Featured

Lockdown 2.0: The Next Chapter

Stuck at home during the first Coronavirus lockdown, I noticed that many of the podcasts and articles I enjoyed listening to and reading mostly covered stories of people celebrated for their impressive accomplishments and accolades.

It started to get under my skin that this was a narrow representation of success. What about those people who are not “breaking glass ceilings” in their careers, or scaling the heights of the organisations they work for, but balancing their time at work with other things in their lives?

As enforced home-working became universal, so too did the notion of flexible working. I loved the idea of showcasing and celebrating role models from across the flexible working spectrum, and giving voice to the multitude of work-life balance possibilities for both men and women, seeking understanding of the motivations behind individuals’ choices.

And so I created my blog, A Fine Balance, to do just that.

Now, as we settle in to our second national lockdown, I’ve been looking back on the interviews I’ve conducted since then, and the stories I’ve been entrusted to tell – each one individually complex, raw and personal.

They are, as I’d imagined they’d be, multifaceted and diverse – from Sheara’s story of the challenges of full-time working motherhood, to Marsha’s story of redundancy and adjusting to becoming a stay-at-home-mum after a high-flying career as a City professional.

Tahmid’s story emphasised how flexible working is not just an issue for working parents, and both he and Darren’s “Confessions of a Workaholic”, touched on the impact of burnout for entirely different reasons.

Sarah’s story conversely demonstrated how not all definitions of success are career-driven. And both she and Darren spoke of their experiences of imposter syndrome, from uniquely female and male perspectives.

People continue to approach me to nominate friends or colleagues, or put themselves forward, to tell their stories. I fit my interviewing and writing in amongst a busy home and work schedule, yet I’m motivated to continue carving out the time for my blog because I believe in the value of telling these stories. And I have learned from, and been inspired by, each one that I write.

Fitting remote-working flexibly around home life does not automatically equate with a balanced lifestyle. It comes down to how we purposefully choose to spend our time. There is much to be gained from understanding our own and others’ work values.

If you’ve enjoyed reading my posts, please do let me know in the usual ways. I’m an amateur at these things but I’ve noticed that liking posts and following social media accounts enables my articles to reach more people.

I’ve been encouraged by readers that the insights shared by my generous subjects have provoked compassion, inspiration and self-reflection too. So I figure that can only be a good thing to pass on.

‘A Fine Balance’ Podcast – Coming Soon…

Since I started writing my blog, it’s been suggested to me on many occasions that it would make a great podcast. As an avid podcast listener, I can see the potential too. It hasn’t been something I’ve entertained seriously though, mainly because I was put off by the time commitment it would require, as well as the limitations of my technical abilities.

It wasn’t until my amazingly encouraging and tech-savvy husband offered to take care of the editing process, however, that I relented and started toying with a plan to make it happen.

I’d love to hear from readers of my blog about what they’d like to listen to on the ‘A Fine Balance’ podcast. Of the subjects I’ve profiled, whose interviews would you like to hear more about? Which themes interest you? When do you usually listen to podcasts and when do you think you’d listen to content like this?

I look forward to hearing from you and watch this space for more…

Marika’s Story – The Pursuit of Balance Before, During & After Maternity Leave

Work-Life Balance Profile #13: Marika*

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

Work:Life Ratio

60:40 (before having children)

40:60 (after first child)

0:100 (after second child)

Marika’s Work-Life Balance Profile
Marika has worked in the hotel industry since she moved to London from Poland in her early 20s. The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and – to make matters more complicated for Marika – by the time of the first Coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, she was pregnant with her second child, and due to take maternity leave from her part-time role just a few months later.

Her job security plummeted almost overnight and she soon found herself facing possible redundancy, with little prospects of a job to return to after the birth of her child.

Marika’s schedule now revolves around caring for her two children. Her day starts around 7.00 to face the morning routine, which includes nappy-changing, breakfast-making, and getting two children dressed and ready to leave the house. Her four-year old son is entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week so, after dropping him off at nursery, she returns home with her 7-month old daughter to get the house back in order after the morning’s chaos.

After cleaning up, loading the dishwasher, sorting out some washing and preparing lunch, she takes her daughter out for some kind of afternoon activity before picking her son up again. From thereon after, she’s on the home straight to bedtime, with more cleaning, feeding, nappy-changing and the rest. The children are settled by 20.30, after which point Marika has very little energy for anything other than relaxing on the sofa, watching TV and heading to bed herself.

This lifestyle bears very little resemblance to Marika’s life before having children, when she would enjoy nights out with friends, taking holidays and working out in expensive gyms. Her idea of luxury these days is taking a bubble bath in peaceful solitude – a rare occurrence.

At the time of interviewing Marika, her husband, an IT consultant who works in the banking sector, was still working from home until Covid restrictions lift further. So whilst Marika can at least enjoy some adult company at home, moments to herself are few and far between.

She keeps fit by attending “buggy bootcamp” sessions in the park with her daughter and maintains a healthy social life by attending play groups or meeting up with friends with children of similar ages to hers. Of these activities, she says “it’s nice to get out”, though she readily admits that she is not entirely fulfilled by them.

I don’t do much for myself at this time”, she explains, conceding that it would be better for her confidence and her mind were she to be engaged in work that would provide some challenge and outlet for her creativity. Really she would like to undertake a marketing design course, but she struggles to apply her brain to studying late in evening, which is the only time she could manage the course. So those plans are on hold for now.

On the flip side, there is some satisfaction in knowing that she is giving her home and children the care that they need at this time.

An ideal balance for Marika would be around the 30:70 ratio. Her ambitions for self-employment may enable that far more than returning to working in hospitality again. Starting a business while undertaking her current childcare and domestic demands is an ambitious challenge, especially without a family network nearby to offer support. Then again, Marika has built something from nothing before: she arrived in this country alone, and established a career and home for herself from scratch. So there’s no reason to think she can’t do the same (well, similar) again.

A good night’s sleep first may help, mind you.

Chapter 1
0:100 (after second child)
I’m a professional, get me out of here…!

Having a baby has been the best thing that has happened to me this year”, said Marika, smiling a tired smile, as her 7 month old daughter squirmed in her lap. She had to raise her voice to be heard over her daughter’s noisy and restless babbling until her husband discreetly took her out of the room.

Marika hadn’t expected to fall pregnant when she did; and a near-miscarriage made the pregnancy all the more fraught and precious. Contented as she undoubtedly is, Marika looked pretty exhausted when we met on Zoom; she excused herself for not having had a chance to tidy up her hair or apply make-up. Watching her brought back vivid memories of the heady mix of euphoria and exhaustion I experienced being at home on maternity leave with my children when they were babies.

Yet, Marika’s situation is a world away from the one that most mothers experience either side of maternity leave: she is one of an exclusive club of women who have experienced pregnancy, childbirth and maternity leave during the pandemic. Attending pre-natal appointments alone, giving birth alone, and then isolated at home with a new born (and a toddler in Marika’s case) are distinct features that would have been unfathomable prior to the pandemic.

The isolation of lockdown has not been easy for Marika. She told me that when she first became a mother, she struggled to speak to other mums. “I know plenty about motherhood now”, she laughed, gesturing around her, “and motherhood has helped my confidence”, she says. Nevertheless, she harbours huge doubts about this confidence spilling over into her workplace persona. Even before her maternity leave, Marika described feeling immense Imposter Syndrome – an inner conviction that “one day people will find out that I know nothing”. This is a view that many women I’ve interviewed for my blog have shared.

This anxiety makes Marika all the more resolute to return to work in some capacity in the not too distant future. “I miss engaging my brain, using my skills and being around people”. What’s more, Marika is determined to not let “all those years” that she invested in her career go to waste:

I don’t know when I’ll go back to work, but I want to keep my career”.

She senses that with every year that passes, she will increasingly “miss being important again”; and employers’ inflexibility and the cost of childcare are additional obstacles standing in her way.

Chapter 2
40:60 (after first child)
A mother’s work is never done

It wasn’t until Marika was in her early 30s that she felt ready to become a mother. By that point, she had established her career, had recently been promoted and was in a full-time job that she loved. An organised and capable person, Marika prepared herself to return to working full-time after maternity leave: she and her husband adapted their working hours to enable them to share the nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, and they employed a nanny to help with everything else. Simple.

Or not.

Looking back on that period now, Marika reflects with some incredulity how naïve she was:

I didn’t realise how much having a baby would change my life”.

The reality of spending 2.5 hours per day commuting soon began to bite. “I was always late for work and always late to get home”, she remembers, as though recounting a nightmare, repeatedly turning up late to collect her son at the end of the day; the panic and loss of control when trains were delayed. The cost of childcare was a drain, “I was basically working to pay the nanny”.

The sense of failure was all-consuming. Marika recounted a memory she has of sitting around the boardroom and being asked by her male boss about her baby. It must have been obvious to him that she was not in a good state of mind as she told me how he had belittled her at that moment – comparing her to his wife who had four children to care for.

There I was, struggling to cope with just one child – it was humiliating”.

What troubled Marika even more was the impact that her and her husband’s working pattern seemed to be having on their son. He was falling behind with his speech development and experiencing food-related difficulties. Marika started questioning everything that she was doing and began to doubt her decision to return to work full-time.

He needed a mother around”, she says.

