I started thinking about work-life balance during my pregnancy. Here’s what I’ve learned in the years since then.
In the years that I’ve been working with and talking to writing parents, I’ve never known a topic more fraught with emotion than work-life balance. And the guilt—the endless amount of guilt—that seems to hang over young parents like a dark cloud, no matter whether they’re working or playing.
I’m no different. The early years of my son’s life were some of the most challenging years for my business. Yet, I feel qualified to write about work-life balance because while there are definitely highs and lows, I am, for the most part, both a happy parent and a happy writer. I love my kid and I love my work, and I allow them both space in my life without one having to compete with the other.
One thing I remember about those early years is just how many people kept telling me how difficult it would be. Utterly impossible. Forget work-life balance. You can’t run a freelancing business with a newborn, they said. You can’t expect to be equally involved in your career and your personal life, they warned.
I did. I could. And here’s what I learned.
1. Pick your priorities
We need to stop telling young parents, especially young mothers, that they can’t have it all. They can. With a little nuance.
See, we all have a limited amount of focus and energy in our days. We can only prioritize two, at most three, areas of our lives at any one time while the others keep ticking along. However, there are events in our lives—such as births, deaths, and marriages—that elevate one of those priorities to a far greater level of importance than others.
What young parents need to understand is that once you have a child, that child is going to be your topmost priority. And while you may have a few other priorities that you can focus on, the rest of your lives may have to take a backseat for a while. So, pick your priorities and focus on them.
For the first few years of my son’s life, the time I spent with my family and my writing were my biggest, and only, priorities. For a while, I was okay with setting aside my passion for travel and I wasn’t as social as I wanted to be. I understood that lives and seasons change and that different things must take precedence at different points in our lives.
As my son has grown and become less dependent on me, I’ve had more time to add new passions into the mix. I can now travel, see my friends more often, and take out time for writing and publishing conferences. I can even work more, if I so choose. The areas I couldn’t actively focus on when my son was a toddler are now goals I can pursue once more.
2. Have clear boundaries between work and play
If your day is scheduled and everyone knows it, there are a lot fewer tantrums and a lot less angst, both from toddlers and from clients. We have our routine down to an art form and I’ve found, at least in our case, that my son appreciates this even more than we do.
I’m pretty uncompromising when it comes to dividing my family and work time. When I’m working, I rarely allow housework and family problems to invade on that time, but on the flipside, when I’m with my family, at the park, or having dinner, I ignore work altogether. It’s easier to be present with what you’re doing when you know that there is time scheduled in your day for everything else.
And look, it’s not that one won’t bleed into the other—it will. If I need to provide a shoulder for my son to cry on because Daddy is a meanie and won’t let him ride the dog like a horse, that’s okay. And if there’s something urgent—and it would need to be truly urgent—I might tackle it during my personal hours. However, because I have clear boundaries and I largely stick to them, if too much of work starts seeping into my time with my son, I can take measures to course-correct straight away.
3. Leave when you’re done
This is something I struggled with a lot, especially in the early years of my son’s life. If the child is in bed and there’s nothing on TV and I have the option of, I don’t know, reading, exercising, baking, or working, my default was always to pick work. Every single time. (“I’ll just do this one tiny thing.”)
Before you know it, the whole evening’s gone by and I didn’t even get to relax. And oh lookie, it’s now 2am and I’m still working.
So, obviously, I believe that you should have a time when you finish work and stick to it.
There’s no easy solution to this except to get super disciplined about having firm boundaries—and ensuring that you honor them. Some other tricks I’ve used have included:
- Taking classes or scheduling events for those times so that I’m forced to show up (these can be online).
- Planning something with my partner, so we’re doing something fun together.
- Writing novels or working on other personal projects, that I wouldn’t get time for otherwise.
4. Remember, it’s just work
Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back.– Brian Dyson, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises
But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.
You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.
Many of us prioritize work over life, but the truth is that once you’ve paid your bills, put food on the table, paid your child’s school fees, and bought yourself a bit of a luxury or two, that weekend you spend working isn’t really adding much to your life. Indeed, it’s actively stealing from it.
There has been a much-needed cultural shift recently and many people are awakening to the fact that, as meaningful as your work may be, it cannot become the replacement for your life without significant physical and mental health costs.
Remember that, and say it to yourself the next time the three-year-old spills a drink on the floor and you feel like yelling because you’re in the midst of an important deadline: It’s just work.
That’s all it is. Work.
