Navigating my career and work-life balance

As a working mum of two boys aged 3 and 7, it’s crucial for me to be able to work flexibly and set boundaries around my work and home life. I have learned to do this balancing act over time and am still learning.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that while there are many things about being a working parent that are universal, workplaces, jobs, circumstances, and preferences vary significantly. There is no defined ‘good way’ to balance things and many ways to navigate the road effectively. In that spirit, I offer thoughts on what worked for me.

Your support system

Much of my ability to balance work and home is due to the support I draw on routinely. In my case, this comes from my partner, childcare and occasionally a wider network of family and fellow parents. This is a topic I could write a lot about but for this purpose, I’ll focus on two of the biggest areas.

Over the years I have done different things in relation to childcare; many that left me overcommitted on the domestic side and burnt out at work. It can be tempting, if you are able to work flexibly, to request things like early finishes to accommodate school pick-ups and offer to make up time at some other point such as evenings. If this works for you then great. For me, the result was no down time at all and an endless cycle of work and parenting, leaving me stretched so thin I was unable to engage with either role to the best of my ability. Ultimatelyinvesting in reliable, consistent childcare that covers my working hours has been a significant factor in supporting me to manage my career and home life.

Splitting parenting and domestic tasks proportionally with my partner (who also works full-time) has also hugely helped. This is clearly not an exact science and with time and experience we’ve got better at the planning around it as well as the doing.

The forces in society that pressure women into ‘doing it all’ are strong. However we might challenge traditional gender roles, it still is mothers who make up the majority in the playground at pick up time and factors such as this silently tell us what we should be doing and make us feel inadequate if we don’t.

The most challenging times for me were returning to work after periods of maternity leave when I continued, without thought, to do many domestic and childcare related tasks I did while on leave which might have been easily split. It’s an effort to adjust this and sometimes even to realise it’s happening, but keeping the distribution of tasks as a weekly discussion helps as a reminder of who is doing what and to adapt quickly and fairly as things change.

Professional development 

During my first pregnancy, I started working in learning and development which opened my eyes to professional development opportunities available to me. Development can be the last thing on your mind when you are balancing lots of plates but making time for courses, leadership training and coaching proved invaluable in offering a legitimate, in-work place to regroup, plan and prioritise. Learning as part of a group was also incredibly motivating, especially when it offered the opportunity to share ideas and connect with others at different stages of their lives and careers.

Good organisations and managers

We do not always choose our bosses but when job seeking it has helped me to think of selection as a two-way process. Good workplaces are transparent about their values and policies. As flexibility is so important to me, I apply only to organisations that visibly champion this and, ask questions of potential line managers to confirm their approach at as early a stage as possible. Clear expectations on both sides saves energy later and ultimately increases efficiency for everyone.

Role modelling

 No-one is perfect at this, however, as a leader and a parent, I realise how important it is to try to role model behaviours that contribute to creating a positive environment. For me this has meant advocating for and supporting the development of excellent flexibility and family-friendly policy provision at London Met and other Universities I’ve worked at. Working flexibly myself and talking about how I make it work, trying my best to look after my mental and physical health, finding time for professional development and to support those around me to do the same I also see as hugely important.  

Small things become the big things

Becoming a parent made time such a precious commodity as my days became full in a way I could never have previously imagined. I often wonder how I can fit things in. Despite this, I have been able to progress my career and recently achieve a career goal of becoming a People Director. When I reflect on the how I attribute it to little moves I’ve made that ultimately led to bigger results. Taking up coaching, attending that course, throwing that job application in (even when I thought I might not quite be ready) and perhaps most crucially, saying no to things that were not serving me, focusing on what I enjoy and where I feel I’m making a difference. 

I will end by offering one piece of advice and that is to follow your instincts, even if this goes against the grain of influences around you. New parents are bombarded with so much advice it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and pulled in different directions but it is also an opportunity to figure out what matters to you and to act on that with increased focus. Personally, I have decided I do not want to do it all and I am not trying to. Having the headspace to be fully engaged both at home and at work is instead a quiet ambition and all of the things I have highlighted here have in some way helped with that.

Many thanks to Chloe and to the Womens Higher Education Network (WHEN)

Posted by Sarah Walker

Sarah Walker

Higher Education

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