Balancing Work and Family
"A friend asked me if I was worried about my employability, it's just bananas. I am 100% confident I will be more patient, focussed, driven, resilient and empathetic now. I worry this indicates that as a society there is a lack of value put on the process of parenting, something just doesn’t seem to add up to me...."
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1. Balance is different for everyone. For me, part of what balance meant was having more flexibility to spend time with the family when they needed support from me, not just when I was free. Equally importantly though, I was also looking to create an environment where I could be confident that the best version of myself would show up. Not stressed, tired and frustrated, as I could sometimes be.
2. Despite my best efforts to balance my existing career with the new reality of twins, I found that I was deeply wired to put my job first.
3. This wasn’t going to cut it. After much soul searching and trying to figure out ways that these could co-exist I took the nuclear option and left the corporate world. This isn’t for everyone, but for us I believed it suited our situation and needs at the time.
4. This let me to focus on the twins, as and when they needed me, but also allowed me to help rebrand my wife’s business, which I felt was an important asset for us as a family.
5. Did it work? Predictably yes and no! I was able to be a much bigger part of the twins' lives growing up, and could fit in my work around their needs. Unfortunately it turned out working on a Family business actually took up considerably more of my time overall than my corporate job (i.e. every spare second!). It also had its own unique stresses that somewhat offset some of the headspace that I gained from leaving the corporate world, and of course I did lose some of the fulfilment and security that my corporate role brought me.
6. Over time though, the ability to be the master of my own destiny and manage myself so I could show up as the best version of myself for the family started to align.
7. I constantly ask myself the two questions below, and the answers give me confidence that I made the right decision, no regrets!
- How long would I be willing to work at the end of my career to make up for the time I am taking now to spend with the family? A lot longer than I need!
- Am I developing as a person more or less than if I was working for someone else? Mostly more!
8. The answer to the second question really makes me question the value as a society we put on parenting as a character building experience - the notion that a break to look after children might somehow be viewed negatively by an employer blows my mind!
9. In hindsight, I should have more fully considered all the mental and practical angles that were going to change with such a big decision, and thought through how they would impact my ability to show up as the best version of myself. I could have then taken action to address these up front and enjoyed the earlier days of the experience, getting to “balance” more quickly!
(TG = Twin Girl, TB = Twin Boy)
Balance is different for everyone. What I was searching for was having more flexibility to spend time with the twins as they grew and when the entire family needed support from me. I was also looking to create an environment where I could be confident that the best version of myself would show up with sparkling eyes, and a heart full of love and fun every time I was with them.
Of course, I still wanted to develop myself and progress in my career though, and it barely crossed my mind before the twins arrived that there might be a little more disruption to this than my month of paternity leave.
Well, spoiler alert, it turns out that for me at least (and I recognise there are plenty of others who will be able to make this work with less drastic action), trying to operate at work in the way I did before twins, and providing the quality of support I wanted to my family, sparkly eyes and all, was a bridge too far.
Whilst I enjoyed my job and was surrounded by great people, I did find it moderately stressful and with a quiet week still being full on (and plenty of not so quiet weeks…), it often took a lot out of me. It just so happened that at the time the twins were born I was working on the most challenging project of my career (in fact, I was later told the two things we were doing were widely considered two of the most challenging things you can do in corporate life, period...) great timing!
Given this, and how seriously I took my commitments to work, I was already nervous that I was likely to get the balance wrong. I had asked pretty much anyone I knew who had kids for advice before the twins were born, and almost all of them said they regretted not spending more, or better quality, time with their young children. This also came up time and again from high achievers on self improvement podcasts I listened too, with "I wish I had focused more on time with my family" reported as pretty much the top deathbed regret 😮 All things considered, I felt like ignoring this would be a pretty sure fire way for me to end up with exactly these same regrets.
