The right balance between work and family
Many young mothers ask me, ‘How can I balance work and family…kids/marriage/exercise/taking care of my house and cooking healthy food for my kids all at the same time’? I squirm a bit, feeling that I don’t have an adequate answer.
My approach to balancing work and family has always been different. My husband and I met and married in medical school. During my 4th year, we had our first baby. When we graduated, we each needed to do an intense 90 hour per week work/residency program for three to four years each.
How would we do that with a 6 month old? We could – but we decided not to leave our daughter with a nanny for that amount of time.
So, we made a plan. I would do my pediatric residency first while my husband would work part time and stay home with our daughter. Then, when I was finished with my residency, he would do his program, and I would stay home. It was during my residency that we also had our second child, so he was caring for two young children. That was what balance looked like in that season. This time was hard and heart-wrenching for me in many ways. I missed my daughter(s) but I knew that if I just got through the next 3 years, I could be with them afterward.
That season was tough on our marriage but in many ways it made our marriage stronger. We didn’t spend a lot of time together but we depended on each other. And, we knew that a day was coming when we could spend more time together. So we held onto that hope and got through seven years of medical residency. I didn’t exercise, have any self-care time, and I ate poorly. Oh well. I knew I could change all that in three years.
A Different View of Balance
Most mothers think of spending X amount of time each day doing different things they need to get done. I don’t. I take the long view.
I think of balance as spending chunks of time doing one or two things over a span of years. For instance, I see life as a series of time periods where I focus on a few things until I reach another stage and then switch gears.
When I was training in my twenties and thirties, I spent an intense amount of time establishing my medical career. Then, I began having kids and switched my focus, realizing that in a decade or so, my kids would be older and I could resume a manageable work-family balance. And of course, once I became an empty-nester, I would have several decades left to work on my career.
You Cannot Do It All at the Same Time
My belief that you can’t do everything at once without losing your mind has worked well for me. Most mothers feel they must get everything done in their thirties and forties and this simply burns them out. They often get anxious, irritable, exhausted and even depressed. They feel like failures simply because they’re asking more of themselves than they can actually do.
In my thirties I wanted to figure out how to have a successful career, be a good mom and wife and take care of myself all at the same time. I was frustrated because I was trying to do this but was failing. I was exhausted and depressed. I asked my pastor, “How do I find balance in doing all of these things at the same time? Other women do it but I’m failing.”
Much to my disappointment he responded, “You can’t. I know that you want to do 36 hours of work in 24, but life doesn’t work that way. If God wants you to do something, he’ll give you an opportunity to do that in the future. You’ll die right on time.”
I walked away disappointed thinking that his answer was one of the dumbest things I had ever heard. I wanted him to affirm that I could be a super-everything but he didn’t.
In fact, this pastor gave me great wisdom. Slow down. Take a breath and spread out all of the things that you want to accomplish over years, not months. There is no need to do everything you want all at once. If God wants you to be a good (fill in the blank), He will give you the time but it may not be right now. Once this concept sank in, I felt tremendous relief. The problem was, NONE of my colleagues agreed. When I decided to take a break from medicine and be home with my kids, one colleague said, “You will rue the day you did that.”
Fortunately, I didn’t listen to her. I have found that women who wish they had the nerve to do what you’re doing, criticize you for doing it. I took a lot of time off and don’t regret a minute I had with my kids. As a matter of fact, if I could redo it, I’d spend more time with them. Not only was being a mother far more gratifying to me, but more importantly, giving them my time helped them grow into stronger adults.
My advice to every woman searching to find balance between work and family (kids/work/self-care/fun/and taking care of your home) is to take a breath.
When your kids are young, do what you can to be home with them as much as you can. Many of you won’t like hearing that, but I can tell you as one who has seen thousands of kids grow up, your kids need your love and your care more than anyone else’s. This doesn’t mean you can’t work outside the home, but be cautious of how much time you are away from your kids. When you are gone, someone else will be influencing them, loving or not loving them, paying attention to or ignoring them.
When your kids are little, your house will be a wreck and the laundry will pile up. You may drive through McDonald’s one too many times, but have grace with yourself. And that extra ten pounds of baby fat? Forget about it. When your last child starts kindergarten, you can diet and exercise all you want. Or don’t.
I encourage every mother to take out a piece of paper and search her heart. Write down your top three priorities for the next 5-10 years of your life. If it is pursuing your career, that’s fine. Just make sure your husband picks up the slack. Many husbands are fabulous stay-at-home dads.
If you want to be home full time with your kids – rework your budget. It’s amazing how much less you can live on when you choose to prioritize. If you feel pressure to work outside the home because all of your friends do, have the guts to live differently. You need to show your kids how to resist peer pressure.
Then, write down your priorities for the next decade. When your kids are in school full time, what do you want your life to look like? And what about your life as an empty nester? Yup, it will come sooner than you think.
As you do this exercise, you will find relief because spreading out all of the things you want to accomplish in your life over years, not days, will help you accept that you are human. You do need sleep.
You Can Sacrifice Things Now and Sacrifice Other Things in the Future.
So take a deep breath. If you want to balance work and family, stop being anxious about getting everything you want done, today or even next month. Never be afraid to give yourself permission to accomplish different things at different stages in your life. Pursuing this kind of balance between your work and family will keep you sane and happy and better equipped to be the wife and mom and (fill in the blank) you want to be!
Read more about balancing work and family on our blog “Ask Dr. Meg: Balancing Work, Parenting, and Life”, here. You can also listen to our podcast Helping Fathers find Balance (Episode #89), with guest Benjamin Watson, and Finding Balance for Working Moms (Episode #50), with guests Christy Wright and Rachel Cruze.