When my good friend Natali asked if I would write a post about balancing my family and career, her timing was, well, impeccable. It was Labor Day, and while most of the country was wrapping up the tail-end of a three-day weekend, I had been off work for four days because my son Noah’s daycare was closed the preceding Friday.
It had not been a lazy holiday weekend.
Not only had we moved that Saturday, my son was cutting three teeth and had just broken a fever that had been on again/off again for a few days. “If he spikes another fever, it’s your turn to take the day off,” I told my husband.
On the flipside, I was also just three and half days away from flying to Seattle for a conference, where I had arranged to meet my in-laws who live nearby so they could pick up my 14-month-old son and
spoil watch him for two whole days and nights — the longest I had ever been away from my baby. It was an important business trip, but I was in high anxiety mode just thinking about the fact that I would have to spend 50 hours away from my Mr. Man (and yes, I had counted down to the minute how long we would be separated).
Oh, the dichotomy of a working mom’s life.
I know lots of types of working moms — moms who work part-time, moms with flexible per diem schedules. Moms who “stay at home” then stay up into the wee hours of the night and early morning editing images for their photography businesses. Moms who work full-time, or nearly full-time, shift work with crazy schedules. And moms with full-time professional careers, like me.
My situation is a bit unique though, because I work from home. And I have found that this adds a whole new level of complexity (and guilt) to my working mom status. Aside from having to deal with the “Your son’s in daycare? I could never leave my child with someone who isn’t family,” or the “I would never let someone else raise my child,” comments, I also get asked the, “Why does your son go to daycare if you work at home?” question All. The. Time. (For those of you who are also thinking this, know that my employer pays me to work, not play with my child — that’s why).
And because I work from home, I always feel like I’m on the clock. I think this is a sensation that only my fellow telecommuters can understand. When you spend all day at home working, it feels so odd to walk past your laptop in the evenings or the weekends without cracking it open to see if you got a response to that last email, finish editing that last item or, for goodness sake, at least delete some spam from your inbox.
But then, your child does something — maybe it’s cute, like coming up to you and hugging your leg, or maybe it’s not so cute, like chewing on that trade magazine you left on the sofa because you were reviewing it earlier in the afternoon when you realized, “Dang it, I’m five minutes late to pick up my son.” Whatever it is, suddenly the work guilt shifts to mom guilt.
Balance? Ha! There is no such thing as “balance,” at least not for this working mom. Juggling? Yes. Coping? Definitely.
I came back from maternity leave just under one year ago to “surprise!” more work and responsibilities. I was excited, though. I have been with my company for nearly seven years, and even though I fall into the “I work because I have to” camp, I absolutely love my job. Don’t get me wrong — if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would definitely want to stay home with my son. But I would still try to find a way to continue working for my employer (if they’d have me), as either part-time or on a contract basis. I was also excited because so many women come back from maternity leave and face scrutiny, and here I was being invested in by a very supportive manager, who herself is a mom of two.
But, stepping into my new job hasn’t been easy, especially since I’m still learning my ever-changing role of mom. There are constant demands on both sides of the fence and, being the perfectionist I am, I always feel like I am letting someone or something down. What I have also found, though, are a few tricks that help me maximize my time and productivity and remain (relatively) sane. I’m by no means and expert, but for what it’s worth, here’s what works for me:
1) Be Mindful.
When I was pregnant with Noah, my husband and I took a non-traditional birthing class in San Francisco centered around the practice of mindfulness. I thought it was going to be total hippie voodoo. But, it was led by a fantastic midwife and mindfulness instructor, and although I was quite skeptical, I found formal mindfulness practice a great way to deal with my hormone-induced anxiety and the pain of childbirth. I have also found mindfulness extremely valuable in both parenting and returning to work.
The whole idea behind mindfulness is to just be. Be present. Be here, now. Stop thinking about what you just did, or worrying about what you need to do. This description is probably doing mindfulness a terrible injustice, but hopefully you get the idea.
Well, being mindful has helped me tremendously. It helps me to notice what is going on with my son, put the cell phone down and just play with him, watch him sleep, or giggle with him when he does something he thinks is silly — like passing gas. Mindfulness has given me countless moments that so many parents lose because they are too distracted worrying about that meeting they had that didn’t go so well, dreading a looming deadline or even just zoning out by reading some gossip or gadget site.