There was no question that the responsibility fell to her rather than her husband to take on the role of full-time carer of their child. “He is a good father”, she explained of her husband’s involvement in their childcare (something he clearly demonstrated in his hands-on approach to looking after their daughter while I interviewed Marika).

As much as his job would allow, Marika’s husband accommodated childcare responsibilities into his working pattern, like doing nursery runs in their early days of parenthood. But his involvement was limited by the inflexibility of his job, which Marika described as “unfortunate”. Marika reasons that “he makes good money and earns more than me”, so it was a no-brainer that she would take on the role of primary carer rather than him.

However, this was more than a purely financial decision. “My children are best cared by me”. Call it maternal instinct, or women’s guilt, but there was no doubt in Marika’s mind that this role was for her: “I felt like it was my job”. Consequently, the guilt of being at work more than being at home was her burden too. At breaking point, she went to hand her notice in to her boss, who in response offered her a part-time role. In retrospect, that was the best solution and she wishes she’d asked for it sooner. Returning to anything more than a part-time working arrangement now would be out of the question.

Interestingly, Marika’s choice to become the primary caregiver to her children bears some similarity to the choices that Sarah described making in her story. However, in Marika’s case, the sense of duty and responsibility seem to have tipped her towards that decision more than her love of domesticity.

Chapter 3
60:40 (before having children)
Flying the nest

Marika’s career ambitions started early. As a teenager growing up in a small, rural town in Poland, she harboured dreams early on of escaping provincial life and making more of her future. “Small town, small minds”, she said of her home town. Had she stayed, she imagines her prospects would have been limited to a future of menial working, such as on a supermarket checkout. She knew enough people that had taken that path and instinctively she wanted more.

As a little girl, Marika remembers meeting a relative who was moving abroad. The idea seemed fanciful and exciting and it sowed the seed of Marika’s dream to move to England, fuelled too by her passion for the English language.

Her parents did not share this sense of ambition. Neither of them were educated and had no interest in travelling. At the age of seventeen, to her family’s amusement, Marika announced that she was moving to London to become a nanny. It wasn’t until they saw her bags packed that they believed that she was serious about leaving. From that point on, she never looked back:

I wanted to do things my way

Marika seemed to downplay what drive and bravery it took to make the move she did at such a young age. She was brazen, headstrong, and had also overcome the judgements of the responsible adults around her that she was not capable of making such a move. It wasn’t just her parents that doubted her capabilities. Marika told me how her schoolteachers had not valued her skills, such as languages and writing. Instead, they focussed on what she couldn’t do: “I was never good at maths so I was told ‘you will never get anywhere’”.

I didn’t want to be a label”, she told me, meaning that she wanted to decide her own destiny and follow her passions.

Driven by her ambition and self-belief, once in London, Marika set about studying for her diploma with fervour. Sure, she had fun with friends, but there was no doubt in her mind what her purpose was:

I needed that certificate”, she told me, her eyes narrowed with determination, depicting that she meant business. Her career was hard fought and it was the ticket to the freedom that she desperately wanted.

From Marika’s current reality of domesticated chaos, the independent career-driven woman she once was seems a misty distant memory. She doesn’t feel a nostalgic connection to her home town and feels content to have moved on. Learning the fate of some of her old classmates who have indeed ended up working in the local supermarket (or similar) provides enough validation that Marika needs to prove to herself that she made the right move all those years ago.

Conclusion

It is easy to imagine how, in the fog of poor sleep and weathered nerves, Marika could feel detached from the characteristics that once drove her work-life choices. All the guilt, sense of failure and self-doubt that play on Marika’s mind presently seem to dominate her sense of accomplishment; she hardly gives herself any credit for all that she has achieved: like getting an education and making a home and a career for herself in a new country; and doing so in a second language no less. And that’s not to mention the role she is playing in raising her children.  

Marika knows what she wants. She wants to be a mother, and to devote the majority of her time to the care of her children who really need her at this time. But she knows she also wants to preserve her career and return to the workplace. The job she left when she went on maternity leave may no longer be there for her, but she has new dreams now of starting her own business.

Her determination not to let her career slip away is admirable and relatable. Like it or not, it is a sign of our times that she is certainly not the first woman whose earnings cover the cost of childcare, with little left to show for it at the end of the month, other than the maintenance of her career.

Attaining the work-life balance that Marika desires is within her grasp, though she is aware that rushing her return to work may cause her to slip back into the patterns of the past (along the lines of Chapter 2), which poses a significant risk. So, whilst Marika rides out the antenatal haze of her maternity leave, a little self-compassion and patience may serve her well, as she builds up her strength and resilience to face the next chapter of her work-life balance story.


If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch.

You can follow my blogging journal on Instagram @afinebalance_blog, or subscribe for updates at www.a-fine-balance.com.

Jhilmil’s Story – “My Work, My Identity”: on competitiveness, co-parenting & surviving job loss

Work-Life Balance Profile #12

Work:Life Ratio

75:25

“Happy days” – Jhilmil as a student at Architecture College in New Delhi, India

Jhilmil works full-time as an architect in local government, and also takes on freelance work on an ad-hoc basis. She lives in London with her eight year-old daughter, who spends most weekends and holidays in her father’s custody.

By her own description, she is not a morning person, stumbling out of bed after a few hits on the snooze button, and rushing to get herself and her daughter out of the door on time. The school run complete, she’s back at her home-desk to start her working day, which doesn’t let up until late, meaning that after school hours, she continues working while tending to her daughter’s needs.

A “self-confessed workaholic”, Jhilmil says that she “thrives on work” and that it is her “identity”. Nevertheless, she recognises the value of spending time on her interests like reading and playing the sitar, which, she says ‘feed her soul’. A former junior table tennis champion, Jhilmil enjoys letting off steam by picking up a racket with friends. “There are always 10,000 things to do but I do try to find time to pursue my interests”.

There is a stark contrast between Jhilmil’s frenetic weekday schedule and the quiet weekends she spends without her daughter. She readily attests to not getting the balance “right”, and says that she feels constantly guilty and anxiety-ridden for not giving her daughter more of her time and attention.

As a single mother, there is clearly pressure on her to maintain a steady income. But it’s not just for financial reasons that she commits to working long hours and taking on extra projects: “I love what I do”, she says, “I get excited about a project and the next thing I know “yes, I’ll do it” flies out of my mouth”.

Jhilmil talked openly with me about the many set-backs that she has faced throughout her personal and professional life – including job losses, workplace discrimination, divorce and emotional abuse. She makes a point of not harbouring resentment, but using the strength and resilience her experience has afforded her to maintain a healthy state of mind, and fight for what she wants and needs.

Really she would like her work:life ratio to be closer to 60:40. Achieving that would mean stepping back from long-standing habits and responsibilities that have hitherto lead her to prioritise work over most other things; and facing some hard truths about what she really wants.

Going for Gold

Jhilmil grew up in India in the bosom of a loving, affluent, hard-working family. Landowners of a region north of Delhi, her family lived in relative comfort and prosperity, and education was held in the highest esteem. Her parents went against the grain of 1970s/80s Indian conservatism, with her mum working long hours out of the house pursuing a career as a College Principal, while her father, whose management of their estate meant he mostly worked from home, took on the role of main carer.

“Girl in the hat” – Jhilmil with her extended family

Her parents’ unconditional love and unwavering faith in her abilities instilled in her not just a hard-working ethos, but a belief in her own capabilities. “There was no gender discrimination when I was growing up”, she told me. “I was taught that I could be whatever I wanted to be”. There was just one condition: that she should always aim to be “the best” in every endeavour.

On a family holiday with parents and sister
Practising table tennis skills at home as a teenager

It wasn’t just at school that Jhilmil was taught to be competitive and disciplined. From a young age, she showed promise as a table tennis player and her father coached her as a professional competitor. She lived according to a controlled routine, waking up at 5.00am to train and travel around the country attending tournaments. When she reached the age of fourteen, her parents took the difficult decision to pull Jhilmil out of the competing lifestyle so that she could focus on her studies.

Jhilmil seems accepting of her parents’ role in making decisions about her future. She trusted them wholeheartedly and understanding the expectations placed on her, both by her family and the competitive Indian culture that surrounded her, provided a secure base. “It has instilled in me a resilience”, she reflects, “and a confidence to keep going, however tough things get”. 

That competitive culture is something she notices lacking in the English environment in which her daughter is growing up. “I want my daughter to push herself”, she tells me, and is conscious to pass on her parents’ mantra – that she must aim to be the best that she can be, whatever she sets her sights on.

Though far from being a model student herself (“I was no ‘goody two-shoes’ and was quite a party girl…I could have worked harder..”), the example Jhilmil now sets for her daughter is certainly one of hard work and dedication to her career. I recently wrote a blog reflecting on the power that parents have to influence their children’s work-life balance choices and I was left imagining whether Jhilmil will have the same impact on her daughter’s work ethic as her parents’ did on hers. Only time will tell.

Photograph taken of Jhilmil’s parents on her first birthday

Jhilmil is mindful of how competitiveness can impact on definitions of “success”, and is well aware of the judgements cast by her peers and wider community back in India. Many of her former Architecture College classmates have followed conventional paths of marriage and children; some have built up private practices, employing scores of people. In contrast, Jhilmil is a single mother and her career – one that albeit stokes her passions for heritage, conservation and legislation – brings in a relatively modest income.

