what I refer to as a Luddite revulsion. This is usually after or near the end of an excessively busy period in my work and family life, and often after an illness of some kind. I've also noticed it's more likely to occur in the warmer months than in winter.

My Luddite revulsions can be comprehensive (NO TECHNOLOGY! NONE OF IT! IN FACT YOU MIGHT AS WELL SWITCH THE ELECTRICITY OFF, BUSTER!) or selective, like the one I'm having now. At the present time, I am quite attracted to the idea of a little TV some evenings, and am happily using my tablet to write and polish poems (I haven't reverted to handwriting in a notebook yet!) I am also listening to lots of music and reading ebooks. Of course, with two work contracts still live, I'm using my desktop computer daily to write, edit and research the documents I'm working on, and that includes lots of email communication and using many online resources. All good with that.

What I am fatigued with right now is the social and entertainment Internet. I have no desire at all to visit blogs, forums and websites I normally enjoy. I am disinterested to the point of ennui in Twitter. I don't really want to blog, although I do have a mild interest in doing a "Christmassy" post soon because my kids really enjoy those and we like having the family record (I've done one every year since 2004, on this blog or my old one). I am not on Facebook, but if were, I have no doubt it would be in the crosshairs too. I don't even want to read the news online, let alone get drawn into discussions of it (very unusual for me).

I have had these revulsions before, and they always pass, sometimes in a few days or a week, occasionally longer than that. I think my lengthiest stretch was about 4 weeks, from memory. I don't see them as a bad thing; I actually think it's a healthy response, for my mind to sometimes prise me away from things that can be exciting and rewarding but also move very fast and frenetically. I don't mistake this temporary lapse in interest for a permanent change and nor would I want it to be. It's just my psyche trying to hit the reset button on a rather frazzled brain, and really, I think that my subsconscious's ability to do that is one of the things that keeps me from really breaking down during and after tough times. (My subconscious is ever so much smarter than my ego, which would keep whippping along until dropping dead and never realise there was a problem).

So I think I will be very sporadic on the blog until the New Year (definitely at least one Christmas post, but anything else will be mood dependent). As for Twitter, right now, I just don't want to, so I won't. I'll feel like it again soon enough, I'm sure.

Do I think anyone cares in the least that I will be living mostly offline for a bit? No, I don't - but I also wanted to write about this Luddite revulsion thing, because I haven't really before, and I've always wondered if other people get it too.

Anyway, I hope you have a great run-up to Christmas over the next two weeks. I hope the day itself is beautiful in whatever way works for you, and that the New Year is shiny and bright.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gotcha, kiddo

9 year old is in a Mood. Who knows why. The moon may be in the third quarter of the passage of Venus or something.

I call out to her, "Is your room tidied yet?" Silence. I'm about to repeat my question when I realise she's standing next to me as I fold laundry, a handwritten sign held out in front of her.

It reads, "No further communication will be entered into."

I look at her. "You've decided to stop talking?" She nods, vigorously.

"Huh," I say, handing her a pile of her folded clothes. "Why?"

"Well, it's because I -" she begins, then stops. "You tricked me!" she wails.

"By asking a question?" I laugh. She frowns mightily then scribbles frantically. The new note that she turns to me reads:

"Mean because you laughed even though it was funny!!!"

Some you win... No, there's no second part to it this time. Some you WIN.

(She is talking - and laughing - again now, in case you are wondering).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 3: Tony of Between Coffees Web Design (Part 2)

(This is part 2 of Tony's reflections on life as an at-home worker and primary caregiver for kids).

The boundary is also blurred in that because I am at home it often falls upon me to organize (not necessarily cook) what’s for dinner, do the shopping that may need to be done, do and hang out the washing, try and get the kitchen clean, floors swept etc. I sometimes resent the totally unfounded assumption that just because I’m at home my work can be put on hold to do this, but this is generally only on bad days. It’s common sense. I’m here, the jobs need to be done. It’s a matter of making things fit.

I’ll still do some work on the weekend if I have to, my wife will often take the kids out for the morning or afternoon to give me peace and quiet. This is one way I manage peak workloads. I have also found that outsourcing some of the basic work is an option for me. It takes a few tries to find contractors of a suitable quality but they have come in handy. Apart from this it really is a matter of trying to manufacture time; emails or calls can be responded to while waiting for the school pick up, plans for the next day are made the night before, accepting the house will look like a bomb site for another day.

Even with these measures there are times when work butts up against family demands, especially now with the two eldest involved in out of school work or activities. It’s a mix of which demand wins. P has to be at work to start on time and there’s no way there but via car. However sometimes I’ve missed afternoon coffees with friends or outings with the family because a client has a deadline that cannot be moved. I would love to be able to say family always comes first but any working parent will tell you this just isn’t possible. I believe though that working from home has given me far greater opportunity to be involved with the kids and that so far I have to accept I’ve done the best I can with juggling work/family demands.

I’ve mentioned before that my partner helps a lot on the weekend if I need more work time but as she works office hours during the week it really is up to me when it comes to child activity tasks during the week. Anything from dropping off forgotten lunches to making sure P is at work at time. I know she would like to be more involved and she envies me to a certain extent. I also know that whenever I need her help it’s there, all I have to do is ask. I don’t think I could run my business without her support, not unless the kids could be locked in a cupboard when not at school.

We don’t have much family close, mine is in the country and my partner has just her mum and brother nearby. That being said, my mother in law has been a godsend. Not only does her Thursday help give me a free day to work she has stepped in at other times when I couldn’t plan meetings or trips around other care. I don’t like to ask her for help, she has a busy enough life as it is, but knowing there is that back up in case of emergencies makes work so much easier. I don’t use any community resources as such, although I am looking at building a network of workers who work from home so that may change in the near future.

The biggest advantages from working at home when you have children for me is undoubtedly the time I have been able to spend with them. I’ve been able to watch them grow up, able to be there on their first day of school, been able to take them on trips to the zoo, got to know that H doesn’t like fish and K takes an eternity to eat lunch and that A won’t, for love or money, eat green apples put in his lunch box. This is priceless and I can now see why my old boss told me he envied what I was going to do.

Disadvantages though are the restrictions on time. This, hopefully, won’t be such an issue with all kids at school next year but the constant juggling of work and kids demands can be draining. Understanding clients will, in the end, only understand so far and being self-employed you can’t afford to disappoint clients. I should make it clear I’ve never resented having the kids at home, just some days it would have been a lot happier for everyone if Mary Poppins had have blown in on the hot northerlies that hit our back door.

The kids have never directly expressed frustration at me having to work, I’d like to think it’s because I’ve explained to them in ways they can understand that dad has to work sometimes. I think it’s more likely that we have three who are happy to play together and that twins have someone else to play with when A is at school. I’ve seen disappointment in their eyes when I tell them I’ll look at their latest Lego creation, or come shop at their toy store, and it hits hard. I always try to make sure I follow up when I say ‘in a minute’, I just hope that in the future they remember I did turn up. If I’m not flat out I will stop and have a chat, look at what they have to show me and I can see they love this.

