Working from home

Eight years ago, Max and I left the corporate world and started our own company. Funny, to this day I find it awkward to call our business a company even though it’s fully incorporated in two countries. I suppose the only reason for this is the fact that we don’t work in a building; instead, we work out of a home office.

We started our business, or company, because we knew there was no organization that would allow us to have the family/work balance that we needed, at least not in Tokyo, where we were living at the time. Max and I worked at the same company and we were frequently there from 10 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. 6 days a week. The demands were so great that the vast majority of women employees remained single and pretty much gave up on the idea of having a family. I was our company’s first employee ever to get pregnant and the HR office created its first parental leave policy that year.

In Japan I enjoyed a full year of paid leave.

But parenting doesn’t necessarily get any easier once a child graduates from infancy, nor do our families need us any less after that first year. After my leave was over my employer wanted me back full time, and physically in the office. 60-70 hour work weeks with a 150 minute commute each day? With a toddler? The whole idea was preposterous. Had I been allowed to work from home even a few days a week, I honestly would have considered staying. But this wasn’t an option, and so not only did I resign, but Max did as well. It is not only mothers who need more time at home with their children.

Our small company is entering its 8th year this year. We have 10 part-time staff across 3 continents. Half of them are parents of young children. We all work from home.

What is it like to work from home?

It’s peaceful. It’s busy. It’s freeing. It’s isolating.

One of the very first questions I received – from a stay-at-home mother, of all people – when Fred started preschool was, “So how you are going to spend your day tomorrow? Will you have a spa day? Watch a movie?” I was floored.

And that is a common misconception about people who work from home – that because they are out of the clutches of an office or a boss or because they have control over their schedules, they have all this free time to catch up on t.v. or sleep during the day.

We do enjoy a tremendous freedom that we did not when we commuted to our former employer. Depending on our work cycle, it is usually not difficult to volunteer at Fred’s school or run to the bank or nurse a bad cold in the middle of the day. However, whatever doesn’t get done during that time “off” simply needs to get done at some other point during the day – and that is usually between 9:30 p.m. and midnight after Fred has gone to sleep or between 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday before the family day starts. We work literally 6 or 7 days a week year-round, while Fred is in school, while waiting for the chicken to roast, while Fred is on a play date. The fact that there is no office to leave blurs the boundaries between work and home life. This is one of the hardest parts about working from home.

Do parents make worse employees?

Given the reasons why we started our business, we naturally pride ourselves on being a family-friendly company. I’ll be honest, though, that as an employer one of the things I most dread to hear is, “Can I get an extension on my deadline? My son/daughter has a fever/is not sleeping/is…” Of course, this is second only to “Mommy, I don’t feel good…” As family-friendly as we are, we still have high-paying and demanding clients to respond to. My sympathies for my own child and my employees’ sick children do not change the fact that our (often single, often male) clients still need to get their work back. But you know, we work together with our staff. We find a way to make it work. We don’t punish with guilt trips or warnings. Max and I have personally been there ourselves and we’re there again and again. Good staff do not abuse our understanding.

But I imagine it’s easy to blame any lapse on the fact that one has kids. If someone misses a couple of e-mails or turns in something with typos, it’s easy to conclude, “It figures because she has a newborn at home.” Until you stop and evaluate all your employees. The most careless staff member we’d ever had – one we had to fire before the year was out – was single with no children. And perhaps the most dedicated and high performing employee we’ve ever had was a woman who had left the corporate world to raise her 4 children (all under 6 at the time). Along the spectrum we’ve had dedicated employees with no children as well as one or two parent-employees who just made it clear that our work was a distant second (or third?) on their list of priorities. My point? It depends on the person.

Are we more productive working from home?

