Work life balance is supposedly the Holy Grail of working parents’ lives. It all sounds perfect, much like having it all did, but is it actually possible? We explore the whole work life balance concept.
The term itself has come in for some criticism. Critics say it suggests some sort of see saw where work is on one side and life on the other and that the two are totally separate when in fact they tend to encroach on each other all the time. You may find yourself in the toilets at the school disco, checking your emails, for instance, because something urgent has come up or ordering a replacement school shirt in the lunch hour. Moreover, when you are very, very tired, everything tends to blur into one. However, drawing a line between work and family life is what works for some people.
Those who question the term work life balance say it is unrealistic in modern life, particularly with the advent of technology. Technology frees you up to work from anywhere, but it also means you are reachable almost everywhere. They talk instead about work life integration. This allows you to pick up your kids after school and work late in the evening when the kids have gone to bed. It is a realistic response to combining a full time or near enough full-time work in a challenging job with seeing your children and has contributed to the fact that 9pm is now on of the busiest times of day for work emails.
Yet work life integration is not apparently the same as the juggle, which suggests that you have developed circus skills alongside parenting ones since you had children, which, of course, may well be the case. And it is not to be confused with the now derided ‘multitasking’ which suggests you are doing everything at once and mainly badly.
Whether you opt for work life integration, balance, juggling or multitasking what this is all about is stretching time so you can do everything you need to do without having to cut corners on the important stuff. So how do you achieve this? You could always sleep less, but research is increasingly showing the downsides of this – particularly if sleep loss becomes a regular pattern. However, you may be able to carve out a few extra minutes by getting up early or writing a novel while your baby is sleeping [it has been done] or while you are in the bath. It’s all a question of massaging time and taking out all the ridiculous stuff you did before you had children, such as getting dressed in real time, looking in the mirror or watching one whole film.
So how do you get to this nirvana of [slightly] reduced sleep, increased time and maximum efficiency? The secret is flexibility in all things. You just need to learn how to bend time to your own will. Simple. And remember that any plan to be flexible has itself to adapt to change. As a parent, change is something you will have to get used to. As soon as something becomes fixed, everything changes. To be a parent requires an ability to turn on a sixpence, to come up with a back-up back-up plan in seconds. Being able to adapt to circumstances is vital and that will depend very much on what your circumstances actually are – the level of free support you have, the job you do, the sector your work in, the amount you earn and therefore the paid support you can afford and so on.
To truly win yourself more time, you need to look at the wider picture. The first steps are to look at where you are, what you want, what works for your situation and what it might take to get there. That means, of course, having the time to take a step back. It may seem like this is a chicken and egg situation and it may take you several years of snatching moments such as when you are lying on the floor holding your child’s hand because they can’t get to sleep without you cuddling them up, but you will get there in the end.
What are the possibilities work wise? Can you get extra flexibility at work or look for a new more flexible job? Being able to put the case effectively means having not just the time but the space to think through a good strategy. You need somewhere with minimum interference from small people. The bath is a good idea, provided you have a lock on the bathroom or you could find yourself drifting off while watching Peppa Pig for the 1100th time. Make sure there is always a handy notebook and functioning pen or pencil nearby at all times. Chances are someone has snaffled it and you have to write down your great thoughts with a broken crayon.
If all your thoughts and plans come to a dead end because your job cannot accommodate the flexibility you need, then it is worth considering alternatives. You will not be alone. There is retraining, starting a business, going freelance, franchising… Most people running their own business work round the clock, especially in the early days, but the clock is set by them so they can often integrate to their hearts’ content. The idea is to work like crazy in the first years, then sit back and delegate so you can have more time to spend with your kids when they are just about to leave home.
When in doubt use your contacts and freelance or create a “portfolio” career of different part-time or freelancing work. Of course, that means you will never be able to say no to anything in case work dries up and you may end up working on holiday, but you will be more in charge of your own timetable.
True work life balance is about essentially being more in charge of the scales. Everyone has their own interpretation, their own red lines, their own idea of what works and, even so, that can often change. In the end, there is no perfect set of words to describe it, but we all know what it feels like when we don’t have it.