HOW TO HAVE CHILDREN AND A FULL TIME CAREER
By Christine Armstrong
How do you keep the plates spinning when both parents have demanding careers (whether inside or outside of the home)?
How can you disconnect from the demands of your job, the ping of your social media accounts and then give 100% of your attention to the kids when you’re working 50+ hours a week?
Try the following:
Work out what matters to you: at home, with your kids, in your relationship with your partner, with your family, and work – and your relationship with yourself. If you accept the boundaries others create, you may well be consumed by work. But if you take control you can get much more out of your life. And remember the old advice that, for everything you agree to do, there must be something that you stop doing to make space for it. That includes having children.
Be clear with yourself and your kids about what your values are and what you’re teaching by example. If it’s hard work, then OK, but are there limits to that? Are there other things that matter? What do you want them to remember about their childhood?
Take control of your whole schedule. In Is Your Job Making You Ill? Dr Ellie Cannon recommends scheduling everything in our lives in the same way we schedule work meetings. Put in social occasions, exercise, rest, playing with the kids and even colour code them so you can see the balance of your week before you start.
Similarly, for holidays, start by thinking about how you want the holiday to play out for you and for your partner and kids. Is it total time off and you disconnect your work email from your phone? Is it important you are contactable and so agree that one person will get in touch if you need to step in? Or would you feel better if you checked in once a day? Whichever it is, make an active decision before you go and stick with it rather than tumbling into crises and finding yourself spending all day standing on the shallow steps of the pool on conference calls, hoping no one splashes your phone.
At work more generally, make conscious decisions about what you are motivated by. Is it money, status, developing new skills, pleasing people, taking on new challenges, creativity? Probably a mixture. Take the time and space to review this properly. Get some distance, travel somewhere and disconnect, visit someone who lives differently, do nothing. When you’re away from work – away from the addiction of goals, your priorities can quickly change. One woman I interviewed said: ‘I went on a yoga holiday and thought “why the f*** am I doing this at work…?” and “if I don’t want to be doing it, why do it for another day?” When you’re “in it” it’s toxic, addictive, gotta fix it, hit the goals, you’re being reactive. When you’re out of it, it can all look very different. I went home and changed everything and am so much happier now.’
Read and process all the advice around about how to take control of things like emails/meetings. Tell people you only answer emails between certain times and stick to it. Or have one day where you have no meetings so you can think. Decide and do it. When you feel in charge, you do better. Watch the people you see doing this and copy them.
A coach I once interviewed advised us to write an imaginary letter to someone important in your life from five years in the future that describes in very practical detail how your life looks. Where you wake up, who you are with, how you feel, what you do. ‘Dear X… It’s been a brilliant year… As a family we… At work, I... ’ Then work out how you did it, working backwards over the year. It’s freeing for the brain to think it’s looking back on something that’s been achieved and then work out how to make it happen, rather than look at what seems to be an impossible mountain to climb.
One person who did this said: “In my case, years ago, I went freelance, worked out how much I’d like to make in a year, and that I’d like to work 150 days a year, and then what qualifications I might need to get to be able to justify that. I left my big job partly because it was a million miles away from the creative stuff I’d set out to do, and I realised I was drawn into helping other people achieve their goals, and because it was fixed and became dull. I then made a plan in achievable chunks over time – days, weeks, months, years. It’s too easy to only live in the now and be reactive.”
Draw a pie chart of your life and allocate sections according to what dominates your mind: work, partner, home life, kids, hobbies, exercise, friends etc. If you are not happy with what you see, don’t ignore it, work out how to change it. In workshops, usually women are unhappy to see that more than two-thirds of their circle is dedicated to work and then realise there is no slice dedicated to ‘me’ at all.
Be realistic about the balance of responsibility between you and your partner if you have one. If you are doing all of the housework and carrying all the mental load then what are you teaching your children about equality? What can you do to even that out? If you have the money you may need to be brutal about how much help you need, if you don’t then sorting it out may be critical to you both being able to continue working at this pace.
Consider that two alpha/alpha careers may not work indefinitely with kids. This doesn’t mean you have to step back, but that one of you may need to for some of the time. Be constantly open to other ways of working: from home, changing hours, taking leave, alternating the pace so each of you has the ‘lead’ job at different times.
To that end, spend time observing others negotiating what they want, getting themselves on to the right team and having the relationships that allow them to convince others they can work the way they want. An accountant was denied the right to work nine days over two weeks because it had to go through an approval committee that fundamentally disliked ‘part-timers’ . But her boss said she could work from home one day a week without any formal approval process. Given that what she wanted was to be at the school gate a few times a week this ended up working better for her.
Read and act on the research that shows establishing clear boundaries at work will make you more successful. Reflecting later in their careers, some mums say they think they would have done better if they had exercised more discipline because they would have been better-respected and more able to think clearly. Review your own insecurity: if you know you are unhealthily motivated by self-doubt then consider addressing it. Read/explore ways to be more assertive.
Don’t neglect your partner. Karen Doherty, who does a lot of her work in ‘affair recovery’, says that these sorts of crises are often caused by ignoring the relationship, and they often happen at ‘the point when one of the couple unconsciously loses their “love” for the other. Left untended this leads to resentment, unmet needs and potentially opens both of them up to interest from others outside of the relationship.’ She advises seeking help from a therapist early on and not putting jobs before our relationships. She also cautions that our relationships inform how our children will manage their own romantic relationships later so we need to be aware of what we are unconsciously communicating about love and sex.
Remember that professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue in their book The 100-Year Life that many of us will live to be 100 years old. We have a lot of time and we can’t all collapse in a heap at 50.
Extracted from The Mother of All Jobs: How to Have Children and a Career and Stay Sane(ish) by Christine Armstrong published by Green Tree (an imprint of Bloomsbury), £12.99. Available to buy here.