Who is this?” a giggly pre-school voice answers the phone. In the background I can hear incoming footsteps — the Doppler effect — and “Oh, honey, give me the phone, right now. I mean it.” in a desperate, teeth-gritted voice. Then, over the hand-covered mouthpiece, there is the muffled sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Mwmm wmmmw mww!” Finally, a breathless, “Thank you for calling Speedy Plumbing, may I help you?”

I just bust up laughing! I know exactly what this mother is going through. We commiserate for a moment, sharing stories. We are schizophrenic — flipping from “mom” to “career woman” at the sound of a phone ringing.

In cocktail party conversations, one can spout off about the pleasures of working at home — being close to the kids, taking time out for school field trips and always placing family first. The reality of working at home is this: compromise. Feeling like you should be working when you’re looking for the lost Lego man. Feeling lousy you are working while the kids are watching yet another video. Wrapping each day with a promise that tomorrow you’ll make up the lost time — to the kids, to the business.

A smart friend told me, “People don’t understand that working at home means living at work!” She and her husband are moving the business out of their home, where they have worked since they started their plumbing company. Years ago, their kids — and their business — were little. Now, she looks forward to a real office — away from home. No more job interviews in her living room!

Sounds good. But there will be moments, I suspect, when she will think, “At home, I could wander out to the garden while the checks are printing.” It’s a “grass-is-always-greener” thing.

There is a good reason for wanting to hang around your home as much as possible — your family. I contend it is good for husbands and wives to spend a bit of time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that. But I think you need to maximize the time you spend with your kids.

It is quantity of time, not quality, that counts. Quality is a function of quantity. Quality moments happen at the oddest times. Like when the stranger in front of you in the grocery checkout passes gas and you can’t get eye contact with each other because you’ll just never stop laughing. That’s a quality moment and it isn’t the result of a well-thought out agenda.

In fact, I’d wager that your finely choreographed Disneyland family vacation had at least one melt-down moment. You were pressed to please-oh-please-just-one-more of something and you snapped. The ingrates! Your dream of hand-in-hand strolling down Happyland’s Main Street melted like the cotton candy on the dash of the car. (Ever see the movie “Vacation” with Chevy Chase?) It’s true what they say about the best laid plans — especially when it comes to your kids.

There is no pat answer for raising happy, well-adjusted children. I am not suggesting stay-at-home moms and dads are superior to those who go off-site to work.

Walk The Tightrope: If you choose to work at home so that you can spend more time with your kids, good for you. Here are some tips for walking the tightrope:

  • During the work day, carve out regular kid time. An hour or two after school is good. Put the phone on forward, keep your schedule free and focus your attention on your kids — and any of their friends in the vicinity. Ask what they did at school, who likes who and take note of any fresh tattoos or body piercings.

    Go over the homework and ask for a demonstration of understanding. A kid is not likely to announce, “I got a bit lost today in math when Mr. Stevens introduced fractions.” You have to sniff that stuff out. Dose your kids with love and attention. If you want to qualify for super-parent status, go play some basketball or dress Barbie like a drag queen whichever your kid prefers.

  • Then, when it’s time to punch back in to work, do so without guilt. Everyone must contribute to the well-being of mankind. You solve plumbing problems — it’s a noble profession. Your pride in your contribution will have positive impact on your child’s understanding of work.
  • Establish rules for catching your attention. “MOM! Call Blockbuster and reserve Duke Nukem for this weekend!” is rough background for your phone calls. Note passing may work better. For little kids, you might need a sitter to get uninterrupted work time. Everyone loses when you fly off the handle out of frustration. Don’t expect little ones to notice you are busy when you are just sitting there.
  • Running for parts or other business errands? Take your kids with you.

    Don’t try their patience by meeting with long-winded business associates. You are doomed when you expect kids to hold tight while you discuss union politics. Is the supply house having an open house with hot dogs and give aways? Stop in. We once won a jet ski in a wholesaler’s raffle. Turned a day of parts pickup into high adventure. Keep the errands short and sweet and include a trip to the park.

  • Put the rug rats to work! You can pay your kids up to $4,100 per year TAX-FREE to work at your company. (See your accountant for details.)

    Everyone pitches in. Mix up the tasks. Cleanup jobs are fine — just not all the time. Assign ad designs, slogan development, new product research projects — you never know what they’ll come up with. You have such a great opportunity to teach them business and good trading.

    Be aware they are watching. Hold yourself to the highest standards. No “white lies.” Watch your language.

    Teach your kids financial fundamentals. Have them keep track of their earnings and savings. Use a simple accounting program to keep track of assets, liabilities and equity. Play with stock investments on the Internet. Follow some stocks and pretend you’re investing before you put money in for real. Show them the financials for your company. They may have some insight into improving things!

  • Working at home can help you be more available to your kids. And, unless you are an ogre — in which case you should stay far away from Hobbits and small children — they will like spending time with you. You, on the other hand, may grow tired of them. God invented children to humble and humiliate their parents. For instance, if you should catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think you are holding up well, your child is bound to look up at you and ask sweetly, “Why is there all that hair up your nose?”

I’ve listened to trite voices say we have lost our “family values.” Women should stay at home and raise children — period. I know that pat answers would comfort, if they were true. But the answers aren’t simple. Staying at home doesn’t qualify you for sainthood.

No matter how you bring home and fry up the bacon, you must find the hours to lavish on your children. Someone said, “You can’t have it all — a great career, meaningful family relationships and a busy social life. You can have two of these, but not all three.” All relationships depend on time.

This I can do: Pay more attention to my child. If I am paying attention, he is less likely to get lost. Or, maybe, if he wanders into dangerous territory, I’ll notice before he gets too far, and I’ll hold my hand out.