I’ll be honest, the sharing of memes and positive affirmations on social media often gets my goat. Not because I’m negative, or because I don’t believe that what you put out is what you get back, but because affirmations are by nature subjective. My mental obstacles will likely be very different from Tracey-who-I-knew-at-primary-school’s, so I don’t need her coming over all Descartes and confirming that I think therefore I am, you know? One thing I saw recently really struck a chord, however. A post declaring: ‘The obligation for working parents is a precise one: the feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one did not have a job.’
For parents the world over, the issue of work-life balance rests precariously on the fulcrum that is the needs of our children. It’s a balance that constantly needs redressing and can often leave parents running from end to end with a nagging feeling that one of the many factors involved either side – be that professional work, personal goals, our marriage or relationship and a social life (not to mention remembering to drink water and squeeze in 10,000 steps a day) – is suffering, or not being tended to. In short, it’s a minefield, but it isn’t one that’s guaranteed to blow your legs off. Tread carefully, and there are ways and means to juggle it all in a way that works for you and for those around you too.
There are four core challenges that come with being a working parent:
Transition. Akin to that feeling of returning to school after the summer holidays, an angsty, gangly teenager, with a glut of something unidentifiable but slightly nerve-wracking in one’s tummy, going back to work after parental leave to an upended status quo is a scramble to adapt. Most of us, often unconsciously, breeze back into the workplace in an effort to prove that the shift from professional to professional/caregiver hasn’t changed us, but it has and it will continue to, which is nothing to be apologetic for.
Practicalities. The parenting to-do list is not only seemingly endless, it’s also 24/7, so it consumes pretty much all of your day and a lot of your night too (at least for the first year or so). Dropping off and picking up from nursery, getting to the doctors, rushing to the late-night Tesco upon realising you’ve run out of Calpol, planning dinner, cooking dinner, getting them to eat their dinner all take time and consideration. Throw in a conference call with a fussy toddler in the background and you’ve got a logistical tailspin.
Communication. Generally, a high-stakes-low-reward area unless of course you have time, which (at least Monday-Friday) you won’t feel you have enough of, discussing new topics that have only arisen as a result of becoming a working parent can leave you at risk of being misunderstood. Approaching your boss for flexi-time or telling them you’re pregnant for the first time; planning the particulars of a nursery pick-up schedule with your other half; explaining to your three-year-old that you won’t be there for their bedtime story – having a calm and constructive conversation about of these can feel frustratingly out of your reach.
Identity. Who am I, goddammit? Am I a snazzy, high-flyer with business on the brain? Am I the parent that’s first to set up the class WhatsApp group? Am I a ball-breaker parent who runs a tight ship of a home? Or am I more of a nurturing, ever-listening, slightly wing-it parent? The list goes on… Everyone always tells you you’re not defined by your role at work or at home, but this inevitable either/or narrative will plant itself in your brain as firmly as the character ditties from In the Night Garden will and you’ll spend a fair while wishing you had clearer answers.
While this awesome business blog is not space for negativity, it is definitely one for honesty and – sorry first-time parents looking for the magical wave of a wand – the challenges mentioned above are never entirely resolved for any working parents. They are, however, manageable and can be mitigated, so don’t panic.
First things first, be honest. With yourself and with your employer. If you have arranged flexi-time, which let’s face it, should be absolutely feasible in this day and age, make sure you have an open conversation with your boss, so you can both clearly articulate what your vision of flexi-time is and expectations on both sides can be managed from the outset. If you’ve arranged to have every Wednesday off, for example, the minute you start checking your phone and responding to work emails on Wednesdays, that will then become an expectation from your colleagues. Don’t do it. Find the balance instead; if you really must be available ‘just in case’ on your day off, agree to be contactable on your work phone for an hour a day – it’s more realistic and a lot less stressful.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Never has an idiom been more relevant to working parents than this. If you weren’t a massive planner before you had kids, you need to become one. You’re now doing more across the board generally and will gain all sorts of new commitments as time ticks on, which means you need to become as mindful and deliberate as possible about where your efforts are being directed. Have a think over the last week – are there any tasks and obligations that could have either been put off, handled more efficiently or simply said no to? If you don’t have to be at that weekly meeting because someone else can be there instead, organise to share the load. If you’re spending three hours a week pushing a buggy around supermarkets, consider a weekly online shop. School will bombard you with requests to make cakes, man stalls and raise sponsorship money at every opportunity, so just say no – sometimes or all the time – it’s not going to help or hinder your kid’s education. Practice being more ruthless with your calendar and you’ll be staggered how much slack you can create.
Talk goals and priorities with your manager. It’s so easy to let guilt, imposter syndrome and lack of self-esteem creep in when you have changed as a professional, which you do when you become a parent. You haven’t lost ‘you’ though and are still a massive asset to your team at work, but your goals and priorities may naturally have shifted. All you need to do to set things straight and let go of undue anxiety is have a conversation with your boss. How accountable you feel depends on the kind of employer you work for – if they don’t have supportive policies and a positive attitude towards change, they’re probably not the right employer for you. If they do, sit down and have a chat about creating new ways of working that serve a better purpose in your new reality.
Lean on available support. This seems so obvious, but is often one of the biggest barriers faced by working parents because most of us are gluttons for punishment who don’t like to ask for help. You know what? Get over yourself. If Susan from down the road offers to walk your kids to school sometimes, say yes. If you need to get something finished at work and don’t have time to pick up the kids, utilise that relentless WhatsApp group and organise an after-school playdate. If your in-laws tentatively suggest that they could have the baby on Tuesday afternoons, agree wholeheartedly and save yourself the childcare costs. Accepting help is not a weakness, it is what will keep you sane.
Finally, chill out. Most of us are in the same boat and those that don’t admit that sometimes they feel like they’re sinking aren’t telling the truth. Balancing career and family is not easy but it is doable and can be extremely rewarding. Be proud, you’re a successful working parent – one busy, fulfilled person rather than two separate entities, and you are definitely not alone.