It shows a strength of character that Jhilmil seems not to be drawn down the rabbit hole of comparing herself with others to define her own success. She says:

I suppose it could be deemed that I have been less successful. But I define success with being at peace… For me, it is about having enough money to live comfortably, to be able to do what I want to do. Nothing more”.

Jhilmil knows what it is to be without work, for her bank balance to hit rock bottom and to have to rely on government hand-outs to make ends meet. Even the most modest of incomes can make you feel like a millionaire after that, she told me. For Jhilmil, true richness comes from working hard on a job she truly loves.

Jhilmil playing the sitar – making time for this “feeds my soul”

Life is like a box of chocolates

There are a lot of ‘back stories’, right?”, Jhilmil paused mid-sentence and said with a smile, her eyes bright and kind, laughing as she delved into another tangential story to explain the roots of her work values.  

Indeed, there is always a splash of colour, spirit and surprise in Jhilmil’s telling of the events of her life. The path that brought her, for example, to single motherhood was an unpredictably long and winding one, which started out with her marrying her childhood sweetheart at twenty six soon after graduating as an architect. During her marriage, she was diagnosed as being unable to bear children. Though disappointed, she accepted this fate with pragmatism, influenced by the fact that her husband had not been keen on starting a family.

The marriage came to an abrupt end after twelve years, something that Jhilmil did not see coming. It came as a blow, and although she habitually sought salvation in her work, she realised that she needed a break. She decided to take a sabbatical and backpacked across India with her brother, which she described as a “life-changing experience”. She returned to London and, after some time, began venturing onto the dating scene. Unexpectedly (to put it mildly!), she soon fell pregnant.

Backpacking across India after her marriage ended

Jhilmil anticipated that she might be scorned or outcast when she announced to her family and community back in India that she was pregnant with a partner outside of the Indian tradition. But they took her by surprise, embracing and accepting her choices, and supporting her when it became clear that the relationship with her daughter’s father was not to continue.

When she returned to work after maternity leave, you guessed it, events took another unpredictable turn. Unable to maintain the “workaholic” pace of work that she had delivered before her pregnancy, she felt discriminated against by her employers, side-lined and excluded. She was exhausted – in mind and body – and was pressured to resign from her post.

Jhilmil with her new-born daughter

The most compelling of set-backs that Jhilmil told me about though, was about being made redundant at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Losing her job felt like “freefalling down a black hole”.

Desperate at the prospect of facing lockdown unemployed, she tenaciously negotiated an exit arrangement that secured her a short-term income while she searched for a job. I felt humbled listening to Jhilmil describe the immense challenge and stress of job-hunting while home-schooling her daughter during lockdown. Her ability to secure a dream job at a time where global unemployment rates were soaring is remarkable, to say the least.

Reader, please don’t be misled that Jhilmil’s interview was full of doom and gloom. On the contrary, her infectious laugh created a warm and light-hearted atmosphere. Her tenacity and resilience shone through in multiple examples, like the story she shared about the period following her father’s death. Overcome with grief, Jhilmil turned to table tennis to reconnect with memories of her father. In doing so, she managed to turn a period of sadness into one of hope and renewal, discovering a new community and rekindling her love of the sport.

With her dad, who died in 2016
Competing again – tournament in Hungary, 2018

Jhilmil told me that in large gatherings, she’s quite shy and inhibited. I did not detect any hint of that during our conversation. Considering that I had never met Jhilmil before we spoke, her ability to engage and connect was so strong, that it felt as though I had known her for far longer. She described her set-backs with vivid enthusiasm, with almost factual detachment and awe at what she went through, as though speaking of someone else. The events were certainly tough on her, but her strong foundations seem to have sustained her.

Living independently as she does, her survival relies on her being self-sufficient and capable. She told me that when she finds herself in adverse situations, she is inclined to keep quiet and walk away from confrontation to protect her “energy field”.

In her view, harbouring resentment is like “carrying burning coal in the palm of your hand. It only hurts yourself”. She added, “I will not do that to myself. I will not live that way”.

However, she has ample confidence to stand up for herself when she needs to for the sake of her own and her daughter’s survival and wellbeing. Her work ethic and passion for her chosen career motivate her to keep striving to succeed; but her responsibility as a single mother is intrinsic to her decision-making – and not just from a financial perspective: “If I catch Coronavirus, who will look after my daughter?”, she asked rhetorically. There is no choice for her but to pursue self-preservation, even if she has to fight for it.

The job losses she has suffered have hit her hard, but she has never been out of work for long, back on her feet as soon as possible to work another day. She likens her life to a table tennis match:

“When I play it’s not about proving myself, but conquering myself; it’s about being able to overcome whatever life throws at me. It all comes back to the ball bouncing in my direction: how am I going to deal with this one? And when can I take my next shot?

Taking Back Control

Professional set-backs aside, the toughest challenge that Jhilmil’s resilience has had to withstand was experiencing narcissistic, emotional abuse during a relationship. Sometimes, she says, it manifested itself in subtle, manipulative coercive controlling behaviour; other times as blatantly demeaning words and actions. The impact can be devastating, she said. It brought her to her lowest point, and she felt compelled to reach out for help.

Allowing me to make reference to this on my blog is a big move for Jhilmil; it is the first time that she has talked openly about this abusive behaviour and she is doing so because she recognises how common it is, and hopes that others will take comfort from reading about it.

She started to recognise the severity of the problem when she noticed that the mental abuse was impacting her day-to-day life, causing detrimental, repetitive patterns; she had constant “brain fog”, had stopped trusting her own decisions and capability to make decisions, and was questioning herself at every turn.

The support of her family during this time was invaluable and she described her mother as “a source of strength for me”. The love and support of her siblings played a significant part in her rebuilding her strength, as did the help of a trusted therapist. The experience prompted her to re-evaluate the balance she strikes between her work and the rest of her life.

“A source of strength for me” – Jhilmil with her mum and siblings

I’d really like my work:life ratio to be more like 60:40, but I’d be lost if reduced my working hours”.

Pursuing her desired balance is not straightforward as she finds herself in a ‘Catch 22’ scenario: on the one hand, she wants to complete her work during working hours so that she can have some space on the weekends to take the time for herself to do the things that she enjoys; on the other hand, she only has custody of her daughter during the weekdays so working long hours during that time perpetuates her feelings of guilt and anxiety.

If some middle ground exists, she hasn’t figured out yet how to reach it. The situation is made all the more difficult by having to co-parent with a partner with whom she has limited contact and inflexible custody arrangements. Consequently, she finds that she is carrying much of the mental load of her daughter’s schooling and day-to-day care, with little time or space to create opportunities for fun times together.

At the opening of our interview, Jhilmil expressed concern that she would come across as “shallow” by saying how caught up her identity is in her work. On the contrary, I think that what she expressed is far from shallow, but rather a deep-rooted universal feeling. It was front of my mind, in fact, when I started this whole project (I mentioned it in my maiden blog) that work is fundamental to how we construct the balance in our lives.

Jhilmil’s pursuit of balance seems a tangle of thoughts about her identity and conflicting priorities. Resisting her desire to work is unnatural to her, though can she find balance without it? She surely has the tenacity and determination to make the changes needed to benefit her wellbeing and that of her daughter. It seems that her primary challenge, which I imagine many readers will identify with, is to see beyond the “10,000” things on her to do list, and work out what she wants the most.

Parent Power

There is nothing ground-breaking about the theme I’ve recently noticed emerging from the interviews I’ve been conducting for my blog: the role that parents play on the balance that their children grow up to construct for themselves between “work” and everything else in life.

I mean, the impact of parenting has been discussed and written about since the beginning of time. Every generation has reflected on it in its own way. From Bible stories, to Shakespearean dramas, to modern-day psychology and literature – there are theories and hypotheses galore about how parents influence the life of their offspring.

The patterns I’ve noticed though are quite simple really. No intricate theory or hypothesis. But rather two general observations:

1. Parents influence their children’s work-life balance choices

In each interview I’ve conducted for my ‘Work-Life Balance Profile’ series to date, my subjects have described a connection of varied distinction between what they observed/learned/experienced from their parents’ work-life balance choices, and the values and attitudes they went on to develop in adulthood towards their own.

Invariably, it seems that often parents act as a baseline for how a person stacks up their own priorities. In some cases, this manifests itself in a person emulating behaviour and choices they admire in their parents, as seen in Matthew’s story. In others, a person may choose to go in a different direction to the example that was set to them during their upbringing, like Susan and John did; and sometimes a person’s determination is ignited under the influence of a parent, empowered not just to emulate certain values, but to go a step further and forge new paths in the spirit of their parents’ ambitions, as Sheara described doing in her story.

However it manifests itself, a parent’s power cannot be ignored or underestimated. It seems to exist whether we choose for it to, or not.  

2. Every parent influences every child differently

I’ve noticed that there is no uniformity in how a parent’s influence can play out in the balance a person goes on to construct for themselves in adulthood.

It stands to reason that when a parent demonstrates unconditional love, acceptance and approval of their child’s accomplishments, a child is more likely to feel a greater degree of self-worth and contentment with their personal definition of “success” and work/life choices. Sam’s story offers a good example of this. And whilst the majority of stories I’ve written up indicate that positive parental experiences lead to greater confidence and satisfaction with one’s work-life balance, this does not seem to be a mutually exclusive outcome.

