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My So-Called Home Office

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By Elrena Evans

Tax time is upon us. It's my first year filing as a self-employed individual, and my dad and I are discussing my income taxes as my children climb on him.

"Did you fill out a Schedule C?" he asks.

"Yes, I filled out a Schedule C."

"Did you take all your deductions?"

"Yes, I took all my deductions."

"Did you claim a home office?"

I didn't claim a home office. I downloaded all the forms from the IRS when I started preparing my taxes, and according to IRS Tax Tip 2008-53, the language defining a home office is pretty clear: "You can claim this deduction for the business use of a part of your home only if you use that part of your home regularly and exclusively as your principal place of business."form-1040.jpg

But the reality of the situation is that I don't use my home office "regularly and exclusively" as my "principal place of business." The reality of the situation is that I work from home while caring for my two preschool-aged children, blending my work life with caring for my family.

If I paid someone else to take care of my children while I work I could deduct that expense, but the fact that I'm forgoing my potential full-time income as a graduate-degree holder to stay home and take care of my children nets me nothing. Now, launching a work-at-home career while my children are young, I find the IRS isn't cutting me much slack.

If you have a bed in your office, which I do--a crib, actually - then it's not an office. I also have blocks, toy cars, a tent to play camping, a castle with two dragons, and about 700 stuffed animals. My home office, like those of so many work-at-home parents, is the hub from which I run all my many lives: worker, mother, wife, self.

And often, I don't even work in my office. The glory of the laptop is that I can work at the table while my children eat breakfast, work outside while they play in the sandbox, work in bed while they cuddle beside me. My work life is never separate from my family life; the boundaries are shifting and permeable and one is constantly leaking into the other.

Clearly, this isn't what the IRS has in mind. The writers of the tax code want me to have an Office, a separate space where I go alone and close the door, free from noise and distractions and all the chaos and wonder that is life with two small children.

Some days, I really want that, too.

But in my first year of self-employment I can't trust that I will make enough money to break even if I pay to put my children in childcare, and so I have learned to work around them. As I fill out my income tax forms I don't see a lot of space for people like me, there are no deductions for taking a conference call while making grilled cheese or for typing while nursing a baby.

My father says I could still take the home office deduction, and I think, following the spirit of the law, he might be right. But the letter of the law is that I can't. The letter of the law doesn't recognize people who have learned to perform multiple types of work at the same time, who do business work and family work together. It doesn't know that real work can be accomplished in a room that still contains a bed, or a TV, or two dragons.

Until the writers of the tax code broaden their definition of what is work and what is an appropriate place to do that work, I'll play it safe and not claim my office. We differ in our definitions, but they write the laws and I don't. The current tax code is unfair at best--for mothers, for people, regardless of their gender or parental status--because we all blend life with work. But until the IRS formally recognizes that fact, my home office will be just another room.

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