I cannot speak for everyone, but for Max and I, yes. We don’t talk to each other while working, unless it’s about work. In fact, except for occasional non-work-related phone calls or IMs, we have no interruptions whatsoever, which is very different from those days I worked in an office, when bored or overly chatty co-workers would swing by my office or cubicle and overstay their visits. Except for a single flight of stairs, I also do no commuting. So each week that’s an extra 6-7 hours of work that I can do – basically like putting in a whole extra day of work! And honestly, if I really am exhausted – because I was up late the night before working or because my son was sick – I will take a 30 minute power nap to re-energize instead of staring blankly at my computer screen for 5 hours hoping my colleagues and boss will believe I am working.

Is there less togetherness?

Yes. Absolutely. And this was the reason my former employer gave for not allowing us to work from home (and one of the reasons that Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer gives). Though practically living in our former company had its many disadvantages, the one thing that made it bearable throughout all those years was the close sense of family. There was a real sense of team and bonding and thus loyalty to our company when we were all so close. I got to know my colleagues and staff both professionally and personally which made me a better supervisor. I miss that now about our own company. We get together physically with our staff once a year. I wish we could do that more frequently.

But the virtual nature of our company has not made our staff any less loyal. Our core staff has been with us for years, and the relationships we have are – without exaggeration – the best of any work environment I have ever been in. Our respect for our employees as whole people has earned us their loyalty and affection.

*    *   *

In the end, being faced with unyielding work requirements forced us to make a choice we didn’t want to make. For several years we honestly thought we were never going to have children, constrained as we were by the demands of our work. When we finally decided that we wanted to become parents, we sadly made the decision to break away from the professional family that had been such a huge part of our lives – indeed, the family that we had almost quite literally given our lives to. But ultimately the decision wasn’t entirely ours to make; in not wanting to find a reasonable way to make things work for all of us, the company was telling us that we really weren’t worth it in the end.

The Academy Awards and my little kid

Watching the Academy Awards red carpet with my 8 year-old last night, I realized how eye-opening and foreign the world of Hollywood was to him. Among the endless questions:

Why is she so tall?

Why is everyone so tall?

Why are there mostly women?

How come there are barely any men?

Who is Jennifer Aniston?

Why are there so many Jennifers?

What is Tiffany?

He’s the one who played Abraham Lincoln? How tall is he? (His 3rd grade class had just finished a unit on Abe Lincoln and one big takeaway was what a tall president Lincoln was.)

In trying to find “good mom” answers to Fred’s endless questions, I realized what was all so new and puzzling to him. Yes, everyone is tall because tall is what our society deems attractive; there are mostly women because we care about how the women look; there are so many Jennifers because Jennifer, in my generation, was the “cool” name for girls. And Tiffany? Tiffany is a famous jewelry company.

Fred, welcome to the world that Mommy has been trying to pretend for you doesn’t exist.

I suppose we all arrive here at one point or another in our lives and, if we’re lucky, we eventually emerge from and escape it forever: this place where beauty, height, popularity and wealth matter.

Fred has been shielded from much if not all of it; it’s partly intentional, mostly natural. We don’t talk much about beauty or appearance because it’s not all that important to us. We don’t have wealth to flaunt. And we’re very fortunate in that we live in a kind of utopia where the vast majority of our friends and neighbors have better things to do than to try and keep up appearances.

I now occasionally indulge in the Oscars and in People magazine, but I’ve come far enough in my life to now be able to view it as strictly entertainment, as a fun escape from the daily grind of work and sometimes life.

But growing up I did get sucked deeply and violently into this Hollywood vortex. Left to my own devices, I began collecting celebrity magazines by the time I was Fred’s age, cutting out and studying pictures of Charlie’s Angels and Cheryl Tiegs…wondering when and if I could ever look the way they did in their bikinis (never mind that I was still years away from puberty!). Of course, it wasn’t just Hollywood that did this to me; I’m sure it was a confluence of the heavy emphasis on beauty in my household, my own lack of self-esteem, and my own shame in my Asian features. For years as a girl I’d yearned to look like someone I could never look like: a tall, western model.