5. Make life easier
Let me just say it because no one else will. You don’t have to bake cupcakes from scratch. You don’t have to accept every birthday party invitation. You can allow them to play on the iPad when you’re up against a deadline and need some quiet time to get it done. And ten minutes spent painting a water bottle to turn into a vase does count as an Earth Day project, thank you very much.
Why complicate parenting? It’s hard enough as it is. Whenever you can, pick the road less traveled—the easy one.
Similarly, perhaps the early years of parenting aren’t the years where you need to let all those ambitions play out? While it may have made sense when you were single and had nowhere to be, the fourteen-day reporting trip to Ethiopia that barely covers expenses and will wreak havoc on your home life might not be the best choice right now. In the first five years of my son’s life, I far preferred writing easier service and how-to articles over tackling 6,000-word stories on the future of artificial intelligence.
6. Pace yourself
I made a monumental discovery during my first year of parenthood. I realized, much to my shock and dismay, that I wasn’t a superhero after all. That I had limited time and limited mental energy, and I could either try to do it all and collapse with burnout or I could accept that I’m an ordinary sucker like the rest of ‘em and pace myself.
I learned to pace myself.
7. Find solutions that work for you
I love reverse engineering my life, by which I mean I figure out the ideal situation I want to create and then I work towards making that happen. So, for instance, when my son was born, I knew I wanted us to be able to hang out at home and spend the whole day together. But I also wanted to work. So, I put his nursery in my office.
This meant that we were together all day and work and play and life all just melded together in perfect harmony. Sometimes, he’d lie on his back kicking at the cot mobile and making baby noises while I worked at my desk. Other times, we’d all lie on the floor together with the dog, me reading my book and him chewing his. He’d sit on my lap often while I researched stories on my computer, research that I read out loud to him. He learned a lot about sustainability and good corporate environmental practices that year.
I wanted two things more than anything—I wanted to be around my son constantly, not having to give up even a minute of those early days to someone else. And I didn’t want to sacrifice my career in the process. I experimented with, and found ways to make it work. You will, too.
8. Teach your children the importance of your work
I think this is the most important part of it all.
I firmly believe you need to teach your children what your work means to you and its importance in your life. Show them how to respect your writing. But listen, here’s the thing: you can only do this when you first respect your writing.
If you sacrifice your work every time your child needs something or demands your attention, you’re teaching them that what you’re doing isn’t really that important. But if you include them in your work, show them how important and meaningful it is to you, they will learn to respect that. As a consequence of that, they learn to respect and value their own passions as well.
9. Say no. Or yes
My rules in life are simple. There are things I want to do that I will make time for. And there are things in life that I don’t much care for or don’t want to invest my time in, and I’ll make my excuses.
It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.
Okay, fine, there are circumstances when it isn’t. No need to be all black-and-white about it. There have, of course, been times when I’ve wanted to go to an event or to meet someone, but I had a sick child at home. Or that I’ve desperately wanted to do something fun with my child but have had to take care of work tasks instead.
Still, most of the time, these situations are a result of weak boundaries and bad habits.
Mostly, you have a choice. All I’m saying is don’t always say no. Don’t always say yes. Pick the option that makes you happy.
10. Put your foot down, occasionally and gently
When my kid was at play school, his teachers sent us a project to be done in two days. Then they moaned when we hadn’t done it. We loved this school and the teachers were wonderful, but a crafts project in two days? Nope.
My husband explained to them—very nicely—that we’re both working parents with no help, and unless my son is given something to do over the weekend, it’s not going to get done. The teachers thought this was reasonable and changed the schedule so that all class assignments (paint this, draw that) were handed out on Friday. We loved this, because it gave the child something to do over the weekend that didn’t involve technology or malls (we’re a family of technology-addicts and mall-haters) and the teachers were happy because things actually got done.
It’s the same for your work. I’ll hear writers complain about edits that arrive on a Friday evening and for me, that’s no longer acceptable. I’m not available for anything on a last-minute deadline because I long ago stopped allowing other people’s disorganization to become my problem.
In a genuine emergency for a long-time client, I might make an exception, but that’s rare.
The trick, of course, is to make it clear to your clients that you’re not available on certain days and then hold firm on your boundaries if they don’t respect them. The good news is that once you set the boundaries, it’s a rare client who won’t respect them.
And that’s the best work-life balance tip of all: Set your boundaries, ask for help, and accept it graciously when offered.
No matter what anyone says, I’m here to tell you—from experience—that you don’t have to choose between prioritizing parenthood or writing.
You can have both. You can be good at both. And you can be happy with both.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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