Pop quiz: what’s the easiest part about balancing work and family?
Sorry, trick question. There isn’t an “easy” part. And there isn’t one right way to do it, either. There’s a whole spectrum of approaches ranging from “practically ignoring my family” to “practically ignoring work”. The operative word here is balance.
Finding the habits, hacks, rules, and rituals that work for you and yours is a process of trial and error that starts the moment you become a parent and never really ends. (A similar work-life balance striking ratio occurs when taking care of aging parents, too. People who are doing both – that is, caring for children and aging parents – are often referred to as the “sandwich generation.”)
Take your intrepid co-authors, for example. You’d think that with our combined 19 years as working parents, we’d have this whole work and family balance thing mastered. Nope. Jamey still lets the temptation of checking in with work get the better of him, particularly when he should be focusing on the kids. Paradoxically, he has the freedom to indulge that focus because of a supportive work culture, and yet work’s siren call continues to tempt. (And affects his moods.) And Sarah, a full-time remote worker, can’t seem to get her kindergartener to stop making impromptu cameo appearances in video calls, short of barricading her office door – which, according to the fire marshal, is a bad idea.
Despite the ever-shifting nature of the ideal work-family balance (imagine the scales of justice, one tray piled high with mac and cheese, the other paper clips) there is one thing we’ve discovered: the proper frame of mind gives you the best foundation. It helps for reducing stress, avoiding burnout, and rolling with the punches.
In a sense, the secret to balancing work and family is all in your head.
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Start with radical self-acceptance
As caregivers, our job is to love those in our care and help them thrive. Occasionally, we might notice a colleague or neighbor and think, “Wow! Their work and family game is on point. How can I be as good as they are?” Comparing your career or family life to another working parent’s is a dangerous game. Fact is, you don’t really know all the ins and outs of that person’s struggle to achieve balance.
Every family has unique circumstances and values that shape both the way they approach the balance between work and family life. Maybe the picture-perfect parents on Instagram have access to resources you don’t, or have jobs that are inherently more flexible than yours. No matter. There’s nothing you can do about that, and it certainly doesn’t make you or your family “less than.”
Accepting yourself and your unique situation is not only okay, but it’s also essential for peace of mind. The poise you gain from self-acceptance equips you to make better, more thoughtful decisions about what you need. Like whether now’s the right time to go all-in for that promotion vs. start leading your daughter’s Girl Scout troop.
Radical self-acceptance also comes in handy when weathering your toddler’s third tantrum in twenty minutes, by the way.
Adopt a growth mindset
Self-acceptance doesn’t mean being complacent. You still want to move your career forward, be an amazeballs parent, and feel less overwhelmed while doing it, right? That’s where a growth mindset comes in.
Jamey realized something while walking his kids home from school one afternoon. Although his team was well aware of his routine, and usually took note of his “kid pick-up” status message (alerting them to potential slow-to-respond communications) he still felt oddly compelled to keep working from his phone. Distracted, he found himself unnecessarily short-tempered and not fully present during what should have been quality time with his kids. In essence, he was over-indexing on the work side of the equation at the expense of the family side. Oops.
This was particularly irksome to him when he realized (usually when feeling guilty about being too short-tempered) that nothing he was checking in on needed tending to right then. He could very easily have waited the mere fifteen minutes it takes to get home, get the kids set up with cheese sticks and apple slices, and then replied properly.
A growth mindset is all about a willingness to improve. It’s about taking on challenges knowing you won’t nail them the first time, and learning from your efforts. As a parent and employee, you will screw up sometimes and you will make decisions that turn out to be wrong. Your first instinct will be to feel like crap about it. But wallowing in guilt doesn’t un-do the mistake or help you move forward. The important thing is to be aware of what’s happening, be honest about the situation, and evaluate your choices and decisions. Then, try something else. You learn from it and keep trying.