Fred will be spared much of this, I am sure, because I will not let him down this path. I will not allow him to believe that a woman’s face, breasts and legs are what constitute true beauty; I will not allow him to believe that as a man he needs power as defined by wealth and women. But last night I did open the door for him. He saw enough to be surprised. He is a petite boy, a petite boy who eats well, exercises and gets rave reviews at every check up. But he is not tall, and he will likely never be tall. I’ve made sure to not pass on any messages to him that as a man he needs to be tall and big, that to find the love of his life he needs to be over 6 feet, that to be successful professionally he needs anything beyond integrity, passion, a good work ethic and teamwork skills. So he feels great about himself, because he knows he’s an energetic, caring and curious kid who is loved by friends and family. Last night the majority of his confusion and the bulk of his questions had to do with height and why the stars needed to be tall, and in coming up with answers – answers to questions that I have honestly never needed to answer before yesterday – my heart felt a little broken, and my power to protect and influence him just a little smaller.

Re-thinking Valentine’s Day

I was very conscious of the fact that while running errands in the drizzle and traffic yesterday the one thing I wasn’t doing was picking up gifts for Valentine’s Day. As I rushed by markets and stores, I considered and then abandoned the idea of bringing more chocolate into the house (we’ve been on a steady diet of it since Christmas). Maybe I’ll bake muffins today, maybe. Maybe I’ll make cards for Max and Fred. But I didn’t have a plan. Somehow I didn’t make Valentine’s Day a priority, despite the fact that there are so many people whom I love so much, starting with the two boys in my life.

I thought about why I am so blasé about the day when for an extensive time in my life it had once been so important.

In my opinion, Valentine’s Day ceases to be fun once you’re out of the elementary school age set and hormones begin determining your experiences of “love.” I had been the shy, awkward and skinny teenager too nervous to date who grew up into a young woman who dated all the wrong men. Valentine’s Day, pre-marriage, always reminded me of what I didn’t have, of how I didn’t belong. Really, it is the senior prom over and over for single people. And the feeling was worse once I was in a relationship, with the kind of men that I used to be attracted to. Broken promises, unmet expectations…I once had an investment banker boyfriend who surprised me at work with a huge and stunning bouquet of flowers only to tell me at our 60th floor panoramic-view dinner that he and his friends were going to hit a party at a women’s college afterwards. It hurts more when you think you’ve finally joined the club and realize that love still alludes you, even on – or especially on – Valentine’s Day. I really used to wait for one day of the year to get “proof” that I was loved. Perhaps for no other holiday should this saying be truer: “Every day is Valentine’s Day.” Every day should be Valentine’s Day. Every day one should feel loved.

To quote my single, 40-something New York friend on Facebook this morning, “Valentine’s Day makes me want to vomit.” I suppose that is how I used to feel.

To have a genuine Valentine, to finally be among the real celebrants of February 14 had been a life goal of mine. I finally reached this pinnacle in my early 30s when I met Max in Japan, a country now infiltrated by many of our customs which are then adapted to suit their particular tastes or economic needs. In Japan Valentine’s Day is the day for women to treat their men; a separate holiday for men to reciprocate has then been established for mid-March. It’s genius and ridiculous consumerism.

Max and I never really paid much attention to the Japanese way of doing it, or even to the American way. Somehow, since we’ve been together, Valentine’s Day has been low-keyed. There was a year when I made a simple dinner, and he bought me a thin bouquet of flowers from the grocery store. On another year I may have gotten Tiffany earrings. Then there were years here and there in which we didn’t do anything at all. Maybe the fluctuation in our observations reflected our ambivalence about the meaning of the day. We love Thanksgiving, we love Christmas, and we love Mother’s and Father’s Day; when it comes to Valentine’s Day, I guess we are not quite sure about what it means. Is it about love? Is it about infatuation? I understand my lack of anxiousness about the holiday also reflects my security in love. I was surprised that once I found love, Valentine’s Day – as I saw it through pop culture and media – suddenly felt trivial.

