Eight ways working parents can make family life happier
Balancing work and life can be tough, but author and working mum Christine Armstrong has some tips for getting it right, as Lisa Salmon reports.
MORE mums than ever are returning to work after having children – and discovering that getting the balance right can be very tough as they battle stress in the workplace with juggling family life.
In the last four decades, the number of working mothers has risen from half of all mothers to nearly three-quarters (72 per cent), according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. And yet Health and Safety Executive data shows the most stressed group at work is professional women aged between 35 and 44, because of lack of support, sexism, home/work imbalance, and family needs.
Mother-of-three Christine Armstrong experienced such stress after returning to work in advertising following the birth of her first child. Her own challenges, and subsequently talking to other working mums about their work/life balance, led her to the shocking conclusion that society isn't designed to support women with children and a career.
"Men and women are struggling, but women are having a worse time – and are more stressed – because so many are trying to live up to stereotypes of what a good mum looks like while also holding down a job," says Armstrong, co-founder of a communications consultancy and contributing editor of Management Today.
As a result of her experiences, she wrote The Mother of All Jobs: How to have children and a career and stay sane (ish) (Green Tree, £12.99).
"My intention was to show that everyone who feels they're drowning in work and kids is completely normal," Armstrong explains.
Many companies are trying to improve things but Armstrong says we need wider societal changes too, including good universal childcare, sensible working hours and supportive working cultures.
"But there are some things that happier parents seem to do or think compared to those who are really up against it. You may not be able to do them all, but a few may work for you. There are no silver bullets – I am so sorry – but I hope they help a little," she advises.
Here are Armstrong's 8 tips to help make being a working parent really work:
:: 1) Embrace being a parent
Armstrong says there's no need for parents to suppress their maternal and paternal feelings just because they have careers.
"Society is stuck between the old world, where women were home and dads worked and the children were cared for, and a new world where most parents work longer and longer hours and children must be cared for during and around work. It's time we made decisions that enable this transition not to feel like a crisis in every working family across the land."
:: 2) Open your eyes
Armstrong points out that new parents may realise society isn't set up to enhance family life, but to increase economic productivity, and says: "Know that and use it to defend yourself against every negative thought about not being good/capable/hard-working enough.
"We don' t have to apologise or feel guilty for being parents and workers or, even worse, hide that we have kids," she stresses. "And never judge your own life against the imagined and idealised life you assume others have. The more we dig, the messier everyone's lives look."
:: 3) Make conscious choices
Be very honest about who you are and what each of you (if you have a partner) believes is important, advises Armstrong.
"If your burning ambition is to be CEO, then set up your family and structure to support that ambition," she says. "Equally, if you want to be very engaged in the daily lives of your kids, then set your family up that way. But in either case, be honest about who you are and know that it will change as you go, and allow space for that change."
:: 4) Plan work
Actively plan the amount of time and the place that both parents spend working. "Don't just tumble into our crazy always-on workplace with a baby on each hip and hope you make it to their 18th birthday without a breakdown. You might not," Armstrong warns.
Instead, make choices that work for you and your whole family, and be prepared to move jobs, move home, move schools, or change your working structures.
:: 5) Plan play as well as work!
Actively plan the time you both spend not working: when you're caring for children, exercising, having fun, seeing friends or running your home. This includes not just giving yourself permission to do the things that matter to you, but making them a priority.
:: 6) Cut costs
Constantly seek to reduce, rather than increase, your spending, Armstrong advises.
"Everyone thinks they need more money, so consider what your life would look like if you stopped spending and/or stripped out costs," she suggests.
Data from the US shows people have an average of 300,000 items in their homes – and the rise of storage facilities here suggests Britain and the north can't be far behind. "Stop buying stuff you don' t even have space for," she says.
:: 7) Turn it off
Take control of your technology and use it in a way that adds to your life rather than minimises it. This could range from stopping working all evening on your laptop, to turning off Amazon Prime in order to have a chat over dinner instead.
:: 8) Play as one team
See your household as both a team and a set of individuals, and make decisions accordingly. Having children at different schools, ignoring the five-year-old's bad sleeping habits or working opposite shifts to your partner so you don't see each other in the week are all fine, says Armstrong, as long as they don't bring the household to breaking point.
"Make choices that work day-to-day for everyone," she says. "If they don't work, don't resolutely battle on with grim determination – make a plan to change them."