Many people struggle with balancing full-time work and full-time parenting. What are the best ways to get the most out of both?
The work/family balance conundrum continues. In half of married families, both spouses work full time.
With productivity demands, unconventional workplaces and entrepreneurship on the rise, it is likely that the line between work and life is blurred for many.
So how do you achieve the right balance between work and family?
Answer: you don’t. At least not every day. Sometimes you will have to put in long hours at work at the expense of tucking your kids in at night, and at other times you’ll need backup at the office so you can coach a child’s soccer team.
A goal for overall balance is more attainable. The trick is finding out how to survive the day-to-day. What working parents find is that putting a few key strategies in place helps them do it.
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Prepare and Organize
If you’re organized, you’re ahead of the game. Julie Dance, who works in law enforcement, uses “a very thick planner, post-it notes, and different colored markers” to command her busy family’s schedule.
Writer Tony Staab relies on Cozi.com, an online calendar that’s shared with everyone in her family. “My online calendar is my life” she says. “It contains color-coded schedules for everyone for both work and personal right down to the dogs being due for vaccinations. It can be accessed by everyone, and updated by anyone with a cell phone.”
Nobody is more efficient with their time than a working parent. Laura Gerson, a sales rep, wakes up an hour before her kids to pay bills, answer emails and run her blog. When her kids get up, she focuses on them. During the workday she runs errands at lunch—there’s one luxury working parents get that at-home parents don’t: a lunch break.
To cut down on after-work chaos, make meal-planning your best friend. Take a little time before the week begins to create your menu plan based on the activity ahead, then get your groceries and post the meal plan so the whole family knows what to expect, and you don’t have to ask repeatedly, “What's for dinner?” In the evening, “everyone is hungry and tired, me included,” says marketing manager Summer Poquette, “if I have a dinner plan, it helps.”
The most popular tip from working parents is to hire help. “We are not super-human,” says Gerson. “We need help.”
Some kids go to daycare or a sitter, some families have a nanny. But think beyond childcare to other tasks that make your life easier and allow you more time for personal well-being. Grocery or prepared meal delivery. Lawn care. Housekeeping. Fluff and fold laundry. “My kids do not know who did the laundry and folded their towels,” says Marcy Massura, who works in branding, “and that gives me time on the weekends to spend with them.”
Melissa Angert takes this approach too. A social media strategist, she recommends, "hire out anything you can hire someone else to do for cheaper. I can pay someone to clean my house while I'm working. I pay that delivery fee for groceries rather than spend my Saturdays shopping and cleaning.”
When all of the adults in the house are pitching in to make the plan work, that’s great. It’s even better when children are old enough to participate, too. Writer Michelle Mears Gerst runs things like a coach. “We have more harmony in the household when everyone pulls their weight. Life gets out of balance when the team isn’t working as a team and someone is slacking.”
Suzanne Baase’s 10 year-old son has learned to become independent and helpful. “He is responsible for getting himself 100 percent ready to go,” says the association management consultant. “That includes his bags for practices and games, getting dressed, even making his own lunch (but I have been asked to help open a tricky lid from a rice container or can while in the shower).”
If you’re a working parent who feels guilty for not taking care of these things yourself, take heart. “My mom worked full time and I turned out a pretty independent, self sufficient kid,” recalls Cristie King. “Mine are a bit older now so I have fully embraced making them part of the everyday functioning of our household. It has changed my life.” One mom found that when she stopped apologizing, she felt better. “Everyone benefits from my job,” she says, “I gave myself permission to just have it.”
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If you can’t hire a team of household help to take those tasks off of your list, they just might not get done. “Accept that the house will be messy,” says Baase. Writer Pauline Campos has made peace with this, sharing “Either the work gets done and the refrigerator becomes a Petri dish because I don't have time to clean and the child is eating cereal three meals a day, or I'm cooking from scratch and the fridge is spotless and I haven't slept in two days and what's a deadline again?”
That said, you do need to find your own comfort level. “This was the year I let everything fall off my radar and just kind of said screw it,” confesses Meghan Shuster Harvey. “We missed events and did many last minute assignments. Not a fan. Going to have find my mojo again to do better next year.”
With all that attention to work and children, what about you? If you have a partner, remember to make time for him or her because your relationship matters. Not to mention time for yourself, for exercise, maintenance or simple alone time. Patricia Honea multi-tasks by riding her bike to and from work “to try to clear the mind.” Gerson budgets her weekend to include some “me-time.”
Kelly Whalen, a financial writer, suggests “Make sure to block off one to two days a week where you aren't working so you can really be in the moment with family and friends.” Online magazine editor April Pevetaux takes that idea a step further to benefit her own family. “We have to stop making weekend plans outside the family,” she shares. “It doesn't always work, but cutting it down really helps.” Angert’s plan is clear: “We have no phones/work from 6-8 pm—that's all family time.”
You can get even more strict about your time. “Learn to say NO to things that aren’t utterly necessary,” says Chelsea Nicole, an online publisher. Project manager Michelle Magoffin places limits too. “I only volunteer for one thing for each kid for each school year,” she says. Social work supervisor Leanne Ajanaku has “learned how to tell people that I can come to something but I will not be able to get there at the start time. After rushing to a surprise party on a Friday night after work, stressed out of my mind, I said never again.”
Sometimes chaos reigns, even in families that seem like the most well-oiled machines. When all else fails, tech designer Trina Finton reminds herself, "you just try and learn to laugh even when your heart aches.”
One more note: there are a lot of women’s names in this article. Lest you think no dads weighed in on how to maintain work/family balance, one did. Dennis Berry, business owner, had this advice: “Rum.”