Organisations that appreciate how working parents have to balance their work and home responsibilities, and that allow their employees flexibility to do so, will get so much more than gratitude in return. The modern workplace – in whatever sector – benefits from a diversity of experiences and skills, and working parents have some particularly well-honed attributes to contribute.
If you ask most working parents how they balance their career and parenthood, they will tell you it’s a constant juggling act, where some days it feels less like juggling balls and more like drowning in a ball pit.
However, when it does all come together, it really can be the best of both worlds: having a hugely rewarding job you love and finding great joy in helping your children develop into caring, well-rounded little people.
As a working parent, I often find myself going through the daily mental exercise of questioning whether I have given enough attention to my children on the one hand and my work on the other. A few months ago, during a very busy period at work, I had to take a day off at short notice. My employer was very understanding, and I was grateful for their flexibility. But I knew the work would pile up while I was giving more attention to the ‘life’ side of the work-life balance. The day was especially busy and went something like this:
The day begins at 7am. After getting the kids ready (i.e., out of bed, dressed, fed, washed, teeth brushed, sunscreen applied, bags packed), I see them off to school and nursery. I then spend several hours looking for a new child-minder having suddenly found myself without childcare — a working parent’s nightmare! I manage to squeeze in one hour of work and then make a packed lunch and dinner for the kids before collecting my son from nursery.
At 12.30pm, I take my 4-year-old son to his speech therapy appointment then back to our local doctor to collect his blood test forms. Before going to hospital to get my son’s blood test done, we make a quick stop at my daughter’s friend’s house to drop off her packed dinner, clothes and spare car seat. Any opportunity I get, I check and answer my work emails.
At 2.30pm, we head to the hospital and, en route, I prep my son for what is going to happen. I have applied the numbing cream in readiness for the blood test needle before we got in the car to give it time to work but spend a lot of the drive trying to persuade him it’s really not a great idea to rub it in his eyes. I am armed with toys and the promise of juice afterwards.
We’ve had quite a bit of practice with hospitals, so thankfully we get through the blood draws with little drama. I have packed the car with snacks and toys to keep him entertained on the drive home. We get home from the hospital at 5pm, which gives me half an hour exactly to tidy the car, which is now decorated with leftover food, and let my son stretch his legs.
I quickly check and reply to a couple of work emails and have my ‘breakfast’ before we head to my daughter’s choir concert. My son has been pretty good all day, but now he is tired and fed up. He has thrown himself on the floor several times on the way into the concert, which doesn’t bode well.
My daughter’s face lights up when she sees we made it. I manage to watch three minutes of the concert and take a couple of pictures (which surprisingly aren’t blurry, despite the fact that I am holding a very heavy, protesting toddler under one arm) before my son’s now-inevitable meltdown precipitates our swift exit. My son is also not best pleased with my ‘unreasonable’ decision to stop him from running on to the stage to ‘affectionately’ rugby tackle his sister to the floor while singing ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’.
Back at home with two tired but happy kids, a bit of coaxing and negotiation means bedtime runs mercifully smoothly: snack, milk, bath, teeth, story and bed. However, it’s 9.15pm before my son finally falls asleep. After finally being released, I just about muster the energy to make a 30-minute work call, reply to some pressing emails that I didn’t get to throughout the day, and after a few household chores, I call it a day.
I share this particular day to show how life can land when you are a parent. It is an illustrative, if extreme example (for me, at least – I am sure others have had similar, and worse) of a day when a working parent’s work-life balance was not achieved. This particular day was also memorable for me as it was towards the end of it when I began feeling guilty about having been away from work, and that a couple of thoughts occurred to me:
Firstly, I need to cut myself some slack. I recognised that I work hard, am a valued employee and have an understanding employer. I also realised that I had actually achieved a lot that day – not just in terms of looking after the kids and tackling home chores, but also in terms of managing my work as best I could; I had prioritised the pressing matters and been able to deal with them during the day. Those things I couldn’t deal with I delegated, and I had made a plan for how to deal with the remaining issues the following day.
Secondly, it occurred to me that my experiences that day — and our experiences, generally, as parents — help us to develop skills that are actually pretty useful in the workplace.
When you are a parent, you have to get really good at planning and scheduling. Gone are the days of getting up in the morning, showering and leaving the house in 30 minutes. You have other little people to get ready, too, and often those little people have other ideas about how the morning is going to run. Then there are all the other responsibilities: school clubs and extracurricular activities, medical appointments, play dates, school holidays, sickness…the list goes on. All of these need to be factored into daily, weekly, monthly life and managed around work and other commitments. Home admin alone can feel like a full-time job in itself. The busy work and life schedules, and paucity of spare time, of working parents means we have to be efficient in how we plan, prioritise and manage our time.
Communication and empathy
Children are great teachers. As a parent, you come to appreciate that a child often thinks and perceives situations differently to you. Recognising their emotions, understanding their perspectives on a situation and really listening to them helps them feel understood. As parents, we learn to adjust our behaviour and find different ways to communicate — qualities that are valued in the work place.
Handling a crisis
As the example above highlights, unforeseen events, such as a sudden lack of childcare, can and do happen. Then there are accidents, illnesses and countless other things of various scales that can hit us — and not just as parents. But children depend on you to keep them alive and well, so you get good at dealing with crises. My son had a difficult start to life, being diagnosed with epilepsy at 10 months and having brain surgery at 18 months. Friends and family have often commented to me, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ but the truth is that every parent would do it. It is instinctive to protect and do our best for our children in a crisis. Keeping calm, thinking logically, evaluating options, finding a solution and then seeing it through is what parents have to do regularly.
Patience and staying calm under stress
Nothing quite tries your patience and your stress coping mechanisms like a toddler having a tantrum because you won’t let him put half the confectionary aisle into the shopping trolley in the middle of a crowded supermarket. Or being asked for the 15th time 10 minutes into a 4-hour car journey, ‘Are we there yet?’. As a parent, and especially as a working parent where you are under other time and work pressures, these things can be particularly stressful. We know reacting to our kids impatiently is not good for the kids or us, so we have to find other ways of dealing it, whether that is breathing, meditation, mindfulness, taking breaks etc. At work, we may encounter situations that try our patience. Knowing how to handle such situations is key to avoiding or managing conflict, minimising the damaging impacts – including of stress on our health – while focusing on getting the job done.
Not sweating the small stuff
Having children alters a parent’s perspective on what is important in life and gives a new appreciation of how precious time is and of how we want to spend it. What matters to any one of us – parent or not – is always subjective. But many working parents have commented to me that when they go into the office, they enjoy interacting with colleagues and gravitate towards the positive ones. They also reflect – perhaps because of the need to prioritise and be efficient, mentioned above – that they focus on getting their work done efficiently and they are less interested in spending their time engaging in office politics and gossip. That is not in any way to suggest that non-parents are gossip-mongers! Only that I think that being a parent – for all the reasons stated above – can be more focused and able to keep things in perspective.
By supporting and enabling working parents, organisations get the best out of their employees who, in turn, appreciate that flexibility and feel motivated to work hard. Employers in such mutually respectful arrangements retain talent and reduce staff turn-over (with its related costs) and employees get to fulfil their career potential. Surely this also makes for a much more pleasant working environment for all employees in a compassionate and supportive system that recognises that our diversity of experiences and needs brings value to all.
Whilst juggling a career and family can be challenging sometimes, with the right support, it can and should be hugely successful and rewarding. And not just for the employees.