As noted in my first and second columns for this three-part series, my wife and I are raising our son as co-parents, which in this context means a split down the middle when it comes to child-rearing responsibilities. In order to do so effectively, I chose to leave my job as a partner in a professional firm and work from home as an independent adviser. Even so, I’ve found it’s not as easy to achieve work-life balance, a term I find rather unhelpful; it almost feels like we’re being set up to fail.
The idyllic image of coming (or working from) home, professionally satisfied, full of energy and ready to spend dedicated and enjoyable time with your children is something of a dream. Fair play to all parents who have achieved such a balance, but for me it feels like chasing down a unicorn is more likely.
In my experience, tension is perhaps a more apt description, as both competing forces pull you in opposite directions. Case in point, my two-and-a-half-year-old son recently locked himself in the bedroom, half an hour before I had to give an important presentation. He managed to lock his bedroom door from the inside and could not work out how to unlock it.
It was a surreal experience, where something so seemingly trivial became an emergency in seconds. The spare key was nowhere to be found and my efforts to break the door down only resulted in a bruised shoulder (and ego). For the first time in my life I couldn’t get to my son. Stress built as I tried to calmly encourage him to keep trying with the lock, despite his complete refusal. Meanwhile, my wife, white as a ghost, ransacked the house in search of the key.
We eventually called security and the police arrived to break down the door within 10 minutes. Fortunately, and embarrassingly, we found the key just as the police arrived and let our son out. The house was a complete mess, my wife still needed comforting and I had all of two minutes left to prepare for my presentation. The only person not stressed was my son, who casually waved goodbye to the police and moved on to his next escapade.
The scene I paint may be a one-off situation, but the emotional roller coaster of trying to solve an immediate parenting issue while thinking through and preparing solutions for a professional problem is a common one. On a more regular basis, nap time can be equally challenging. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to calmly will my son to sleep, my methods become increasingly desperate, as I frantically watch the minutes disappear on my phone and feel the dread of the impending Zoom meeting moving inexorably closer.
One of the hardest things I’ve found in placating this tension is when starting a new job or taking on a new project. Typically, in my pre-parent era, I would dedicate my whole being to working around the clock to make the best first impression. I would stay up late to read around the subject. I would put my hand up for everything and make myself available for every meeting. Today, this is simply not possible. My working day is shared with parenting. And if you find me awake beyond 10pm, it’s a caffeinated miracle.
I feel like I enter any job as half the professional I used to be. For the first time in my life, I have been given an insight into what working mums have gone through for decades, and it is unbelievably difficult.
Companies have become increasingly tolerant of personal (parenting) issues seeping into professional life, but you worry about overstepping the mark and not establishing the wrong impression. Do I ask them to move a meeting because my wife isn’t home as planned and I’m stuck with my son building the world’s tallest block tower? Or do I lie and give them a different reason?
Personally, I’ve chosen to be transparent (not specifically about the block tower, of course). I don’t cover up who I am. I am a parent at home and at work. I am balancing two worlds and sometimes they clash. I don’t make excuses, even if sometimes I might need a bit more time to finish the work or I’m not available for a particular meeting. I’m fortunate that, as a strategist, rushing the delivery of creative thinking is not a prerequisite for a quality outcome.
However, this does not mean tension cannot be a force for good. It has its own energy that drives me to excel both personally and professionally. I may never reach a state of perfect equilibrium, but my life will hopefully make up a rich tapestry of moments where I felt grounded and present as both a parent and a working professional.
I have no idea how long I’ll be able to maintain this status quo, but I feel privileged that, despite the sheer exhaustion of co-parenting, I currently see life and work as a positive tension getting the best out of me. I hope others can, too.