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I'm wondering what parents programmers (or really any working-at-a-computer job) have to say about staying at home with an infant while trying to get some work done; is it at all feasible? How much work might you actually do? Long term or short term, one child or several; not real relevant right now to me, but I've often wondered.

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migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com Nov 10 '11 at 15:47

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

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First you have to teach the baby how to touch-type, he'll be very productive after that. –  user1842 Oct 25 '10 at 17:16
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No, a puppy does not count. Babies and puppies are WORLDS apart in terms of responsibility. –  Xepoch Oct 25 '10 at 19:05
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@Xepoch: You mean its not OK to give my baby her dinner in a bowl on the floor? –  Kramii Oct 25 '10 at 20:59
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Baby + colic < 9 months? You'll be lucky if you get time to get a shower, let alone enough sleep to ensure you're properly trousered in the morning. No hope of actual programming. Still, it is totally worth it, it does get easier, and the Lego years will come eventually. –  Kramii Oct 25 '10 at 21:15
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Programming is best done with a computer. While a baby has copious I/O and loud audio, the voice recognition-based user interface mechanism takes up to 18 months activate although you may get somewhere with gesture-based input :o) –  JBRWilkinson Nov 22 '11 at 16:36

11 Answers 11

up vote 37 down vote accepted

What most of the answers imply but don't out and out say which should be made absolutely clear is that if you're the one caring for the child (as opposed to just being in the house at the same time as the child and the other parent/nanny/carer) it's close to impossible in the long term. Generally the workable situations people talk about assuming another carer in the house with the child at least part time.

Make no mistake, children are demanding.

In the early months they sleep a lot but not in a nice predictable way and not in large chunks the way you'd like them to (a baby's sleep cycle is 40 minutes long and while they may sleep more than one cycle at a time you can't count on it). In the early days they're also feeding every 4 hours - something that will take between 20 minutes and over an hour plus there's changing and so on. Remember too that this goes on 24 hours a day - you're not getting a nice solid 8 hours a day to recover so don't assume any time the baby is asleep is time you can work, most of it you'll be recovering.

As they get older they do sleep for longer and get more predictable but at that point they also start moving around (crawling starts somewhere between 6 and 12 months, walking between, say, 9 and 18 months) and demanding more attention. At that point they are absolutely full time when they're awake and by this point sleep during the day is maybe 2 hours total (in either one or two blocks).

Once they're in bed at night (if you're lucky from about 3 months you'll get 11 hours or so with just one scheduled break for a bottle - though there are likely to be unscheduled breaks in there where you need to go and comfort them) you need to get all the stuff done you didn't during the day - washing, ironing, you've got to eat something yourself and generally run the house. And you've got to try and sleep because you'll be exhausted.

Edit: Incidentally, in the UK, where parents have the right to apply to work from home (and the employer has to grant it if it's reasonable, though reasonable is a very slippery term in this context), a separate working environment and childcare during working hours are an absolute prerequisite.

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For parents who want to work part-time during parental leave, specifically in cases where both partners work or single parents, I can definitely recommend working from home.

These are the boundary conditions which worked well for me:

  • You need flexible work times.
  • You actually can work remotely (as per question).
  • You don't want to have other children of other ages are running around.
  • Your small one has a predictable sleep rhythm. Chances are that this kicks in from about 5 months and lasts at least up to year 2.

Given this, 15 hours* a week works fine, if you mainly work during the after-lunch nap and partly before your small on gets up as well as in the evening. If you can leverage any kind of day-care for one full office-day per week, mornings and afternoons can usually be free.

Doing this you have a clear distinction between work-time and child-time, since both run relatively smooth side-by-side (household may suffer a bit, though).

Obviously this is only a temporary setup; in the long (i.e. until primary school) on of the parents will have to stay at home or you need to attend daycare.


*= 15 hours is the minimum amount of part-time you need to work during parental leave (Elternzeit) in Germany (which the employer normally cannot forbid); this makes it an important threshold there.

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Simple answer is yes - this is definitely doable. But it is hard work, and you need to build working mechanisms around the needs of your child.

When the baby is brand new it's very easy - they are stationary and relatively predictable (eg every two or three hours you need to feed and change them, then they'll sleep) so you can even code with them on your lap or held (all programmers can type one handed, right:-) and give them attention.

At the toddling stage it does get difficult - they want to have continuous attention and are mobile. Get used to small snippets of coding time.

It gets a lot easier if your partner is also at home - my technique was to close the door to the office for an hour at a time to show I was at work and not to be disturbed, but I made sure I had a break at the end of each hour to help with looking after the baby, provide some adult conversation etc.

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I'm late to the party, but I have a little bit to add.

I've been working from home with an infant/toddler for over a year. No daycare, mom works part time.

  • The main difference is the social aspect. The secondary one is you have to take your normal amount of telecommuting discipline and multiply it by 5.

  • As everyone else has said (it's the best advice) you have to have a home office and very strong boundaries. I was pretty horrible at this the first time around, if mom needed a nap or anything else I'd jump in and help out to be super dad. Then I ended up sleeping 2-3 broken hours a night trying to get a full days work in while helping with nighttime feedings. I got terribly sick six weeks after my son was born.