If you’re considering working at home with kids what would I suggest? Well, the following have worked for me.
  • Make sure you have a space that can be shut off from the world. You’ll need it.
  •  If you can, set up a regular time where you won’t need to be looking after the kids. You will need to make long calls, go see people, or just concentrate like mad. The expense of paying for someone to help is worth it in the end.
  • Talk to your clients. Let them know you have kids, let them know if you won’t be available at school pick up time. If they don’t understand then you probably don’t want to work with them.
  • Talk to your wife/husband/partner when you need help. Kathy has pointed out every self-employed person will get snowed under at times and you will need someone’s support.
  • If you can, try and switch off after a given time. I’d love to be able to do this but, for me, it just doesn’t work.
  • Get a separate phone for business. Every freelancer will have a story of the phone going off at stupid o’clock.
  • For me the ages of 2-4 were the toughest, but it was only two years. I kept my biggest clients happy and held on. So far, so good.
  • Above all don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. It will be better for you and for your kids.

Thank you so much, Tony, for sharing your wisdom! Next week, the final profile in this series - I'm interrogating my own self this time :-)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 3: Tony from Between Coffees Web Design (Part 1)

Welcome to the third profile on my mini series on people who are managing the working at home while being a primary caregiver juggle. Today I'm featuring web designer Tony, who can also be found at his own blog, Between Coffees.

Today is part 1 of Tony's reflections on combining these roles; part 2 will be published tomorrow. So without further ado ... introducing Tony Malloy, web designer, dad and all-round good guy.


I guess it's best to start with the reason I work from home. I'm a dad of four. There's P, our teenager, A our seven year old and the twins (K and H) who are five. When A came along we managed my working away from home thanks to a lucky combination of long service entitlements and my wife’s convenient work based child care. However, by the time the twins came along we had to make a decision. Work to pay for child care or one of us stay home.

I am a web developer so thankfully I have skills that translate well to working from home. I had also been slowly working up my business in my own time for a few years so I wouldn't have to start from scratch. I still had some long service leave left so after taking that I officially stopped working for The Man and started out on my own. No more calling clients on my lunch hour and racing home to deal with any problems.

I work 99.9% of my time for home. Leaving paid work conincided with building our own house and one of the items on the must-have list was an office for me. I now spend most of the day in my office, overlooking the comings and goings in our street. Any meetings, and they are rare as most of my contact is via email then to a lesser extent phone or Skype, are held in cafes dotted around town. When I first started out this was viewed as a novelty but I don't think anyone has commented on meeting for a coffee to do work for years now.

One of the changes we made to the plan of our house was to include doors on what was an open office. You can't work if the kids can wander in and out, it's simply impossible. The kids know that if dad's door is shut he's working and not to be disturbed, although this doesn't work all the time. Sometimes I just have to be told about the Lego construction underway, or that K called A a pea-brain.

I have a nanny come in two days a week (two different nannies, both named Rita, so one is Old Rita who has been with us for five years, the other new Rita who has been with us three) for four hours each so I can sit down and get work done in uninterrupted blocks. This has been in place since I started working. The other saviour has been Nana who hail, rain or shine has taken the kids on a Thursday since they were babies which has given me a whole day to arrange meetings or work.

Up until this year this meant I had two full days with K and H, Mr A being at school. I look back on these days and wonder if I could have managed my time better. Some days work would have to be done and they wouldn't get my full attention which always left me flustered. To this day I still feel bad when I hear one of the say "no, dad has to work so he won't be coming". Now the twins are in kinder and heading off to school next year this won’t be so much of a problem, I will have five days a week from 9 to 3 that I will be able to plan out.

I never considered putting the kids in to child care outside of the home. Cost was a major factor but I always liked the idea of having them here with me and paying someone to care for them here was my first preference.

As the kids have grown older I have found it easier to work with them around. They are reasonably self-sufficient and the three younger ones form a tight unit that can generally find some way to fill their time. They’ve learned that when dad says he’s making a phone call they need to be quiet and that sometimes they will have to wait a couple of minutes if I’m finishing something off. When they were younger it was much more of a struggle – we all know you can’t reason with kids. I found that letting my clients know I worked from home and had small children helped. Not one client ever made an issue of it and just this week one apologised for forgetting it was school pick up. Communication is the key here.

The trouble I have is working when other adults may be visiting. This doesn’t happen very often but I feel I’m being a poor host if I have to excuse myself to go and work. The better I know the visitor the easier it is though. Attitudes to working at home seem to have changed over the years and it’s no longer regarded as ‘being at home with a bit of work done every now and then’. Most understand I am working, it’s just I don’t have to commute to my office.

My biggest struggle though is drawing a boundary between work and family life. I am a workalholic and have the fear that every business owner/freelancer has that this job may be the last I ever get so I work hard to deliver. I find it hard to switch off, my mind is constantly thinking of solutions to problems or prioritising projects. Recently I tried to turn off my computer at 5.30 but this didn’t work for me. I find an extra hour or so in the evening makes me feel better, but it means that’s an hour I’m not spending time with the kids or my partner.

I don’t know a solution for this; how does one overcome ones built in drives? If anyone as the answers…. In the meantime I have made one concession and no longer answer work calls on the weekend or in the evening. One hint to those starting out working from home is to get a second phone number. I made the mistake of using my personal mobile when starting out. A rookie mistake, but a big one.

Tomorrow - part 2 of Tony's insights on how to manage the juggle.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The end of the tour

So NaBloPoMo draws to a close today - one post a day for 30 days, done and dusted. It hasn't been too much of a strain, really, which may say something about either how comfortable I am in my blogging skin, or how much rubbish I spout on a regular basis :-P

The posts have been:
- 5 posts about working at home as a self-employed person (2 x 2 profiles, and one post on being a contractor
- 2 poems
- 3 book reviews / reading posts
- 3 opinion pieces (about activated almonds, racism on Twitter, and the US election)
- 9 posts that would probably loosely be grouped as "slice of life"
- 1 post that was literally about nothing
- 2 posts about self-reflection and goals
- 1 fun post about a mystery house
- 1 angsty post about difficulties with creche
- 1 post about being gluten free

and bookended start and finish with posts about NaBloPoMo!

It's been fun, and I always find it a good discipline to do once a year. That said, the weekend will bring the blessed sound of silence around here; I'll be back Monday with the third Self-Employed and Working at Home with Kids profile.

Hope you have a great weekend!

This is post 30 in NaBloPoMo. I made it! Hurray!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Notes: Fishing for Tigers

I read Emily Maguire's latest novel, Fishing for Tigers, as soon as it came out, and meant thereafter to review it, but all my good intentions vis a vis book reviewing were swallowed up by the Booker Prize longlist. (Penni Russon's wonderful Only Ever Always was another book that similarly suffered from delayed review syndrome).

Well, I had trouble sleeping last night, pain and heat not being a great combination, so I was casting around for something to re-read that would put me in the right frame of mind to rest. I'm not sure what made me reach for Fishing with Tigers, but as it turned out, that was the lousiest choice I could've made, because it not only didn't put me to sleep, it sucked me in so deeply (again) that I ended up staying up til 1am to finish my re-reading. Aside from making me tired today, this finally persuaded me that I ought to write my review of this book, because it resonated with me a lot, and I think it's worth putting text to screen about it.

