Trying, Failing, and Trying Again to Balance Parenthood and Your Career
If everything had gone as I’ve always planned, I’d be writing this article on a quiet workday in my pleasant home office. I’d have gone on a long walk in the woods before starting work sharply at 7 am (I'm definitely a morning person). I’d have made progress on a big project, and I’d have stayed at my desk until my to-do list was cleared. At 8 pm, I’d have wine and popcorn for dinner. I’d fall asleep thinking, “I got a lot done today!”
But things haven’t gone as I’ve always planned. This morning, I wiped yogurt out of a two-year-old’s eyebrows. I negotiated with a four-year-old about the volume of faucet water needed to dampen her toothbrush. I finally sat down at my desk at 9:15 am when they were off to preschool. I am older than you are, and I am now helping raise my two grandchildren. My 30-year journey of juggling parenthood and my career has been re-upped.
Juggling Parenthood and Overwhelmed
And while I can’t say I am completely happy about this development, I’m not completely unhappy, either. (Note to your future self: you’ll have one of the great love affairs of your life with your grandchildren. It’s even better than you think it’ll be.) What I am is overwhelmed. Again. Like the first time, with my own kids. I’m a veteran entrepreneur, self-employed for 25 years, and I’m back to that torn feeling I had when my own kids were little. How can I split myself into two pieces—one for my career and one for my kids—only to find that both halves are too small? How can I relinquish those hours of power and creativity I want to give to my business to the mindlessness of doing laundry or reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the thousandth time. How can I do both?
Well, here’s what I know. I can do both, but I can’t do both equally well at the same time. Juggling parenthood and my career means being less good at one of those roles for a certain period of time. Sometimes, I’ll find myself in danger of losing a big, lucrative contract because I can’t give 110% to my career. And sometimes I’ll have to just be okay-ish at my job because my grandchildren are living with me.
Tips for Finding Your Balance with Remote Work and Parenting
Here’s the trick. You’ve got to be prepared to juggle parenthood and your career. You’ve got to recognize when both sides are tugging you too hard and have a strategy for easing your responsibilities on one side, so you can attend to the other. You’ve got to be willing to let one go a little, so the other can thrive.
Here are my suggestions. I’ve used each of these approaches at one time or another. And with two preschoolers in my home, I’m using them again.
- If money can fix the problem, spend money. I believe that life’s problems fall into two categories: the ones money can fix, and the ones money cannot fix. When a parenthood or career problem can be fixed by spending money, spend it. For example, if it’s your company’s busy season, and you’re simply overstretched at work, hire a temp. That’s a work problem money can fix. If you feel like you’re failing your family because you’ve served frozen pizza for dinner several nights in a row, that’s a parenthood problem money can fix. For the next month, order a weekly meal kit. I’m not being glib about spending money. I know money is tight at work and at home. But we should be grateful if we have problems money can fix because the other kind are more serious. If spending money can help you juggle, find the money and spend it for a short time. The relief is worth it.
- The more you juggle, the more you’re learning about juggling. Use what you learn. Throughout your life, you’re juggling lots of things, not just career and parenthood. At work, you have learned to juggle your goals and your boss’s goals. You know how to juggle competing business development risks, such as taking on too much work or having too little. At home, you’ve learned how to juggle your parents’ needs and your in-laws’ needs. You’ve figured out how to explain to your private-school-loving friends why you’re sending your kids to public school. You’ve learned how to stay close to your college friends even though you don’t share the same lifestyle anymore. Juggling parenthood and your career isn’t a different kind of juggling, so use what you’ve learned in other aspects of your life.
- You have no free time. Grieve it and get over it. You’re right. Before kids, you had time to go for a run, read a novel, or watch a whole movie from start to finish. Accept that your free time is gone…for now. It won’t be gone forever. The kid who hated Dr. Seuss books turns out to love Harry Potter. That’s an hour of quiet right there, and you can now watch half of that movie you wanted to see! The employer that forbade telecommuting now allows it, so you’re working at home every Thursday. Without the long commute, you’ve got time for a jog. It’s easier to endure the loss of your free time—and your favorite activities—if you tack the words “for now” to the end of your sad statements. Try saying, “I hate that I have no time to go to the gym…for now” or “I have to postpone that weekend getaway with friends again…for now.” Waiting to get your free time back is almost as hard as losing your free time, but try to do your waiting with grace.
- Let things slip. If you can’t do it all, stop trying to do it all. Let your less important responsibilities go. Accept the fact that you are deliberately being less good at some things. For example, let’s say you always send a prospect a box of company swag and a handwritten note after a meeting, but the swag seems kind of outdated and you’re struggling to find time to write the note. Let this business habit slip. Send the outdated swag and write “So great to speak with you!” on every card. That’s good enough. And yes, there are some parenthood responsibilities you can let slip. You don’t have to go to every single one of your kid’s soccer games. I said what I said.
- Ask for what you need. From your employer and your family. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, but you know what would bring you down to just “whelmed” or even “ok,” let your employer or your family know what you need. Ask! Say this to your boss: “I can handle the web redesign project this year, but I’m going to need some help. Could Jason manage our three subcontractors? That would enable me to focus on our redesign.” Say this to your spouse: “It’s taking about an hour to get Katy’s free reading done every night, and to complete the free reading log. Could you do it on Tuesdays and Thursdays? That will give me about 30 minutes more at the end of my workday.” Yes, asking is risky. Your boss could say no and think less of you because you asked. Your spouse could say no, which would be disappointing and the source of painful thoughts about whether parenthood responsibilities are fairly shared. On the other hand, they could both say yes.
- Have an unconventional work life, an unconventional family life, or both. It’s harder to balance parenthood and career when you’re trying to do both in the typical, picture-perfect way. So reject the typical. Be unconventional. At work, reject the conventional 9 to 5. Work 9:30 am to 3 pm and 7:30 – 9 pm if that’s better for you. Or step off the corporate ladder altogether and go to work for your county government or a nonprofit. Your salary will take a hit, and you won’t get to impress your ex at your twentieth high school reunion, but your workdays will be more predictable and your family will be happier. Or be an unconventional modern-day parent. Sign your kid up for one extracurricular activity, not three. Let your fifth-grader walk the half mile home from school, so you can skip the carpool. Give yourself a time out when your kid misbehaves instead of giving the kid a time out. If doing things the way everyone else does them is a burden, don’t do them that way.
Juggling parenthood and career can be heartbreaking because you want to be great at your job, and you owe your kids every effort to be great at home. It’s a huge challenge, but it isn’t the same kind of huge challenge week in and week out. Your job changes. Your kids change. In the difficult times, stay steady. Remind yourself that you can do almost any difficult thing for a short time. Consider the difficult times a type of “30-day trial period.” Do your best to cope for 30 days, then find a new way to move forward.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, two small people would like to hear The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the thousand-and-first time.