It turns out I was right! I remember vividly the moment I realised that I was going to need to take dramatic action to come up with another way of balancing things. I was having a conversation with my boss, who I had worked with for a long time, and who was super supportive. She was sympathising with some of my new challenges, and said something along the lines of “a lot of people experience guilt at being at work rather than with their family, and you are going to have to figure out how to manage that”. I remember taking that away to think about it, and when I was next spending time with the kids, I realised that I didn’t feel guilty when I was at work, I felt great.
I felt guilty when I was with the twins, and not at work 🤨
This scared the crap out of me, and I decided in that moment that this wasn’t going to be good enough, and that I needed to figure out a way of reconfiguring my brain and life so that my priorities were in the right order. No regrets! 🤓
Go hard or go home...
For me, as an all or nothing kind of character, this ended with me leaving my job in order to focus on the family. Not to say I didn’t try to explore other options, which involved some tough conversations, and even tougher decisions, but I just couldn't find a way to perform at the level I was used to at work, and still be the father and husband I wanted to be. This was a fairly drastic option and we were blessed that this was even on the table given the practical challenges. This seemed like the right thing to do for a couple of reasons:
I wanted the flexibility to work around the twins and maximise quality time with them whilst they were small. Even having a crazily supportive and flexible employer, the reality was, especially during Covid, that 6 - 10 hours a day was spent on calls, which really limited the flexibility that was on offer as these would largely be within “normal” working hours, which was prime twin time. I also worked fairly long weeks habitually, and this was impacting my energy levels and mindset when combined with the added complexity of the twins and sleep deprivation!
My wife ran her own business, which had been growing, but needed to rebrand in order to continue trading, and with me working she wasn't getting any time to focus on this. I felt really passionately that she should be able to continue to run the business she had built from nothing, that it would continue to be an asset to the family in the future, and knew I could help.
I wrestled a lot with what this meant for my career and our finances, but I knew long term it would be fine. I would be lying if I said these were easy concerns to just shake off. There were definitely low points where I felt like I might have made a bad call and concerns about these robbed me of the sparkle I was so desperate to show up with. Writing this now though just after the twins have turned 18 months, I feel relaxed and able to show up as the best version of myself, based on constantly asking myself 2 questions when I start to worry:
1. How long would I be willing to work at the end of my career to make up for the time I am taking now to focus on the family? Inevitably the answer is actually a lot longer than I practically need to take out. The key thing is though that I won't ever regret my choices today, as I would 1000% be willing to “make up” this time at the end of my career when my family needs me less. This seems like a logical mental shift to me, and I wonder why it isn’t more common? Most of the time I hear worries from those that take a break to parent are “getting behind”. Ironically, I have very few concerns about "getting behind" or “catching up” based on the answer to below…
2. Am I developing as a person more or less than I typically did in my career? For now at least, the answer is often more (albeit in different ways), and I suspect whilst the family won't need as much support from me as the twins grow, the pace of self discovery and improvement will continue to be relentless.
So how did this all play out? Well, first of all, the “little” side project supporting my wife's business turned into a massive endeavour which took up way more of my time than even my corporate job had🤦♂️ On the plus side, we got the business relaunched in time for Christmas, a key trading period, and despite the amount of work this took, I still got to flex my day around the twins, and could be there when they needed me, every day.
What went well?
I look back now and feel so grateful that I was there for every feed, nap and trip to the park, along with being around to look after them when needed, not just when I was free. Is this balance? Honestly, I am not sure, but it's a lot more balanced than it would have been if I had carried on putting work before the family and trying to squeeze in time with them around the edges.
Practically, despite what at times seemed like inhuman amounts of sleep deprivation, combined with a savage pace and workload, first in my job and then working on my wife's business, and of course looking after the twins, I seemed to find an ability to just dig down and grind through and get things done. I’d certainly had periods of working hard previously, but this was something else. It’s a cliché, but as other parents had told me, you do find unknown reserve. I am glad I have access to this muscle for the future, even if I also hope I can get away with using it a little less!