I came to this book specifically and entirely because of its setting. I have a decades-long love affair with Hanoi (with Vietnam generally, but Hanoi in particular). Despite the fact that I've only been in country twice, and only to Hanoi once, my interest, and affection, runs deep. My family has long connections to Vietnam, via my grandfather who lived and worked in Vietnam and Cambodia, practising medicine, intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s while he was still doctoring in Australia, and continuously from about 1995 until returning to Melbourne after his stroke in 2008.

My grandfather fell so hard in love with Vietnam, it is difficult to even capture his commitment. His favourite place in all the world was Hue, and that's where he wanted to die (sadly, it wasn't to be). But he was full of stories about Saigon and Hanoi too, and when he visited Melbourne, he was always accompanied by Vietnamese friends. He and my grandmother spent many years assisting Vietnamese refugees resettle in Australia, and by assisting, I mean sponsoring, employing, taking families and students into their home to live, paying for weddings and funerals, and the like. I grew up helping Vietnamese families' kids master their English (I tutored several of them in high school) and, in return, not only developing an undying passion for Vietnamese food but also picking up scraps of culture and language that linger with me to this day.

So when I heard Emily Maguire speak at the Emerging Writers Festival in May about her forthcoming book, I flagged it immediately as one for me. I was a little trepidatious though, in the way you are when someone is taking on a beloved subject. (Akin to the combined anticipation and dread that many fans endured to the lead-up to releasing the first Lord of the Rings film, I imagine). I wondered if Maguire would do the setting justice, or if it would just be another mostly-failed Orientalist-exotic appropriation. All Maguire's other novels - of which I have only read one, and liked it, although I didn't love it - are unabashedly Sydney-centric novels. How was Maguire going to evoke Hanoi?

The short answer is - brilliantly. From the very first chapter, the sense of Hanoi as a place - as a character, an entity in its own right - is powerfully present. I think that Maguire wanted us to know and love Hanoi even before we got to know (and feel ... whatever for) her narrator and main protagonist, Australian ex-pat Mischa. Foreshadowing the main storyline in her reflection, Mischa talks about Hanoi with such longing that it's like a physical force:

Even now, sometimes when I wake, I lie with my eyes closed and trace the streets ijn my mind, searching out new short-cuts, getting lost and found. The city is always as it is after a thunderstorm, shiny and clean and steaming. Schoolgirls giggle and wring out their shirts and the street vendors glance at the sky before whipping away their makeshift tarpaulins. The air is thick and damp, smelling of rotting fruit and fish sauce and exhaust. I wander until my mental map runs out of streets and only then do I let myself wind back to the centre, back to the apartment overlooking the cathedral and the boy stretched on the bed, as cool and toxic as the rushing Red River.

The descriptions of the city are not only compelling, they are seamlessly woven into the narrative and its themes, not glibly, as a blank mirror for the emotional shenanigans going on within the ex-pat community (which would've been easy, cheap and ultimately unsatisfying), but in a way that brought the city flaring to life in my mind. Of course my response to Maguire's prose is both mediated and magnified by my own experience of the places she writes about, but for that very reason, I rate this book as triumphant in its achievement, because I am a harsh critic of books that sell places I love short, so for me to laud the sense of place in this text is high praise indeed. (One of the only other Western writers who I think writes Vietnam well is Robert Olen Butler, actually.)

As for the main storyline itself, I have read several reviews which questioned the capacity of the narrator, Mischa, to engage readers' emotional commitment, citing her as distant, muted, not altogether likeable. I agree that Mischa is all those things, but I could not disagree more with the idea that this makes her less compelling or less relatable as a character.

When I was reading this book the first time, I was thunderstruck by how utterly familiar Mischa seemed to me, how much I felt like I knew her, and the reason why is that she reminds me to an eerie degree of two of my friends who have survived and escaped long-term marital abuse. Down to the nuances of what she does and doesn't say, the ways she talks to people, the maintenance of the barriers, the craving for solitude, the embracing of being a stranger in a strange land - Mischa reads, to me, like an utterly real portrayal of a survivor. Knowledge of her background changed the way I read scenes like where Cal physically holds her down to have her shoes shined in Saigon, and how she reacts to the horrors of the Cu Chi tunnels. It made those scenes really blindly terrifying because I felt like I was in her head, even as the language remained (it always remains) cool, distant, like Mischa is looking in on herself, painting a picture of A Girl on a Shoe Shine Chair.

The central plot device is one of the oldest, most well-worn tropes of all; you could call it Star-Crossed Lovers, or An Unsuitable Affair, or maybe May-December. Essentially, Mischa has a fairly angst-ridden affair with the 18-year-old son of one of her ex-pat friends. The boy, Cal, has a Vietnamese-Australian mother and an Anglo-Australian dad, and has been raised in Sydney by his mother, grandfather and aunts, who fled Vietnam as refugees in the 1970s. He has never visited Vietnam until this trip to spend time with his dad in Hanoi.

Cal is an interesting, although not especially consistent, character; I think Maguire captures something very important about the mind journey of children with two different cultural traditions in their backgrounds, and in successfully drawing Cal as unmistakeably an Australian kid with unmistakeably Vietnamese heritage, she achieves something that very few writers seem to be able to do. She also gets right the hubris of 18 - Cal's moral certainties, his contempt for compromise, and, yes, his arrogance in his own physical perfection, epitomised by this exchange after Mischa has observed a gay mutual acquaintance scoping him out:

'But him checking you out. Does that make you uncomfortable?'
Cal cackled and slapped my back again ... 'Mischa,' he said. 'I'm used to being checked out. It never bothers me. People like to look at beautiful things, you know?'

Sometimes, though, I think Maguire wants Cal to be a lot more mature and experienced than he is (note here, I am not saying "than any 18 year old is" - I'm talking specifically about the core character Maguire has drawn). I get that she was trying to show the often head-snappingly rapid shifts between wisdom and toddlerdom that people can display as they are growing into their skins, but I think it strains credibility a few times. Anytime I find myself saying, "Hmmmm ... that sounds like an odd thing for Cal to say", I think the ball might have been dropped on internal consistency. That said, it is an extremely hard thing to write the perspective of a character that you are not only different from now, but never had many touchpoints of similarity with. I write children's fiction, and I find it easier to write smart-mouthed, ugly, clever, unpopular girls (which I was, once) than sporting-hero, popular, tough boys. (Although I try to write them, too).

The affair between Mischa and Cal, although the central plot device, was not the selling point of the book for me. I thought Maguire handled it well, and the sex scenes were done as well as anybody seems to do them (which is to say - I have very rarely read a sex scene in a mainstream novel that isn't a bit ho-hum at the end of the day. Nuance, tension and implication is almost always much more interesting to read than the actual this-bit-goes-with-that-bit parts). I found that my emotional investment in Mischa's happiness was much higher than (and in some ways, antithetical to) my investment in the resolution of the relationship.

