The Key to Achieving Work-Life Balance for Parents? Accepting It's a Myth.
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The American dream tells us that if we work hard enough, we can have it all: a successful career and a rewarding family life can not only coexist but reaching this nirvana is in fact the ultimate goal of our adult lives.
As a mother of three kids, a wife, a founder, a friend, an author, and editor-in-chief of two time-consuming publications, I’m calling bullshit.
No, you can’t have it all. Achieving the perfect work-life balance and staying sane simply isn’t possible. It’s a fairytale that has led to countless therapy sessions and anxiety-ridden middle-aged crises. To me, the irony of all this is that while we have tons of excuses to get stressed out on a daily basis, there’s no reason to panic on this one: not having it all is completely okay.
To step away from the myth, you need to understand that each particular mix will be different for everyone. Over the exciting, trying, grueling, completely-worth-it years of being both a parent and an entrepreneur, I discovered a three-part code that keeps me going. When I feel like I’m running on empty, I think of these three rules for maintaining my sanity and success.
1. Set boundaries
This is a no-brainer in theory but in actuality, it’s incredibly difficult to implement this type of thinking in the world we live in. It’s increasingly rare to find a job that solely exists Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 -- and don’t even get me started on being on the clock as a parent.
It took me some time to catch myself before I realized if I didn’t set boundaries early on, I could very easily spend my entire day bettering my business. Carve out quality time with the people you love and be present. Turn off your phone. Schedule a weekly date night with your significant other. Put down the iPad. Start a “swear jar” for every time you check an email on vacation or while you’re having family time. Set up a sign outside your door to signal to your 10 year old when Mommy is busy -- whatever you have to do to keep yourself accountable. And for the sake of all that is holy, schedule a nap if you’re the most productive between the hours of 2 and 5 am.
2. Build a community
Growing up I always remember hearing that “it takes a village” to raise a child. Whatever happened to that approach? Today we expect too much of parents going it alone, but social norms are fickle. Sheryl Sandberg caught a lot of flack for referencing a full-time nanny while telling moms to lean in to get everything done. Obviously, not everyone has the means to hire a nanny, or any help at all (which Sandberg admitted to, so, you know, back off). But regardless of your financial situation you can still build a community of similarly situated people who will support you.
You’re not the only person in your office, on your block or in your town who is trying to juggle a career and family. I know this because my current job was born out of a blog where parents could talk about how they were handling the surprises of parenthood and share stories. Sandberg had the right idea in making time for her late husband and kids and finding the balance that works for her.
Even without nannies or after-school activities, you can team up with other parents to give each other a much-needed break -- anything from car pools to play dates, advice on networking or investment guidance. You’ll appreciate it and reciprocate and help bring a bit of this village mentality back to life.
This one is perhaps the most difficult of the three, because you need to first admit to yourself that you can’t and shouldn’t, do it all: that you need help.
At work, be open about the fact that you’re a working parent and need to be home for your kids, especially when they’re young. You’d be surprised at some of the bogus scenarios people can come up with while trying to get out of work when all they really had to say was “I’m sorry. I can’t tonight because I have my kid’s piano recital.” This can be a difficult conversation to have with your boss but official workplace policies regarding child rearing, maternity and paternity leave are becoming more commonplace. When you’re job hunting, all you can do is try to set the tone and make it clear what your priorities are, where you can go the distance and where you need to draw the line.
It’s not rocket science, but it can seem incredibly difficult to figure out how to implement these rules in your own life. It’s taken me years to get to this point, and I’m by no means finished learning. These mantras may even change or shift in a year. But I’m confident that by focusing on just a few ways to manage the vast and varying hats that I wear will help me feel less overwhelmed and at the same time enable me to put more time into parenting and entrepreneurship: quite possibly the two most time-consuming, demanding jobs on the planet.
Once I had an idea of what my non-negotiables are, I found that I’m happy with my choices and the life I’ve created for myself. When the day came that I recognize that it’s not about “having it all” but instead about loving what I have and what I’ve created, I made it.