Guest post from Gabrielle Joseph: Head of Due Diligence & Client Development at Rede Partners LLP
This month my oldest child, Nathan, turned 10. On 13th November 2009 we were handed a small, screaming person with bluish-tinged hands and surprisingly hairy ears. Ten years later, we’re grateful that his ears and hands look much more normal and even more grateful that he’s been joined by his three crazy sisters. And in spite of all the craziness, Adam and I are still hanging in there at work. So what have I learned in ten years of ‘the juggle’?
1. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
Nope, sorry. It’s not easy doing this and sometimes you’re going to have a bad day – or a few bad weeks. Compromises will need to be made, and some of them will make you wince. But the good days are more than worth it – both at work and at home.
2. There’s NEVER a right time to have a baby
Career-focused women often fixate on a specific level they want to have reached before starting a family – but often those sunlit uplands seem to remain just out of touching distance. A more senior role might mean more flexibility but it also often means more responsibility and higher expectations.
In my industry, private equity, it was and still is pretty unusual to have your first child while still a fairly junior Associate. But we still made it work, our way. Despite having my first child young and having never been in a straightforward 5-day-week contract ever since, I’ve managed to get promoted, move jobs and take on new professional challenges I hadn’t even imagined before my first pregnancy.
Looking back after a few years it can seem completely absurd to have worried so much about maternity leave interfering with a specific project or promotion cycle. Sometimes you just have to dive in and hope for the best.
3. Run your own race
There will always be other mums out there with a different approach to you, and inevitably some of them will make ‘helpful’ comments that slice like a poison-tipped dagger through your heart. Ultimately if you want to stay sane, the only standards you can measure yourself against are your own…
4. …and that includes making your own way if you were brought up in a family with more traditional parenting roles
This can be a source of real heartache, especially if like me you had a happy loving childhood that you would be proud to recreate for your own children. Michelle Obama says in her memoir, “I hoped to be exactly like my mother and at the same time, nothing like her at all.” Ultimately there are things that my Mum did for us that I just can’t do for my children. That makes me sad but if I don’t let that sadness go, I’ll miss out on all the other great stuff that I get to share with my kids.
5. It’s the childcare, stupid!
When it comes to ‘making it all work’ the elephant in the room is that you just can’t. YOU NEED QUALITY CHILDCARE and the inconvenient truth is that the more you invest in your childcare the more successful you can be at work and at home. We have to be honest about this for the sake of the women who look up to us as role models – that’s why I’m not shy about discussing our wonderful nanny and the help we receive from our children’s beloved grandparents.
That said, I’m in an extremely privileged position in that the economic equations of my work and childcare expenses make intuitive sense. Investing more in my childcare can be more than paid back in my career and pay progression. Unfortunately this doesn’t apply to everyone. In my experience, so much of the gender inequality we see at work stems from the problem of unaffordable, inflexible childcare. When it hardly pays for a mother to work, and when going the extra mile at work costs you money, energy and stress it’s more than understandable that many mothers choose to step back.
6. Bumps in the road may throw you off course for a bit but they also show you what really matters
Embarking on family life is a step into the unknown. On the whole we’ve been incredibly lucky. But every family hits a bump in the road at some point. In 2015 we lived through a roller coaster pregnancy and the premature birth of our twins with one of our twins becoming critically unwell. It was a tough time for all of us, especially for our older children. At times like these work can be the absolute furthest thing from your mind, and that’s ok – life, and work, doesn’t have to follow a linear progression. Taking a bit of a detour every now and again lets you explore the scenery and you come out the other end with new experiences and skills you’ll take with you when you hop back on the wagon.
6. Work / life balance only gets harder as children grow…
Small children might go to bed at 7pm leaving you to an adult dinner, household chores and catching up on unfinished work. But big children have a frustrating habit of being very much awake and interested in interacting with their parents until much later. Plus they have their reading diary; that piano exam to practice for; a much-needed de-brief about how to deal with the mean girls in the year above; a homework assignment to turn a shoebox into a biodiverse aquatic scene; the list goes on. I don’t have many words of wisdom here but as our children have entered the upper years of primary school we’ve found that this is where the rubber really hits the road in terms of time management, prioritisation and give-and-take between my husband and I.
7. …but making space for them in your worklife can help bridge the gap
My role at Rede Partners is fast paced and demanding, so it’s difficult to keep home life fully ring-fenced. Instead, as my children grow I try to make space for my children within my work life. We think of a parent at work as an absence from a child’s life – a time when there is no opportunity for interaction, closeness and shared discovery. But my experience is that, although it might not be the gold standard of ‘quality time’, having my children around me while I’m working can be an extremely positive experience for all of us. It can play to their individual interests – Nathan is a huge computer enthusiast and loves to help me with data entry tasks. He even got involved in the design and build of our recently launched new corporate website. Younger children can sit colouring on my lap while I take calls and have been known to photobomb our internal video conferences.