Early this morning while I was still lying in bed Max stepped out of the room and then returned, coming over to me smiling, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” and reached down to give me a hug and kiss. He gave me a hand-made card decorated with origami hearts and a present. “I didn’t do anything for today,” I said over and over, guiltily. Then I tore open the wrapping and laughed. Max gave me a pill box, for my daily vitamins, because for the life of me I can never remember if I’ve taken my vitamins or not. Fred dashed in seconds later, yelling “Happy Valentine’s Day, Mommy!” and handed his own origami heart card to me. I couldn’t think of a better way to open my eyes to a new day, and I realized, that is the best way to feel on Valentine’s Day.

v-day cards

What are your feelings on Valentine’s Day? 

Becoming a Kindle reader

To give you some context for this post, I should first explain a bit about my background technology-wise:

1. From my freshman to junior years in college, I wrote my papers using this:

2425329_1

photo credit: hebron-kentucky.olx.com 

2. To communicate with my friends at other schools, I wrote these:

letter-writing

photo credit: whatawaygook.wordpress.com 

and talked on this:

princess phone

photo credit: http://www.etsy.com/listing/77425506/vintage-telephone-conair-pink-princess

3. In the summer of my senior year, my parents got me my first computer, an Apple Macintosh, along with a dot matrix printer (not pictured):

macintosh

photo credit: www.aresluna.org

4. I wrote my first e-mail maybe a year or two out of college, in my first job.

5. In 2008 I was dragged kicking and screaming into Facebook. My brother set up my account for me and told me where to hit “confirm.”

6. In 2011 I was dragged (just) kicking into the Apple store to replace my pay-as-you-go Motorola cell phone with an iPhone. It was that same year that I learned the differences between an iPhone and an iPod and an iTune.

7. For half of 2011 my then 7-year old continuously reminded me that it is not Tweeter but Twitter, and one tweets and not twits. (Gads!)

8. In that same year I felt slightly sick when I learned that Borders was closing. I feared the beginning of the end of one of my most favorite things in the world: the printed book.

……….

Last Christmas, my husband got me a Kindle. A Kindle!

But let me be honest. I may have dropped hints along the way like, “For some reason I am a  bit fascinated by the Kindle.” In the years since the Borders closing I caught up a step or two technologically speaking. Now I was like a high school girl who had been brought up strictly and religiously who suddenly couldn’t rid herself of her inexplicable curiosity in marijuana or older men.

I was pretty excited to have this Kindle, and was impressed by how light it was and how comfortable it was on the eyes. I went ahead and bought a sleek, black leather case for it and was good to go.

Except I didn’t have any books on it, and meanwhile I probably have close to a hundred physical books on my shelves waiting to be read.

I love print books. I’m pretty lax about most of my possessions – losing jewelry, forgetting to store cashmere sweaters with cedar chips or mothballs…but I’m downright anal when it comes to my books. I carry my paperback books in a special foam case when I go out and I cannot touch a book again if it somehow contracted water stains (the reason I never finished Anna Karenina is that I somehow got some kind of car fluid on it). I love the look and feel of books.

Spending money on an e-book, to me, feels a bit like paying someone to e-mail me a PDF document. There is no aesthetic appeal whatsoever to an e-book and I can’t touch, hold or feel it. I really don’t even see it; it’s just words on a screen.

But again my brother came to the rescue. As a designer and a reader, he, too, has great appreciation for the printed word and the printed book. But he, in his own words, now prefers to read on his Kindle. And he advised me to take the plunge and make my first Kindle read a good one. Because if I go the cheapskate route and download a trashy 99 cent book, the quality of the book may color my first Kindle reading experience. It was good advice that I took with some modification.

Because if the book is a good one, then I will want to have it in my hands. So I went on line to amazon to find a compromise: a cheap, quality book.

The one book I found was one on minimalist living. It had 4.5 stars, and it cost just 99 cents! But it became the most critical 99 cents I’ve ever invested.

I pored through maybe 30 or 40 reviews, re-reading a good number of them. I studied the negative reviews and weighed them against the positive ones. Sure it was just a dollar but I wanted to make sure I was not throwing away this dollar, the way my son throws away quarters on gumball machines. Finally, I came across one 5-star review that said – and I quote verbatim – “Just get it already!”

