Achieving a Work Family Balance

Posted on February 17, 2008. Filed under: Family Life, Stop the Drama | Tags: , , , , |

Today is about Family Life

Photo by ghewgillbalance21.jpg
Achieving a balance between work and family seems to be the “holy grail” for so many of my friends.

First let me state “I want to work”. I work because I want to accomplish things outside of my home. I work because my family needs the money. I work because I want to be a role model for my daughters. I work because I want to maintain my financial independence. I have worked ever since my daughters (who are now teenagers) were born. While working is important to me, my family is even more important. So I need to balance the two.

Over the years, I’ve had lots of conversations with other women about the work/family balance. We all have different ways of dealing with the challenges, but most of us are able to manage it. Thinking about my own experience as a working mother, and watching the efforts of my friends and colleagues, here are some tips I’ve picked up that are helpful for achieving the work/family balance. At the core of most of these is coming to terms with the fact that you can’t do it all. And that’s OK.

Get as much support from your partner as you can, and then get more help. It seems obvious, but get all the help you can. In the ideal world , our partners or husbands would be the person we most rely on for help. In the real world, the work of running a home, caring for our kids, and managing everyone’s lives is rarely evenly split between both partners–even if they are both working. It’s been 20 years since Arlie Hochschild wrote The Second Shift, but her observations are still valid; most working women take on a larger part of household responsibilities, particularly if they have children. This may seem unfair. You can get mad. Get upset. Get on your partner’s case. But none of that is as effective as getting more help. Some of this help can come from family and friends and some you will need to pay for. Don’t limit your help to the obvious need of child care. You can also get help with other parts of your life. This includes (but is not limited to) help with cleaning your home, grocery shopping, meal preparation, caring for parents, shopping for clothes, vacation planning, getting your kids’ hair done, planning birthday parties, and buying Christmas gifts. Obviously, each of these services is going to cost you money, and I would not recommend doing all of them. But knowing that you can’t do it all, you need help to manage all of your responsibilities and there are plenty of people (and service providers) who can help.

Forget about being perfect, and embrace being good enough. Decide what is important to you and what isn’t, and this gives you guidance about what things to let fall through the cracks. There are some things that should never slip (like celebrating your child’s birthday), while you can let other things go if you don’t have time (like sending out Christmas cards). Your kids want your time and attention more than anything and understanding their priorities will help you keep yours. Sitting down together for dinner every night should be a priority. If it’s pizza or some other take out food, rather than a home cooked meal, your kids won’t mind so you shouldn’t either. Personally, I’ve given up on having a neat house. My house gets really cleaned every two weeks, but then chaos (meaning my husband and kids) comes in and leaves clothes, toys, books, and shoes everywhere. I can get a single room neat, but I never have the whole house looking put together and that is good enough.

Sometimes you need to scale back at work. I have friends who decided to work four days per week to give themselves a bit more flexibility with their time. Others chose to take on less demanding jobs when their children were young, and then lobbied for more responsibilities or a promotion as their kids got older. Your kids’ needs change over time, and the amount of time and attention you can give to your work will change too.

Sometimes you need to scale back at home. I can’t be the class mom, attend every PTA meeting (especially the ones scheduled for 10:30AM!), be an escort on every class trip, and often buy brownies instead of making them for bake sales. If your kids participate in sports, then it means a lot of dropping off and picking up for practice, plus lots of travel to go to games. I can’t do all of that. So I ask my kids to think about what is really important to them, and then I get involved (or get help) with the things they care about. This is why one of my kids did not join the travel soccer team, but did join the track team.

Look for jobs that give you flexibility. The hardest part of the balance is the day to day juggling. Who does drop off and pick up from daycare or school? How do you get home on time for parent teacher meetings, or recitals, or plays, or sporting events? Where is the time to make dinner? If time at your job is not flexible, then there is no easy answer to dealing with these challenges (except to think about another job). If you are fortunate to have a flexible job, you can arrive late or leave early when needed, work at other times like on weekends, or work at night so you can attend to your family. I know a nurse who works 12 hour shifts from 7PM to 7AM. Then she goes home, gets her kids ready for school, goes to sleep and wakes up in time to pick them up from school. Since her shifts are 12 hours, she works three shifts per week for a full-time job. It isn’t easy, but her job flexibility lets her be there for her kids.

Do work when at work, be home when at home. Wherever you are, give it your full attention. I once complained to someone about my challenges of focusing on work and family. I found myself in meetings thinking about Halloween costumes, and when I was at home thinking about projects at work. None of this was making me more effective, and I was constantly feeling pulled in different directions. He recommended I read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat Zinn. This is basically a book about meditation, but I found it helpful because it talked about “being in the moment” and giving my full attention to the present task. So rather than feeling scattered all the time, I focus on my current situation.

Set work/home boundaries. Part of being able to focus is because I designate the time and place for everything I need to do. When I am at work, I try not to work on home issues. When I am at home, I try not to think about work. I go so far as to leave myself voice mail messages. If I am home and I have a thought about something work related, I call my office, and plant the work related item there on my voice mail. Then I know it will get addressed when I am back in the office, and I can spend my time at home focusing on my home life. Obviously, things happen and I can’t always stick to this plan to compartmentalize my life, but making the effort helps me to feel less scattered.

Be prepared for the teen years. When my kids were young, I had lots of options for daycare. As they got older, they went into school and our need for child care became less intense. When they became teenagers, I realized that they still needed support and supervision after school, but unlike when they were young, I had very few options for getting help with my teenagers. Working mothers often make lots of plans to scale back at work or bring in extra help when their children are young. Now that I have been through both phases, I often advise other working mothers who want to scale back to think about waiting until their kids are teenagers. Parents can make use of several daycare options that are available when their kids are younger. But I think the toughest time is when your children are teenagers. There are not a lot of options for teenage care, and having your teens home and unsupervised for several hours each day can be a set up for trouble. So while it seems counterintuitive, realize that teenagers have a lot of need for parents to be around, and you will need to plan for their care and supervision just as much as when they were younger–but you will have fewer options for outside help.

Everyone I know who is juggling work and family family feels stretched thin from time to time. However, by having a good support network, setting your own priorities, and being satisfied with being less than perfect, I find most women are making it work for themselves and their families.

Anne

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      Musings on how a disorganized woman with a full time job, three kids and a real need to relax is trying to make life simple.

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