8. Take a parenting class – it might help you at work as well as at home!
Rachel Vecht is a renowned parenting expert and for 10 weeks I somehow managed to find the time to spend two hours a week at her Positive Parenting Course. Now, I can’t claim that it’s made me a perfect parent but it certainly gave me food for thought. Less intuitively, it also transformed the way that I gave feedback to co-workers. Parenting teaches us so many skills that are helpful in the workplace – not least the art of gracefully diffusing a temper tantrum!
9. Learning new skills isn’t just for kids
We all know children emulate their parents’ actions, not our words. If we want our children to be eager learners, the best way to motivate them is to show them that learning is something that you value and that you do. When my kids started learning the piano I decided to learn too – and I soon realised that what really enthused them to try new things was to see me doing something I found difficult, slowly and shakily but making steady progress.
The same goes for ‘soft skills’. When our children are finding something difficult at school or home, we often talk honestly about things that we’ve found hard at work, feedback we’ve received and how we’re trying to grow and improve. And guess what? having talked it through at home tends to mean we make greater progress at work.
10. Be in the room where it happens
This weekend to celebrate Nathan’s 10th birthday we went to watch Hamilton. It totally lived up to the hype and he loved every second of it. One of the refrains that really hit home with me was “I want to be in the room where it happens.” People who are ‘in the room’ make decisions that affect all of our lives. I believe very strongly that even intelligent, thoughful, good hearted people often lack insight into the lived experiences of others. For example, in her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes about how she had never understood the difficulties faced by pregnant employees until she herself was pregnant: “To this day, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t realize that pregnant women needed reserved parking until I experienced my own aching feet. As one of Google’s most senior women didn’t I have a special responsibility to think of this? But it had never occurred to me.” That’s why we need diverse experiences in those rooms – so that decisions can be made that are in the interests of all of us, not just an elite group of white men.
I have nothing but respect for women who make the decision to stay home to raise their children – and I was raised by a pretty awesome example of one. But ultimately, if we want there to be some women with children “in the rooms where it happens”, we need to ensure that there are enough of these women on upward trajectories at work so that a few of them will eventually have the experience and qualifications needed to break into those rooms. As a mother of three daughters, I feel like I owe it to them not to step off the treadmill just yet. Who knows, maybe when they grow up, they’ll step on that treadmill too – and when they get off, they’ll be right there in the room where it happens.
My thoughts published in my quarterly advice column for a community magazine.
My mum says it’s important to eat healthily and to exercise and to keep a healthy work/life balance so I don’t get stressed. I however find this very challenging as there never seem to be enough time in the day to get it all in. Can you please give me some tools to help me with managing my time better so that my life will be more balanced and I can live in a healthier way.
The life of a teenager is very busy and can feel stressful. In this case your mum is 100% right. Eating healthily and learning how to manage your time so that you get enough sleep and exercise are life skills that you will benefit from throughout adulthood. It is far easier to establish good habits and routines when you are young. Good time management can help you find extra time for the things that really matter.
Firstly let me explain why sleep, diet and exercise are so important for your physical and mental health. These 3 factors keep your operating system on top form.
There is a very clear link between feeling stressed and lack of sleep. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is the seat of emotions and anxiety. When it senses a threat it goes into fight, flight or freeze mode and when it’s tired the brain struggles to tell the difference between threat and non-threat.
During adolescence the natural sleep hormone (melatonin) is released later than in children or adults, which is why teenagers often struggle to fall asleep. Ideally you should be getting 9 hours a night. School starts early so you really need to force yourself to get into bed at a decent time. This can be hard when there’s lots of homework and other activities happening.
Be aware that the light from screens delays the release of melatonin, so try switching to a book, music or mindfulness at least an hour before bedtime.
The gut and the brain are very closely connected and the gut is like our ‘second brain’. When the gut is unbalanced it affects your mood and stress levels. Teenagers tend to prefer fast foods but eating healthily (fruit, vegetables and less processed food) will lower stress levels. Don’t forget that drinking water also improves your memory and helps you to think clearly. Try to avoid caffeine after 2pm.
Any form of physical activity helps you rest and de-stress. It gives you more energy but at the same time improves the quality of your sleep. Even 20 minutes of walking can have a real impact on your well-being, so try to incorporate extra walking into your daily routine, such as getting off 1 bus stop earlier than usual or always committing to walking up escalators and not using lifts.
How can you manage time better?
- We often start with very good intentions but after a few days lose momentum. Positive habits are how you create real change, so start small with tiny changes and targets. Getting into the daily routine of doing things in a certain way or order helps you work on auto pilot so you don’t have to waste time thinking what to do next.
