With 3 children (now aged 8, 10 and 12), a flexible but full-time job as an academic, and a host of activities I enjoy outside of work (most notably singing in a lot of concerts), one of the things I most often get asked about is how I balance these different interests and commitments. I don’t think there are any easy answers, but over the years I have read many things that have proved helpful. This is my take on what has worked – and why.
Consider your currencies
Another female professor once said, in a session on this topic, that she thinks of life as being made up of three currencies, time, energy, and money. She then gave the example that you could spend money on domestic tasks such as cleaning so you had more time for other activities, such as being with your children. I found this useful because whilst everyone has the same amount of time, we all differ in both energy and money, and it can be helpful to think about where you could spend more, and where you need to save.
“Balance time, energy and money to suit you the best”
There are also different ways in which we each use our time. There is time you are committed to working, time you are committed to other responsibilities such as childcare, time when you are focussing on maintaining your own well-being (e.g. taking exercise)… And there is (or should be!) time for relaxing. For many working mums, the vast majority of their time is taken up with the first two; and very little spent on the others. I have found recently that spending a little more money on childcare in order to get some regular exercise has made a huge difference; not only to my well-being, but also to my overall energy levels.
Please yourself, not others
One of the most difficult things about how we live today is just how many opportunities there are. Often, there just are too many. As a busy working mum I find I have to say no to lots of things both at home/school and at work. I want to pull my weight at school and do my fair share of supervising cookery (or whatever it may be) but I have to consider what works within my schedule, and take into account the commitment I have to my employer and colleagues/team at work.
“Focus on what you need to do, rather than what others expect”
No-one else can figure out the balance between these different parts of your life. The only thing I have found that helps is to make decisions that feel fair to me and not worry about what others are able to do. It is impossible to fulfil all the needs and hopes of everyone around you, so I have learned just to concentrate on what feels important, appropriate and realistic for me.
As an academic, there is a massive tendency for work to bleed into the home part of the day. Unfortunately, email on our phones has made this problem much more acute. When my children were young, if I was away from my desk, I couldn’t do any work (unless I had brought home a paper to read) so my focus would be on them. Now, there is always the temptation to look at my phone the moment they are happily settled doing something, but the side effect of this is that I am no longer present with them or in my home life.
“Rest and time away is as important as time for work”
The boundaries can get easily rather blurred, so maintaining them is more critical than ever. Nothing sets us up for a horrible afternoon quite like my being distracted by a work problem! Where possible, I try to focus solely on work whilst I’m at work. The only time in my life when this hasn’t been possible has been when I’ve not been happy with the childcare (more on this later). When that happens, work just has to take a bit of a back seat until I’ve resolved it. My commute is a time for emails, either work or personal, and my time at home is family time.
Have a routine
If I am having a particularly busy patch, I can squeeze extra time into my week by getting up early or buying in extra childcare, or asking my husband to cover parts of the week I usually do, but none of these are sustainable solutions. They work only briefly. The issue of currencies comes back in here too; I have good energy levels only when I get enough rest, exercise and sleep. If I deplete those, everything falls apart.
The only solution that works for me is a routine in which I work a fairly standard and fixed amount. In the first part of the week I work long days and have a nanny pick the boys up from school. On Thursday and Friday I usually work from home. This means I can collect the boys from school, and am sometimes able to contribute to school life. My exercise is scheduled into our week – otherwise it doesn’t happen.
“Structure your week to include time for all aspects”
Our days each week thus have a rhythm to them. Although this differs day to day, in general I work a normal working day and no more. The rest of my time I use with my family and to rest. Then, I can actually work well in the time I am at work.
Get the best childcare you can afford
So, this is a tricky one. Ideally, both parents would be able to play an equal role in childcare. In academia, we are unusually autonomous – and often from a fairly early career stage. Not all jobs offer this, so every family needs to find their balance. Similarly, the amount of money available for childcare varies hugely, and what is available locally also varies a lot. I have found that things have also shifted at different stages. Having thought it would be easier when the boys went to school, I found it was actually harder. Now, rather than coming home at 6 (as they did from their nursery), they return at 3.30. Neither they, nor I want them coming home from school every day with someone that is not one of their parents. On the other hand, now they are more independent and will happily read or play by themselves, so it can be possible to catch up with work (but then I run into boundary issues…).
“Figure out a system of childcare that has some flexibility”
The one thing I have found, time and again, is that when I’m not happy with my childcare, I cannot focus properly at work. So, for me, it really is worth investing time and money to get it right. Having said that, often you come up with a system that works – just about, on a good week, when everyone is well and things go to plan – and, of course, the reality isn’t like that. What has helped me most has been having a childcare arrangement that is flexible enough to adapt in the weeks when everything collides and conspires to send you off the usual path.
Some reading I have found helpful: