Robert E. Kelly, a scholar of South Korean politics, has become an Internet sensation this month in a way he couldn’t have expected. Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, was giving a live Skype interview to a BBC TV anchor last week when his two small children wandered into what appeared to be his home office, creating a comic mishap that’s gone viral around the world.
Most viewers seem to be laughing with Kelly rather than laughing at him, since his parental predicament was one many mothers and fathers have confronted themselves: How do you work from home while keeping the kids at bay?
Writers were perhaps the first parents to recognize the challenge, since they were among the first professionals to work from home. Kate Chopin, best known for her provocative 1899 novel “The Awakening,” wrote on a lapboard surrounded by her small children – the kind of literary regimen in which children weren’t a momentary interruption, but a way of life.
When Virginia Woolf published “A Room of One’s Own” in 1929, she argued that writers should have exactly what eluded Kelly – a place to work for extended interludes without the demands of family. Woolf wasn’t a mother herself, and her message focused on the special needs of women, who were – and quite often, still are – shouldering the major burdens of domestic life. But in an era where more and more fathers are involved in the daily demands of parenting, Woolf’s observations resonate across genders.
The issue is an old one, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow demonstrated in 1859, when he wrote a widely celebrated poem, “The Children’s Hour.”
It paints a picture that Kelly – and, indeed, any work-at-home parent – would find familiar. It’s about a daily ritual in which Longfellow’s children barged into his study, begging for attention:
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms around me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Although the poem is essentially whimsical, it has just a touch of the macabre. The bishop of the poem, scholar Christoph Irmscher reminds us in his wonderful 2006 book, “Longfellow Redux,” refers to a wicked cleric in Robert Southey’s 1799 ballad who’s consumed by rodents.
Longfellow seems to hint here at the way that children can seem to require everything that we are, with nothing left over for the world of work.
Ultimately, Longfellow welcomes his children into his home office, reaching a conclusion shared by many work-at-home parents: Sometimes, if you can’t place children a part from your work, you might as well make them a part of it.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."