  • Along with that, I need a set time to spend time with my kids. For 4 hours a night, that's family time and my cell is turned off. I don't work in an industry where something can't wait 4 hours.

  • When my son was 3-8 months, I always tried to get work done during his morning naps. You have to be able to divide your work into manageable chunks. I'd try to let him scoot around my office while I answered email. I have to track my hours, so I found Timesnapper (or equivalent) to be invaluable. Before that I was always shortchanging my actual work done and putting in a ton of extra late night hours. I also enjoyed the reassurance that I was actually putting in a productive day.

  • If you're an employee, be completely transparent with your coworkers and management. If you're "working" with a baby in the background, you shouldn't hide that. Not to mention the agony of a newborn nap interrupted 5 minutes in by an untimely phone call.

  • If you choose to give up daycare or the equivalent, you're giving up sleep. There's only so many hours in a day, and if you're expected to put in 8+ at work, and you want to put in 8+ with your family...it's got to come from somewhere.

  • This applies to all aspects of parenting, but you have to be extremely flexible, and hopefully your employer is too. Kids get sick, cars break down, life happens during 9-5 and you're there. IF you would get a phone call about it at work, now it's going to be something you're dealing with in person. Unfortunately, as a telecommuter there's this sense of guilt that you're getting away with something, as if you wouldn't leave work if your kid was heading to the hospital.

  • You have to learn how to tune out the house noises as well. Kids are loud. If you prefer a quiet workspace you'll need to work around that. You also have to ignore your parental instincts to a large extent and trust the other parent/caregiver has the screaming and crashing handled.

  • There will be lots of interruptions in a given week, regardless of the barriers you put up. I had to modify my work habits to be more deliberate of what I was working on (I do hourly journals). Try to schedule designated interruption times (lunch, coffee grab) and embrace the good with the bad of working from home in a busy house.

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Out of interest with the cutting down on sleep do you think that this is sustainable longer term? When you say your other half works part time, how part time is that? –  Jon Hopkins Nov 17 '10 at 9:53
    
@Jon I'd say it depends on the person. I wouldn't recommend it long term for most people. My wife needs about 10 hours of sleep a night to feel good, I do well on about 6. Anything over 9 and I feel awful the next day. My wife teaches 18 hours this semester, she's cutting it back to 12 after this. It's just too hard on everyone as-is. We also have a lot of help around, I couldn't imagine handling it if it was just the two of us all the time. –  Steve Jackson Nov 17 '10 at 14:47
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@Jon, Not quite as clear as I'd like to the question. It's not sustainable. I get by, but there is a lot of added frustration on top of the normal parental frustrations. Everyone wants to get away from the house sometimes, and when you work from home and have an infant it's much harder to carve that time out. A designated full time caregiver gives you that opportunity to leave the house and be a normal human being here or there. –  Steve Jackson Nov 17 '10 at 14:57
    
Thanks for the answer. I have an 17 month old and am impressed you can manage at all. I'm guessing lots of organisation and, as you imply, plenty of sacrifice are needed. –  Jon Hopkins Nov 17 '10 at 15:08
    
@Jon - As I'm sure you know, the hardest part is that you finally find a rhythm and it changes the next week. My 14 month old moved his nap time an hour and all of a sudden I'm back to working late into the night. I'm lucky I adore both my job and my family, puts tiny frustrations in perspective. –  Steve Jackson Nov 17 '10 at 16:28

It's probably obvious, but the important thing is to have some sort of separate environment when you work, and you, your children and your spouse have to realize that you are "at work", even if you're at home.

If you can do that (for example with a reasonably quiet home office and clear rules for "at work" vs "at home"), working at home is great because not having to commute gives you more flexibility in scheduling your time and also more net time that you can, but don't have to, use for work.

The downside is that you usually don't have any colleagues around you when you work at home. I guess, depending on your colleagues, this might be a plus, but I've been working on my own for the past two years, and it starts getting tiresome.

I set up shop with my startup in an office just down the street, and I think that gives me the best of both worlds.

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I could never figure it out with an infant. I could get work done but I lost all kinds of productivity.

If the kid is old enough to play safely within ear shot (at least 4 years old in my experience) then maybe, depending on the kid. My daughter I could work at home while she played with no problem. My first son I had to keep an eye on but generally there wasn't much problem.

My second son... forget it, he doesn't stop getting into things or climbing or figuring out how to get outside. I cannot even watch a 30 minute television show, let alone getting deep into programming.

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I have had co-workers who did this and usually they produced less work of poorer quality than when they were in the office. In fact it deteriorated so badly, we had to let some of them go. If you have a sitter who is watching the children, it's ok, but you cannot work and watch children at the same time and any parent worth his or her salt will make the child's needs the priority. If you are staying home to save child care costs, then you might as well quit. If you have someone else watching the children and you have a place where you can work with a door that will lock, then it can work but you have to be very disciplined about work hours vice home hours.