Take Sarah’s story for instance – despite the positive experiences derived from her parents’ work and life values, there is still the prevalence of “Imposter Syndrome”, “guilt” and “fear of failure”. Conversely, in his story, Tahmid described growing up with parents he “didn’t see eye to eye with”; yet, he went on to develop a resolute self-belief and confidence in his work-life choices.

Similarly, there does not seem to be any hard and fast rules about whether the impact of one’s parenting strengthens or diminishes with time, or with a parent’s absence. Darren, for example, who lost his mother at a young age, can still trace back the development of his attitudes towards work to her loss. Meanwhile Soli, whose parents have been present throughout her 30-plus years of working, continues to find her work-life balance impacted by her parents in various and evolving ways.

So, my convoluted point here is that there is no clear pattern to point to on this theme, other than the consistent complexity of the parent-child dynamic.

My overriding reflection on this theme is one of awe at the responsibility I myself now hold as a parent.

I’m reminded of the often-quoted poem I studied many years ago at school: ‘This be the Verse’, by Philip Larkin, which opens with the line:

They f**k you up your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do”.

In my youth, it was the first part of the stanza that caught my attention; now it’s the latter.

They may not mean to, but they do.

The intention.

The inevitability.

Intentional or not, a parent’s attitude to work, and their relationship with it, evidently impacts the attitudes and relationship their children go on to develop around work. What’s more, it is also likely to impact on their personal definitions of “success” and the balance they go on to pursue between work and life in adulthood.

One could argue that the outcome of this kind of influence is not necessarily the most critical to a child’s personal development and contentment. And that in adulthood, there is a degree of choice as to how a person consciously harnesses the effects of the parenting situation they were born into. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the cause and effect that this theme highlights.

As a parent, there are no rules or guarantees that your influence will result in positive outcomes, however mindful and authentic an approach is taken. With power comes responsibility and privilege too; and there is something both reassuring and terrifying in accepting that there is no fixed formula or “right” or “wrong” way to support your child to find their balance.

So again, no answers as such. But a reflection I thought worth sharing. I hope that you’ll agree.

John’s Story – It’s a Dad’s World: on fatherhood, male primary care-giving & gender equality

Work-Life Balance Profile #11: John Adams

Work:Life Ratio

60:40

John’s award-winning blog and podcast covers fatherhood, parenting, family & lifestyle

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

I was a dreamer”, John told me of his time at school, which was more of a “social activity” than an academic pursuit. Sufficed to say, he was no model student.

The eldest of three brothers, John evaded the attention of his mother who had other distractions to contend with (including his two younger brothers). “The teaching was dreadful”, he remembers of the boarding school he attended as a day pupil, and, lacking motivation and interest in his studies, he did the minimum that he could get away with, acknowledging that “the teachers wrote me off as lazy”.

John recalls, “I screwed up my GCSEs”, and was “directionless” after A-Levels. He decided to take a year-out before committing to his next move and went travelling. One year-off stretched to four and he was well into his adventure, while partying on a beach in Egypt, when he says he found his calling as a journalist.

On returning to the UK, John enrolled in college and worked for a year in a warehouse to fund his studies and sociable lifestyle. He partied a lot, “a bit too hard”, he says. He describes himself as somewhat of a “hippy”, bucking the system and intermittently saving up his hard-earned cash to fund the next music festival.

But he had finally found the direction he had been missing, which fuelled his energy. By the time John started college, he was a mature student well into his twenties.  “I ran rings around them”, he said of his college classmates, most of whom were eighteen years old and who had more in common with his younger-self.

He was driven like never before: “Having spent time doing dead-end jobs, I had every intention of escaping the cheap bedsit, hand to mouth existence I had allowed myself to fall into”. He went the extra mile and graduated as one of only a few, if not the only student, to leave the course with a firm job offer. 

It seems that all he needed was a goal to aim for to trigger his motivation; and once he had pinned himself to a mission, he put his all into it. Which seems to be a pattern that has continued.

Not taking life too seriously

Figuring out fatherhood

When I asked John how he would have felt if his wife had wanted to be the main carer of their children, he seemed unperturbed, answering, “I probably wouldn’t have been upset about it“. He added matter-of-factly, “my child needed more attention“; something had to give.

He and his wife considered how they could share their daughter’s care more equally whilst maintaining their level of income. His wife earned more; the rest was a logical conclusion: she continued working full-time while he took on the caring responsibilities and found a part-time job. It helped that his wife “never wanted to Chair the PTA”, as John put it, and was happy with this arrangement.

John’s approach in this situation seems to be typical of his approach in general: open to reassessing life’s components when things change, and adapting accordingly. Not having fixed ideas about his career may have contributed to his willingness to make the adjustment towards working part-time and becoming the main carer of his daughters. But being a hands-on dad was something he always expected of himself anyway, so this was not an entirely unnatural progression.

I always wanted to be a father, always felt paternal”, John told me, as though it were an obvious statement. He entered his second marriage at the age of thirty and said that he “panicked” that he was not going to have children. “Everyone around me had them”.

After his first daughter was born, John and his wife were both working full-time while their daughter attended nursery five days a week. Already at that early stage of fatherhood, John said he felt different to his colleagues, most of whom were single and went out socialising together on the weekends. Intent on being an involved father, John said that he felt like he no longer fitted in. He would miss meetings in order to make the nursery run and struggled with a culture that did not accommodate male childcare responsibilities.

Missing his daughter’s early milestones, like her first steps, which took place at nursery, upset him. Instinctively he wanted more out of fatherhood. And the absence of a father figure of his own necessitated his reliance on instinct to be the type of father he wanted to be.

John himself grew up in quite an unconventional family set-up. His parents separated when he was two years old. At the time, the family unit was living abroad in mainland Europe and, after the separation, John returned with his mother to the UK and he didn’t see his father again until the age of sixteen. His mother remarried when he was eight, so he grew up with his mother, two half-brothers and a stepfather. John says he owes his stepfather “a great deal” but concedes that the stepparent/stepchild dynamic is “little understood“. 

I’d never met a dad like me”, he says.

His biological father remained abroad and went on to have children with other partners. Dispersed around the globe, John told me that he has never been in the same room as all of his half-siblings, and extraordinarily, there is no common language between them.

John with his two young daughters, on whom much of his blog centres

In contrast, John was only too pleased to settle down and start a family of his own. His openness to dedicating himself to the care of his daughters broke the mould of fatherhood that had surrounded him growing up, and surpassed any career ambitions he had until then set his heart on.

I hadn’t planned to be a stay-at-home-dad and paternal rights campaigner”, he told me, “I fell into it”. But there’s clearly a part of John that enjoys stirring up conventions and challenging the status quo: “I’ve always been a bit of a pain in the arse”, he said with a wry smile on his face. “And, when riled by a sense of injustice, I’m not afraid to say it when I see it”. The discrimination he experienced as a primary caring, part-time working dad created the perfect storm for the next chapter in his life.

An unhelpful (albeit very funny) stereotype: Paul Ready, playing the primary caring dad in Motherland

On the outside looking in

I couldn’t help myself from asking John what he makes of the parodies of stay-at-home-dads like the sentimental and effeminate character Kevin in the comedy Motherland. He’s clearly been asked this before and didn’t dwell on the stereotype, which he understandably doesn’t identify with and finds unhelpful to his cause.

But a sadness crept into John’s voice as he went on to describe his early days at the school gates. He said that he felt parachuted into a strong, already-formed social network of women. He felt that his exclusion from the ‘sisterhood’ unfortunately also impacted on his children: “When mums socialise together, their children do too. So if the dad is on the outside, the children get side-lined”, he reminisced. It sounded lonely and hurtful: “They may not have noticed”, he said, of the mums that left him and his daughters out of the crowd, “but I sure did”.

This brought back memories of the social awkwardness he felt in his youth: “I horrendously lacked confidence as a young person”, he explained. “Socially I was fine going to a room of, say, 60yr olds, but not with peers”. As an adult and father, however, he felt empowered to stand up for himself and his daughters and speak out.

The injustice bothered him; mother and toddler groups were enthusiastic to have a dad there, but he felt judged and scrutinised. The turning point came for him when he was bottle-feeding his daughter in a café one day and a woman he did not know took his baby out of his arms to show him “how it’s done”, assuming that he was a babysitter.

The journalist in me took over”, he said. He took to his laptop to vent his fury, and to create a discussion and challenge people’s perceptions of working fatherhood. “My wife describes me as a ‘doer’”, he told me. And indeed, he did take matters into his own hands, adapting as he had done previously in life to the ebbs and flows of life. “I quit my job and gave myself three months to make something of Dad Blog UK before looking again for work. Three months later I found myself at a Downing Street reception on paternal rights”. There was no going back.

Through his work, John has created a community that has brought him the balance he felt was lacking when he first became a primary caring dad. His new career and lifestyle ticks many of his boxes: “I like to be an agent provocateur and challenging people; and I love handling the media and tackling gender equality from this important perspective”.

Role models

Wing Man

We finished our discussion on a key point of John’s campaign: that if the old adage that ‘behind every great man there is a great woman’ is true, then the same must be applied in reverse. Think of Jacinda Arden’s husband, for example, he implored; and Kamala Harris’.

