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Mom With Kids — The Home Office Blues

A 1986 home office with computer, crib, toddler and cat. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Our 1986 home office complete with kids, crib, rocking chair, changing table, cat — and computers. Photo by Barbara Newhall

This old Oakland Tribune column is riddled with late-20th-century artifacts: videocassettes, an Apple desktop, an 8086 microprocessor, He-Man toys, a long-forgotten computer game called Choplifter, and a lone 60-watt light bulb.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, June 8, 1987

Christina, 3, has the best room in the house, the one with the view of Mount Tamalpais.

At least, it used to be Christina’s room. Now, she has just the dim, windowless half of it. The part with the view belongs to our home office.

Jon works here five or more days a week with breaks for lunch, afternoon popcorn with the kids and trips to the swimming pool.

He stops work at 6 p.m. sharp for a 30-second commute downstairs to the kitchen, where he puts the finishing touches on dinner. In our house, slow-cooking dishes like baked potatoes and lentil soup are possible.

Two days a week, I work up here in Christina’s room with Jon.

Our 99-Square-Foot Office

It’s nice. I like being shoehorned into a 9-by-11-foot space with three computers, a telephone, a radio perpetually tuned to classical music and a dear husband.

A few weeks ago, John Boeschen came over for a business meeting with Jon, picking his way through jigsaw puzzle pieces to the office. Now, there were three of us doing business in 99 square feet.

A gray American domestic cat has curled up atop a 1986 TV set being used as a computer monitor in a home office. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Everybody liked being in our home office, including Petunia the cat. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The telephone rang. Jon interrupted the conference to answer. It was a friend calling for Peter.

John Boeschen was not fazed by the family atmosphere that prevails at our work site. He and his wife work out of their own house in Richmond. He has one end of the living room for his computers. She has part of an upstairs bedroom for hers.

The Boeschens  have three children. Work comes to a halt at their house, as ours, when the pediatrician calls, a carpool departs or a dinner burns.

That day, as I word-processed on my Macintosh and the two men discussed the computer program Jon was writing, there was further hubbub downstairs – from Christina, Peter, a playmate and a babysitter.

That made for a total of seven people using our house on a single weekday. Not bad utilization of a resource that, for most two-career couples with children in day care, stands dark and unused most of the week.

“The home office has its plusses,” says Jon. The trouble is, “you work in isolation. You don’t interact with people that much.”

By people, Jon means colleagues who will understand and empathize when his computer program goes buggy – and Jon’s mental health along with it.

By people he does not mean the wife sitting three feet off his right elbow, who responds to his misery with a tart, “Shhhh. You keep interrupting me. You’re not taking my work seriously. I have a career, too, you know.”

The home office looks great on paper, says Jon, but “I think with more people working at home alone, we are going to have more neurotic people in our society.”

That is why Christina was moved to the dreary end of the room.

Corner Office With View

The home office workers in the family needed the view of the distant, serene Mount Tamalpais, the broad sweep of bay and cities, and the purposeful human activity taking place out there each day.

They needed to see the squirrels and talkative Steller’s jays going about their business in the four-story cypress tree outside her bedroom window.

Slapdash ergonomics are another drawback to working at home, Jon asserts. Cheap chairs and makeshift desks invite back trouble.

On the other hand, home office workers set their own hours and can see their chiropractors any time.

They also can visit the barber and the grocer at their leisure. Christina likes to do the marketing with Jon, joining in the deliberations over salmon vs. filet of sole.

And, yes, let’s face it, between visits to the supermarket, she and her brother do wander into the office, dancing their fingers across keyboards, interrupting work in progress and begging to play Choplifter on the Apple.

All Alone in the Home Office

This afternoon, Jon is out of the office on a job interview in Silicon Valley.

Steller’s jays, Mount Tam and trips to the fish store with his 3-year-old are not enough. Jon needs someone who can talk 8086.

Christina is at a friend’s house. Peter, home sick from school, is down in the living room, pushing his fourth videocassette of the day into the VCR,

I am up here by myself, socked in by fog. Graceful, reassuring Mount Tam is invisible today.

The home office is dim. A single, dreary 60-watt bulb burns in the overhead fixture. I could get out the ladder and replace the burned-out bulbs, but office protocol rules out doing household chores during designated work hours.

Maybe I should go downstairs and play with Peter. Throw some bad guys into his He-Man Slime Pit. But I resist. This is a work day.

There is a cold, gray sinking feeling in my stomach. It matches the view this afternoon from our home office. It’s lonely up here.

© The Oakland Tribune. All rights reserved. Republished by permission.

A 2015 home office with desk, computers, printer, photos and guest bed. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Now that Peter is grown and gone, his old bedroom next to Christina’s has become Jon’s private home office — with a bed for guests. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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