One of the most frequent questions I get asked is how I make things work as a working parent. More specifically, a working mother. This is partly because I am still a significant minority. Despite the many advances we have made in our approaches to work, we are all familiar with the statistics showing just how few women – and especially those women with young children – progress to Board level. The New York Times published a report sharing studies which show that, while having children penalises women, it actually benefits men. We still have a very long way to go to find true gender equality at work.
I am partly a woman with young children working at a senior level because it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be. Thanks to my parents, I have always believed that I could do absolutely anything that I wanted to. I wanted to have children, and I wanted to have a career. I didn’t for one moment think that those two things would have to be mutually exclusive. But I recognise that I am a minority, and in the interests of answering some of the questions which come my way, I thought I would share what my integrated work and family life looks like.
An early riser
I start my working day early. I’m an early riser, and always have been. From any time after 5am you will find me working with my laptop from bed. Quite often with one or more child in bed asleep next to me, which always makes me laugh as it is surely the very definition of work and life integration!
I love my early morning working sessions. They are the perfect opportunity to concentrate and really get your head down, whether it’s working through an email backlog, taking the time to read and keep up with industry news, or writing a report or a blog post. Indeed, this post itself is being written from my bed, before the sun has come up… and yes, with my daughter fast asleep in bed next to me!
The children tend to wake up any time between 7am-8am. At 7 and 10 now, they are old enough to be able to take responsibility for the majority of getting ready for school without my input. I will spend some time with them, checking they have everything they need and have eaten breakfast, before we pile into the car and I deliver them to school.
Valuable head space
Children dropped off, I drive into the office and am usually there by 9.30am. My commute – anything from thirty minutes to an hour – gives me valuable head space and the time to think. Over time, it has turned into a well-versed routine where I run through my plans for the day ahead and mentally prepare any difficult conversations or challenging ER issues that I need to tackle. Oh, and I play some pretty loud tunes as well!
I am in the office from 9.30am until 4.30pm most days. While I probably shouldn’t admit to this, I generally work through and rarely take a lunch break. I’ve read all of the evidence which shows how taking breaks improves productivity, but I don’t think it’s as straightforward as the same formula working for everyone. I’ve always been capable of intense periods of concentration, and have always preferred to work right through my day. I’m a huge supporter of the trials which have taken place in Sweden regarding the condensed 6 hour working day. I believe longer working days encourage inefficiencies. When I know I only have 7 fixed hours in the office, it forces me to cram as much in as I possibly can.
The power of technology
Technology is fantastic for ensuring I can be there for my children even when I’m not physically with them. I’ll get text updates from their school reminding me of forms that need to be in and upcoming events, which means that I don’t miss anything key. And I know that, if they do get a bump in the playground or need to be collected, I’ll get a phone call immediately.
I leave the office at dead on 4.30pm, which allows me to get back to after school club and then home by 6pm. The first hour at home is usually the most manic – and it’s when my work and home lives are probably at peak integration. I will balance time with the children asking about their day and making their tea, with keeping a close eye on emails and taking any urgent phone calls. Once they’re fed, things calm down somewhat. I always ensure I spend some quality time with them – without a mobile phone or laptop in sight! – before they head up for baths and reading. I can then get in another period of concentrated work time before I switch off for the night.
On Fridays, I leave the office at 2.30pm and collect them directly from school. It’s important to me to ensure I have that opportunity to meet them at their classroom doors one day per week so that I can speak with their teachers and interact with the other parents. We then go home and I work from home for the remainder of the afternoon. Provided the TV and the WiFi connection are working I barely know that they’re there!
Not switching off
I’ve never been the sort of person who switches off from either their home or their work lives completely. When you do a job that you love – and I am fortunate enough to be in exactly that position – you don’t feel the same need to escape from it. Everyone is different, but I personally feel more relaxed knowing that both my work or my children can get in contact with me if they need to, at pretty much any point during the week and weekends.
Weekends can be similarly frenetic to the week, with all of the extra-curricular activities we simply don’t have time to fit in during the week to get through. Like most parents, I sometimes feel like I’m running a shuttle bus service in between swimming lessons, football training and trips to see friends. I will often catch up on a couple of work emails while watching a football match or waiting for a swimming lesson to end. I don’t think of it as work eating into my home life – it’s simply an effective integration of my two worlds.