As the slick communications professional that he is, the soundbites rang loud and clear. His utopic ambitions for gender equality hinge on challenging male stereotypes and improving expectations of men’s domestic involvement, which in turn can create greater opportunities for women to pursue and sustain careers out of the home.

John seeks to give voice to a new generation of men who want to work differently and parent differently, riding on the momentum and chaos that Coronavirus has created both on workplace environments and gender roles in the home: “We are never going to achieve equality for women in the workplace until men have equality on the domestic front. And we have got to talk about these things to make them work”.

As for John, he has no inclination to go back to working a corporate 9-5. He seems to have worked out a balance that brings him fulfilment, though caring for his daughters and the home while working isn’t exactly a walk in the park. “Sure, I’m ‘the fun one’”, he reflected, describing a recent paddle-boarding holiday he took his girls on last summer, “but as the main carer, I have to be good cop and bad cop”.

He is mindful to be present when with his daughters, and battles with the same multi-tasking temptations that most parents in our technology-reliant culture have to contend with: “I try not to have my phone with me when I’m with the kids, but the reality is that I’m a freelancer”. Being active on social media poses another parenting challenge for John and the responsibility of setting a good example to his daughters weighs heavy on him. “I’m not doing this for fun!”, he reminds them when they point out his excessive screen time on social media channels.

The Coronavirus pandemic has opened up multiple opportunities for John. Not only has he tenaciously sought to contribute to the cacophony of (usually) female voices calling for flexible working and improved working rights and conditions for parents, but he has also taken the opportunity during lockdown to resit his Maths GCSE. Proving yet again that, despite his laid-back demeanour, once he sets his mind on something, his drive, focus and determination yield results.

The lifestyle that John has chosen would not be desirable or manageable for everyone. But in publicising himself as an example of a minority of the parenting population, he is giving voice to the men that he represents and challenging the status quo. In doing so, he is potentially paving the way for change that will impact the families and workplaces of the future.

What’s more, his story demonstrates both to men and women that prioritising domestic duties ahead of career ambition does not snuff out all future career prospects. On the contrary, taking an open-minded and adaptable approach to career planning can lead to unexpected new paths. That is, if you are open and tenacious enough to take a chance and go with the flow.

Do you want to feature in ‘A Fine Balance’?

Woohoo! I’ve reached the milestone of 10 published stories on my blog.  

To mark this significant moment in my blog’s development, I’m putting out a call for new volunteers to feature in future posts. My aim is to create a collection of stories as diverse as possible and I’m interested in hearing from people from all walks of life and backgrounds, including:

* full-time and part-time employees, or those that are self-employed 
* people that are not in paid employment  
* those with no caring responsibilities 
* working parents  

All ages and stages of life and career welcome! 

To date, the profiles I’ve least covered are those of people under the age of 30, those without caring responsibilities, those that are employed on a part-time basis and those that are not currently in paid employment.

If any of those highlighted words describes you, have a think if you’d like to share your perspective. Or nominate a friend or colleague to share theirs.

For those unfamiliar with the format, I run a series on my blog called “Work-Life Balance Profiles”. In it, I interview people about their values and choices around how they balance work with everything else in their lives, and write up their stories.  

I begin each “Work-Life Balance Profile” interview asking my subject to put a self-perceived figure on their current work:life ratio and whether they aspire for it to be any different.

Of course, quantifying something this multi-faceted isn’t a science. But it’s a good place to start for getting to the heart of their story…

If you would like to share your story on my blog, or know a person that you’d like to nominate to share their story, please contact me in the usual ways.

Will the Real Imposter Please Stand Up?

A new online computer game has infiltrated my home this lockdown, and caught the attention of all three of my children. Readers with children of similar ages and tastes to mine may recognise the character in the image featured. For those that don’t, allow me to introduce “Imposter”.  

The game in question is Among Us and I’ve been reliably educated by my kids on the rules. It’s essentially a virtual take on the classic game played around the campfires of my childhood: ‘Wink Murder’.

“Imposter”, a character assigned to a player at random, has an advantage over all others: they get to go about pretending to be “working”, while secretly eliminating their opponents. In short, the aim is for “Imposter” to keep their identity hidden from the others. If they manage to complete a game without being exposed, they win. If, however, their true identity is detected, they die: Game Over.  

It hasn’t escaped my attention that my kids’ obsession with this game (and the habitual yell of “I’m Imposter!”) has developed in parallel to the theme of Imposter Syndrome emerging in many of the blogs I’ve been writing alongside them while they play.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about the significance of this parallel.

Summarising my main observations of Imposter Syndrome from the interviews I’ve conducted so far, I decided, may help crystallise my thinking. So here they are:  

1. Imposter Syndrome is indiscriminate 

From the most qualified, to the least educated of people, Imposter Syndrome knows no bounds. Darren, a university-educated Managing Director of a global company expressed (almost verbatim) the same Imposter Syndrome-related anxieties as Susan, a self-employed freelancer who left school at the age of sixteen: a fear of being “found out”.  

It does not seem to matter what one’s gender, educational attainment, income, class, or marital status is – Imposter Syndrome strikes people from all walks of life indiscriminately.

It also doesn’t seem to matter how accomplished a person is. People I’ve interviewed that have risen the ranks of their organisation, or set up their own successful businesses, are plagued with it just as much as those who have changed career paths and started again from scratch.

And as Sarah’s Story, depicted, confident and extroverted people are suscpetible to Imposter Syndrome, just as quiet introverts are (see more on that below).

Indeed, there is no neat set of criteria to determine what “type” of person will develop Imposter Sydrome. Similarly, there are no hard and fast, unviersal rules that one could follow to avoid it, such as ‘go to university’ or ‘get married’.

Which brings me on to my second observation.

2. Imposter syndrome is self-driven and illogical

Without exception, the people I’ve interviewed who are afflicted with Imposter Syndrome, have not explicitly been told by anyone else that they are unworthy of the positions they hold. The critical voices are always their own.

In most cases, in fact, they described feeling valued at work, had been promoted even. Those that are self-employed continue to win and retain clients. Many described having supportive friends, family and mentors that are continually encouraging of their professional pursuits.  

These inner critical voices are also illogical. Sarah, a former actress who set up her own drama school, for example, described the Imposter Syndrome she feels each time the spotlight is turned on her. There is no logic to this: she graduated from one of the most prestigious drama schools in England and spent years working in theatre before changing paths. Yet none of these facts dampens her internally-driven sense of Imposter Syndrome, manifested as self-doubt, anxiety and paranoia.

In contrast, the people I interviewed that did not mention experiencing Imposter Syndrome – such as Sam and Tahmid – possess an inner confidence and elevated sense of self-worth that convinces them of being absolutely entitled to hold their positions, regardless of what others might say.  

But that’s not all.

They also expressed a recognition of the limitations and flaws of others, which assures them that they are just as capable to do their jobs as the next person. And, crucially, that there is nothing to fear from failure.

It is this attitude that emboldened Sam to challenge his organisation’s HR policies (“it’s not like the firm would fire me for asking”, he argued). Similarly, when Tahmid was told as an intern that he was “not very good at anything, his self-belief did not waiver.  

I can conclude from this that Imposter Syndrome only functions when an individual allows it to; and conversely, that it can only stop when a person wills it to.

Easier said than done, no doubt.

But from the small amount I’ve read on the subject, experts broadly agree that it is a mind-set that can be overcome, with the application of practical techniques and professional support. But that it essentially needs to come from within.

3. Imposter Syndrome is unproductive

When I analysed how the theme of guilt was emerging in my blog, I observed that my subjects all reported that guilty feelings are a “negative and unproductive drain on their energy and emotional wellbeing”.  

Imposter Syndrome seems to have a similar effect – no one I interviewed suggested that it promotes productive behaviour at work or at home. In fact, it seems to do the opposite.  

The only negative emotional state that I’ve observed arising in my blogs that is at all constructive (abeit not exclusively) is anger. For a few of my subjects, like Sheara, who was incensed at a colleague’s suggestion that having children was career-limiting, anger was an emotion that perpetuated a sense of purpose. In contrast, Imposter Syndrome seems to do nothing but create anxiety and encourage inhibition and paranoia.

When I asked my daughter what she enjoys about being an Among Us “Imposter”, she told me quite simply that “it’s more fun” than being any of the other players. It struck me how this differs to adults’ reactions to feeling like “Imposters”. They don’t enjoy the sensation of “avoiding exposure” – it frightens them; it causes them to feel stressed and withdrawn.  

The risk of exposure resulting in “Game Over” does not deter my children for vying for the role of “Imposter”. Is the subliminal message they are absorbing that it is a good thing to hide your true self and deceive the people around you? Or that being fake is a bad thing because it will ultimately end in your demise? Though only if you’re found out. 

Perhaps I’m spiralling out of control with this analogy.  

But what if we adults approached Imposter Syndrome like a game of Among Us? What if, rather than being deflated by self-doubt, those people who feel like “Imposters” revelled in their power, and delighted in making the most of operating undercover without divulging their self-perceived “true identity”?  

Imagine, one by one, those people exposing themselves for who they consider themselves to be, standing up (either on screen or in person once we return to our offices) and yelling with glee, “I’m Imposter!”.

Would that be such a bad thing? What would the ripple effect be? I bet you’d find a hell of a lot of people up on their feet. 

