If you counted the number of books and self-help articles on the topic of work-life balance, you’d have a number roughly equal to the amount of sleep you’ve lost raising children.
In other words, it’s a lot.
Work-life balance is such a hot topic because parents are attempting to make their work and personal lives play nicely. Work-life balance decides how we prioritize our time and energy.
While that may seem like a straightforward process, a sneaky thing called “other people’s expectations” slips in and makes it complicated. Add in convincing the people around you, i.e., your boss and your family, and suddenly work-life balance seems impossible.
The good news is that there’s no definitive guide on work-life balance. If someone claims they’ve developed one, they’re lying. Work-life balance will look different for every person/couple/family. Every family is different, and their needs are unique.
So ignore the Joneses. Unsubscribe to the unicorn of an idea the internet keeps serving up to you. For a work-life balance plan to work, it needs to be based on you and no one else.
Let’s talk this out.
Remember: Quality Over Quantity
Before we even get started discussing ways to achieve balance, let’s address the elephant in the room. For so many parents, making what they would consider to be substantial changes to their work-life balance may be impossible. So many of the strategies we’ll list depend on other people helping you achieve your goal of balance. When no one will help or cooperate, it can feel like a dead end.
- Single parents can’t depend on a spouse or partner to help them make changes.
- Some employers will not budge on flexible schedules or additional time off.
- Children with disabilities, health issues, etc., may require any extra time a parent has.
In the end, remember … the quality of the time you spend with your child matters more than the quantity of time. Don’t fret over the time you didn’t have with your family. Instead, focus on making the moments you have with them count. As long as they are your priority — and they understand that — your efforts won’t go in vain.
Sit Down, Have the Talk, Be Honest
Change to your work-life balance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Too many other people directly affect your ability to find equilibrium. So sit down with your spouse, family, and friends to have a soul-searching conversation about finding balance.
(Don’t talk to your boss just yet. Your options with family will be more flexible and easier to implement. More on the talk with work in a moment.)
In this conversation …
- Be honest. Before evaluating anything, enter into the discussion with honesty. Forming the balanced life you’re looking for can’t happen if you’re idealistic or dishonest with yourself about the hard facts before you.
- You can’t leave early every Friday to spend time with family if you don’t have PTO. (Work)
- You can’t get an early start at work if you have to drop off your kids at a certain time. (Family)
- Don’t plan on answering emails during bath time if you’re the kind of person who can’t stop working once they’ve started. (Personal)
- Be clear. Each person involved is going to feel differently about what “balance” means for them. Oftentimes, things like the way a person was raised or whether they are a mother or father has a lot of influence on their work-life opinions. Don’t assume everyone is on the same page. Clarify.
- Recognize the “immovables.” What limitations do you face that either are permanent or important enough that working around them is futile? This ties back to being honest about your limitations, but now you can get specific about what those limitations are. You may also be surprised to find that small things, such as a 20-minute episode of your favorite show, become “immovable.” If that show raises your spirits in a way nothing else can, keep it!
- Recognize the “toss-aways.” What things are clogging up your life that you can discard easily without too much fuss? Again, be honest!
Objectively (and Creatively) Make a Plan
Once you’ve talked things out with the key people in your life, it’s time to turn your list into a customized plan. Based on what can’t change and what can’t be easily tossed out, what kind of work-life balance can you achieve? How does that compare to the balance you want?
And don’t be hesitant to use all of the tools at your disposal. Does your work offer time off? Take it! Is your boss open to you setting your own schedule? Do it! Do you have a neighbor who can take your kids to school or pick them up so you don’t feel the need to check your emails at the dinner table? Ask them!
This is where opinion-creep can start to happen. Don’t adjust your plan because you think a mom blogger on the internet won’t agree or because your balance looks differently from your best friend’s. This plan is for you and your family, which means it won’t look like anyone else’s.
When you get done with your plan, you may have something you can act on immediately. You may also find that there are some big issues that are getting in the way of achieving what you want. It could mean finding a new job, cutting back on commitments or activities that drain you, or renegotiating responsibilities with your spouse. Take a deep breath, be brave, and do what you need to do to have the balance you’ve discovered is important for you and your family.
Talk to Your Boss
Once you have direction with your personal life and the balance you want to strike there, it’s time to have the talk with your boss or manager. It goes without saying that this can be a tricky thing to navigate.
Before you send that email or set up a meeting, know what kinds of options you already have as an employee. That shows your boss that you’ve done your homework and are serious about finding a viable solution to finding balance at work.
Try to frame the conversation so that your boss doesn’t feel like you’re making demands. Most employers are looking for ways to maximize their staff’s ability to work, so making suggestions on how to change that work may put them on the defensive. If you can provide them with reasons on how your proposed change makes life better for everyone, you’ll have a better chance of finding the balance you’re looking for.
If you’ll be working long hours no matter what, ask your boss to help you find ways to put those hours toward projects that truly excite you. That way, you’re not drained emotionally at the end of the day having spent eight hours working on something you hate.
Through this process, you may come to the conclusion that you can’t find the balance you want working at your current job. If you decide to look for new employment, keep your work-life balance in mind as you interview. You may not be able to ask the question, “How much paid time off do you offer?” but you can ask about company culture, expected workloads, and if the position is salaried or hourly. All of those factors play into the demand the job may place on your after-hours.
Balance Is Seasonal
Life isn’t static, so a static gameplan will only frustrate and deflate you. Doctor appointments, freak weather, or pandemics (anyone?) can derail even the most thought-out plan.
Instead of thinking about this plan as something that dictates your daily life forever, think of it as the plan you have for this season in your life. As your kids grow, the balance you strike will be different. Changing job responsibilities or career paths will alter your work-life balance in immense ways. Your game plan for today may not be compatible with what happens down the road.
So this plan isn’t set in stone. You may not have time to go to the gym seven days a week now, but what healthy activities can you do instead that work with your priorities? Again, get creative. The plan is really just a way to get you in the mindset of valuing the balance between work, family, and self.
Give Yourself a Break
To wrap things up, remember not to fall into the trap of …
- Comparing yourself to others. (They’re probably faking it.)
- Thinking you’ve missed the mark. (One universal method of work-life balance does not exist. Not every suggestion is good or applicable to your situation.)
- Discarding your whole plan when it’s not working. (Instead, retool it. The specifics of your goal may need to change, but the desire to find balance between your work life and personal life is admirable and healthy.)
Not showing yourself compassion in this process does no one any good. Keep at it, roll with the punches, and know that this tension will exist until your kids become adults.