Juggling Work and Family: 7 Coping Strategies

I returned to work three weeks ago after a six-week maternity leave. I hated to leave my baby, but both my partner and I need to work. I am really having difficulty managing all the roles in my life -- mother, wife and employee. I spend weekends trying to catch up, but I feel as if I am drowning. Is it possible to juggle work and family? If so, do you have any tips?

Question:

You have put words to what so many contemporary parents are experiencing. There are some very difficult decisions facing families with young children today. Many families need two incomes just to pay for housing. There are fewer resources from extended family members because they often live far away or have careers of their own. Despite all the “time-saving” devices available to families, many parents have doubled their responsibilities. Women have added work outside the home to the more traditional role of mom-at-home/manager-of-all-household-affairs. Men have added a fuller parenting role which includes getting up with children at night, packing the diaper bag and taking kids to childcare and participating in household maintenance, to name just a few.

Many parents have a common misconception that everyone else is managing their roles and responsibilities just fine and that they are the only ones who can’t figure out how to do it. Many articles are written on how to better organize your time, as if the right calendar/organizer would make it possible for you to fit everything in. In fact, you can’t do it all in the same way you would if you were only doing one or two of your roles.


Here are some things to think about as you work to figure out your juggling act.

1. Prioritize. Before you try to come up with solutions, it is essential that you spend some time reflecting on all that you are doing. In the midst of not even having enough time to sit down for a cup of coffee, making time to reflect can be challenging in and of itself. In order to figure out which things you really must do now, which things can wait and which things you can let go of altogether, you need to look carefully at all of the things you are currently doing and determine which are the most important. It would be useful to have all of these discussions with your partner.

2. Explore options. Take a look at everything you are doing, the number of hours you are working, the other responsibilities you have taken on, the demands of the house and of course, the responsibility for your child. Include in this conversation a look at your family’s budget. Are there ways to cut back for a year or two? Do you have any other resources available?

It is also important to look at various work options. Could you or your partner change your work schedule or the number of hours you work? Would it be possible to do some part of your work from home? (Some people love this solution and others find it brings its own challenges.) Think through many different possible scenarios and try to figure out if any are doable.

3. Share the load. Men’s participation in home and family has increased significantly in the last 20 years. However, statistically, the number of hours employed women spend on parenting and housework still greatly exceed the number of hours that men spend doing the same tasks. This doesn’t necessarily mean that men are unwilling or uninterested. Many women feel ambivalent about sharing the caring. They may feel as if their expertise is being threatened by sharing more equally with their partners. Many women find themselves being critical of the efforts of the other parent in relation to household tasks and parenting. Many partners feel hesitant to pitch-in for fear of being “inadequate.” It is important to look carefully at the division of labor in your family. Is it working optimally for both of you or could it be shifted? How could it be shared more equitably? Are there adjustments both parents need to make in order for it to happen?

4. Combine tasks. Some of your many tasks can be combined. Taking a walk with baby (and partner?) after work will give you some time together and also a chance to stretch and exercise. You can provide a safe place on the floor in the kitchen for your child to play, observe and talk with you while you are fixing dinner. Taking a bath together is one way some families enjoy time together. Sometimes the activities will take longer, doing them together, but will be well worth the effort.

5. Enjoy quality time. Remember also, that it is important for you to have some family time where you are focusing simply on baby, self or partner. Babies have their own special pace and communication system. Slowing down, getting on “baby time” and on baby’s level will allow you to reconnect in significant ways and to join your baby in seeing the world from his perspective. You may lie on the living room floor together or sit on the couch with baby lying beside you. Holding and cuddling are also lovely, but it is different to have time to be close to your baby just observing what he does with his body on his own. There is so much to see and learn and your baby will enjoy your quiet attention and responsiveness to him.

6. Simplify. Your child will only be a baby once. Your house will be a mess for a long time. Spend time with your baby. Clear a path through your house so you can get on the floor and hang-out and enjoy your baby. Very simple, nutritious meals can be thrown together quickly. Sandwiches, smoothies, quesadillas, there are many options for 15 minutes or under dinner prep. Remember also that your baby doesn’t need things so much as she needs you. Buying lots of stuff is not only costly, it clutters up your home. Keep toys, clothes, furniture, food as simple as possible. Your child is not going to remember that $35 toy 20 years from now. She is going to remember that she had time where you really listened to her, enjoyed time with her and shared yourself with her.

7. Remember, it's a balancing act. Most parents never find a moment in which they feel perfectly caught up on all the things they expect themselves to do. If you consider this a normal state you can learn to relax about it. Balance isn’t something you necessarily find as a parent, it is something you are always moving towards. One week you will get lots of good things done at work and the house will be a wreck. The next week, you will leave work early to spend some extra time picking your child up at childcare and hanging out at home. The following week, you might arrange a time for yourself to exercise, but you have to leave your desk a mess and the dishes undone. Balance doesn’t happen in any one instant, but it can happen in the long run.

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