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Life

My Desk Smells Like Bacon

On the importance of decorating and tidying a workspace of one’s own.

woman in house looking at laptop
Illustration by Jesse Zhang

Not long ago, my kindergarten-age son revealed that he doesn’t think I have a job. “You don’t work,” he said. “You take care of the house.” I was pretty sure he was just saying that to make me mad (he succeeded), but I kind of understood where he got the impression.

As a producer and director, my husband takes business trips, has a work van and camera equipment. As a freelance writer, I rarely travel, I drive the family car, and my equipment is the same machine the boys watch Peppa Pig videos on. My husband has his own home office that he leaves at the end of the day; I work in the kitchen, where I probably spend 80 percent of my waking life.

When we bought our suburban house, we did so when I was still commuting to an office job in the city, so I didn’t need my own office. Once I quit that job and began working for myself, I decided to set down my laptop in the brightest room in the house. For ten years, I had worked in an office with no external windows, so I had to get up and walk down a hall if I wanted to get a feel for whether it was sunny or thunder-storming. Now while I work, I watch the weather and the bunnies that dart around in the backyard. I never need to go far for some coffee or LaCroix. It’s not so bad. But I think it’s time for a workspace of my own.

For my entire working life, I held down a day job in an office while I freelanced on the side. The day jobs were safety nets that provided a salary, benefits, office supplies, and a reason to turn down freelance assignments that seemed too boring or daunting. But I dreamed of quitting and becoming a writer, full stop. I went for it after I had my second kid but felt less than triumphant about the choice. I worried that I would flop, costing us money and ending up looking like a privileged, uninterested mother who paid others to watch her kids while she dinked around with a “hobby” in her kitchen.

Turns out, the white-marble counter has done me well. There, while I dribbled lunch crumbs onto my laptop, I’ve made a salary comparable to that at my last day job, interviewed MacArthur “genius grant” winners, written up magazine cover stories, negotiated higher fees, and penned award-winning stories from a hard white Ikea stool that hurts my butt if I don’t get up and periodically walk around.

However, working at the island all day every day, I’m like the unpaid receptionist for the house. I keep the fridge stocked and sign for packages. My husband comes by and eats his lunch behind me — in my office — while I eat my Amy’s frozen meals and read Ohnotheydidnt and yearn for solitude. There is a plastic potty, sometimes full of forgotten urine, on the floor less than five feet away.

I’ve never resented my husband’s space. He started his own company right before we had kids, and since day one, he has been on his grind, working hard at his job and also being a good husband and dad at the same time. I may quietly judge the way he lets papers and mail and recycling pile up in his office, but he needs the square footage. In fact, he needs more space than he currently has — our living room often houses an overflow of the black plastic cases that hold his equipment. So this spring, he’s having our garage remodeled into a larger space for his company. I was generally supportive of this professional upgrade until it dawned on me that I would get his office, a quiet, carpeted room tucked under the eaves of the house. And then I went from supportive to elated.

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As a woman living with three guys, I’m excited about the opportunities for personalization, decoration, and privacy with this new office. I might do one of those things that always catches my eye in the House Beautifuls my mom gives me, like paint the walls deep, glossy eggplant or paper one wall a bold, colorful print. Right now, the room is dark all the time, with creepy overgrown plants crowding the window. It’s furnished with a clunky desk my husband built for himself and a black leather couch that looks like it came from a 1980s lawyer’s office, because it did (it was my dad’s).

Even if all I do is take those plants out and remove that couch, the decisions are mine, all mine to make. I won’t need to share my bulletin board with takeout menus or my pens with the children’s medicine or my desk with a bowl of cold, congealed oatmeal. I will finally have a dedicated shelf for my books, and not just a huge Tupperware in the basement, where all the bugs live. I will get to start my day without feeling that if I don’t empty the dishwasher first, I will go insane. I will get to close my door if I want to call my gynecologist, my friends, my mom without the threat of some penis-haver drifting through.

Sometimes I have a hard time taking myself seriously as a professional and even as a human being. While there are downsides to freelancing, like cash flow and loneliness, otherwise it’s a pretty perfect life. I see my kids in the morning. I get to work out when I want to. Once in a while, I’ll even go see a movie by myself during the day. But the rest of the time, I work hard, for the money, to further establish myself professionally, and to quiet the voice that says Look at her life — she’s just a stay-at-home mom who pays to keep her kids out of the house. It’s worth noting that I have never wondered whether my husband seemed like he was just a stay-at-home dad who paid to keep his kids out of the house. But he has an office. So maybe once I get the office, I will see myself the same way I see him. Legit.

I realize how much I want, need, and deserve a space that does not straddle a line between mom and professional. It’s time for me to move away from my concerns about my legitimacy and trust that I have figured out what works for us and for me. Besides, with my new workspace, my kids will finally get what I do. My son is home sick as I type this, and he has watched me work on this piece all morning. I asked him, “What do you think I’ll do in my new office?” He pondered for a moment. “Cook, I think?”

Claire Zulkey is a professional writer with no day job. You can learn much more about her at zulkey.com.