- Take some time (Sundays are usually best) to think about the coming week and make a list of your goals.
Put these goals into 3 categories:
What really needs to get done (homework or revision)
What you would like to get done (less urgent)
What you want to do (perhaps exercise or seeing friends)
Try to have a real sense of how long each task takes and be a time realist as opposed to time optimist. Your overall productivity will really improve when you begin to understand how long things really take rather than how long you think they will take.
- Use a planner, wall calendar or app to map out your weekly schedule of what you are doing when and how long for. There are so many available but it’s about finding one that works for you. Set aside time after school for homework, extracurricular activities, exercise and unstructured down time. Being organised saves a lot of time and stress.
- Set limits on your screen for things like social media or playing games as these activities can steal huge amounts of time without you realising it. Constant screen interruptions strain your brain and contaminate your time. Use a timer in 30 minute intervals for any task, which prevents time passing away without too much thought.
- It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. Break large tasks down into manageable chunks with deadlines and they won’t feel as daunting. Small steps make something big seem possible to get the ball rolling and help with procrastination.
- Know yourself and which times of the day you function best. Everyone goes through phases and there are times when you are really in flow and fully focused, times when attention is quite active and times when you are feeling tired. Think about all the tasks you have to do which require full focus and what you can do that’s quite easy and repetitive to complete in the time when your attention is flagging, so you can switch tasks and make use of all the different times.
- Chunk your time to minimise constant multitasking and create periods of uninterrupted time to be with friends, family or exercise.
Time management is something that many adults struggle with and needs to be learnt. The best time to start is right now.
It’s hard but so valuable to try to spend more time on things that are not urgent but still very important. What matters more than what we are doing is how we feel about it.
Our perception of time is our reality. cked0
I’ve been talking to a number of businesses lately whose focus is on supporting those going on extended leave and in particular their return. There are numerous initiatives organisations can introduce that make a real difference (workshops and employee networks to name a couple) – but what about individuals? What can we do to help ourselves?
Going back to work after looking after your new child is tough. Even if you love your job and have the most supportive team going. Even if part of you is really looking forward to getting back to work. Therein lies the first clue. It’s not just about you anymore. So you may feel guilty about being excited about going back to work, even before you step through the office door. I know I did. Did that make me a bad mother? Had I chosen the right balance between work and home? How would that effect both parts of my world? Your emotions play a big part in this. And if you step back for a moment, this is a good thing. It will help you bring more to your role (more on that another time) but it’s important to let your rational brain play its part too. So what can you do?
1. Start before you go –
Some conversations are much easier to have before you disappear on extended leave. You are likely to need more flexibility when you come back, formally or informally. If you already have an idea what that looks like for you, start sounding out colleagues and peers before you go. Think about your key stakeholders too – what are their concerns likely to be? Is there anything you can do to allay those now?
2. And do some prep before your first day back –
You might feel you shouldn’t have to but if you take the initiative you’ll walk back in feeling more confident which has to be a good thing. What am I talking about? Arrange a catch up / pop in with your baby and find out what’s changed since you left. Who are the new team members, has the business restructured, what are the current major projects / priorities? Set up meetings with your key stakeholders for your first week back. And check on the practical stuff – the IT – is everything going to be good to go on Day 1 or will you be left awkwardly feeling like the new girl / boy but probably worse as everyone will expect you to sort it out yourself?
3. Make use of KIT days and accrued annual leave –
KIT days are a great way to do that prep and slowly reintegrate, particularly if your team has regular meetings or offsites. You can also use them as a way of doing a few days a week before you go back to your full pattern (whatever that may be), and test out your childcare arrangements so when you’re properly back you have one less thing to worry about. The same goes for annual leave. You accrue a lot while you’re off (including public holidays) and it’s worth considering adding it to the end of your leave either in a block or in odd days.
4. Remember nothing lasts forever –
When you first go back it’s tempting to think you have to get everything right immediately so that your new work/home arrangement will work all round. The reality is like anything new, it evolves and changes, and you need to evolve and adapt with it. You don’t have to get everything right on day one.
5. Be honest with yourself and others about what you need –
Whether it’s the hours you want to work or at what pace, avoid assumptions being made – because you can guarantee they will be if you don’t make it clear.
6. Seek out support – from others in the same boat.
If your organisation has a parent or family network and / or offers transition workshops, sign up. If they don’t there’ll always be others like you, even if not in the same team / department. And whether it’s a regular coffee with someone who’s “been there done that”, or a chat between meetings with a colleague who’s also recently come back and “gets it”, finding those you can share moments with or even just a knowing look can make all the difference – so make it one of your priorities in your first few weeks back to build yourself a network.
By Catherine Oliver – facilitator at Educating Matters specialising in maternity coaching and work-life balance