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Got 2 kids at home all day and one on the way. I telecommute when the weather is to dangerous to drive and I've found that the only way to do it is to wake up early and pretend you're not there.

I find it very difficult to child/babyproof my home office. If they do make it in to your fortress of solitude, my best advice would be to get an old junker computer, remove all the screws and jumpers and let your little tike tear into it.

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I've been working from home for years, have 2 kids (6yrs old and 3) and it is possible to get work done and be productive.

You need to establish how and when you work and be consistent. Kids need for the rules to apply everytime so what ever you come up with stick to it. I will work with the door to my office closed if I cannot be disturbed and even a 1 year old can learn that.

Do you plan on spending time with your kid(s) during the day? If so set aside the time every day and make it part of your schedule. I take a break when my kids get home from school and start back up after they go to bed. It's a decent sized break and really allows for some good time with them.

Best of luck.

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That's a good idea. A break from programming when the kids are back, and go back to programming for a couple of hours more after spending time with the kids and when they are asleep. I think that will induce more creativity into the brain, which will in turn help in programming. –  kadaj Dec 8 '10 at 5:57

I have been working (programming) from home for 6 years now and have 3 children (7, 5, 2). It is certainly possible, but I think the most important thing is a home office.

An office with a locking door is essential. I always work in my office with the door shut. If I have a conference call or really need to put my head down I will lock the door. Every now and then my kids will come in the office unannounced. If I'm not super busy it's OK. We can spend a few minutes together and then they leave. If I am busy, I should have locked the door. My kids (even my 2 year old) know that if the door is locked I'm not going to open it, so they just turn around and go do something else. There is background noise, but you'll get to used to that after a while and learn to tune it out.

There are some side issues involved as well. It can be more difficult when the kids are infants or they're not behaving. My wife sometimes gets upset that I'm in my office with the door locked while she's having to wrangle the children. Also, you lose the social aspect of being in an office, so it may not be for everyone.

To specifically answer your question: I am just as, if not more, productive as I would be if I were in an office building. I have no commute to deal with and if I need to work after hours it's as simple as going upstairs. It also allows me to spend what free time I can get out of my day with my family if they're home. But I couldn't do it without a dedicated office.

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You definitely have to be "at work" when you're in the office and it is hard to make people accept that. –  ChrisF Oct 25 '10 at 19:24
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Also, some answers to this question are answering from a standpoint of actually being responsible for the children. My wife takes care of the kids all day, so I'm not the one who needs to be looking out for them. If I were this would definitely not be a feasible situation. You can't keep one ear out for kids and truly be productive at the same time. –  DaveK Oct 25 '10 at 21:05
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@JBRWilkinson - Our entire team works remotely. Almost everyone is in a different state. We leverage technologies such as Webex, conference calls, Google chat, MS Communicator, TFS and email to keep in fairly constant contact. Pair programming is obviously something we can't do, but so far we haven't had a need for it. I can do code reviews with my team via webex when necessary, but we've got a lot of great senior talent, so it isn't something we worry too much about. We do try to get together in a central location a few times each year for team-building face-to-face sessions. –  DaveK Oct 26 '10 at 0:58
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@ChrisF, you are dead right. The hardest thing working from home isn't the kids, it's convincing the significant other not to interrupt for just a minute, 12 times a day. –  Craig Oct 26 '10 at 2:49
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@JBRWilkinson If pair programming is mandatory, one should hire telecommuters that hear at least one additional voice in their head. –  Tim Post Nov 16 '10 at 22:36

I would say that it depends greatly on the age, personality and disposition of the child. Two of my children were born during a period of five years during which I exclusively worked from home. They were typically in day care, but I watched them on all of the many occasions that they were too ill to go.

I found that during early months when they do little besides eat and sleep, there was no problem. I was even able to feed them a bottle with one hand and type with the other. However, once they started being able to crawl, it was more difficult to give enough attention to the computer to be normally productive. There's just too-much trouble that the child can get into, and they begin to need intervention.

No parent wants to think that they are neglecting their child's needs in order to get work done, no matter how important the work is, so it's a large and risky proposition to plan to combine home car of a baby with work-at-home. You might give it a go on a short-time basis to see if it works, but even if it does, children grow and change so quickly that you might find that what works today fails badly next week.

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To that, I would only add that not only are you setting your self up to not get work done, but for serious frustration. I tried this and ended up getting first frustrated at my daughter for bothering me, then getting really upset with myself for getting frustrated at my daughter, when all she wanted was to play with her daddy. –  Adam J.R. Erickson Oct 25 '10 at 16:34
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On the other hand, sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do, and bills have to be paid. So if you go that route, don't worry about it. But I wouldn't take that road, if you have a choice. –  Adam J.R. Erickson Oct 25 '10 at 16:35
    
Both excellent points, Adam. –  Adam Crossland Oct 25 '10 at 16:37
    
+1 Excellent answer. –  Rook Oct 25 '10 at 17:07
    
+1 it will also help taking enough pauses to keep a balanced life –  Pierre 303 Oct 25 '10 at 17:53

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