And so I did. And within seconds the book was delivered to my Kindle.

I took my Kindle with me on shopping trips and to my son’s activities. The book, on how to lead a minimalist life style and cut down on clutter, was a quick, enjoyable and helpful read. I could pick it up and put it down during 10 minute spurts here and there with no mental adjustment. It is very lightweight in my hands, I can highlight (and store those highlights) easily, and, best of all, I can change the font size to suit my ever-increasingly small font-challenged eyes. It was both a thrill and with chagrin that I realized I…love reading on my Kindle…

Since then I have purchased three more e-books. Granted, none of them cost more than $3 but I am getting there, because the second and third books were $1.99 and the fourth one was $2.99. Baby steps. Maybe someday I will be willing to shop outside of the bargain bin.

I kind of have a system now, for how I decide when to Kindle and when to read (I know, like the Kindle isn’t real reading). Books I might have sentimental value in owning I will purchase to own in print. Books whose font size and margin size and size of spacing irritate and overwhelm me I will get on my Kindle. Books weighing more than a newborn infant – Kindle. Haruki Murakami’s hardcover 1Q84 is literally longer than the American Webster Dictionary; I should’ve waited to get that on my Kindle.

It is not with insignificant relief that I don’t find the Kindle perfect. I have The Best American Essays 2012 on there, and I realized it is so not fun to flip through. Really, I can’t flip. I have to press or arrow through. And what I want to do with a book of essays is flip around. I find it inconvenient and entirely too functional. The formatting is plain and unpleasing to the eye, like reading a long office memo.

So I am just where I want to be in terms of being a Kindle reader; this new addition has its own important place in my reading life, but I am pretty sure it will never replace my first and greatest love (famous last words…).

Slowing down

Any given morning in the life of us will look something like this:

Fred, please hurry up and eat.

Fred, more eating and less talking please.

Fred, we’ve got 8 minutes before we have to leave for school and you still have to brush your teeth.

Fred, I SAID, straight to the bathroom – no detouring, no touching any toys, no nothing! Just brush. your. teeth!

Fred, you have no sense of urgency whatsoever! COME ON!

We don’t quite know what exactly goes on inside our 8 year-old’s head while we are shouting to get him to move a little faster so he isn’t late for school, for taekwondo, for piano, for the dentist, even for the play date he had been waiting a whole week for. His first grade teacher once said to us, “He’s bright so he has a lot on his mind,” and ever since then I’ve been tacking his absent-mindedness to his intellect to make myself feel better, until my mother told me to stop making excuses for him.

And so Max and I have buckled down this week to try and find some no-crying-no-yelling-no-fuss solution to teach Fred the tools to watch and manage his time better.

And then a thought came to me. While Fred does need to learn to be more mindful of time, maybe many times he is moving at a pace that is perfectly normal and healthy for an 8 year-old – indeed, for an adult. It is Max and I who are going at 80 miles an hour, not because it is good but because it is how we have been trained to move all our adult lives – to wolf down lunches, multi-task, rush to meetings, meet multiple deadlines, and catch trains. We then become frustrated when Fred is simply moving at the speed limit.

Fred’s got a tight schedule, between school, after school care, dinner, taekwondo and homework. I have things scheduled like the military because we have to move with that kind of precision. There is no room to stop or look or touch or think. You just need to go go go. And Fred resists. He moves in slow motion. Maybe because he’s spacy, or maybe because he’s protesting, and he’s tired.

Last night Max and I made a plan to micromanage less and to entrust Fred with more autonomy to manage his morning and evening routines. We would encourage him to look at the clock and make his own schedule of how he plans to finish his tasks by a certain time.

At the same time, we took a cue from Fred, and decided to take him out of his after school care. We’d put him in there since kindergarten because both Max and I have to work, but he is now old enough to not need it (Max and I work out of our house). He’ll come straight home after school, and have time to do his homework without rushing and rest and play outside.

