When Deborah Bryner's arthritis flares up, she works in bed. When it's time to make dinner, she totes her laptop to the kitchen. But when she really has to buckle down and meet a deadline, she heads for the basement, where there are no distractions.
"If I'm working in the basement, I tell my kids, 'Don't bug me unless you're bleeding or on fire,'" she says.
That kind of flexibility is what Bryner, 50, loves about working from home. She offers various professional services, including transcription of podcasts and online interviews, copy editing, and blog writing. And while she types away at her laptop in Anchorage, Alaska, her various bosses check in on her from Pennsylvania, Maryland, California and Nebraska.
Like other parents who work from home, Bryner's focus is her children. Her son, 16, is in high school now and her 20-year-old daughter, who is autistic, currently attends an alternative career training program. "Our kids have always had one of us at home, as much as possible," she says. "Even teenagers do better when there's a parent at home."
Tishia Lee, 33, who works as a virtual assistant from her home in Burton, Michigan, echoes that sentiment. Three years ago, she worked as an optometrist's assistant at a Wal-Mart Vision Center, often stuck in a shift that didn't end until 7 or 9 p.m.
"My son was literally being raised by daycare," she says. "I'd see him in the morning, then send him to school, and when I finally picked him up, it was time to go home and go to bed."
Now, Lee takes her 10-year-old son to school each morning and picks him when the school bell rings – not five hours later. "I love to see him come out of that building with a huge smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye," she says.
Getting to that point wasn't easy. Lee is a single mom without a college degree, so she knew she had to make enough to support them both. She considered going to cosmetology school, but couldn't afford it. She and her boss tried to schedule better hours, but it didn't seem fair to other employees. Finally, she teamed up with another friend who was launching her own virtual career as a business coach.
"She really took me under her wing and trained me," Lee says. "To this day, she's still one of my clients."
As a virtual assistant, Lee does transcription, manages customer service e-mail, schedules appointments and offers other administrative services for online businesses, mostly those that are run by other work-at-home moms. In her personal time, she writes a blog called Adventures of a Single WAHM.
"For the first six to eight months of my business, I had to take side jobs to make extra money," she says. "I did housecleaning, or babysitting at my church."
Unfortunately, being more available for her son doesn't necessarily eliminate the guilt she sometimes feels when work and parenting collide. "I still feel guilty when my schedule is really busy and he can't have my undivided attention," Lee says.
In the days before high-speed Internet and laptop computers, these kinds of careers would not have been possible. So these moms have learned to be tech-savvy. Melody Spier, 38, who lives in rural Tennessee and also works as a virtual assistant, relies on satellite for her Internet connection. "So anything – rain, clouds, ice – can interfere with it," she says. "But when that happens, I have work that I can do offline."
Spier, whose kids were 9 and 12 when she quit her job as an office manager seven years ago, says she stumbled into a couple of "work at home" scams before hitting success with her own business. "I lost a few hundred dollars because they have you buy the merchandise up front and then sell it," she says. When she couldn't make sales, she couldn't recoup the money.
Despite the false start and the many friends who told her to beg for her "real" job back, she's found success. "My husband was always supportive, but he was skeptical at first. He thought I could make money, but that it wouldn't replace what I made before," she says. "Now I'm making even more than I used to."