The floor is lava: a realistic approach to work-life balance

This post is part of my mentoring conversation series which includes relatively short posts on topics that have come from a mentoring session. Often, these conversations produce insights which could benefit a wider audience.
Any identifying information is removed and I always inform participants before posting anything we talked about.

In today’s mentoring session I addressed some concerns around starting a family while maintaining a tech career. While this post will focus on the specific challenges of pregnancy and raising children, some of the insights may be relevant to any kind of attempt to balance a career with other responsibilities and interests outside of work.

tl;dr: Balance is for people who don’t have a life or don’t have work. For anyone (everyone?) else – the most you can hope for is not to neglect either one too much.

The conversation started with the a concern specifically about how to manage the final months of pregnancy: Should she agree to reduce the scope of her tasks and responsibility? Should she start her maternity leave early? Does this internal debate mean she’s weak, and a man wouldn’t even consider reducing his workload just because he was pregnant?

Photo by Anrita1705 on pixabay

40 weeks and some

Well, first, let’s address that last bit – I’m guessing that if men were generally the ones who carried babies maternity leave would start the second the pregnancy test came back positive. But they don’t, so let’s just put that part away. Now, maybe some women breeze through pregnancy energetically glowing the whole time, but most of us will have some form of morning (afternoon or evening) sickness, various types of pain and experience general exhaustion. Pregnancy is not a disease, but growing a whole new person inside your body is not an easy task.

I don’t know if this an encouraging message or not, but if we’re being perfectly honest – and we should be – the cost of pregnancy on our careers is small compared to the cost of parenting. You’re pregnant for less than a year, most of which you can work through (unless you’re having a really hard pregnancy, which also can happen). If you’re lucky enough to have paid maternity leave that will add 3-12 months off work (depending on the benefits you have where you live and work). However, you’ll be parenting small children for at least 6-10 years of their life, which, depending on how many children you have and how far apart may add up to 10 or 15 years of your career.

As we’ve established – being pregnant can be tough, but the long term cost of 1 month this way or that is rather small. So I say – do what you need to do to stay healthy and strong until birth. If you need to take time off or reduce your workload – go ahead. My opinion is that for long-term image management it’s better to start your maternity leave early than to take on “smaller” tasks, but not everyone may be able to afford taking leave before the actual birth. I’m all for entirely disengaging from work during maternity leave, but again – this depends on how you feel about it and how supportive your workplace is.

Back to work

Hopefully, you’ve given birth to a beautiful healthy child, you’ve had enough time to heal and you’re ready to go back to work.

Things won’t be the same.

Let me say that again:

Things won’t be the same.

It’s not like you can drop your baby off at daycare and just get back to work as if nothing’s changed.

I hope anyone who’s reading this is part of a household with an equal division of labor which will allow you to choose who picks up/drops off, and that your work schedule and location allow the flexibility you need to manage all the tasks that raising children entail, but no matter how much support and flexibility you have – your time at work will be limited and you will have new priorities.

Assuming you want to invest in your career and your family (I won’t judge anyone who chooses one over the other, that’s a legitimate choice – just in that case I’m not sure there’s much point to read on), you’ll find out pretty quickly there are just not enough hours in a day to do everything well. Something has to give.

Balancing act

For many years I worked a part-time 80% job and I felt I’d found the perfect work-life balance you’ve always heard of. I wasn’t stressed at work, I had plenty of time to spend with my kids, no pressure. In fact, it wasn’t balanced at all – I was focused on my family and my career suffered (I talked about this in How I got my career back on track).

Photo by Eran Menashri on Unsplash

I don’t like to talk about work-life balance or the newfangled term work-life integration, I like to talk about walking a tightrope over a pit of molten lava, because that’s what being a working parent is really like. Every step of the way you have to look a bit forward and a bit to the sides and decide what’s most important right now and what can be ignored. Maybe last week it made sense to burn the midnight oil to finish that project on time, but this week you need to wind down, hang out with your family and go to bed early. Maybe last year taking less challenging work while adjusting to a new baby was the right thing to do, but this year is the time to double down and get that promotion.

You don’t get to a perfect balance and then stop. There’s no such thing, it’s a constantly moving target that changes with your preferences and your personal and work situation. Having a supportive family and workplace is essential to enable this type of flexibility week over week and year over year, but you should be the one driving change to match your wants and needs.

It’s quite possible that you will have driven colleagues without dependents who will be able to work longer, harder and maybe even better and will get ahead faster than you. Remember, life is not a zero-sum game. You can’t live your life comparing yourself to others – there will always be someone smarter, more effective, luckier than you. If you manage to get through life without neglecting any part that’s important to you too much, that’s good enough.

Last, but not least – I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Ask for help. No one’s standing at the end of life handing out medals that say “I did it myself”. If you have extended family support – go for it. If you can afford a babysitter or nanny, cooking, cleaning and laundry services – do it. Anything that will free up time for things that are important to you.