That said, the book does achieve some incredibly poignant moments with the Mischa-Cal dyad, especially (isn't this often the case?) after it ends and Mischa returns to Sydney to nurse her sick sister. As the two start to correspond again, working through their tangled web, Cal writes a phrase that actually brought a lump to my throat:

I'm coming back to Sydney and I want to see you, but before I do I need to know - for real, Mish - are you still my em, because I will always, always be your anh.

And Mischa finally begins to reflect some of that clarity back to him as the novel draws to its close and she decides to return to Hanoi. She thinks about her family visiting her in Vietnam one day and about the complexity of relationships, but there is an affirmation of blue skies ahead:

By then, I will know what kinship terms to use and when I use them we will all know what we are to each other.

It is a wonderful book. I will read it again, whenever I'm in a Hanoi frame of mind, and would recommend it to anyone over 18 (who isn't my mother because she does not do either modern fiction or explicitness) without reservation.

This is post 29 in NaBloPoMo. 29 down, 1 to go! (And then a break :-)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A day in the life

It's been a while since I last documented a day in our lives in detail, and a lot has changed since then, with me working so much more in particular. So just for the sake of it, here is what Monday looked like in my house.

6:45am  The dog is barking at the birds, which wakes husband and I up. He gets up to shush him, and then heads to the shower to get going. I lay in bed, thinking.

7:00am  I can hear the eldest moving around in the kitchen, but all seems otherwise peaceful. I have not been up in the night to any of the kids, but I was awake several times with back pain, so I am not feeling particularly well rested.

7:10am  I get up and head to the kitchen, collecting Miss 3 from her room on my way as I can hear her singing in bed. There is still no sign of the 7 year old; 9 year old is at the dining table eating and reading. I make breakfasts and start packing school and family daycare lunches.

Husband, who is now dressed, heads off for the bus.

7:20am  I call out for Miss 7 and get a grumpy half-response. Le sigh. She just doesn't do mornings.

7:30am  I read to Miss 3 as she and I eat breakfast (rice bubbles and butter toast for her, a bowl of macadamia nut gluten free muesli for me). She is currently obsessed with a book called The Saddest King, and again is into the Mr Men titles.

7:45am  I clear the breakfast dishes and call Miss 7 again. Finally, reluctantly, she trails out of her room to the table.

8:00am  Dressing time. Much palaver ensues, but eventually, Miss 9, Miss 3 and I are ready and have hair/teeth brushed. Miss 7, on the other hand, is still eating breakfast.

8:20am  Miss 7 is exhorted to get her backside into gear. In my Serious Voice.

8:30am  I break up a squabble of unknown origin between Miss 9 and Miss 3. Both are told in no uncertain terms to take the pressure down, NOW.

8:45am  We leave for school. I am not entirely convinced 7yo is actually awake yet, but hey.

9:00am  Having delivered the big girls to school, C and I head to my friend's house who is a childminder. I drop C off there, chat for a few minutes, then head off to a medical appointment.

9:30am  Doctor appointment for me.

10:15am Home from the doctor, I get stuck into my work. I am going great guns until ...

11:45am The phone rings. It's school; my 7 year old is at the office with red eyes / sniffles.

12:00pm  I collect Miss 7 from school, bring her home, give her Claratyne, and settle her to eat her packed lunch and read. I go back to work, until...

12:45pm  The phone rings. It's a family friend, looking for a chat. I disentangle myself as quickly as I can, and try to pick up my train of thought. Which I have just about done, when ...

1:40pm   The. PHONE. RINGS. This time it's a family member and it;s harder to get away in a hurry. By the time I do, Miss 7 is needing my attention for a bit. At this point I more or less give up.

2:20pm   Miss 7 and I leave the house. We swing by the bank and the pharmacy, and post some letters, before collecting C from my friend's house.

3:15pm   At school to get Miss 9, I am hurrying down the schoolyard when I trip on an uneven bit of ground, and fall - hard - onto the concrete. I am both winded and in pain, not to mention shocked, and let's not forget really embarassed. Poor C is very distressed to see me lying on the ground.

4:00pm   After having been helped to my feet by a kind couple of parents and provided with ice for my ankle and wrist from the staffroom, I assess the damage and decide the ankle is OK but the wrist and back aren't too flash. Despite my protestations of being alright to drive, the school vice-principal drives us home, which is very kind of her.

4:10pm   I lie on the couch with ice packs strategically arranged on me, head and wrist in considerable pain, the cricket on the TV. The girls are very good, playing both outside and inside, but with minimal intervention. At 5pm, I reward their patience by switching the TV over to iCarly on Nickleodeon.

5:45pm   I hoist myself out of the chair and into the kitchen to fix dinner. The kids happily claim the TV to watch some other show.

6:00pm   I serve the kids' pasta, and swallow my nurofen plus. I sit with them while they eat, but oh how my head is hurting...

6:30pm   The kids go outside to play. I put hubs' and my pizza in the oven, and lie down again.

7:00pm   Husband gets home. We eat, and I groan. A lot.

7:30pm   Husband starts marshalling kids towards baths and bedtimes, while I return to the couch and my increasingly fiery aches and pains.

8:00pm   I intervene as bedtime shenanigans hit Defcon 5. At this stage, I can either get involved, or accept the coming apocalypse. By 8:45 all kids are finally abed and I am feeling so incredibly awful.

9:00pm   I crawl into bed. Every muscle of which I am aware hurts; my head is on fire; I got maybe 50% of the work done that I should have today; my house is a mess; my administration pile is overwhelming; and I didn't get time to do as much kid-stuff as I wanted to.

We're all OK, we're all together, and tomorrow is always another day, right?

This is post 28 in NaBloPoMo. 28 down, 2 to go!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 2: Tania the photographer (Part 2)

This is the second part of my profile on Tania, a wonderful photographer (and great person!) and how she manages her working and home lives.

9. How much do you rely on your partner to pick up household and child-activity tasks when you are busy with work?

My husband is out of the house for 12 hours everyday. We did compromise over 18 months ago for him to work from home once a fortnight on a Friday. It was mainly because I felt that he was too stressed, and needed to at least have a shorter day at home. He really doesn’t have a shorter day at home, but I think not having to be in the traffic for that one day, and working in the home environment has helped.

I don’t overly rely on him to do much for me, to be honest I rely more on my friends. There has been the odd occasion he has taken the children to work with him for the day if they are unwell. Its a small office environment where he is and his boss loves kids and is pretty alright about it. Its the same deal though, its something you only do if you really have no other choice. If I am desperate or starting extra early I have asked him to work from home and go in a little later, but again its probably only been twice in the past year.

I rely greatly on my husband as my IT man. Without his great computer knowledge. I wouldn't have such an efficient system running, and backing up all my work. There have been times that he has really saved my butt.

The other thing is that he does all of my accounts. He is great with all that sort of stuff and without him I don't think that I would have such a effective business running.

So although, I may not rely on him heavily for his hands on with juggling the kids as such, I couldn't work as well without his great skills to help run my business, so I think he more than gives his share of the household in many other ways and that I am grateful for.

