The Juggling Act
Balancing Work While Starting a Family
You are educated, qualified and consider yourself reasonably intelligent. You have handed in countless papers, proposals, and at least one thesis. You probably have some experience under your belt, maybe already landed a pretty good job with good prospects. You are confident of your ability, ready to work evenings and weekends, and keen to impress.
You may also have a steady partner, or are thinking about settling down in the next few years, which opens the possibility of starting a family, if you haven’t already. The game is about to change.
Whether you are already working or are applying for a job, you have some new things to think about and multiple, often contradictory priorities to balance (welcome to parenthood). For the sake of simplicity, let’s break this down to: parental leave; childcare; working time; employer/employee relationship; finances; and stress-levels. Apart from the stress, the rest is to some extent directly affected by where you live and the laws/benefits available, where you work or are applying to work, and the conditions and attitude of your (future) employer. The stress, in turn, influences and is influenced by the others.
Sound complicated? It is a bit, but you’ll get there. Most parents do. Here’s a rough guide.
Start thinking about how long you and your partner anticipate taking off work, because your childcare plan, and following that your work/career plan, will invariably be based around this decision.
You’ll need to familiarise yourselves with your rights as an employee, which vary considerably from country to country, or in the case of federations like the US from state to state. In most countries maternity leave is considerably more generous than paternity leave, but check national guidelines for where you live.
Typically there is a distinction between parental leave and parental benefits. You may be entitled to take several years off, while retaining your job, but any income from the state is normally somewhat less than your normal salary, and for a limited number of months only. Most people receive their parental benefit at the same time as taking their parental leave, to cover the drop in income. But this doesn’t always have to be the case, and there can even be benefits, for example in tax savings, by decoupling the two and spreading your income over different financial years.
It may sound obvious, but whether or not you consider going to work a net cost or a net benefit, there is also an inverse in the form of spending more or less time at home with a baby or small child. For some this sounds great, whereas others would be hard pressed to think of a greater torture. There is no “right” answer. Again, welcome to parenthood. The best advice is to inform yourself as much as you can to reduce the information gap about what each option really entails. With this, you can at least attempt to assign a realistic value and cost in relation to each of your options, in terms of finances, personal goals, and career goals. Read up, but most importantly talk to your partner, friends and family, and do some honest introspection to decide what is best for you, your family and your child.
Having thought about how much time to take off-work, you also need to consider how much time you need to take, inversely, “off-children”. If both of you expect to work at least part time, some form of childcare will be necessary.
If you anticipate using organised childcare (nannies, childminders or nursery school/kindergarten), look into that early on, especially if you expect to need it in the first two years of your child’s life. Waiting lists in some cities can be a year or more for in-demand nurseries: you really do get people reserving places for children that are not even conceived yet. That is extreme, but it is still worth finding out from friends, family, or colleagues what the situation is like where you live.
And then the money. Depending on where you live, pre-school care can range in cost from almost nothing to most of your monthly salary. If you are sending your kids to nursery for the social benefit and/or because you need to return to work, maybe a high childcare cost is acceptable. Spending much or even all of your income on childcare may sound preposterous, but factor in the value of whatever you will do with your child-free time (work, meet your friends, sleep) and it begins to seem reasonable. However, if the cost is too high, it may make more financial sense to take a longer break from work, or share childcare with your partner, rather than working your socks off for a take-home monthly income that, after childcare costs are deducted, comes to a grand total of somewhere in the vicinity of zero.
Finally, but importantly, do family or friends present you with options? If there are grandparents in the picture, perhaps they are up for taking the kids a few hours or days each week. Some families pool childcare responsibility with brothers, sisters, cousins or neighbours. Whatever you can organise, the time made available to you will give you precious working time, and perhaps even-more precious free time.
In any case, once you have at least an approximate idea of your plans for parental leave, and a feasible plan for childcare, you can come back to the topic of that job...
