A good friend of mine once took a new job when her son was 15 months old, explaining that the new position was an important career opportunity, and she felt she needed to take advantage of it. She had full-time childcare in place, so the transition wasn’t as challenging as it might have been if she only had part-time childcare or none at all. Nevertheless, it still meant choosing to work more intensely, which translated to more hours away from her family, plus travel.
“You’re leaning in,” I joked, referring to Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, based on the idea that women should throw themselves fully into both work and parenthood, if that’s what they want to do.
A year later, my friend left her job to consult and have a second child. She still has the pedal to the metal, but she also has more flexibility and says she is happier.
Meanwhile, CNN reporter Josh Levs has written a book entitled Stretch Out about his struggle to secure more paternal leave before his third child was born. It will be published by HarperCollins in 2015. Levs’ situation brings focus to the ways in which fathers struggle with work-life balance and is a reminder that everyone needs to be at the table when we’re talking about parenting and work.
All parents struggle with work-life balance. When you consider that many parents work two jobs just to pay the bills, it can seem like a luxury to even think about leaning in, leaning back or stretching out. As we consider how we might make our society a more equitable one, we can also take steps to find balance in our own lives.
Be kind to yourself
“Women, regardless of their financial circumstances, feel like they have to do everything perfectly,” says NY-based life coach Stefanie Ziev, who regularly appears on the Today show. “It gets in the way of being in the moment. Whether we’re mothers or working full-time or both, we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, and that pressure is debilitating.”
Ziev recommends observing what it feels like when you’re putting pressure on yourself. “Then silence your inner mean girl and be your own BFF,” she says. “Figure out what you need and ask for help, because you are worth it. You cannot do everything by yourself, and that’s OK.”
Prepare for time off
In her book, Sandberg encourages women to stay focused on work until they absolutely must take time off (to care for a newborn, for example). If at all possible, she suggests preparing for family leave by tying up loose ends or lining up projects to begin when you’re back at the office. Doing so can lessen stress, allowing you to enjoy your time off.
Time off isn’t always easy to come by. In Levs’ case, he had to fight for more time off with his family, and many parents are unable to take time off at all. In those situations, focusing on your plan for childcare and minimizing other commitments and stressors will ease your transition from vacation to work, or help you identify opportunities for leave.
Everyone’s priorities are different. Some parents want more hours with their kids; others need a few more babysitting hours each week to make time for contract work. If you’re fortunate enough to have a choice, focus on what you want most.
Likewise, because there simply aren’t enough hours in each day to clean your house, stock your fridge, cook meals, exercise, work, volunteer and get your children to and from school and activities, it’s important to choose the things that mean the most to you and figure out how and when to handle the rest. Maybe you focus on work and your kids on weekdays and handle household chores on weekends, or get groceries once a week at 8pm and trade cooking duties with your partner a few nights a week.
“Maybe grocery shopping is a family activity on Saturday morning,” says Ziev. “At summer camp, we all had chores every day, and it was a team effort, which made it fun. Make doing chores a family event by making it into a game or using rewards.”
It’s easy to feel like others are judging you for having an untidy house or for ordering take-out, but you have to figure out for yourself what you can handle and learn to brush off criticism. It’s OK if the house doesn’t get picked up every day and if volunteer work has to take a backseat to work obligations.
“Ask for what you need and feel worthy of receiving it,” says Ziev. “If you need cleaning or babysitting help and can pay for the help, great. If you can’t afford it, ask your partner and your kids to help you. Everyone needs to pitch in.”
“If you’re having trouble convincing yourself or your partner to hire a cleaning person or a babysitter, remember that your time is worth a lot,” explains Ziev. “If you bring someone in to clean your house, it’s maybe $30 an hour, and it frees you up for other things.”
Parents of young children often sacrifice sleep, so Ziev suggests taking simple, easy steps to get a little more, even just once a week.
“If you’re operating from a depleted place, you’re not much good to anyone,” says Ziev. “Even if you can work with your partner and kids to get a little more sleep just one day a week, like six hours instead of four, that will put a little more gas in your tank.”
Fill up your tank
What energizes you? The right balance of work and family time? A daily run? Regular manicures?
“Giving yourself permission to replenish is so key in being more present and effective,” says Ziev. “Build in self-time because if you are not full, you cannot provide for others. Acknowledge that you can’t always do it, but if there is a time during the week when you can recalibrate, find a way to make it happen, and ask for help to do that.”
Give yourself credit
Give yourself credit for what you accomplish each day and spend less time fretting over your to-do list.
“Perfection is the enemy of done,” says Ziev. “It’s also the enemy of joy. It’s a scene-stealer. Acknowledge what you accomplish each day and move on. If you have five minutes with your kids, just enjoy it. Don’t waste it judging yourself.”
Live your values
What are three values that embody you? Maybe it’s generosity, humor and connection. What activities help you feel connected to those values? Volunteering regularly—even if it’s just once a year—can make you feel like you’re giving to others. Thanking others for their kindness verbally, with a gift, or by repaying a favor is another way to show appreciation for others’ generosity. Going to the theater or watching a funny, half-hour sitcom is a great way to inject a little bit of humor into your life every so often. Walking your dog, taking the time to chat with neighbors and having a family meal are all easy ways to nurture your connections with others.
“To fill and to spill, that is the intention,” says Ziev. “You have to be full in order to have overflow for everything else in your life. Nap, color with your kids, play with your dog. Do the things that make you feel good.”