10. How does your partner feel about this?

As long as he can fit something in he’s fine. I really organise all of the pick ups, drop offs, activities. It just seems easier and less stressful than having to run everything by him, when it rarely involves him.

11. How much do you rely on family, friends and community for help when work is busy? Are you able to reciprocate this help in other ways?

I rely on friends for a school pick up generally. I am usually no longer than half an hour out from pick up but it can be a real squeeze to get there on time. I ask, and I do reciprocate the offer, particularly in November and December and whereever else in between I can. I like to make sure that it is an even balance. I think we are all of the same opinion, so it works well. I often call them if I am running close to pick up and just ask if they wouldn't mind keeping an eye out for the boys, but generally I get there in time, but it good to atleast have someone there looking out for them.

12. What do you see as the biggest advantages of working at home when you have children?

I have always wanted to pick up my children from school. I want to know how they are feeling and how their day has been and I think you get one of the best looks at that when they see you after school, and you get the big smile, or a question or they tell you something. I think that's a great advantage. My kids get to see me work a lot. So they know that I am a working Mum but I do have plenty of time to listen to them as well. I like that they see all of that. They see the juggle and that they sometimes see the stress. Its all part of teaching them about working in society.

13. What are the biggest disadvantages?

The biggest disadvantage is that no-one actually thinks you work, when you are working from home. I think most parents at school seem to think that because i can drop off and pick up my kids and don't work for a company, just myself that its pretend. I recently volunteered to help type up some books at school the kids were working on. I set aside a Monday morning. When I went in to check on it, the teacher was saying oh yes well I know that this other Mum is taking a day off work to come in and help so I can't change her schedule because its very generous for her to take the day off work. (I knew who she was talking about. A good friend actually who works part-time but has an important job I suppose you could say) It was actually a day off for her, but I was a little frazzled because I can be flexible that its not considered that I've taken time off, its more I just have some pretend work to do that the fairies do. Aaaaaaaghggghghg!

14. How do your children feel about your work? Do they ever express frustration with the limitations it may place on your time?

The children have sometimes been a bit impatient with my work, but that is usually if I have have to drive around with them to drop off work at a couple of different locations, but I always just negotiate if you help me with this then I will help you later. Thats all part of it, and to be honest I don't feel guilty about that. I think its a good thing for them to see and learn.

15. Finally: Top tips for others who might be thinking of going down this road?

When you have young children it is a perfect time to start contemplating a new career and working from home. Becoming a parent gives us a different perspective on life, and opens the door to new ideas, and beliefs in ourselves. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t miss office politics, slow computers, and inefficiency. I feel very rewarded at the end of not all days, but quite a few days in a year when I am astounded at the amount of work I have gotten through in one day.

If you want to work from home allow your business to grow at the same pace your children are, as they get older and less physical demands are placed on you. Naps times are gone, time concentrate without interruption get longer, seize those times to then build up the business where you can. We don’t always have great control over this, but like anything just try to self manage as best you can.

Try to do everything locally so that you aren’t stretching yourself all across the city.

Never feel guilty about working. I have a number of friends who work from home, one day recently I was having a cuppa with one and I commented on how my husband thinks I am better when I am working, she turned around and said so does mine, and I know I am. I think I am a better mother and wife as well as of more sound mind. I’m sure some of you out there would understand that. Its a deep ingrained independence that is in me. And I love working.

Thank you so much Tania for sharing your insights with me. I appreciate the time you took and the wisdom of your answers!

Profile 3 in this blog mini series will be posted next Monday and Tuesday.

This is post 27 in NaBloPoMo. 27 down, 3 to go!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 2: Tania the photographer (Part 1)

Welcome to the second profile in my blog mini-series on being a self-employed at-home primary caregiver. Today I am featuring Tania, a longtime and close personal friend of mine and a very talented professional photographer. (Over the years, she has done 4 sets of family photos of my family, and we've loved them all!)

This post is the first part of her profile; part 2 will be posted tomorrow. In today's post (part 1), we look at Tania's work pattern and how it varies across the year. Tomorrow, we look at how the work impacts on and relies on her family dynamic in different ways.

1. Tell me a little about your work and your family.

I am a photographer who concentrates on family portraiture, council events and pre-school photography. I am married with two children 8 and 10.

2. How much of your work is performed at home as opposed to out and about?

About 75% of my work is done from home.

3. When you work at home, do you arrange to do so when your children are either absent or being cared for by someone else?

My children are aged 8 and 10 and attend primary school. They have grown up with me working at home and out. They have on occasion come with me to jobs, if I have been stretched at finding someone to care for them at late notice. I figure, it doesn’t look good, but I am my own boss and I’m not going to sack myself for it, and I also let the people know who need me for the job. They are all aware I have children and generally work in children friendly environments so it seems to work okay. The boys also know they have to be on their absolute best behavior in these circumstances, and I have to say thankfully I am probably through the worst of me worrying about them disrupting or messing up the job. And again this has been on RARE occasions, but like anyone with children, unavoidable, due to them being sick, late booking etc.

I try to manage my home hours to work within the children’s school hours, but realistically this just does not work, particularly at peak times for me which are usually second and third term. I usually will be there to pick up the boys, only miss about 5 times a year. We come home. The boys have their routine of what needs to be done before they are allowed to do anything leisurely.They have days when they can play their computer games and days that they can’t, and I have had this routine running for some time now and they seem to have adapted to it well. Readers, homework, piano practice are all done as soon as we get home.

4. Do you pay for regular or ad hoc care to enable you to work? If so, is it important that the care takes place somewhere other than your house?

I have a network of friends that I work with, we all seem to at some stage or another have to ask for help with a pick up from school, or even a drop off, if we are working early, the two women I do this both work, one part-time, and one shift work, and so far this has seemed to be really good for us all. I do have access and have used after school care, but its rare, as I am usually only about 15minutes out from picking up the kids. The last time I used it, it worked out that is cost me $2 a minute to have them cared for. I could have left them there and picked them up later, but its that madness at the end of the day getting home processing and putting things into folders before I forget who the children are.

5. How easy do you find it to work with children present and no other adults around? Do you have any strategies to help your children allow you to work when you need to?

I am lucky to have two great older children, who are on the whole pretty good. They are used to me yelling out business phone call please keep the noise down, before I pick up the phone, to wait when I give them the look (I’m sure you know the look I’m talking about) when I am on a call to wait for me to finish. I worked with my eldest at home easily when he was a baby and toddler. My work load wasn’t as much as it is now, it was more a part-time basis, whereas as now I class myself as a full-time worker from Mid March through to start of November. In between then, there is work, but on a part-time basis.

My youngest was a complete handful, I was a mess, and life was messier. It took me some time to manage and get things into order. I tried childcare for two days a week for 12 months, but it didn’t suit my very sensitive young man. It did however give me some time to get myself back on track, work out some business strategies and cope better. By the time he was in 3yr old kinder, things started to settle and my workflow steadily increased from there. He no longer attented childcare and kinder was for 3hrs a week however, he became much better and content within himself to entertain himself and play beside me as I worked. I have to say I missed his company terribly when he went to school as we really did have a good routine down pat the two years before he went off to school. We seemed to be good work companions. Ha ha.

