When I was growing up in 1980s New Zealand, there was a massive ad campaign called Girls can do anything. The idea was to push us into the traditionally made-dominated jobs that paid better and had more status than the most popular career choice at the time (that of an air hostess- they were the most impossibly glamorous creatures ever, so I’m not that surprised).
As the years passed, the message became a little darker, a little transformed. It became one that said Girls can do everything. Because not only were we now meant to have the high paying job with the clout to boot, we were also expected to keep an immaculate home, have perfect children, and a perfect figure.
If you’re reading this, chances are these words sound familiar. For so long you’ve been believing that you can have it all, yet you just don’t understand why you can’t do it all.
But it’s simple maths. If you give 100% to your job, that’s your choice. If you give 100% to your family, that’s your choice. But the most you can get in terms of balance is 50% to your job and 50% to your family. There’s no such thing as 200%.
This idea that women should have it all is a crazy one. It pushes us to have unrealistic expectations and makes us feel like failures when we don’t get that project finished on time because we had to take our sick child to the doctor, or when we buy takeaways because we’re too tired to cook. If we really want work-life balance we need to set boundaries around ourselves and our expectations. These are my five tips on how to do just that. And remember that I’m a teacher so they come from that perspective.
1. Accept you are not indispensable at work.
Now this might sound super harsh. But before I got my current job, I was at the same school for over 15 years. In that period of time I saw a lot of staff come and go: from cleaners to principals. Some of these were average workers. Some were amazing. All were forgotten. And what I mean by that, is not that they were obliterated from our memories the moment they walked out the door for the last time, but that they were replaced by someone, again maybe average, maybe not, and life moved on and we adjusted. When you think about this, and truly accept it, some things change. You don’t feel the same pull when you are sick but feel like you have to go into work “because my students need me.” You don’t feel guilty about leaving work to take care of your sick baby. And you don’t push yourself to be loyal to an institution at the cost of being loyal to your own family. So if push comes to shove- you pick family every time.
2. Work at work.
Now the above isn’t to say that you slack off at work. After all, if you’re like me, your job is vitally important in keeping your family afloat financially. Additionally, I love my kids to bits and I love being a mum, but when they were still at home, I found the stimulation of work to be vital to my well-being. So you want to manage your workload and you want to do a good job. To me that meant never slacking off. As a teacher, I saw a lot of people wasting time. They would sit in the staff room and chat away their free periods. They would spend all of interval and lunch time socialising. In my mind that was a vital extra hour or so in the day that I intended to put to good use. I am not advocating working without a break, but I challenge you to think about how much time you realistically need and whether or not you could restrict the full hour lunch break with friends to once a week.
3. Don’t work at home.
Or, if you have to work at home, wait until the kids are in bed. There is nothing more stressful than the competing demands of children when you are trying to get something done. If this means paying for after-school care then do it. But once you are home, your focus should be on your family. This is also where you have to be careful about letting emails and texts about work interfere with your home life.
However work life is not always controllable, so if you have a deadline that’s urgent, go sit in another room and have your husband fly solo for a night.
4. Schedule activities carefully.
I was a dance mum, and at one stage I was out every night driving my daughter to and from dance lessons. At that time it was vitally important to have a family calendar which I had on the fridge. Before the week started, all appointments and commitments had to be written up and things planned out accordingly.
When I was taking my daughter to dance, sometimes there was two hours between start and finish, sometimes 45 minutes – so often I would take work with me and do it in the car while I waited outside. If I’d been a bit more well-off, I could have gone to a café and done it with a coffee in hand, but money was tight. This strategy also saved petrol.
5. Set long-term goals rather than short-term ones.
To everything there is a season. Remember to look at the whole, not its parts. You may not have balance now. You may cause yourself huge stress by reading your child their twelfth story of the night when you have 30 papers to mark by the next day. Or you might feel guilt that you don’t put in the same kind of work, even have the same kind of passion, for your job that you used to have. You may feel your career is stalling and that at some point you have lost your drive. You might want to pull your hair out at the fact the garden is more weeds than flowers. But you know what? Time goes by fast. I can’t believe sometimes my children have left home and that period of my life is over. Now I go to work at 7.00 and have uninterrupted evenings to get things done. Make the most of whatever stage you are in. Enjoy it. Because, as the cliché says, it will be gone before you know it.
Do you struggle with the idea of work-life balance? Could part of your problem be you’re trying to do it all? I hope this tips help you to manage this busy time in your life. If you have any other ideas for setting boundaries, let me know in the comments!