Finally, It was helpful that working on Laura’s business also had its own challenges and learning opportunities. This provided some needed variety and an outlet that was separate from the twins. Despite the advantages of being able to spend lots of time with them, I suspect if it had been all I had to focus on, I would have felt more of a loss where my job had been, and possibly even a little bit of cabin fever. As it happened, no time for any of that...😵💫
What was hard and what would I do differently?
Did I really fulfil my objective of being able to show up every day with the best version of myself…well, perhaps predictably, no. The relentless pace of both the rebrand and looking after the twins, along with settling some of my concerns about my career and the impact of the break took its toll and resulted in more low energy and mood days than I would have liked initially (although, thankfully, I always managed to buck up when spending time with the twins).
The increase in time spent working when I left my job was both unexpected and brutal, and definitely somewhat offset the benefits of being able to spend more time with the family. I found the pressure to work on your own business is more acute than the already pretty serious obligation I felt to my previous employer, albeit perhaps a little easier to manage as there were less people involved (e.g. bosses, teams, colleagues) so my level of control was higher.
I am sure if I had asked any of my self-employed friends (or my wife! 🤦♂️) they could have told me this was going to be the case, and I should have been more realistic and better prepared for what I was getting myself into, and possibly planned to get more help and support up front so we could spend more time as a family (albeit our limited efforts were thwarted somewhat by Covid). I also failed to think about the impact of both myself and my wife working in this mode, without any spare time to spend together as a family with the kids. We tried several mandatory family days, but we just never seemed to be able to make them stick as there was so much to do. I am pretty sure if we had both had more traditional working patterns, whilst the weeks would have been tough, I suspect the weekends, especially as the twins grew and became less dependent, might have felt like bliss as we could both take our foot of the gas a little!
I definitely missed the ability to wake up in the morning, look at my inbox and be served up with lots of different ways to make a difference to my team, company and industry that was constantly in forward motion. Working in a smaller business with lots more white space and less support was much harder when I was tired, or when as a family we got ill and everything seemed to slow down or stop, which I found super frustrating.
I guess the lesson learned is that while big changes made a difference, but I needed to have better considered all the different aspects of what lets me show up as the best version of myself (including those things I was getting from a job I enjoyed). I definitely missed or failed to sufficiently deal with a few areas that made it hard for me to do what I had given myself the time and space to do, but hadn’t worked through the mental kinks and some practicalities to really give me the freedom to embrace it from day 1.
As the twins keep growing and changing, and I think about the future, I recognise that new "balances" will need to be found and I am keen to make sure I learn the lessons above. This has largely translated into finding even more patience (not a strong suit of mine) to make sure what I do next fits, and I, and we as a family, are truly set up to embrace and enjoy it.
I know there are many who have worked through this and managed to find a balance that works. I would love to hear from to anyone who feels they have that "sparkly eyed" feeling now, and how they split time and energy between family, career, self care and whatever else ensures you feel fulfilled and content as an individual and parent. I believe the more we can share and learn from each other, the better chance we all have of getting to our own unique versions of balance more quickly and successfully.
Finally, I have been noticing much more what I hear from people who are returning to work after taking a break to focus on parenting. Stories of condescending conversations, knocks to confidence and a general view that somehow a break for parenting "sets you back" in your career. This is total nonsense, employers should be welcoming parents back as if they had just single-handedly circumnavigated the world in a hot air balloon. Parenting is such a learning and character building experience for anyone who takes it seriously. It blows my mind that taking time off to support a young family can be seen as a negative! A friend asked me if I was worried about my employability, it's just bananas. I am 100% confident I will be more patient, focussed, driven, resilient and empathetic now. I worry this indicates that as a society there is a lack of value put on the process of parenting, something just doesn’t seem to add up to me. I think it's worth taking some time to consider if this is true, and why that might be 🤔