6. Do you find it difficult to draw boundaries between family and work life when you work at home?

Sometimes I do find it difficult and overwhelming particularly on weekends. I always get a few weekends a year where I have to work fairly solidly all weekend and have worked 10 hr days during the week either side of that as well. That's when I find it hard because we all need a break and I feel I haven’t had time to absorb and just sit and appreciate my family let alone interact with them.

However, the beauty of being at home still means that they can come and ask a question when they like, we can stop to get some snacks, or have a look at something they want to show me. Ask some advice about something. Rather than walk in to get a coffee in the staff room. I can grab a milkshake with the kids and have a quick banter about the day.

7. How do you manage extra work demands at peak times? (All contractors / self employed people tend to have peaks and troughs of work).

There is no easy way to manage the heavy loads, all I do is order takeaway and try to get a few meals in the freezer before it happens, but once the first week of madness starts its usually followed by about another 6 weeks, before I get a breath, so I just let the house get a bit messier, meals get a bit more slapdash. That's just the reality of it, but I think I have got the priorities right on what gives these days. And my quick easy meals, that seem to work for us.

Everyone goes through it, you just have to make sure you take the time to tell your kids that you love them, and to listen to them when they have something going on in their lives; that's the most important thing.

8. How much do you structure work commitments around family and child activity commitments? When there is a conflict, it always work that gives way, always activities, or a mixture of both?

I schedule work generally in advance, and I have to say I usually schedule it around everything else, as I make the timetables work within what I know are busier days than others during the week. I bit the bullet at the start of this year and got a tutor to come in for an hour a week at home to work with my eldest son. It wasn’t that he was falling behind at school, but I’m not the best at English and I thought he could do with some work in that area. It was one of the best things I did, it helped take that guilt factor out of working at my peak times and not giving enough in this area. The thing is that he would not respond or listen anywhere near the way he does with the tutor.

Tomorrow: How does the family help, and what do they make of it all?

This is post 26 in NaBloPoMo. 26 down, 4 to go!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Oh Christmas Tree

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, and I am mostly happy about that. (Mostly ... it is a very frenetic time of year too, so there's no disputing that it gets tiring).

We normally put up our Christmas tree and decorate our house on the first weekend day in December, but this year, we have a ridiculously crowded weekend at the start of December (including the launch of Karen's book next Saturday! Are we excited? You bet we are :-)

So we took a unanimous family decision to Christmasify a weekend early this year, and spent four fun hours yesterday in hunting out, preparing for and setting up our tree, decorations, lights and our new Christmas train.

It was a little different this year. We listened to Christmas music, as we always do (by the by, if you've never heard the Crash Test Dummies Christmas album, you haven't lived), but we didn't bake as we decorated, and I didn't use the time to write Christmas cards, as I often do.

This is partly because I have a bad back at the moment, and baking would've put a bit too much stress on it, and partly because I have taken the decision that we won't be able to do our usual Christmas baked goods presents this year.

I did not take this decision lightly - baking and giving gingerbread and shortbread has been an important, and beloved, part of our Christmas season for the past seven years, and I am already missing it (as are the kids, I think).

However, this is also the first November-December since A was born that I have an average of 30 hours a week of work to complete, three children to juggle, and a physical injury to nurse. Those things are just not compatible with the industrial-kitchen-level baking we usually engage in, and I really don't want to do a half-job of it; if I bake for some people, I like to bake for all the people :-)

I am hoping to go back to baking next year, and I very much hope that our gift recipients enjoy their shop-bought gifts this time. They'll come with just as much love and thanks, if less physical labour.

Doing the Christmas tree without the warm scents of ginger, cinnamon and cloves in the air was definitely a bit strange. As was putting up the tree on the reverse side of the room to usual, to accomodate our brand new Christmas train.

(This was an indulgence that my 7 year old, E, and I bought when out on a shopping trip a few weeks back. The kids have always wanted one, and seeing as this is literally the first Christmas since E was old enough to speak that I could afford it without relying on the magic plastic - thank you, crowded year of contracting! - I thought, why the heck not).

All in all, though, we are happy with our tree. It was dressed with love, if not great artistic skill, and it makes our house feel festive and bright. I'm glad that we are finding ways to keep our Christmas traditions even in challenging times, even if it involves being flexible on the details and keeping focus on what really matters - which is spending time together in this lead-up to the big day.

This is post 25 in NaBloPoMo. 25 down, 5 to go!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

And this is how you do it

One of my friends was expressing admiration for the NaBloPoMo efforts of myself and several other blogs she reads.

"I don't think I could do it," she said. "I mean, I don't have something to write about every day! Or the time and energy to write it!"

"Mmmmm, me neither," I agreed.

She looked at me suspiciously. "So how do people do it then? How are you doing it?"

"Some people plan and schedule a lot in advance," I said. "Some rely on memes and prompts. Some post extracts of their NaNo novels, if they're doing both challenges. Some do a lot of image-heavy posts, using back catalogue images."

"And you?" she said. "What gets you through?"

I smiled. "Bloody-mindedness," I said. "Poetry. Saving up books to review. And when all else fails, which it usually does sometime in the last week..."

"Yes?" she says.

"Then you write a post about nothing, and present it as conversation about how to get to the end of NaBlo."

She snorted. "I see what you did there..."

I just grinned.

This is post 24 in NaBloPoMo. 24 down, 6 to go!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Oh to be so flexible

This is how C chose to position herself for watching PlaySchool this morning. Why yes, since you ask, that *is* her feet ON THE BACK OF HER HEAD.

She suggested I join her, in the same posture. I had to explain that, while Mummy could have done that when I was, say, three, I have not had the capacity for quite some years now. She sighed and patted my cheek.

"Never mind, Mummy," she said. "You can make nice banana muffins, though."

Thanks, darling. That's a huge consolation.

This is post 23 in NaBloPoMo. 23 down, 7 to go!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I don't want to go to creche

At 7am, she pads quietly into my room and to my side of the bed. I'm awake, but only just, and my eyes are still closed. Standing on the balls of her feet, she taps me lightly on the nose. "Mummy?"

I reach out to her even as I shuffle along to make room. "Mmmmmm," I reply. "Come in and have a snuggle, honey."

She climbs up on the bed and presses into me with a sigh. Then she says, "Mummy, what is today?"

I feel myself tensing up, and I know she feels it too. "It's Thursday, poppet," I say in a quiet voice. I know what reaction I'm going to get. I've been getting it every Thursday for 6 weeks now.

Then it starts.

"I don't WANT to go to creche! I don't want to! I will stay 'ere wif YOU!"

"Love..." I start, rubbing her back, but she cuts me off.


By this time she has woken her sister, who's asleep on a mattress on the floor, and her dad. Both chime in with soothing words and ideas, but C is having none of it. Sitting upright in bed, back stiff, she yells, "I DON'T WANT TO GO! IT'S BOR-ING! I WILL STAY 'ERE!"

