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Your Work/Life Questions, Answered

by Hollee Schwartz Temple | January 23, 2012 | Work/Life Balance

We asked for your burning work/life balance questions, and you delivered. Thank goodness! We need a public conversation on work/life issues, especially because so many parents consider the work/life juggle to be one of life’s most pressing concerns. The National Study of the Changing Workforce reports that when employees work for flexible and effective companies, they’re healthier and more satisfied. Yet it’s hard to find that ideal match – in the past decade, the levels of work-family interference and negative spillover from work to home haven’t let up, with more than 40 percent of respondents indicating “some” or “a lot” of interference. And the most recent report shows an increase in employees who feel deprived of time for themselves and time with their children. So what can we do about it? I hope these answers will take you a step closer to a satisfying work/life fit.

Q from Muñeqa: I have 3 sons (12 years, 9 years, and 19 months), and for years now I’ve been working full time while going to school part time (14-hour days between the two). I rarely have free time, and when I do it’s usually spent fulfilling responsibilities (cleaning, homework, etc.). Under these circumstances, what are some practical ways that I can connect with my boys to let them know that while I’m busy, I’m never “too” busy for them?

A: First, give yourself a pat on the back for all that you’re tackling! A full-time job plus part-time schoolwork would be a lot for anyone to navigate, let alone a mom with three boys. Way to go! Next, remember that you are setting a great example for your sons; I am sure your work ethic is rubbing off. And while it’s good for kids to know that we will always make time for them, it’s important for them to recognize that we have other commitments, too.

Now some tips for connecting. Parenting experts agree that kids don’t need us to be perfect – they just need to know that we’re listening and that we care. Given your time constraints, look for ways to engage with the boys while you’re taking care of business, so to speak. When you’re driving to an activity or even to the grocery store, you can inquire about their lives. (Hint: This is more easily accomplished if you forbid “screens” in the car!) Your older kids can certainly help with the cooking and cleaning – and that can be a time to connect. And how about mealtimes? At our house, each family member shares the high points and challenges from the day during dinners, and everyone has to participate! Just by initiating this simple step, we’ve created a tradition that shows we’re listening.

Q from Betsy: I’m the mother to a wonderful 6-year-old boy. I have two jobs (one of which I can do from home), volunteer at our church as a religious education teacher, and my son is involved in Cub Scouts, T-ball, religious-education on Sat. mornings, etc. How do you know when you and your child are taking on too much? What are some signs that you’re “overbooking” your schedules?

A: It sounds like you’re leading a very full life, Betsy! And I’m sure your son is benefitting from the activities. So I think the answer to this question depends on how you feel about what you’ve taken on. Do you look forward to these commitments? Do they keep you from other priorities? Do you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day?

Some people thrive on being busy; too much “down time” doesn’t feel right. On the other hand, there’s a lot of pressure today to get kids involved in activities from a very young age. Case in point: When my son started piano at 8 years old, he was given a book for “late starters”! Really? A generation ago, that was considered to be an ideal age to begin music lessons.

So to answer your question directly, I think you’re only overbooked if you feel overwhelmed. Take a gut check and if you need to cut back a bit, don’t let it bother you. It’s important not to take on projects because you “feel like you should.” Choose your priorities and you’ll be happier for it!

Q from Nina: My daughter is nine months old and believe me…, it has been a never-ending journey! When would be the right time frame for me to start working?

A: I hope you are enjoying this special time with your daughter; the first year is filled with so many milestones. It’s also a challenging time of adjustment (and sleep deprivation in many instances).

Returning to work is a very personal decision, and the cost-benefit analysis for every family will be different. For instance, in some careers, moms and dads can take extended leaves without suffering professionally. In others, a long break could be career suicide. So that would certainly affect a family’s decision-making.

The financial repercussions are also a big part of the equation.

And are you missing your work? Kids can thrive in a multitude of child care arrangements, so don’t let “mother guilt” keep you from returning. Kids need healthy parents, and many of us are happier and healthier when we’re engaged professionally. If you consider all of these factors, the answer should become more clear. Good luck!

Q from Cristina: I would like to know some information on how to get a good balance when you’re a working mom of an active three-year-old and you’re dealing with a chronic illness too?

A: First, I am impressed that you are prioritizing work/life balance while also managing your health concerns. You have a lot on your plate.

It’s very stressful not to know how you’re going to feel from day to day, so try not to put extra pressure on yourself to perform tasks or engage in activities that you’re not really passionate about. Your three-year-old doesn’t need lots of outings if you’re not up to it – give yourself permission to stay home if that will help you feel better.

Similarly, working parents shouldn’t feel that they need to “make up” for time lost while at work by cramming activity into every spare minute off the clock. In fact, you probably need some “mom” time to yourself – for a girls’ night, massage, or just some free time to enjoy a book.

Be sure not to fall into the comparison trap, wondering how you stack up against other moms. The “perfect” mom who seems to be able to do everything effortlessly is really a composite that we’re creating in our minds – she doesn’t really exist!

Hollee Schwartz Temple is the co-author of Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood (Harlequin, spring 2011). She frequently speaks on work/life balance issues for corporations, universities, and women’s groups.