When it comes to work, being mindful has helped me be extremely productive. Before my son was born, I didn’t bat an eye at routinely putting in 10+ hour days. That’s what it took to get the job done. Now, my days are capped off at 8 and half hours and maybe, just maybe some extra time after Noah goes to sleep — if I don’t fall asleep on the couch first. Mindfulness has enabled me to squeeze extra minutes out of the day that I didn’t know I was losing before. Don’t get me wrong — I have never been the slacker type. But even the most dedicated employees have their minds wander. Mindfulness has helped me train myself to be on task and quickly rein myself back in. It also helps me cope with missing my son while I’m at work. By being mindful of my work, I don’t allow my mind to make up fantasies about what is going on in Noah’s world at this very moment, and just accept the fact that I can only be where I am right now.
2) Remember that your life has changed.
Being a parent is life-changing. It means that you are responsible for another little person who you love more than you thought was even imaginable. And this child who is so cute, even when he cries, makes a mess or poops not even 30 seconds after you changed his diaper, has become the center of your world — your very reason for being. I’ve seen Facebook statuses before that say “To become a mom is to forever choose to have your heart walk outside your body.” While I think that is a very sweet and true statement about becoming a mother, let’s face it -– this life-changing experience isn’t always so warm and fuzzy — especially if you are a working mom.
Sometimes you are reminded just how much your life has changed when you get a phone call half an hour before a big meeting because your child has a fever and needs to be picked up ASAP. And sometimes you remember just how much your life has changed when you realize tomorrow is some obscure “holiday” that your child’s school has off, but no other business actually observes, so you now have to scramble to find last-minute childcare or take the day off yourself. Other times, you realize how much your life has changed when you can’t stay with your coworkers to finish up a project because daycare is about to close and you have to pay the teacher a dollar for every minute you are late.
Don’t beat yourself up over it. The fact is, your life has changed, and sometimes it’s for the better, while other times it seems like it’s for the worst. If you’re like me, this can cause you to feel a lot of guilt. After all, I love my son so much. I can’t bear to think of him as having uprooted my life. But he has — in the most incredible, joyous and crazy way possible. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
3) Realize that sometimes putting your family first means doing something for work. Pretty much every working mom I know agrees that her children come first. She may work out of necessity or because she enjoys her field or the extra income it brings to the family, but at the end of the day, her family is her priority. Well, guess what. Just because your family is your #1 priority doesn’t mean there won’t be times that you have to put work first.
Take, for example, that conference I mentioned earlier. I was absolutely dreading the thought of being away from my son for two whole nights, so much so that the conference date snuck up on me (much like my deadline for this blog post, which I missed. Sorry, Nat!). Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely believe there are times when a proposed business trip isn’t as important as the responsibility that a parent has at home, and I’ve played the “Sorry, can’t go — my son needs me at home” card in the past. For me, this wasn’t one of those trips. So I went. And I was without my baby from Thursday at 7 a.m. until Saturday at 9 a.m. It was really hard. But you know what? I not only survived, I showed my employer and my coworkers that when it really matters, I’ll find a way to make it work. I helped maintain my reputation as a hard worker and important member of the team, and in the end, having that reputation at work leads to more security for my family. So, even though I had to be away from my baby, I still put him first.
As I’m finishing up this blog post, my son is sleeping in the next room. He’s getting another tooth, and felt so miserable today I’m surprised he fell asleep so easily tonight. I have a house that I still need to unpack, tons of projects going on at work and a huge knot in my back that has been driving me crazy for two days. But, I know the only thing I can really do right now is to just focus on the task at hand (which in this case, is wrapping up this blog post), that I might not get everything done as quickly as I wish I could (especially if Noah has a restless night, which he probably will) and, that in the grand scheme of things, it’ll all be okay. And that is how I find balance.
Karen Tantzen is a Sr. Manager of Communications for a collaboration software company. Raised in what used to be the outskirts of west Fresno until even more housing developments popped up, she has
spent most of her adult life in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
[feature image via ctworkingmoms]