She sits calmly through breakfast, complete with reading several Mr Men books to her, and I think perhaps the storm has passed. Until she takes her last mouthful of Weetbix, pushes her bowl away, and proclaims brightly, "I aren't going to creche!"

Her eldest sister, normally a beloved morning dresser, isn't allowed to touch her today. It has to be me, and she resists, not physically, but in her reluctance and unwillingness.

I pull her onto my knee for a hug. "Darling," I say. "Mummy needs to work today, and you need to go to creche. Is there anything we can do to make you feel happier about it?"

"I DON'T WANT TO -" she begins, then stops. "Can I take my puddle book?"

"Yes," I say, picking up her copy of I Can Jump Puddles from the bookshelf.

"Can I say hello to M?"

"Yes," I confirm. One of her favourite carers has recently been moved to a different room, and C misses her.

She sighs. "Not creche tomorrow?"

"No, no," I reassure her. "Kindergym tomorrow with Mummy. Then we could do some painting!"

"Oh-KAY, FINE," she concedes, in the most world-weary tone imaginable.

And when we get there, she says goodbye with a quick hug and runs off to play dollies with her friends, with never a backward glance.

As for me, I just wonder why she has started with this morning stressing on creche days, having been so settled there for over a year now, and I wish so much it wasn't happening. At least she seems to enjoy herself once she's actually there, and I've never left her in tears (not sure I could, to be honest). But it's a cleft stick, because of I am to work, I need the creche days.

I wish it was easier.

This is post 22 in NaBloPoMo. 22 down, 8 to go!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What we're reading

I haven't done a reading round-up post for a while, so I thought I might dip into mine and the kids' book piles to see what emerged.

I have a few things on the go at the moment and several more in my immediate TBR pile. I'm almost finished John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick, a book I have never read before, despite having seen the film version a couple of times many years ago. I am enjoying the book, but ... I don't know. It has a taste to it that's a little sour on my reading tongue. I can't pin down exactly what I mean, other than to say I find it offputting even as it's quite compelling.

I've also been re-reading a number of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. How I do love the Discworld! The witches are my favourite characters by a mile, and it's those books I've been revisiting. (Perhaps, unconsciously influenced by the Updike, I've been reaching for books with a witchy theme).

Still waiting to be read, I must admit, is The Garden of Evening Mists, the last of the Booker Prize shortlist nominees that I never got to in my reading challenge. I've also got Nicola Barker's Darkmans waiting for me, after having enjoyed The Yips so much. Toni Morrison's new book, Home, is nestling on my Kindle reader waiting for me to have both the time and the fortitude to take it up.

The kids are enjoying quite a few different things. I'm still reading my way through the Silver Brumby books with the big kids, and the 3 year old likes snuggling in to listen sometimes too.

The 9 year old is almost finished Picnic at Hanging Rock, and oh, how she has adored it (so much so that I hesitate to give her the weakly "conclusion", lest it spoil her speculative pleasure). She's also been re-reading her Geronimo Stilton and My Story books. The My Story series are historical fiction, set in different periods, with a female protagonist, and A loves them. She's declared her intention of tackling The Hobbit next, and I've just downloaded Watership Down for her ebook reader, which will be interesting.

The 7 year old is re-reading her Enid Bylton school stories for the umpty-hundredth time (those wacky kids at St Clares!) and has started on the Chalet School books. She recently finished, and loved, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Pollyanna, and Black Beauty. Her godmother gave her Seven Little Australians for Christmas at the weekend, and that's her next project.

As for Miss 3, she is back into Charlie and Lola with a vengeance, and is also really enjoying a few Australian children's classics (particularly Dot and the Kangaroo, Snugglepot & Cuddlepie, and some of Mem Fox's books) at the moment. She also adores rhymes of all kind, and we are back to reading nursery rhyme collections over and over, as well as some more risque things like Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (so naughty, so funny!)

So are you reading anything good at the moment? Do tell!

This is post 21 in NaBloPoMo. 21 down, 9 to go!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 1: Nicole from Planning With Kids (Part 2)

Following on from yesterday's post, here's some more wisdom from the Planning Queen ... on how being an at-home worker both relies on and impacts family.

9. How much do you rely on your partner to pick up household and child-activity tasks when you are busy with work?

I could only do what I do, because my husband does work around the house. He irons his own shirts and our eldest school shirts, he unstacks the dishwasher each evening and sets the table for the next day. He is will also work from home on days when I have meetings. He will work in our home office while I am there, then parent while I am out and then back to work when I return. This is super helpful as I don’t have to pay for care or ask too many favours from others.

10. How does your partner feel about this?

He sees Planning With Kids as “our business” and appreciates the income it brings in. He realises he has a role to help me where he can. He is very supportive and I can honestly say he has never once complained about having to do any of this because I work from home.

11. How much do you rely on family, friends and community for help when work is busy? Are you able to reciprocate this help in other ways?

I have a fab group of friends and family who are always happy to help out. I see this a bit like a bank like situation. I make sure I help too (deposits!). If I hear that other mums have picked up some more work, are sick etc, I will get in touch and offer dates that I can help out with. I have found just saying “I am happy to help” puts the onus back on the mum to then ask for help. I know I don’t really like asking for help and know many mothers are the same. So I will send an email and outline some exact dates and times that I can help and ask them to let me know which ones may suit them best.

I had some fabulous help from friends (withdrawals!) when I was writing the book with my insanely tight deadline. I still remember this and am always looking to make sure I can help these lovely ladies when ever I can (keeping a positive balance!).

12. What do you see as the biggest advantages of working at home when you have children?

As tricky as it is to manage sometimes, I love it. It lets me be with the kids when I want to be. Having 5 kids, just thinking about the logistics of school morning / after school care / school holiday care etc if I had to work outside the home makes my head spin! Working from home means, I can fit the work in around hours that suit the family and me.

13. What are the biggest disadvantages?

As you work at home, home is your office; I can find it hard to switch off even if I am not actually working! Managing others expectations around my time is also tricky at times. For example, I haven’t made it to a kinder coffee morning this year as they are always straight after kinder drop off. My work hours are precious without kids around that I can’t always make these events. However as I am “just at home” not everyone understands this and can mistake it for being anti-social.

14. How do your children feel about your work? Do they ever express frustration with the limitations it may place on your time?

It is still taking some education on my kids part for them to understand that I do “work” and not just sit on the computer, blogging, using facebook, twitter and instagram! They are beginning to understand more that it is work and appreciate it a bit better. Because my work involves lots of fun things and outings that often involve them, but they don’t see the time I put in when they are asleep. There are times when I am not available (their dad is) and they get annoyed because they want me.

This year, the biggest challenge has been with the eldest two boys. I am always happy to provide guidance and assistance with their homework, but I have had to set a few ground rules. These are for the eldest mainly, who is in year eight. He has a tendency to leave things to the last minute and then wants me to check over or provide guidance on assignments, essays etc. These night before efforts have tended to coincide with when I have major speaking commitments or freelance deadlines due.
Working to 11pm with him on his assignment for example, wouldn’t have been part of my plan, so it ends up putting me completely under the pump.