Organisation is key
How do we make it work? Well, organisation is the most important thing – and I will freely admit I don’t always manage this quite as well as I would like! The children have been brought up to be independent from a very early age. Some might see this as a negative. For us, it’s a real positive. Having both been in full time childcare since they were six months old, they have a confidence and social skills which are a world away from how I remember being at their age.
Because both my husband and I work full time, we are fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for a weekly cleaner. This makes a huge difference, and means that we don’t have to waste our precious family time together elbow deep in bleach or vacuuming skirting boards.
Inevitably, there are compromises. Some of them logistical. I can’t drop everything to suddenly be at an 8am meeting which is 100 miles away. Similarly, I can’t attend every single assembly, meet the teacher session or volunteer in class.
The logistical ones are relatively easy to solve. I am in the stunningly privileged position of having both a school and an employer who recognise, and make allowances for, the other draws on my time.
The emotional compromises
Harder, are the emotional compromises. However robust my children are, there will always be the odd time when I will get a tearful plea of “But I don’t want you to go to work. I want you to stay with us.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find this tough. But I have always treated them as adults, and it’s times such as this when that really bears fruit. They understand the personal benefits they experience – whether it’s the house that we live in, or the new pair of football boots they’ve just been able to have – as a result of both me and their dad going out to work every day. They understand that we all sometimes have to do things that we don’t really want to do. They realise, I hope, that they are capable of achieving anything that they put their minds to. They are able to see the bigger picture.
And perhaps hardest of all, is the guilt. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel guilty, for forcing both my employer and my family to compromise on their time with me. It is my nature to want to give one hundred percent to absolutely everything that I do. When you are a working parent, that simply isn’t possible. Something has to give. The compromises have to be made. And, actually, I think we’ve found an equilibrium that allows both my workplace and my children to get the best from me. The guilt isn’t really created by anyone else. It’s solely my own projections. Realising that, and learning to appreciate that the time I waste feeling guilty, is time I can’t invest at either work or at home, has been a real awakening. I don’t need to feel guilty, because actually, if I look at it objectively, this way of working means that everyone gets the best out of me.
Still a minority
If not quite an anomaly, I am still a minority. I will remain this way until we see wholesale changes to the way our workplaces are set up. Benefex are an exception, not the rule, when it comes to supporting their employees to manage their home and their work responsibilities. We need to change that until everyone experiences what I have as a default. Parents – and women in particular – will then have the choice to work, in a job that truly fulfils their career ambitions. Right now, that choice simply isn’t there for the vast majority of people.
As an employer, what can you do? Well, start by ripping up the traditional 9-5 and never looking back. The 9-5 is dead. We are all individuals. Regardless of whether we have personal responsibilities or not, it simply doesn’t make sense that every single human should work at their best between the fixed hours of 9am-5pm, with an hour for lunch. Work with your employees to create customised working patterns that work for them, and work for your business. If you get your people working at their best, it is inevitable that your productivity will soar.
It comes back to culture
Lead by example. Senior managers in every organisation need to be honest about their own caring responsibilities. I absolutely love the directive from the CEO at PepsiCo, Australia and New Zealand, who asks his leaders to ‘Leave Loudly’. Telling your employees it’s okay to do something is one thing. Showing them you mean it by doing it yourself is something else altogether.
And, ultimately – as is so often the case – it comes back to culture. Fundamentally, we need to develop organisational cultures which are consistently accepting and supportive of the fact that people have lives outside of work. I believe that we will eventually reach a point where people are positively encouraged to truly integrate their work and home lives. Need to wait in at home for a delivery? Go for it. Have an assembly to attend at your child’s school? You should be there. Ultimately, we will show our employees that we trust them. That we trust them to be adults, and to make the right decisions, which are made in the interests of both their employer and their families. In doing so, we will have changed the world of work for ever.
For me, that day – when absolutely everyone will have the luxury of being able to make the choices that I have been able to make in my own life – simply can’t come fast enough.