Work, family, me: Finding the right balance

The phrase ‘work-life balance’ has become something of a mantra for modern society, describing the constant battle between ‘living to work’ and ‘working to live’. But when you have a family, it’s an even tougher equation to balance.

The changing world of work

Work has never been easy, but the modern workplace presents distinct challenges. For many of us, the notion of nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday working is a relic of a bygone age.

Many people work shift patterns, part-time or flexible hours. Those of us working ‘office hours’ are used to longer hours – eight-to-six is the new nine-to-five. And then we take work home at evenings and weekends.

When I started out in the world of work in the mid-1990s, we didn’t have ubiquitous email and internet access, let alone mobile phones, SMS and instant messaging. When we left the office in the evening, we really were leaving work to go home.

Barely 20 years later, we’ve become accustomed to being contactable at home, while out shopping, even on holiday. So now work goes with many of us wherever we go, dogging our footsteps and occasionally tapping us on the shoulder. It’s one of the few downsides of being part of a connected, always-on, 24/7 society – but it’s a big one.

The result? The lines between work and personal time have become blurred, and for many of us that means office life increasingly encroaches on home life. There’s always another email to respond to, another voicemail message to listen to. ‘Work-life balance’ has become something we strive for but rarely achieve.

On the horns of a tri-lemma

Here’s the thing, though. For everyone – but for parents of younger children in particular – it’s more complex than just finding a balance between ‘work’ and ‘life’.

For me, my ‘life’ element can be divided into two distinct components (or even three, if you like). There’s ‘family’, which can be further subdivided into ‘father/mother time’ and ‘children/family time’. And then there’s the often forgotten component, the third point of the triangle: ‘me’.

I know I’ve ignored that last bit in the past. When you’re stuck in the whirlwind of babies and young children – our three are spaced 25 and 28 months apart – everything is about their needs. Nappy changes, feeds, naps, attaining milestones, educational play, endless photos of them smiling, dribbling, gurning, [insert cute/disgusting facial expression here]. You’re too busy trying to make a dent in the mountain(s) of laundry/washing-up/dust to do anything as trivial as making yourself look half-way presentable or, you know, just going to the toilet.

Believe me, I’ve been there. You’re constantly exhausted. And grumpy. So you take it out on everyone: the kids, your partner (if you have one), yourself. And because you know you’re barely keeping your head above water, you forego ‘me/us time’ because that’s just being selfish.

And things only get worse as a result.

Three thoughts

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so let me share with you the benefit of mine. Three observations:

Firstly, it’s okay not to fill every minute of the children’s time with attention and ‘teaching moments’. There comes a time when they’re old enough to be left unsupervised (or at least surreptitiously monitored from a distance). It doesn’t make you a bad parent. In fact, stepping back and giving kids the opportunity to develop some independence and pursue their own activities can be a good thing. Make yourself a cup of tea. Sit down. Don’t feel guilty about it. (Unless someone cracks their head open. Then you can feel a little guilty.)

Secondly, if you have a partner, create some time to spend with them. Get a babysitter and have a regular date night. Or even just have an alloted time when you turn the TV off, stop checking Facebook and just talk. (Heather will tell you I’m terrible at this. She’s right. Do as I say, not as I do.)

Finally, don’t forget yourself. Your family is the bedrock of a happy home life, of course it is. But deny yourself over an extended period and you can find yourself ill at ease even though you’re putting lots of effort into the other parts of your life. It doesn’t have to be much, but make a little time for yourself to pursue your own interests or just blow off steam. That’s not being selfish. You’ll be happier and your family will thank you for it.

And that brings me to now. It’s Thursday night as I write this, and both Heather and I are enjoying a little separate ‘me time’. She’s out with one of her local drinking gossip book clubs. I’m at my desk blogging. We both love being together, but on these evenings – one a week on average, I’d guess – it gives us some space to do what we want, which makes all the other evenings we’re together that much more enjoyable.

It’s not much, but it’s enough. And for many people, even finding that much time can be a real challenge. But it’s worth making the time for. After all, if you don’t find the time for yourself, who else is going to?