We have now agreed that I will no longer help him the night before an assignment is due. He did find this frustrating at first, but now appreciates why it needs to be that way. He also knows that he can tell me any time he needs some help and we can arrange big blocks of time, to go through his homework. But expecting me to automatically stop and help him when I am in the middle of cooking dinner is never going to work.

Through this and other experiences with the kids, I have found it is all about managing their expectations, giving them plenty of notice and being consistent.

15. Finally: Top tips for others who might be thinking of going down this road?
• Make sure you set yourself goals. Write them down. When things get tough (and they will), you can focus on the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve.
• Have routines for the kids and work on increasing their independence – it may seem like it takes longer in the short term, but it pays dividends in the long run.
• Have a space no matter how small that is yours, you can leave set up and no one touches.
• Get a lockable box to put pens and other essential items in – kids borrow but never return!
• Make sure you book in “holidays”. The first few years I took no time away from my work. Now at least twice a year I take multiple weeks off and have a break. It is so worth it, you come back refreshed and it is great to have more time to focus on the family as well.
• Make sure you enjoy what you do!

Thank you very much to Nicole for sharing her working life with me - I really appreciate it very much :-) Next Monday and Tuesday, I'll be featuring an at-home worker in a very different field and looking at how they manage their arrangements.

This is post 20 in NaBloPoMo. 20 down, 10 to go!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Self-employed and working at home with kids: A blog mini series - Profile 1: Nicole from Planning With Kids (Part 1)

As I have written here before, I am currently self-employed (as a professional writer, specialising in policy, standards and regulation) and I work at home primarily, with three kids for whom I am the primary caregiver.

This isn't exactly a novel model of work/life, but it's one that I think more and more parents and caregivers, in all sorts of professions, are trying to make work. So I thought it might be interesting to see how four different people, in different professional areas, are managing being self-employed, caregivers, and mostly at home. Hence - a blog mini series!

I'm kicking off the series today with a blogger, author, speaker and blog coach known to many of you: the lovely Nicole of Planning With Kids. I asked Nicole some questions - well, quite a lot of questions! - about her working system, and she was kind enough to give me lots of answers. This post is the first part of her answers; part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

I hope you enjoy this first post in the Self-employed and Working at Home with Kids series. The next profile will be posted next Monday and Tuesday.

Introducing ... Nicole, blogger, writer, speaker and all around good egg :-) In today's post (part 1), I focus on Nicole's strategies for managing her work. Tomorrow, we look at how the work impacts on and relies on her family dynamic in different ways.

1. Tell me a little about your work and your family.

My family is made up of one husband, four sons (13, 11, 6, 3) and one daughter (8). My daughter is smack bang in the middle of the boys. I have been blogging for almost five years now, but for the last two years, blogging has become a platform for my small business. My activities are pretty diverse spanning from:
• Sponsored posts on the blog
• Coaching bloggers
• Consulting to brands
• Freelance writing
• Selling my own products – physical book, e-books, iPhone App and now a calendar.

2. How much of your work is performed at home as opposed to out and about?

Most of my work is done at home. I do go out to do coaching and consulting, but try to do most of it via skype when I can. I find it is more time efficient to do so.
I do love the portability of my job though. It means if I have dead waiting time and no kids with me, I can sit anywhere and work. I have a new super speedy MacBook Air, mobile wifi, so I can work just about anywhere!

3. When you work at home, do you arrange to do so when your children are either absent or being cared for by someone else?

I predominantly work around sleep times! I still have my 3.5 year old at home for the majority of the time. My times for working at home are relatively consistent. Two mornings a week when the littlest one is in preschool, then from about 2-3pm three afternoons a week when he has an afternoon nap.

I also work week nights once all the kids are sorted with homework etc and are off in bed, I will jump online at least three nights and work for about 1.5 hours.

I will then have a couple of hour blocks across the weekend when their dad is home to be primary carer. We literally say to the kids that mum is going to work and dad can take care of everything. They are only supposed to come and see me if there is an emergency!

4. Do you pay for regular or ad hoc care to enable you to work? If so, is it important that the care takes place somewhere other than your house?

I paid for someone else to look after the kids while I left the house to do freelance writing for the first time this October. I simply had too many deadlines and needed a big block of time without interruptions. I couldn’t have someone come to the house to look after the kids and me stay here, as I wouldn’t be able to switch of from “mumming”. The kids would also know I was there and still want to see me.

5. How easy do you find it to work with children present and no other adults around? Do you have any strategies to help your children allow you to work when you need to?

Working with the kids around is almost impossible for me if it involves the youngest ones being around. I don’t like doing it either as I find it frustrating with all the interruptions and I don’t think it is really fair on them either. During school holidays though, when the pre-schooler has his nap, I will allow the other kids to have technology time (they are limited to how much they can use) and I find I can get about a movie’s worth of work done!

Sometimes I do have requirements that come up urgently and I just have to work for a short period of time with the kids around. By unfortunate chance, this usually happens just after school! I will prepare them a big afternoon tea with lots of their favourite foods and explain to them I have a deadline to meet and will be working for example, 30 minutes. I will then give them some ideas for them to play once they have finished afternoon tea – ones they may not have done for a while and I know they love. I will get them out of the toy cupboard if necessary.

As this doesn’t happen that often, I can generally get the 30 minutes I need to finish something off. If I tried to work like this everyday though, I think it would wear off pretty quick.

6. Do you find it difficult to draw boundaries between family and work life when you work at home?

At the start I did. I tried to do both at once and found it was too stressful. Now when I am with the kids, I am with the kids and I try to avoid taking work calls and using social media etc. I do Instagram some photos when we play though, but that is more mum instinct than blog!

The toughest boundary for me is finishing up work at night. I love what I do, so find it easy to work late, but that can take its toll, so I need to watch it closely.

7. How do you manage extra work demands at peak times? (All contractors / self employed people tend to have peaks and troughs of work).

Mid September until mid October this year was insanely busy for me. I picked up a couple of great freelance gigs, on top of being an organiser for a major conference and found myself running on very minimal sleep at times. This was the first time I did pay for a babysitter for one day and I left the house to do a days worth of freelance writing. It was the only way I was going to be able to meet the demands.

I did know the time around the conference was going to be busy, so back at the start of the year, I organised for my husband to take a couple of days holiday leave. They were my saviour! It isn’t ideal to drip use his precious holiday leave, but for us until all the kids are at school, it is a strategy we use to help me get through the peak times.

8. How much do you structure work commitments around family and child activity commitments? When there is a conflict, it always work that gives way, always activities, or a mixture of both?

Work tends to give way the most. Kid and household tasks sometimes take up my whole evening. The kids’ requirements come first, then the basics needed to keep the household running, then work. I will let things around the house go if they are not essential. For example in October, I was keeping the washing up to date and making sure the kids all had their school clothes, but I had a mountain of other washing to fold!

Tomorrow: How does the family help, and what do they make of it all?

This is post 19 in NaBloPoMo. 19 down, 11 to go!