Work life balance is a myth. 5 tips to create family and career integration.
If you’re a working mother then you’ve no doubt been striving for this elusive thing called ‘work life balance’. I know I have, and like so many other professional mums, I’ve fallen short of my unrealistic expectations on many occasions. For years however, I didn’t know that my expectations were unrealistic. I thought ‘balance’ was achievable and that to get ‘it’ I just had to find out the missing link, hustle harder, attain some out of reach yogi mind state or manage my diary more effectively. There are mums out there who have it together on this front right? Well I thought so. And what is balance anyway and what was I actually striving for? What did these perfectly ‘balanced’ working super mums know that I didn’t?
Firstly let’s take a look at a couple of definitions for the word ‘balance’:
• ‘ a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions’
• ‘offset or compare the value of one thing with another: “the cost of obtaining such information needs to be balanced against its benefits”
• a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight amount, etc
I don’t know how comfortable I am with words such as ‘equal’, ‘cost’, ‘correct’ and ‘compare’ when it comes to two important elements of my one life. My family and my career will never be separated in to two nicely divided and equal parts that correctly or evenly carry the same value to me. It’s just not doable and I realise that for the last 11 years I’ve been striving for something that I don’t agree with and don’t want anyway. So this whole work life balance thing is a myth that we mothers have fallen in to the trap of believing is true and attainable. It’s not.
A more realistic concept that I have come to embrace in to my life is ‘family and career integration’. This idea works on the premise that I am one person with one holistic life managing multiple responsibilities within a 24 hour day. For the 8 to 10 hours of those 24 that I am in the office, I don’t stop being a mum or wife and so I have stopped trying to pretend that I’m not. On the flip side, when I step in to the lift to head home, I don’t walk away from my work responsibilities. I take them with me.
I have stopped trying to compartmentalise home from work and have aimed at weaving them together. For me, this concept works, for others, I appreciate that it may not. Things seem to flow better for my career and my family when I operate from this state of mind. Now, I realise that I am in a very fortunate position with my work in that I have been able to create a very functional and flexible arrangement with my employer. I hold a reasonably senior position and have autonomy and decision making abilities within my organisation that allow me to operate in the way that I do. Having said that, the flexibility that I now have, that enables me to successfully integrate my career and family life, wasn’t handed to me on a platter and it didn’t come easy. I had to fight for it, earn it and create it.
The story behind how I managed to create my flexible arrangement is perhaps for a future post. For now though, here are my top 5 tips for integrating your career and family life and for letting go of the work life balance myth.
1. Use one diary to schedule work appointments, personal meetings, kids school and sports activities, and social events. I previously use to have one diary for my work commitments and a home calendar for all of our personal events. Having just one place where all of this information is stored, means that I am less likely to forget anything and I can make an assessment on whether I am overloading the schedule based on the movements of the whole family. Before I commit or say yes to anything I take a broader view on what is going on in our home and at work.
2. Embrace mobile technology but learn to manage it well. When you are at home, away from the office or with the kids during work hours, schedule blocks of time for when you will check email or remotely log on to your PC. Don’t fall in to the habit of constantly checking your email otherwise it will take over your entire day and your mind will be at work even if you aren’t physically there.
3. Take the kids in to the office every now and then. If this is a possibility for you then I recommend trying it out. Depending on the ages of your children, they will develop an understanding and connection to what you do if they know where you go each day. When they see you working or taking a phone call from home, they will more readily accept the interruption to your time and focus. Likewise, your company or immediate team are more likely to embrace a family friendly attitude if you normalise being a working parent. Being open, transparent and authentic as a working mum has resulted in me being able to let go of guilt when I have said no to attending a meeting at a time when I needed to be somewhere for one of my girls.
4. Manage your time across all 24 hours of the day. This one can be tricky and very much dependent on your work arrangements and how willing your organisation is to embrace flexibility. Traditional hours of 9:00 to 5:00 are thankfully changing. If you have the flexibility and autonomy to spread your work hours across your week as you see fit, then you are very fortunate. For most employees, flexibility it not a given but you can start implementing the concept in small ways. For example, if you have a dentist appointment for your child at 3:30 in the afternoon, approach your boss about taking the time out to go to the appointment and then ask to make up those hours later that night rather than take the time as annual leave. Not all jobs will allow for this approach, but if yours does and you have the technology to support you, then try it out. Overtime, trust will be built, and assuming your work performance doesn’t suffer, you can perhaps introduce more instances of working hours during non-traditional times.
5. Create healthy boundaries. Having boundaries is critical in being able to effectively manage your time and priorities, and therefore, work with this concept of career and family life integration. According to Brene Brown, a boundary quite simply is, ‘what is ok and what is not ok’. To integrate, means to mesh or weave together, and so having boundaries when it comes to career and family life integration does not mean having hard lines around compartments of your life. It means being clear on what is and is not ok for you in your unique circumstances. For example, a boundary relating to work might be around hours that you determine to be suitable to be contacted by colleagues when you are away from the office. Or it may relate to the amount of pressure you are willing to accept or not which will determine choices that you make about how much work you are prepared to take on. A boundary may relate to the personal time you give to yourself for rest and relaxation or to how the domestic load is distributed amongst all members of the family. Having clear and healthy boundaries equals empowerment. It means that you stop hustling for approval and for the mythical balance. When you have boundaries, you claim your right to make choices that are the best for you. You are able to practice self-love, show compassion and give to others without feelings of resentment.