Connected Career Women Series

Work-Life Balance: Myth, Ideal Or Best Practice?

We all know this term, “Work-Life Balance”, but we all understand it differently. For some it is a clear ideal to strive for. For others it is a myth and a trap to keep us permanently feeling inadequate. Is it a simple calculation based on the number of hours in our week and how much time we should spend on different realms that make up our life – rest, family, work, leisure and spiritual practice? Or is it a way of capturing different policy issues that companies or countries can address such as paid maternity and paternity leave, flexibility in working hours, flexibility regarding the place of work, and child care options? Different people mean different things when they talk about work-life balance. From a policy perspective there are some important topics to tackle here, but what can you do to improve the balancing act wearing all these different hats?

Men and women alike – we all find ourselves in times when certain parts of our lives are dominating or affecting other parts and we feel out of sync. For example, we sleep too little (or too much), we work too much (or too little) and we have a bunch of other things going on like a house full of kids running around and a social calendar filled up with weddings and other social commitments.

So how do you juggle all the responsibilities? How do you wear all these different hats?

The Myth of Perfect Balance

Let go of the myth that your life should be perfectly balanced between work and other areas of your life at all times. Perfect balance is a myth and it is important to manage your own expectations around have that perfect work-life balance. You are a whole person and the different areas of your life are all interconnected. A difficult relationship with your spouse, the illness of a child or stress at work – such issues will always affect the other domains of your life. If we let go of the myth of the perfect balance, we free ourselves from the guilt of being inadequate by not measuring up to the ideal.

Here are five steps I use to get back in sync:

Diagnosis: stressors, feelings, passion and energy

Take the time to listen to your inner feelings, your family members and close friends or colleagues. Are you experiencing a lot of stress from work and is it negatively affecting your family life? Is your work affected by a disproportionate amount of domestic and care activities? Is a negative relationship ruining the time you have with your kids or even affecting your work? Once you identify the issues, take steps to address them. For very big issues, drastic change might be needed like a change of job, partner or working schedule; for smaller issues baby steps in the right direction might create the positive momentum you need.

You have looked at the pain points, but it is also very important to consider the things you are really passionate about.

You may spend a lot of time on an activity that you really enjoy and in return get a lot of energy from that, which positively affects your mood at home and at work. Or you may be spending a lot of time in a toxic work environment or on activities you do out of social obligation. Journal and find out what gives you energy and what saps the energy right out of you – this may be activities or people alike. 

Focus on what matters

Once you know your energy fillers and sappers, start making changes. Get rid of energy-draining activities or distance yourself from energy-draining people and spend more time on activities and people that give you energy.

As we try to focus on what matters, we may need to be creative. A mistake we women sometimes make when trying to juggle all our responsibilities is that we focus on only work and family.  Sports or leisure, social connection, and self-care are the first areas we cut back on. What we ignore is that those areas bring us joy, peace, and even the relationships that can take our careers to that next level or to make our lives more fulfilled. So rather than focus on what we think matters most, let us focus on areas and activities that give us a return (also non-financial, like a social return or a return in energy) and cut back on those that make us feel drained and empty.

Saying ‘no’ and ‘yes’ at the right times – and to the right people

It can be incredibly empowering to use the word ‘no’ a little bit more.

In a context of stringent gender-norms (which is the case in most of the world today) women often feel the need to live up to societal and family expectations (even if they are unwritten and unvoiced). Saying ‘no’ to things which are not absolutely necessary in reaching your goals or in having that fulfilled life you want can be incredibly empowering. Yet many women are no strangers to the word ‘no’. However, instead of using it to cut back on the petty demands on our time, sometimes by total strangers, we use it to shut out our children or to decline real career building opportunities.

Take a closer look at what you are saying ‘no’ to and at what you are saying ‘yes’ to. If you are doing things all wrong, try to mix things up a little. We as women might say ‘yes’ to serving the coffee or taking the minutes and ‘no’ to speaking at that big, international conference or to taking on a career opportunity in another country. Be daring and switch these things around!

“Say ‘no’ to the small things and ‘yes’ to the big things” ~ Lucy Schalkwijk

Build your support system at home

In the vast majority of cases, women still bear the brunt of the child-caring and domestic activities. We talk about the burden of “unpaid care work” or about the “double shift” for working women. If you are serious about pursuing a career, it is crucial you build up a support system at home. This definitely includes a talk with your partner for a better division of labor in household and child rearing tasks as well as a second level of support from family and child-care providers or even other women. It does not simply mean the actual activities, but also the offloading of the mental load on your significant other or another capable person.

As a working woman you should not feel inadequate or ashamed asking for help, all working women are facing this challenge and nothing is stopping parents to work out systems, play dates, carpooling, etc. to help each other out. Sometimes things can also be outsourced – catering for that party, doing the homework with the kids, or anything else. If you can afford it, do it. It does not make you a worse parent, if anything it makes you a smarter one. Do whatever is needed to reduce your stress, stay whole and to use the time you do have with your children and people who really matter to you. 

Being whole: Work-Life Integration

Just because we are not at home the whole day, it does not mean that our kids are getting a worse deal. You can be a stay-at-home parent and be on your phone or laptop the whole day and put the kids behind the television, or worse, you can be really depressed staying at home the whole day.

Instead, you can be a working mother who books time in her busy schedule for that quality time with her kids. Find ways to organize your life in ways that the different areas support each other. Show your kids the realities of a working mother – you are their role model and seeing you work hard at achieving your own goals can be incredibly empowering to them. Let them be part of some milestones in your work whenever possible. It will add another dimension to their experience of you as their mother. 

Summing up the essence of this article, it is not possible to compartmentalize your feelings to keep them isolated to a certain domain. You bring your whole person to work as you bring your experience from work to home or to your conversations with friends. If we understand this interconnectedness, we can ensure that we make life work for us instead of life happening to us!

Work-life balance may be hard to achieve, but work-life integration is definitely possible. So go out there and live a wholehearted life!

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: info@careerwomensnetwork-kigali.com and +250783719431

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