East Asian affairs expert Robert Kelly recently became a poster boy for working-from-home parents everywhere when he forgot to lock the office door before a BBC interview and treated the world to a mid-work visit by his 4-year-old, his 8-month-old, and finally by his frantic wife, who scrambled to clear the room while he was still on air.
As someone who juggled the crazy mashups of mommying and working from home for many years, I recognized Kelly as one of my peeps. After all, he'd had the foresight to get a good, strong lock on the office door. (I had to do that after conducting a conversation with a senior vice president while pressing my rear on the door to block my tantruming daughter.) The reason Kelly forgot to lock the door must be because — oh, right, he has a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old. That's his reason.
If he had the foresight to get a lock, it's likely that Kelly, exhausted but savvy, is also aware of a home-working parent's first line of defense: the telephone mute button.
Here's how it works: Leave an open line for the first of a conference call's hellos, reports about the weather and whispered sidebars that are almost impossible to decipher.
Then press MUTE and scream into the living room: "You cannot wrestle and watch 'SpongeBob.' Pick one!"
Release MUTE and begin to speak in the calmest, most professional tone you can muster, knowing full well that somewhere in your house, someone is probably getting a big idea to mix up some papier-mâché in the bathtub, or to make a piñata out of the cat.
The mute button was my dearest, closest friend when I worked at a Minneapolis marketing agency, a place where the family/life balance policy could best be summarized as: "Shut up and work late." Children were a shameful "lifestyle" secret. They were never to be named aloud or openly discussed, kind of like Voldemort.
As a mother of two who was rounding into her under-rested, overworked 40s, I was especially disheartened when I was assigned to a new account team. Let's call my new boss Beebee. For the good of humankind and the general health of the gene pool, it was a blessing that Beebee had never procreated. But for me, someone who was hoping to telecommute when possible, it was a disaster.
Beebee did most of her work in the agency's parking lot, holed up in her BMW and smoking so much that nicotine leaked from the windows, inducing coughing fits in passersby. She had, it seemed, lungs of iron, steel-forged testicles and a complete lack of empathy for any human condition other than the tragedy of running out of Nicorette gum during a client presentation.
Are you surprised to find out that Beebee did not take to me? It's true that I was tepid, at best, regarding her penchant for calling "emergency" meetings at the moment in the day when she seemed to reach cogency, or whenever the smoke cleared a bit, usually around 5 p.m.
I knew I was out of favor when Beebee stopped a meeting at 5:35 p.m. to announce she had seen me looking at my watch. What, she wanted to know, was my problem?
Working parents, care to answer for me?
No, I did not tell her I feared causing last-ones-to-be-picked-up trauma in my children. Nor did I mention the hefty $1-per-minute late fee at the day care. I apologized and assured her of my deepest commitment to her emergency.
Looking back at the situation, I take full responsibility for the events surrounding The Great Mute Button Fiasco of '03. On that day, I was telecommuting. Kid #1 was playing with neighbors in their backyard, which I could see from the second-floor perch of my makeshift office (with sturdy lock). Kid #2, an infant, was napping. When Beebee declared one of her post-babysitter evening conference calls, I was confident. "You've got this," I told myself.
Just as we were making introductions, I heard a cry from my daughter's bedroom. Pressing my beloved mute button, I scurried in for a quick diaper change, then carried her back to my office.
"You've been quiet, Julie," Beebee rasped.
I unmuted, praying I could finish a sentence before the baby started crying again, and launched into a string of busy bizwords, something like: "I totally agree with your strategic direction, Beebee. We need to be transformatively disruptive and disruptively transformative … but, uh, still within budget."
I hit MUTE and took a deep breath, returning to a jiggle-hum sequence that seemed to comfort my daughter and, I was beginning to suspect, me. As the minutes ticked by, I unmuted at random to toss off inanities about vision and commitment and strategic strategery.
Then it happened. After I piped up with a question (who cares about the answer, I thought, they just need to hear my voice), I forget to press MUTE again. So the entire conference call was privy to my next move, which was to lean down, kiss my daughter on the top of her fuzzy head and whisper "I love you" down the telephone lines, just as Beebee was winding up her response.
To review: My entire work team had just heard me declare my love. Was Beebee the object of my affection? Or — and you could practically hear them all cogitating — could it be that I was in the company of — gasp! — a child during the super-duper important emergency meeting?
I hung up, kissed my kid some more and thought that I was really, truly screwed.
I was not surprised when Beebee called me into her office to tell me my telecommuting privileges would be revoked, effective immediately.
"You'll be here where I can keep an eye on you," she said, snapping her Nicorette.
What did surprise everyone, including me, was when I handed in my resignation the next week. Did I have the energy, deep social network and appetite for self-promotion to be a successful freelance writer? Absolutely not.
Was I fed up with the need to apologize for being a normal human who was also a mother? That was more like it.
Julie Kendrick has been a freelance writer since the Great Mute Button Fiasco of '03. Follow her on social media: @KendrickWorks.