The delicate work-life balance I’d carefully constructed was knocked off kilter at the start of the Coronavirus lockdown, when I took leave from my job in order to home-school and care for my three children and support my NHS key-worker husband. For as long as I can remember, I have been intent on balancing motherhood with a career and have chosen to work part-time since having children. I can pin-point the experiences and conversations I had during my formative years that set me on that path.
So becoming a full-time “stay-at-home mum” was not something that settled naturally with me, grateful as I am to be have been able to do so temporarily. It has, however, been enlightening and afforded me a refreshing perspective on what a good work-life balance means to me. It has affirmed the aspects of working that I value, beyond the monthly payslips, of course: the intellectual stimulation; the collegiate camaraderie; developing professional knowledge and skills; contributing to a cause that has a wider reach than my personal “bubble”; the valid prioritisation of something that is mine alone, not bound up in my domestic responsibilities. But mostly, it has highlighted the chasm between the value I’d been placing on my work inside the home to that done outside of the home.
Women of my generation are actively encouraged to set their ambitions beyond the home; it is instilled in us from an early age – rightly so – that we can achieve anything we set our minds to in order to “break the glass ceiling”, obtain senior positions and lean in to match the success of our male peers. Indeed, there are many inspiring women (I am privileged to count good friends, relatives and colleagues amongst them) who have proven that women are just as capable as their male counterparts, if not more.
Generally, however, less onus is placed on the choice women have not to aspire to such responsible heights; constructing careers that bear equal weight to domestic dreams, or choosing to be a full-time stay-at-home parent. In my experience, frustratingly, this is often mistakenly perceived as being less ambitious, less feminist or the sacrifice of potential. Perhaps men of my generation find themselves in similar predicaments.
In case anyone doubts it, I can attest that being a full-time stay-at-home parent is really hard work. True, no qualifications are required. Yet, it is hugely pressurised, challenging and often tedious; it demands continual problem-solving and self-sacrifice. Without work boundaries to draw me away from the domestic demands during lockdown, there has been an expectation that I am mostly interruptible and available to service the needs of the household and beyond. Which I mostly am. It is consequently hard to say no unless there is a good reason.
It has been gratifying to be there for those I love and who need me at this difficult time; no one could have taken care of them as well as I have and I know that my presence and availability has made a positive difference. So, I am a bit stumped as to why I’ve found it so hard to recognise the worth of all that I accomplish during a day at home in the same way that I would at work, and feel like there is infinitely more that I could – or should – do. On the periphery of the working mothers’ battleground, I’ve put myself under pressure to be productive in a way that I would not have expected of myself when I was working.
Seeking to understand where my views about work stem from, and acknowledging what I value about being at home full-time, have helped me regain perspective of my work-life balance. I’ve observed that we tend to identify ourselves and each other by the “work” that we do. The value we place on this, and the other aspects of our lives (commitments to family and friends, exercising, studying, taking holidays etc.) are entirely personal and subjective, tangled up with impressions internalised from our upbringings and from role models whose behaviour we seek either to emulate or reject. We each set our priorities, and define success, accordingly. Understanding the drivers behind work-life choices can help quell the judgements we put on ourselves and each other – there is no right or wrong in this; just what is right for you.
As a Flexible Working Champion and Mental Health First Aider for my organisation, I have worked with colleagues during lockdown to facilitate numerous sessions relating to work-life balance. The challenges are by no means exclusive to working parents. Sometimes the barriers holding people back from striking the balance they desire are circumstantial and beyond their control; but often, there is a choice to be made, a weighing up of the value of one aspect of life over another, and the courage to affect change.
The confusing notion of “having it all” is, I believe, possible, but it requires being affirmative about what you want overall and accepting your limitations. It also requires being honest and pragmatic about what you’re letting go, whether that’s going for a promotion or being around to give your children dinner every evening. If you set your priorities mindfully, there should be less reason to feel guilty or resentful for the time you attribute to each of them. For parents where partners are present, constructing a work-life balance is a team effort, ensuring that both partners are equally fulfilling their personal ambitions and interests, as well as caring and providing for the family.
Coronavirus has imposed a redefining of flexible working arrangements, shifting behaviours and expectations in one fell swoop. Before workers en-masse were enforced to set up offices from home, it was the exception; now organisations and individuals alike are prompted to question how we work and how we could be working. But remote-working doesn’t automatically equate with a balanced lifestyle; it needs to be managed.
In these times of Coronavirus, many find ourselves deprived of the work-life balance we desire. Being accepting, self-compassionate and focused on the present while weathering the storm is easier said than done. In yoga, one trick to staying balanced in a pose is to keep your eyes focussed on one non-moving spot. While your eyes and mind don’t wander, remarkably your body is less likely to topple over. I think that is a useful metaphor for life.
We often hear stories celebrating people’s impressive accomplishments and accolades, but there is so much more we could do to celebrate the diversity of work-life balances – recognising when it is a choice, not a sacrifice. I think that now is the time to strike up that conversation. I would love to see role models from across the spectrum of flexible working standing out from the crowd. Their individual stories may not be remarkable, but together they can give voice to the multitude of work-life balance possibilities, and inspire others in pursuit of a fine balance.