This morning was the first day of our “project,” and Fred got to school 10 minutes earlier than usual. He managed this even after taking a couple of minutes before putting his jacket on to literally just look at a new toy he’d just received. “I just want to look at and touch my Beyblade before I go,” he’d said. His new Beyblade is a rare gold spinning top, and he held it in his hands just a couple of inches from his face, admiring and stroking it before gently putting it down on his desk to head to the car. A week ago I would have blown my top and told him to get into the car already. Today, I’m taking a cue from him, and hoping that I can slow down enough to notice what really matters.

My reading challenge: January in review

As you know, thanks to a slight miscalculation in which I thought there were 24 months in 2013, I’d made a pledge to read 50 books this year. So I thought that, at the end of each month, I’d sum up my month of reading and share it with you.

So in January (drumroll please…), I finished 6 books (!). It’s a record for me, though I do need to add a disclaimer, which is that 2 of the books were books I’d started in December.

Here, in descending order of my personal enjoyment, are my books from January:

1. The Light Between Oceans (M.L. Stedman)

This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple)

2. The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

3. A Thousand Pardons (Jonathan Dee)

4. The Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)

I loved my top 3, and consider myself lucky to have read 3 (4) winners in one month. And each was so radically different in terms of reading experience. The Light Between Oceans, about a young mother who nearly lost herself after losing several children through miscarriage and a stillbirth and then decides to keep a baby that doesn’t belong to her, was gut wrenching. Parts of the ending felt a bit rushed for me, but I am hard pressed to find another story that can pull me any more deeply into the complex and raw emotions of (as one reviewer so aptly put it) good people making tragic decisions. With few exceptions I am usually not afraid to plunge into the emotional deep end when it comes to a good story, and it did take me some time to “get over” this book…

This is How You Lose Her: I fell in love with Junot Diaz’s voice. He is real and street and brutal and poignant. By telling the “love” stories of recent immigrants (both legal and illegal) he gave a Pulitzer Prize winning voice to individuals whom much of the reading world would never otherwise hear. On varying levels, as a first generation immigrant myself, I could relate to or see or understand the world that he painted, and for that reason I found my new literary hero in Junot Diaz. Someone like me, only much more talented and courageous, has made it.

I read Where’d You Go, Bernadette right after The Light Between Oceans and it was perfect timing. Bernadette, about a woman/wife/mother who has a nervous breakdown and then disappears, is light and funny and suspenseful and all substance.

The Fault in Our Stars, about two dying teenagers who don’t hesitate to fall in love, made me cry for about 15 pages non-stop. In my last post I’d written about my fear of losing my spouse, and this 16 year-old protagonist captured perfectly the feelings of love that I’ve experienced but have not been able to articulate.

A Thousand Pardons, The Rules of Civility…they are both critically acclaimed but somehow just didn’t quite do it for me. Pardons was enjoyable but not compelling to me and I just didn’t feel drawn to nor did I particularly like the main character in Civility.

….

My brother thought I was mad to undertake this, but it was actually a fun month. The more I read, the more I had to look forward to. Of course, I could have been on a start-of-a-reading-challenge-high (because today on February 1 I would really like nothing more than to veg out in front of the t.v.). And the only pressure I did feel was in trying to finish books to avoid the 25 cent/day late fee at the library. I was fairly busy in January, as work had picked up, I actually did slightly more housework than usual (we had guests from Korea), and Fred was preparing for a martial arts competition (though his increased practice time = more time for me to sit in a café and read). Max also started watching DVDs again and it has been a ritual for us to do this together. Where I did sacrifice my time was in reading blogs, writing and, most of all, sleep.

And exercise. Is it considered a sacrifice if I never really did much of it to begin with? 😉

My goals for February: fewer books, fewer potato chips (a bad habit I’ve picked up recently), more sleep, more blog reading, more writing, and more exercise (I got a trampoline for my birthday).

How was your January? Did you have any new year resolutions or goals that you were working on?