Ali’s Story – Artistic License: When ‘work’ is life, and ‘life’ is work – Dyslexia and the Trappings of Domesticity

Work-Life Balance Profile #10: Ali Miller

Ali and I struggled to find a date for our interview. Between our respective work schedules and family demands, we eventually settled on an early evening one Saturday in January, and even then our conversation was interspersed with interruptions on both our sides.

I was left scratching my head in reaching a conclusion to Ali’s story, and I wondered if it was because the distractions had disturbed my note-taking. Her story is so full of contradictions and barriers.

But then it dawned on me that throughout our discussion, Ali didn’t give herself any credit for her accomplishments – either professional or personal. So much of our conversation had centred on her dyslexia; what she has “tried” to do, and the effort she puts into the things that don’t come easy to her. She acknowledged other dyslexic role models, but didn’t seem to recognise how she could count as one herself.

Over the past weeks, as I’ve written up and given our interview more thought, I’ve been left wondering what difference it would make if Ali redirected the effort she puts into the things she “can’t do”, or feels obliged to do, into building on her strengths and the things that she really wants to do instead. And I thought how that speaks to a universal pattern of behaviour that strengths-based approaches are attempting to counter.

I think that many will identify with Ali’s self-deprecating approach and I hope they will take inspiration from reading her ‘Work-Life Balance Profile’. Not only from learning how a person can overcome substantial barriers and reconcile life’s contradictions. But also the value and importance of taking stock of one’s own successes once in a while – however much one’s culture discourages it – and raising a glass (or teacup) in a quiet moment of self- congratulation.

Work : Life Ratio

80:20 (Before having children)
20:80 (After having children)

Ali Miller with a collection of her quintessentially British luxury homeware brand, Ali Miller London

There is no typical ‘day in the life’ of Ali Miller. A self-employed artist and designer, married with two young daughters, Ali’s schedule since the pandemic began is dictated daily by the various demands of her business and her children.

Ali works in her home studio, where she says she’ll happily disappear when she can find a quiet moment, which is rare these days. Her husband, a self-employed businessman, is the main breadwinner in their family. He works long hours and (before Coronavirus) would travel frequently. Ali is their daughters’ primary carer.

Home-schooling during lockdown has been a perennial nightmare for Ali, largely due to her dyslexia. Overwhelmed by the deluge of online home-schooling instructions and suggestions, she fails to keep up with the expected educational provision, which is exhausting and miserable.

Pre-kids and pre-Covid, Ali would enjoy partying hard with her friends and visiting art galleries in her spare time. These days, to wind down, she indulges in late night TV-watching and comfort food. She says that she has every intention of exercising but is not very motivated and, during lockdown, there is enough to keep her home. The exception is meeting up with her girlfriends for the occasional socially distant walk, which provides a comforting sense of normality and freedom, as well as exercise and a chance to connect with the people that she loves.

 “Art has never felt like work”, Ali told me. “It’s a part of me, like breathing”. Given the chance, she says that she would flip her work:life ratio back to what it was before having children: “I’d love to know what I would create if I had the privilege and time to do artwork all day long. That would be a lovely thing to do”.

But duty calls.

Work vs Life: Who Wins?

I begin each “Work-Life Balance Profile” interview by asking my interviewee to put a self-perceived figure on their current work:life ratio and whether they aspire for it to be any different. Of course, quantifying something this multi-faceted isn’t a science. But it’s a good place to start for getting to the heart of their story.

Ali’s answer was like none other that I’ve encountered so far.

Given that I started my blog during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s been common for my subjects to make a distinction between pre and post-Covid times, which Ali did too. But the greater distinction that she made was the comparison of her work:life ratio before having children to afterwards.

She didn’t say it in so many words, but to Ali, “work” is her life; her artwork is a form of expression and release. And conversely, much of what constitutes “life” feels like work; something that she is obliged to do and that she finds a hard graft.

Indeed, the domestic life that Ali has acquired since becoming a mother sounds like a job she works very hard at. So much so that when setting out her work:life ratio to me, she attributed a hefty 25% of her time to preparing things for her children while they are out of the house or asleep. That includes jobs like cooking, shopping and preparing activities, so that she is available and equipped to face the inevitable, albeit unpredictable, outbursts and chaos that she has come to expect as part and parcel of parenting.

She spoke wistfully about her home studio as a place that she loves to “disappear” to. But the obligations chaining her to the family space keep her away from that place more than she’d like.

Ali’s absolute devotion to getting motherhood “right” is palpable, which is an impressive show of commitment for someone who doesn’t seem to derive much pleasure or interest in domestic godliness. She admittedly would much prefer to immerse herself in work, but is devoted to her family and puts them first, despite her true inclinations.

Is she happy with this work:life balance ratio, I asked? What would she aspire it to be otherwise? To which she responded with a wink and hearty laugh, “send the kids back?”.

“I Can’t Do This. But I’m Trying”.

“‘A’ for effort” is a score that Ali has shouldered all her life. “I was a good girl at school”, she told me, “I tried to get on with things; I tried to please”. For Ali, aiming to please was a much easier target than aiming to achieve.

She was only about three years old when her dyslexia started presenting itself and by the time she started school, the label had stuck. She found learning difficult from the outset, which was frustrating and upsetting. For example, she remembers being taught her times tables and not understanding or retaining the information. “I just couldn’t!”, she told me, exasperated still. Unable to meet her teachers’ expectations, aiming to please them by being a “good girl” was the next best thing. And that behaviour stuck.

Ali around the time she was first diagnosed with dyslexia

Don’t get me wrong. Ali is no “goody two-shoes”. In fact, she describes herself as perceptive, shrewd and nobody’s fool. But when it came to education, she said she felt like a square peg in a round hole: “The system has never worked for me”. So she’s worked her way around it using her cunning, and is not one to sit quietly in line. But, she explains, when you don’t do well academically, you have two options: either mess about, or keep your head down and try. It wasn’t her personality to stir up trouble; so she opted for the latter approach, where at least she could be awarded an “‘A’ for effort”.

In the classroom, she felt like an outsider, known straight out as the “special needs child”. A “hot red feeling” would creep over her as she was singled out in class. She was the only one allowed a computer in the classroom, for example, which felt totally embarrassing and marked her as different and in need of extra help. It’s no wonder that art felt like an escape to her, a safe space away from words and numbers, where she could express herself and find acceptance.

Ali’s father also possessed an artistic flair and had been a prolific photographer in his teens. He sadly died after suffering a short illness just before Ali got married. After his death, Ali discovered a box of his photography work and set about using this as the basis for some of her own work, a series she entitled “Brave Soldiers and Black Butterflies”.

Ali suspects that her dad also possessed a degree of dyslexia, which was never diagnosed. He did badly at school and grew up to be an astute businessman, though avoided being the one to deal with paperwork and accounts. Ali says she learned a lot from him about how to work around a system you don’t quite fit into.

Ali with her dad, whom she suspects had undiagnosed dyslexia

Ali’s parents divorced when she was around the age of ten. Her mum, who trained as a primary school teacher, was often home, having become an occasional supply teacher after her children were born. Ali recognises the difficulties that her mum faced as a single mother of three children; she was not the archetypical “stay-at-home-mum” and domestic perfection was not something that held much value. Consequently, Ali was largely left to fend for herself when it came to home comforts, which instilled in her a conflicting sense of independence and helplessness. Something that she says she still battles with today.

Stupid is as stupid does

The most frustrating thing about being an adult with dyslexia, Ali told me, is not being able to act entirely independently. Ali relies on others to help manage both the words and the numbers that surround everyday domestic and business decisions and transactions.

She explained to me how her dyslexia slows her down at work. When I asked her to describe what she sees when she looks at a page of writing, she struggled to find the words, but settled on this description: “I see the same word twenty times, so my brain has to work twenty times harder to filter out the correct information”. It’s worse when she’s tired, she told me: the “b”s, “d”s and “p”s on a page muddle up, and sometimes spoken words will come out wrong too. “My brain and I get overwhelmed”.

She talked me through the constant hurdles of failure that have knocked her back professionally by not being able to read or write well. “I’ve had to be reliant on others”, she says, which impinges on her freedom. “My destiny is not in my own hands; nothing is done on my timetable or speed. If I can’t do something myself, I have to wait until help is available”. On the flipside, she says, she’s good at delegating.

We get onto the subject of laziness, and, as if weary of thinking about the cycle in her mind, Ali tells me how she has long tormented herself with whether she tried hard enough to overcome her dyslexia. “How much pressure should you put on a child?”, she asks. “I know I’m not stupid”, she urges, but someone who can’t read could well be thought of as stupid. “Is it that I can’t overcome my dyslexia because I’m lazy, or am I lazy because I stop trying do certain things because they are so difficult?”.

All these thoughts are unpleasant, uncomfortable and difficult. They are all fine lines, she says, and there is no satisfying answer either way. She resolves to just work hard; nothing comes easy.

Ali reflects that she might have taken a different path professionally if she’d been able to undertake an academic course – “if I could have read the books to do it, I’d have loved to study psychology or psychotherapy. I find humans fascinating”.

To add insult to injury, at the age of fifteen, while friends around her were preparing for their GCSE exams, Ali had to undergo hip and leg surgery, involving a period of hospitalised convalescence. As if it wasn’t already going to be hard enough for her to attain a set of respectable results, this set-back made it virtually impossible, shutting her out to some career options before she’d even left school. She managed to scrape through with enough GCSEs to study Art at A-Level, and from there went on to Art College.

