Don't let anyone tell you the term "working parent" is an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. You can work while you parent. And you can do both very well. But no one said it was going to be easy!
Combining parenthood and work is a constant balancing act, fit to challenge the best aerial tightrope walker. Demands and expectations come at you from every direction, making it very difficult just to cope, let alone successfully organize and prioritize your daily tasks. Our children deserve our attention just as much as the organizations that pay us. So who wins in the end?
Traditionally, work has tended to take precedence. However, the family side has been steadily gaining in strength. One consequence of this shift is that more parents and employers are finding that the stress of juggling both roles, and sometimes failing to do a good job of either, can take a big toll on productivity, satisfaction and morale at work.
People who are having a tough time coping with family logistics bring that stress to the workplace. Equally, workplace worries are brought home to the children. If you're not careful, this can become a negative cycle, with damaging results all round. But it doesn't always have to be like this!
So, how do you take back control in order to successfully manage the challenge of being a working parent? Better planning, being more flexible and developing greater patience are key elements to the solution. Read on to find out what this means in practice.
Tips for Parents
So you're returning to paid work, but as a parent this time. It doesn't matter what your circumstances are – you might be a single parent, half of a dual income couple, or simply someone who's passionate about your job. But whatever your reasons for getting back to the office, the first thing you'll probably need to do is banish any guilt you may be feeling about your choice.
Don't forget that this is your chance to set a great example to your children of how important it is to contribute positively to the world, and that, with a steady income, you'll be in a good position to make great use of the time you're able to spend with them. Once you've got any feelings of guilt under control, you'll be ready to move on and decide how best to manage your competing roles, so that you can be successful in both. Here are some ideas to help you achieve that goal:
Create a holistic job description for yourself. You aren't just a lawyer, an analyst, or an executive. You're also a mom or a dad. Think of your full job title as including the words "working parent". A truly holistic job description needs to cover all the responsibilities you carry for each role. Since there are only so many hours in the day, this new job description means that ultimately there has to be give and take between the working side and the parenting side. No more supermom or dad. You are only human!
Set limits. Be prepared to say no. In order to do your best in one area or the other, and not to become hopelessly over-stressed, you might have to disappoint your boss, your teammates or your children now and again. Realistically, it's better to take responsibility for occasional small let-downs, rather than settling for persistent poor performance in both of the most important aspects of your life. And since being a working parent is hopefully not a temporary diversion, it's worth the effort of establishing limits, so that you can set yourself up for long-term success in your career.
Get REALLY Organized. If you only managed your time in a loose way before you were a parent, you'll find that this approach quickly buckles under the strain of your dual role. And even if you were good at prioritizing and scheduling before, you'll undoubtedly need to extend the scope of what you were doing! Here's the kind of thing you want to consider:
Create systems throughout the house. Use checklists to make sure you're organized in the morning, and that everyone has everything they need for the day. Do the same for after-school activities and tasks. As children get older, they can take responsibility for writing and using the lists themselves. Make sure you've got a simple and effective storage system for all the everyday stuff, like sports equipment, so that it's easy to find, and to put back. Decide how to deal with school clothes or uniform. Instead of putting all the hats and mitts in one container, for example, separate them for each child so you won't be rummaging around under pressure to find little Johnny's favorite hat. Try to give as much responsibility to others as you can. And remember, getting everyone off to school and work on time is already a significant achievement for the day!
Develop backup plans. And then make backup plans for your backup plans! Johnny's sick, so he can't go to daycare. Your mom is out of town, so he can't go there instead. Where can he go? Acknowledge upfront that "stuff" will happen. Your children will get sick. The nanny will get sick. The daycare center's boiler might break down, so it has to close for a few days. Decide what you'll do when your regular childcare isn't available. And then go one step further and decide what you'll do when that backup plan doesn't work. This type of diligent organization will work wonders for keeping your stress levels tolerable.
The number of levels of backup plan you need to create may depend on the nature of your work. For example, in many office jobs, it may be possible for you to drop everything and leave if your daughter breaks her arm. But if you're a barrister, it may not be so easy, and you'll need to have a Plan B that can be put into action right away.
Plan ahead. Write down all the important school and extracurricular events in your work calendar as soon as you have the dates. And keep an up-to-date copy of your work calendar at home. This way you can make the necessary arrangements to attend mid-day concerts, and ensure you don't schedule a late meeting when your children are appearing in a school play. Be proactive about this, by asking teachers and coaches for a list of special dates well in advance.
Get to know all the tricks for using your time well. From Internet shopping or shopping during off hours (so that the stores are less busy), to asking parents of classmates' to help with running occasional errands, there are lots of little things you can do each day to find a few extra minutes of child-time.
Block off work time and home time. Try not to mix the two except when absolutely unavoidable. Regularly bringing stuff home with you to do sends a message to your kids that your work is more important than time with them. If you can, arrange to stay a bit later at your desk once in a while to get everything done.
If that's not possible, then think about setting up homework time for everyone, including you. Older children work on their projects alongside you, and you role model the importance of commitment and diligence for them. Younger children, who don't have homework, or who need help with their assignments, could use your work time to do quiet, independent activities like crafts or puzzles.
Make a plan to manage your leave time. Take as much holiday time as you can when the kids are out of school.
When your children are sick and (if you work in the US system) you have no paid sick days left, make arrangements with your boss to use annual leave, or see if you can work from home to make up the time. Ask your boss and HR department whether it's possible to take unpaid leave for those times when you just can't make other arrangements. Look into day camps and other structured activities to fill in the time when the children are out of school, and you have to be working.
If you have a partner, try overlapping just some of your holidays so that you cut the amount of childcare you need to arrange. You can also try to stagger your start times and end times so that the kids have a parent around for more hours of the day.
Gather a support network at work. Connect with other working parents in your organization, and consider meeting, say, once a month to talk about the kind of challenges you face. These people understand the dynamics of your workplace much better than family and friends, and can be a source of real support. Discuss creative solutions to childcare problems. Maybe you could look after someone's children while you're on leave, in exchange for the same when that person takes his or her holidays. It can also be very comforting to know that there's someone who, at a pinch, can pick up your kids if needed.
Demystify your work. Help your kids understand your work and why you do what you do. Give younger children a picture of you at work so they can look at it throughout the day. Take them to your office and show them around. Go to company events with your kids, and consider inviting work friends home. All of these things make your work more accessible to your kids.
Stay connected to your kids. As a working parent you have to be extra vigilant about knowing what your children are up to when you're not around. Set out clear rules and expectations about what they can and can't do after school. Give them a cell phone so you can contact them if you need to. Take time every night to talk to them about their day. Try to spend at least fifteen minutes with each child doing something he or she wants to do. This creates a strong bond, and shows that you care about them as individuals.
Celebrate your working parent status. Make sure you take time on a regular basis to reflect on how well you're holding things together. This isn't an easy role to fill, so be good to yourself and acknowledge that you're doing the very best that you can!
Parenting and working can be done symbiotically. But it may well take some time, and a bit of trial and error, to get it right. You need a basic plan to cover things like childcare, sickness, and how you're going to get everything done in the time available.
After that, you need to work on building in sufficient flexibility to be able to roll with whatever life throws at you. With patience, understanding, and good support from friends, family and colleagues, you'll be well on your way to enjoying a satisfying and rewarding career as a working parent.