Working Time and Employer/Employee Relationship
Many companies offer flexible working models, or offer employees reduced hours. Especially in the post-corona age, many managers will have had a positive experience with their team’s working remotely and working reduced hours. First indications are that more companies are likely to be more open to non-traditional working models than they were pre-2020. The BBC, for example, highlights some high profile examples which indicate that remote and flexible working models might be here to stay after the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you already have a job, talk to others in the company to find out whether family-friendly working models are widespread, and so what kind of options might be available to you, before you approach your boss. If you are only just applying, use the application process to find out your options. Many employers have transparent policies when it comes to working conditions for parents. If not, think about if and how to raise the topic during the interview stage.
Apart from your legal rights and official company policy, key to any adjustment in your working schedule is the attitude of your manager(s). A sympathetic manager may value the motivation of young parents to work hard and fulfill the responsibility they feel to provide for their children, and therefore be more understanding. Managers may also appreciate the ability of parents to focus, and use their (limited) time more effectively than they might otherwise. Many parents transfer skills they develop as parents to their work environment, for example exhibiting better organisational skills than their long-gone childless selves could ever have dreamed of.
Other managers, on the other hand, may be agitated by the work-ethic of parents, noting the multiple and extended periods of leave, occasional no-shows or sudden departures from the workplace, long phone calls with anxious partners or concerned teachers, and a general feeling that work is not their employee’s top priority. If this is your manager, your decision will be between allaying this feeling, keeping your “parenting” out of the office and wearing a different hat when you enter the workplace, or looking for a new job.
Working out how to balance your work with your family life, or making a decision on whether a job you are applying for is even going to fit with your current life situation, may well depend on what kind of attitude predominates at your (potential) place of work. Figure this out, and not only will your work benefit, but your family life and stress levels too. And speaking of stress...
Parting Starting Advice: Manage Stress-pectations
If you have children, there is going to be stress in your life. You have responsibility for another human being, financially, emotionally and physically. These things were stressful enough when it was just you. Assuming the other parent is around, they will, at times, also struggle with those worries. So on top of your own concerns at home and at work, you will probably need to support them more, too. On top of that, you will likely feel annoyed at having to do so, and at yourself for feeling annoyed. It just keeps adding up, or more accurately, multiplying. Factor in some regular work stress, or stress applying for jobs, combined with the additional stress of being tired, less effective, and sometimes less available than you normally would be for your workmates, and you will start to get the picture. If you think you can balance everything without going through a learning curve, think again.
The best advice in short is to manage expectations: both your own expectations for you and your partner, and the expectations of your colleagues and managers. Expect there to be periods of high-pressure, and multiple bumps along the road in your relationship, working-effectiveness and self confidence. If you expect a rocky, winding road, you will be better able to navigate it.
Work out what you can realistically manage in terms of time off work and time with children. Think about your own expectations and set some clear, realistic goals. At first this may be as simple as getting dressed and having a shower at some point during the day, or getting through a four hour working day without crying. Longer term it may be that you can take on one area of your work and fulfill it satisfactorily, or that you organise your week well enough to take part in a weekly team meeting, building up to a more regular, reliable workload.
Communicate with your partner. Do you both have the same expectations of each other when it comes to looking after the kids, doing the housework, winning the bread? Most couples experience tension in the first year or two after expanding their families. That’s okay, but you can reduce the short-term stress, the pressure longer term and reduce the risk of damage if you stay more or less on the same page.
Finally, make clear to your colleagues and bosses what your situation is. If you expect prolonged periods with reduced availability, then communicate it. It may seem awkward at first to reject responsibility at work, but if you try and take on everything you were doing before too soon, you will do it poorly and impress no-one. Instead, don’t over-promise: take on less, but do it well. Show that even if you are working fewer hours or sitting out on a couple of projects. you can work effectively, perhaps even more effectively than before.
With a bit of patience while you navigate the inevitable bumps in the road, and perhaps a reduction in your career speed while you handle the chicane presented by your adorable but non-sleeping children, you and your partner can, if at varying times and to varying extents, position yourselves to accelerate out of the curve empowered, enlightened and with a new sense of purpose. Perhaps your definition of career success is a little different than it used to be, but whatever it means to you, having a family does not have to put it out of reach.