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WORK & FAMILY
By Jill Hamburg Coplan
APRIL 5, 2000


Single Mom, Disabled Child...

A home-based business doesn't always offer as much flexibility as you think -- or need

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Part one of a two-part series.

Imagine the pressure of supporting and caring for a child with special needs -- alone. Would a home-based business be the best solution to this difficult work/family challenge? That's the quandary facing this week's letter writer. We'll tackle the family part of the equation first: how to combine motherhood and at-home work. Next week, we'll focus on the business aspect, with tips on resources for making the transition and how to avoid scam artists who prey on people under duress. (Letters are edited for clarity and length.)


I am the divorced mother of a mentally challenged child, and I am searching for work at home. Many offers out there are scams, as I have learned the hard way. Please advise me of legitimate ways to work at home for someone who can't afford the upfront costs of starting a business.
-- V.S., Houston

First, a reality check. Before rushing out to create a new home business, ask yourself how you'll care for your child. You don't say if he or she is a baby, a toddler, or a school-age child, and what child-care arrangements you have now. In any case, it's impossible to babysit and get a serious amount of work done at the same time, as anyone who has done so in a pinch knows. Many people think they'll automatically be more productive when they start working at home, says career coach Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America's #1 Career Coach. "It won't [be so], as long as she's the sole caretaker. Only by working part time will she be able to do both," she advises.

The first step is to assess how many hours a day you can work. Assuming you have a baby or toddler and have no child care, you'll be working mainly when your child is asleep. That implies a day as a solo mom, followed by a night of business tasks, a heroic regimen few can keep up. (If your child is in school or qualifies for a special day-care center, you have a little more flexibility.)

Whatever the case, try sketching out how you'll organize your time. Make a list of the people in your support system -- those you can count on in an emergency, illness, or exceptional work crunch. You'll need a game plan. If you haven't already, contact your state or local human-services department or nonprofit agency that acts as an advocate for people with disabilities. They may be able to help you find affordable or subsidized care for your child, either at a day-care center or in-home.

WORTH THE RISK? Once you have a realistic sense of your available time, ponder whether you'd be better off running a home-grown business or working as a remote staffer for an established company, perhaps doing customer service, a hot line, or order processing, says Judy Feld, a business and professional coach in Dallas.

Starting up a business can be so time consuming and emotionally stressful that it may defeat the purpose of working at home -- to be more available to your child. "Will taking risks as a self-employed individual give you the peace and contentment you are looking for?" asks Berman Fortgang. "Your child needs you to be there for her 100% in attention and focus, but that doesn't mean that 100% togetherness is necessary to achieve that. In fact, if you are going to be more stressed working at home, she will actually get less of you instead of more."

If self-employment still sounds appealing -- despite these caveats -- don't jump yet. Look for advisers and mentors in your community who can help someone in your situation -- inexperienced in business, without a second income, and with the extra demands of raising a child with special needs. You may need a separate set of mentors to help you master business skills before you can realistically consider working for yourself.

NO PANACEA. "Free-agent life is competitive. You have to think: 'How am I going to market myself?' I'd want to find someone who can advise me on that," says David Overbye, director of curriculum at Keller Graduate School of Management, a distance-learning school headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. Three-quarters of Keller's off-site student body consists of women in mid-life.

Arguably, there has never been a better time to try the free-agent lifestyle, as 25 million Americans can attest. It's no panacea for work/family stress, though. The best route just might be via an agency, a temp office, a job shop, or brokerage, or a network of home-office moms who share assignments and projects with each other. But more on those options next week.

Send your questions to frontierlife@businessweek.com.



Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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