One source of stress I find working part-time as a mother is this:
Before kids I was used to working longer hours than average in order to achieve my goals and a bit more. So when I return to a corporate environment where most people are working full-time and very full days, it is difficult not to be self-conscious when as a result of personal reasons, I am leaving before 4:30pm each day and not coming in on the alternate day.
I am very conscious of the potential impact of my work arrangement may have on project schedules and demands of other colleagues. If I miss an important activity today, it may be another two days before I can get around to it. Therefore to make up for it I try to be the most effective I can be when I am at work (minimising chit-chats, working through lunch etc) and when I am not there, I am checking and responding to emails to ensure I don’t hold things up. I am used to thinking about and carrying out preparatory work that I can do while at home to make my hours in the office even more productive. I try to plan in advance to ensure that my hours do not place additional burden on my colleagues and I am painfully conscious of the times when I have to decline meetings on the days I am not in or leave early because I have to go pick up my children.
At times I feel exhausted and burned-out, mentally juggling and managing all these aspects. I care about workload equity and I care about meeting my work goals and people’s expectations. I also care about how other people may perceive as the attitude of working mothers and part-time arrangements in general.
But the reality is this, in trying to meet all these expectations, how many of these are actually real and valid? Unless expressed in concrete terms, how would I know or measure how others may think of me and my personal circumstances? Like many situations in life, are these expectations, really, just set on myself, by myself?
Of late I have come across some materials, incidents and self-revelations that are making me rethink the way I have been approaching things.
1) I do not have to feel guilty about my work-life preferences.
It took me a while to realise this but just because others have different work-life priorities and preferences, does not mean I have to guilty about my preference to spend more time with my family. I do not have to make excuses or justify why I wish to spend more time at home than at work because it is my prerogative to choose how I use my time and set my work-life boundaries.
This is not applicable just to parents – if you love surfing and want to leave early every Friday to catch the waves, that is up to you to decide.
It does mean that I have to manage it proactively, but this is no different to when I was working full-time. I still have to deliver what I say I will deliver but it is about understanding my own constraints and setting realistic expectations. Good organisations would generally respect individual preferences as long as you are communicating them and still achieving your goals. And if they are not, well, that is another different issue altogether.
2) I do not always have to be 100%.
This came up in a conversation with a woman whom I have a lot of respect for. She asked me, “Women sometimes feel like that they have to achieve 100% in all aspects in their lives. Why not try for 80%? That is still pretty good and you may find that it is more acceptable than you realise.”
What a simple statement, but what an impact that can potentially have.
As someone who has always liked having control, I am finding myself in more and more uncomfortable situations as I venture more into new and unfamiliar territories, made worse by time constraints – this is what puts my mind into overdrive trying to contemplate all the varying situations and balls that I can potentially drop. At some point I have make myself comfortable with the fact that my resources i.e. time is limited and the notion that I cannot control everything. If I am doing all I can within the means I have (and maybe a little bit more), I have done enough.
And to my point earlier, how do I know that 80% is not good enough? If I don’t answer that email today, will there be a crisis when I get in tomorrow? Most likely not.
3) Work-life integration and focussing on priorities at the time.
I recently read an article on Thrive Global about an interview with Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company (if you have not heard of the website Thrive Global, I would highly recommend it. It was founded by Arianna Huffington – also the co-founder of Huffington Post – and is a wellness site created with a mission to end the stress and burnout epidemic plaguing the workforce by proposing sustainable, science-based and purposeful solutions to achieve success).
In describing a book that changed her life, Denise talked about the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” which debunked the concept of work-life balance and discussed the concept of work-life integration instead. She also talked about being able to set clear priorities in the moment as life happens.
I liked how clearly she articulated that – whilst still coming to terms with the concept of work-life integration I am starting to apply her point about setting priorities. Through the last year I learned very early on how a meticulously planned daily or weekly schedule can be quickly derailed by a sick child, an injured dog or someone at work approaching with an urgent situation. Whether it’s life or work, or a muddled juncture of the two, if something unexpected jumps out it is about clearly understanding and setting priorities to focus on at the time. It is not about trying to do all and doing a lesser job at each.
I realise that this a marathon and I am only in my very beginning stages. To ensure my own well-being is in check, I will have to rethink and revalidate my goal posts from time to time to check that they are still in sight. And at times when I feel like I am losing sight of them, I will refocus and revert to asking myself this question – if I am on my death bed today, what is it that I am likely to regret or wish I had done more of? I do not think that answering emails would be one of them.