Ali (before children) showcasing her work at Somerset House

Having children has magnified the debilitating impact of Ali’s dyslexia and has brought back some of the traumatic memories of her childhood challenges that she’d happily forgotten. “I used to skim over bedtime stories that I was reading to the kids when they were little”, Ali told me, making up sentences to save herself the effort of reading the words. “I can’t get away with that anymore”, she said, now that her girls are learning to read.

She describes a wave of failure flooding over her when she had to explain to her daughters that she was “not good at reading”. “It’s not cool or fun not to be able to do it”, she says resignedly. “But it is what it is. I can’t hide it, and they are understanding of my limitations”.

Ali has herself made peace with her limitations too. Rather than swimming against the tide of her dyslexia, she is resolute instead on being successful in spite of it. Her professional accomplishments of building a livelihood out of her artwork, and creating a brand that has attracted swathes of global customers and the occasional celebrity stage set, is no mean feat. Taking into account the barriers Ali had to overcome to achieve this is nothing short of brilliant. Not that Ali expressed any recognition of this during our discussion.

Lots of creative people, she points out, are dyslexic and there are more celebrity role models talking openly about it now too, which is a great thing. The stigmas of being singled out as “stupid” or having “special needs” are lifting, she recognises, though perhaps a little late for her benefit.

Sherlock star, Benedict Cumberbatch, on set with an Ali Miller London tea seat

Rage Against the Machine

Ali says that her business doesn’t currently generate the income it would take to pay for more childcare, and that it would not be financially viable for her husband to be their daughters’ primary carer. So the work of motherhood piles up.  

Whilst she feels privileged not to be relied on to put bread on the table, she would appreciate sharing the load more, particularly during lockdown. The more we talked about this, the more a tirade of frustration at society’s inequalities and injustices flooded out. At first, it centred on the sexist expectations of women as mothers. But soon our conversation turned to Ali’s incandescence at gender inequality more generally.

Men, she stated, have more choice to balance their careers with their parenting responsibilities; the expectations for women to carry the mental load is totally unbalanced. Her dream scenario, she said, would be “to do what realistically most men do”: go to work and come home to the family at the end of the working day.

She is sceptical about the men who bang the drum about working part-time and sharing the childcare with their working wives, like one of A Fine Balance‘s previous subjects, Sam. She argues that the women she knows who work full-time or share some childcare with their husbands are still the ones carrying more responsibility for the overall care of their families. Ultimately they end up doing more “work” all round, she argues.

Ali describes how difficult it is for working mothers to be “present” with their children: “While I am with my kids I am spinning twenty plates in my head about domestic needs and childcare and all sorts”, she explains. In contrast, she observes that when her husband comes home after a day out at work, he is totally present with the children and able to focus on them entirely as his work is done. “It winds me up beyond belief”, she tells me, “how during lockdown women are carrying the domestic load when both partners are at home – I see it all the time”.

Ali is adamant that her daughters will grow up with the independence that she herself lacks. “I don’t have a choice”, she argues, when I challenge her about why she doesn’t practice what she preaches more by way of gender equality in her home. “I don’t have the skills, freedom or knowledge to be totally independent”, she says, describing her reliance on her husband to manage their financial affairs, for example.

Ali points the finger at society for not educating girls adequately with the skills that matter, and is infuriated by the beauty industry’s role in painting a false image of what women should be. She shuns any encouragement of “girly-ness” in her daughters, and is resolute that they will grow up feeling empowered to challenge gender expectations. “The girls can’t be anything like I am financially. I can’t let that happen”.

Ali on holiday with her husband and two daughters

Despite her frustrations, Ali assumes the role of her daughters’ primary carer. And not half-heartedly at that. Holding the reigns on their routine doesn’t seem to be something that Ali could relinquish with ease, even if she did have the option to.

Unlike some of the other women I’ve blogged about – such as Sarah and Marsha – who are their children’s primary carers, Ali’s approach appears to be borne more out of practicality than a maternal instinct or possessiveness over her children: “I want to have a peaceful family life”, she told me. Maintaining control and mitigating chaos seems to achieve that for her. Not only is she acutely aware that when the proverbial hits the fan, she’s the one that has to clean up the mess. But throwing her all behind the endeavour of motherhood is also consistent with the “’A’ for effort” tactic she has become accustomed to over the years.

Ali looks back nostalgically to her life before becoming a wife and mother as a time when she was free to explore her creativity and ambition unhinged. A kind of claustrophobia has descended on her during the Covid lockdowns, though the intense environment has also ignited the occasional unleashing of her creative spirit through brief escapes to her studio.

She knows that she could make more time for these creative moments, though the claustrophobia often stifles her impulses to create.

As it stands, the work-life balance that Ali has, and the one that she desires, are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Her contrary definitions of “work” and “life” will no doubt mean that the boundaries between them will always be somewhat blurred, so continuing to harness and reconnect with her creativity may well be the key to enabling her to find some middle ground – and therein some measure of balance.

If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch.

You can follow my blogging journal on Instagram @afinebalance_blog, or subscribe for updates at www.a-fine-balance.com.

The Pursuit of Balance: Plain Sailing or Pushing Against the Wind?

The pursuit of balance is not always plain sailing. In fact, often it seems that finding balance is more like pushing against the wind.

I’ve observed this many times now through interviewing people for my blog.

I start each interview asking my subject to put a figure on what they perceive to be their work:life ratio and whether they aspire for it to be any different.

Of the eleven people I have asked this question of to date, six have told me that they were reasonably content with the balance they currently have between work and everything else in their lives.

Those that told me that they were not content with their balance, however, seemed to face a significant personal challenge in making the changes it might take to improve their work-life balance. Seeking out their desired balance seemed to go against their natural inclinations to behave in a certain way. That’s not to say that it would be impossible for them to change their work:life balance ratio; but doing so would require making a concerted and conscious effort.

How does a person decide on their priorities? From the small decisions, like whether to leave work promptly and make it home for bath time, or to linger on later in the office; or whether to complete a work assignment over the weekend instead of meeting up with friends? To the big decisions, like whether to pursue a career that involves travelling away from home; or giving up work to commit to caring responsibilities?

How we set our priorities is wrapped up in who we are.

This seems to be because the choices we make about how we spend our time are so intrinsically linked to our natural preferences, our experiences, and subsequently the value we place on one aspect of life over another when we have to choose between them.

It would be interesting to revisit some of my subjects in years to come to follow up on their stories and see if those that wanted to make changes actually made them. And what it took to do so.

How about you? Is pursuing a balanced life plain sailing, or are you pushing against the wind?

Susan’s Story – Climbing High: on Single Motherhood and Social Mobility

Work-Life Balance Profile #9: Susan*

Introducing Susan, the subject of my latest Work-Life Balance Profile.

Having come across my blog on social media, Susan approached me to share her perspective on finding balance as the single mother of two children, one of whom has particularly demanding needs. The story I unearthed about social mobility, however, proved to be just as insightful, and something that has impacted significantly on her work and life values and choices.

In order to preserve her true identity, her name and some of the details of her story have been omitted or changed. The rest, however, is a true account.

I was touched by Susan’s reaction to my draft write-up of her interview. She wrote to me: “It is such a unique experience to read my life story so well-written and understood by someone else”.

I was motivated to start my ‘Work-Life Balance Profiles’ series in order to give voice to people like Susan who, neither rich nor famous, are balancing their time at work with other things in their lives, and not usually celebrated or invited to showcase their accomplishments. Susan hopes that others may find it helpful to read about someone that has never given up, however “up against it” they’ve been. And so do I.

Work : Life Ratio

40:60 (Pre-Covid)
10:90 (During Covid)

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

On an average day, Susan wakes up around 5.00am to fit a couple of hours of work in before her children wake up and need preparing for school. The school run takes the best part of two hours, after which she is back at her kitchen table ready to start working again.

A self-employed freelance literary agent, there is constant pressure on Susan to retain and acquire contracts. She is a single mother and her income is supplemented only sporadically by unreliable maintenance payments from her ex-husband, a source of constant anxiety and frustration that casts a shadow over her whole life.

When given the chance, she enjoys the simple pleasures of having time to herself, like taking a walk or enjoying a moment of quiet calm in nature. She doesn’t have much interest in material things and doesn’t miss indulging in the luxury purchases that she used to be able to afford when she was married and working full-time.

Susan says that she finds it difficult to switch off from the pressures and demands in her life, and turns down opportunities to exercise or take up hobbies. Coronavirus notwithstanding, she is content with her 40:60 work:life balance ratio; “I would not want to work any more hours”, she told me, as this arrangement enables her to provide her children with the care they need. “I like stopping work at 2.30pm and spending the rest of the day with the kids”.

That said, her career and earning potential are limited by her situation, which she finds frustrating, financially terrifying and lacking in the consistency and stability she desires: “If I didn’t have to look after my children single-handedly, I’d be earning as much as my ex-husband and would be able to live much more comfortably”, she shared.  

The responsibility of being a single mother influences all of Susan’s work and life values and decisions: “I have no choice. I feel like my options are limited”, she told me. The pandemic has impacted her in multiple ways, making it even harder than usual to find balance in her life. It has thrown open new career opportunities, however, and that shines some optimism on an otherwise bleak situation.