Continuous improvement is the name of the game. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s the growth mindset. It requires humility, openness, and a desire to get better.
Think “we”, not “me”
Balancing work and family is tricky, there’s no doubt about it. But if you view it as a battle, you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Instead of thinking of it as “me against them”, think of it as “me with them.” That is, you and your children, you and your teammates.
For this, a collaborative mindset helps in a couple of ways. First, the positivity it engenders takes your stress level down a notch all by itself. Moreover, asking someone to partner with you makes them feel included, useful, and valued – especially kids. Whereas so much of life is happening beyond them, in the “adult world” of hard decisions, money, and responsibilities, you’re inviting them to join you there and help you make choices. Suddenly, in the snap of your fingers, they’re invested in your success – your mutual success.
At work, recruiting your teammates as collaborators might be as simple as letting them know that your daycare now closes 30 minutes earlier, and asking for help figuring out a way for you to adjust your schedule without making things difficult for the team. You might not immediately recognize it as such, but this is the very essence of open way of working.
For instance, let’s say you’re going through a rough patch at home and it’s affecting your work. Rather than conceal it, let your boss know and explain that, as much as you’re trying to leave your worries at the door, you’re just not feeling your usual energetic self right now. Most people respond to vulnerability with generosity. Chances are, your boss will offer to help out however they can.
Opening up works at home, too. Telling your child that work was stressful and you could use their support sends a strong message: you not only trust them with your feelings, but view them as capable, caring, and able to contribute. It’s incredibly validating to a child.
Stacey Delo, author of Your Turn: Careers, Kids and Comebacks – A Working Mother’s Guide talks about the need to communicate with “key stakeholders” when it comes to work-life balance. Included, but often overlooked, are your kids. Not only is it helpful to talk with children about how what you do contributes to the family’s resources, but it’s good for them to see you working toward a goal.
“There’s value in modeling hard work put toward something you’re passionate about,” says Stacey. “When our book launched, we brought our kids to the launch events so they could share in the excitement and see the hard work coming to fruition. It helped them feel more connected to the work, too.”
Communicating with kids also will help you prioritize when it comes to spending time with them. “I’ve raced across town countless times,” says Stacey, “cutting meetings short, to make it to the school on time for pick up, only to hear, ‘But we wanted to stay for after-care!’” Find out what really matters to your kids and make plans accordingly. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress (and guilt).
Partnering with your family doesn’t always have to be about heavy stuff, though. For example, Sarah finds that having the kids help plan a menu for the week dramatically reduces dinnertime battles, even if she doesn’t end up serving corn dogs and pizza each night (which she most certainly does not).
This also works for things like figuring out how to fit homework, chores, errands, little league games, and time for fun into your weekend. (Tetris, anyone?) It can even work for bigger things like planning a family vacation. The fact that they get to participate makes them feel heard and puts them on your side. Bring them in as collaborators and they’ll be better cooperators.
Jamey and his wife recently started Sunday night family meetings. They have a round of acknowledgments where everyone gets to say something nice about one another (call the cuteness police!), then share what they’re looking forward to in the coming week, and things they’ll try to improve on. Because the kids feel included, they’re bought in on all the “do betters” and the whole week goes more smoothly.
Take the long view
There will be times when you devote more energy to your job, knowing that it means you’ll have less time for tea parties and heart-to-hearts before bedtime at home. There will also be times when your family needs you and your career takes a backseat. Don’t panic. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at being a working parent. These are just short-term trade-offs you’re making as you pursue longer-term goals. And hopefully, you have a supportive work culture that understands the ebb and flow.
It takes courage to lean into one side of the work-family equation for a while and trust that you’ll be able to restore the balance later. But if you’re making that choice thoughtfully and intentionally, chances are, you’re capable of handling whatever happens next. Be patient with yourself through these times. The quest for the right balance between work and family is a long and noble one. Be patient with yourself, keep trying, and eventually, you’ll find your holy grail.