Dream small, little girl

As a young girl growing up in Hampshire, Susan was given no encouragement to continue her education after GCSEs. Her parents enrolled her in evening secretarial college from the age of fourteen, telling her that a grounding in typing would serve her well. So, by day, she was a school girl working towards her GCSEs; and by night she was preparing for her prospects to be stunted by cutting short her academic career. She left school the summer after her exams and a matter of weeks later, was working and earning a wage.

When Susan’s schoolteachers discovered that she was leaving school at the age of sixteen, they were horrified. She clearly showed promise and had the potential to do well at A-Levels and even go on to Higher Education. But there was no convincing her family, and I don’t think anyone tried. As though on a conveyor belt, Susan found herself placed on a path that would take her away from the school life she had enjoyed and at which she had excelled. Little did she know that missing out on gaining the qualifications that had potentially lay ahead would haunt her for the rest of her life and influence her work and life values and choices from thereon.

I’m starting with this part of Susan’s story, because it spells out the powerful forces working against her before she probably even knew what a “career path” was. Her parents’ actions were not ill-intentioned; they were simply preparing their daughter for the world that they knew. They were, Susan described, a “working class” couple: her father left school at fourteen and worked as a tradesman; her mother had wanted to be a teacher, however, she opted to be a stay-at-home-mother until Susan went to secondary school. She started working later in life, never earning more than the minimum wage.

Though there were few role models for her to aspire to growing up, Susan instinctively felt frustrated by the limitations imposed on her and couldn’t shake the restless feeling that that she wanted more.

“I shouldn’t be here”

“Social mobility” is one of the buzz words of our generation, and a challenge that many governments and organisations grapple with to overcome inequalities, and make educational institutions and workplaces more diverse and inclusive. The younger Susan is an example of the untapped potential that “social mobility” agendas seek to address; a person for whom opportunities were either unknown, unattainable, or out of scope due to lack of awareness, qualifications or a crippling sense of inferiority and presumption of exclusion.

Starting out as a secretary in a publishing house, Susan was stuck for years in junior administrative roles, while her contemporaries entered the profession as undergraduates on higher starting salaries, and promoted up the ranks.

Until interviewing Susan, I hadn’t really considered how clumsy the term “social mobility” is. Being socially “mobile” implies a degree of fluidity of movement between social classes (however those are defined these days). Of course, in reality, the desired trajectory is usually only ever upwards, and from Susan’s description, such movement is far from fluid; it is a climb of mountaineering proportions: some paths are closed off outright as you lack the basic requirements for entry; and to find the confidence, resilience and opportunity to keep knocking on doors and clawing your way “up” is a continual uphill struggle. Then, once you’ve “arrived”, the ground is not always steady underfoot; there is a cultural acclimatising to adjust to that can starve you of oxygen and snuff out your spirit if left unchecked.

Susan eventually beat the odds and managed to rise the ranks of her profession by a mix of sheer determination, supportive mentors and hard fought self-belief. Doing so, required overcoming outright discrimination and sexual harassment as well as battling with her own self-doubt. She described how demeaning she found it to be expected to wear a skirt because of her secretary status; and the humiliation of having to pander to specific tea requests by groups of grown men in suits.

I heard the former children’s television presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin once wisely say that “a childhood lasts a lifetime”. Your childhood experiences, education and culture stays with you as you journey through your adult life. Susan attests to this in her story of “social mobility”: however much social “movement” she aspired to, and attained, her childhood voice stayed with her, impacting negatively on her confidence, self-esteem and hindering her sense of fitting in, as – to keep with the mountaineering metaphor – she sought to acclimatise to new heights.

In her mind, Susan felt sure that she was as capable, if not more, than her demanding seniors. She took a punt one day and entered uninvited to her boss’ office to put forward a suggestion for one of the company’s most valued clients. It turns out she was right: she could do the job as well as her seniors, and this was proven by her suggestion being picked up and ran with.

Yet, this is not a straightforward rags-to-riches kind of story. Her female boss decided to present the idea as her own. And Susan remained the secretary, too intimidated to seek credit or promotion. She describes how out of place she felt being surrounded by people with degrees from Durham and Oxford Universities: “it didn’t take much for me to be put back in my box”. 

Despite being lauded for her contribution to the business, she was excluded from client meetings, her bosses preferring instead to showcase to their clients the biographies of those employees with first class honours degrees.

Nevertheless, Susan’s persistent drive was relentless. When probed, she couldn’t say why or where that drive came from; she just knew that she wasn’t fulfilling her potential as a secretary. I got the sense that her schoolteachers’ horror at her leaving school at sixteen remained with her as a signal that she could achieve more. Without the educational backing, however, she had to go it alone. And for Susan this meant leaving her home town, despite her parents’ protestations that she should stay, and heading to the big smoke of London town to seek a more prosperous future.

However, even when she did start making strides with her career, Susan continued feeling out of place. “I shouldn’t be here”, she would tell herself; and would never contemplate demanding a promotion, pay rise or bonuses. “My confidence did not rise at the same rate as my mobility”, she told me, and that imposter syndrome, to this day, remains.

Breaking cycles

Are you ok mummy?”. Susan mentioned in passing her daughter’s awareness of the stresses she is under, for example observing her mother’s brow over the top of the lap top lid, furrowed with anxiety as she checks her finances. In response Susan breaks into a forced smile, repeating what she told me is her usual response: “Oh, it’s just grown-up stuff. It’ll be gone in the morning”.

‘Forced smiling’ seems to be something Susan has become accustomed to as a means of reassuring her children that she has their lives under control. She is mindful not to let on how financially precarious their situation is; and she shields them from some of her nastier interactions with her ex-husband and his family that may hurt them.

Her anxiety and sadness are buried deep beneath the forced smile and I am left imagining it as a suppressed ball of energy swirling within her with no outlet.

Susan says that she had an inkling before she married her ex-husband that the marriage would fail. She knew that she was entering into the relationship in the hope that it might gain the approval of her parents, where her other achievements had failed; had worried that she might not find anyone better. She saw herself entering the marriage pattern that her parents had set and, as though on a conveyor belt again, allowed herself to be carried along by it. Her priority was to be married. Little did she know that she was entering a relationship that would make her deeply unhappy.

After having children, there was an unspoken assumption that Susan would give up her hard-fought career to look after the children. Susan did not fight to preserve her career. Part of her, she says, felt relieved: “I had an excuse to stop doing it before someone found me out”.

It doesn’t help that Susan has long connected money to her sense of self-worth. She describes that her parents were not very demonstrative, capable of expressing affection more through occasional cash hand-outs than saying “I love you”. Similarly, during her marriage she grew to associate the money she received from her husband with her value; consequently, his refusal to pay for their children’s costs now continually erodes her self-esteem, “I need to be financially independent of him”, she told me.

It is plain to see that there are some repetitive patterns snaking through Susan’s story: uneducated parents, uneducated daughter; and mother, then daughter, setting aside potential career trajectories to raise their children. Susan feels that she has gained clarity of these in recent years and she is resolute – however many forced smiles it takes, and regardless of how much it skews the balance in her own life – that the cycles will stop, that she will be a positive role model for her children and that they will get the opportunities that she missed out on, setting them up for a better future.

All the single ladies, put your hand up!

One couldn’t possibly seek to understand the balance that Susan strikes between her work and all else in her life without taking account of her being a single mother. During our interview, Susan went into the granular detail of how this affects her ability to find balance, and I felt humbled to hear the wide-reaching impact of single motherhood, realising in turn the security that comes as part and parcel of being married with children, which are easy to take for granted.

I imagine that for many households with children – particularly during lockdown – the idea of being left in quiet solitude while one partner takes the children away for a weekend sounds pretty blissful. Yet, of course, there is so much more at play for divorced couples than some welcome peace and quiet.

Some of Susan’s married girlfriends try to empathise, at times drawing comparisons with the single mothers’ predicament while their husbands work long hours. They mean well, Susan told me, but they don’t know the half of it. Even if your husband is out working long hours, you still have the security of his income contributing to paying the bills; it’s not all on you. And you also have other long-term financial safety nets, such as insurances, inheritance and pensions, that you might eventually need to fall back on, or enjoy later in life. As a single mother, all of that is stripped away and, in Susan’s case, she bears sole responsibility to provide for herself and her children, a predicament she understandably finds quite terrifying.

The magnitude of this responsibility seems to override Susan’s capacity for anything more than survival. It makes sense that she does not have any energy or inclination to indulge in any interests outside of work for her own sake, though she may well benefit from doing so. I imagine that this is an incredibly hard-going rhythm to sustain, with little respite.

With her dogged determination, it stands to reason that brighter days lie ahead for Susan. After the interruptions of Coronavirus lockdowns, which have constrained Susan’s time to work, her freelance business is back on track for 2021 and, ever resourceful, she has plans to develop her offering to increase her income further.

The first step in finding her balance, it seems, would be to give herself permission to prioritise her own physical and mental well-being needs over those that she cares for.

In the good old pre-Coronavirus days, when taking a flight was commonplace, the instruction would regularly play out that you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Grounded in lockdown as we all now are, I think something in that that still holds true, especially for self-reliant people like Susan, who are in it for the long haul, and need all the oxygen they can get to keep on climbing.

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch.

You can follow my blogging journal on Instagram @afinebalance_blog, or subscribe for updates at www.a-fine-balance.com.