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Published November 8th 2021

The Advice For Working Parents I Need To Take Myself

10 top tips from my experience as a working parent...

Read the next article on making the switch to freelancing

I have so much to say on this subject.

But, I’m mindful of what is helpful and insightful, versus what is just me offloading about what has been a fun, exciting, terrible, challenging and confusing few years as a working parent.

When pregnant, I loathed parents telling me about their awful birthing experiences (just why?), advising on how hard life was about to become, and how impossible it would be to have a happy relationship/career/work-life balance/social life etc.

This is why I want what follows to be a realistic, but also positive look on what is doable in terms of having a family and maintaining, or even building a career.

A work-life balance is a work-in-progress

I should further caveat this article with the fact that I am still working hard to get my balance right.

I do have the days where I experience the warm fuzzy glow of reading a bedtime story after a day at work (if I don’t feel like I have been run over by a bus), but these are pretty rare.

The balance might not be perfect, but I definitely feel like I’ve learnt a few pointers along the way that might be helpful.

To give some context. I am 40 years old. I have two sons – Teddy eight and Bobby six.

Apples of my eye, sleep thieves, a terrifying reflection of my worst character traits and the funniest two people I know.

I work full time at a tech company where I head up comms.

Before I moved in-house, I ran a PR and marketing agency.

It was in my agency years that I navigated fertility treatment, my first son, a surprise second son closely afterwards, and took on the role of MD with a toddler and baby in tow! What could possibly go wrong?

Would I change how hard I’ve worked and the focus I have given to my career?

No I bloody wouldn’t.

But I would change how I approached some of it, and how I treated myself in the process.

This is not a letter to my pre-child self (that’s a whole other piece), but rather a hopefully helpful take on how to make life easier as a parent working in comms, content, and marketing. 

1. Build a trusted network 

And this should not just be made up of other parents.

It’s easy to confuse the self doubt and career challenges you will face – parent or not – with being directly linked to being a working parent.

Sometimes it will be, but it could also be completely unrelated.

I value my conversations and advice from a range of trusted ex and current colleagues, people I’ve met along the way, and friends.  

"Someone to remind you that you can’t always be right is equally as important as someone cheering you on."

You need cheerleaders AND truth tellers

I’ve seen a lot of articles about “finding your cheerleaders”.

Whilst it’s great and important to have people cheering you on, I’ve found it as important to have truth tellers in your life.

You need people you can talk to that will tell you straight if you’re in a downward spiral of self pity, or if you are perhaps seeing an issue from just one side.

It’s easy when tired and harrassed by life to let this darken your view of things happening at work.

Someone to remind you that you can’t always be right is equally as important as someone cheering you on.

Lean on your pals

My friendship group is also my lifeline.

We’re a mix of cynical women in our early 40s with a Whatsapp group called “Hot Tub Time Machine” – if I could publish its content we would all be millionaires, but it’s far too inappropriate for public consumption.

What it provides is:

  • Words of encouragement
  • Realism
  • Love from trusted people

My group consists of a mix of working parents – part and full time, self employed, and full time parents.

None of us would profess to have the perfect balance.

We all have bad days and we all need regular advice and at times, propping up.

This is normal and knowing that everyone has their battles whatever the set up and mix is incredibly reassuring.

To build your network, chat to people at events, on the train, in the kitchen at work etc.

And don’t be afraid to get in touch with people you’ve met just once or twice to get their view or advice.

Overtime, you will naturally build a trusted group.

"A sense of humor and inner swearing abilities are essential."

2. Retain a good sense of humor

When one of your team starts the week by asking you how your weekend was (it involved cleaning, tidying, parenting and trying to catch up on sleep) only to tell you how theirs was a “chilled one” but they are “super tired”.

It takes a seriously well rounded sense of humour to see the funny side.

When a fellow colleague asks you if you and your other half both work full-time with “such young children” only to relay that they have friends who do that and their children have “severe behavioral issues”.

Or my personal favorite – “Poor you having to go back to work with a baby, does your husband not earn enough?”.

Again, a sense of humor and inner swearing abilities are essential.

I mean this shit is funny when you step back, and it’s rarely malicious and more likely just misled or poorly thought through chit chat.

I also believe that people can sometimes project their own insecurities about their set up with work and home in what they say to others about theirs.

3. Don’t be your own worst enemy

  • “I’m a shit parent”
  • “I spend too much time at work and not enough time being a Mum”
  • “There’s nothing left of me to be of any use to my kids or partner”
  • “I’m failing at parenting and at my job”

And the rest of the avalanche of negative thoughts, self doubt and critique I hear in my head on repeat.

Consider the aggressive increase in responsibilities both in and out of work as we grow older.

For me this started with buying my first house and was then closely followed by my Dad getting sick, marriage, fertility treatment, my Dad getting sicker and then juggling a toddler and baby.

This was alongside increasing work pressures and so the reality is, you won’t get everything right all the time and you will drop some balls.

Celebrate the wins

It frustrates me when people say statements such as “you must be superwoman”.

I know this is meant with the best intentions, but I DO NOT WANT TO BE SUPERWOMAN and nor should we push the concept that it’s possible to be one.

We don’t have super powers. We are humans and life is bumpy.

Very little will block out the parental guilt we all very naturally feel, but I look back and know I’ve wasted so much precious time and energy beating myself up over what I’m not doing well.

And, I know we all say we should do it, but celebrate the wins.

Pat yourself on the back every so often.

4. Make time for exercise

Not everyone loves it, but it’s honestly the difference between some sort of balance/sanity and wanting to give it all up (by this, I mean work and parenting).

I can definitely correlate the times I have felt on the edge of despair with when I’ve stopped making time for some sort of exercise.

I also find that taking time out for a run, a walk, some yoga, or whatever takes your fancy, gives you space to think about important work and parenting decisions.

In comms it can be invaluable to step back and get some perspective – whether dealing with a crisis, working on messaging, or doing some creative writing – it often comes easier after a bit of a sweat or getting outside simply for a stroll.

5. Stop giving (too much of) a shit what others think

This is a tough one – I mean almost impossible, but it really helps.

There’s nothing like intrusive fertility treatment and squeezing out babies in a room full of people to make you care a bit less about how people see you. Almost liberating.

I’ve spent far too much time and energy comparing how I balance things to what others do with their home and work life.

You have to do what is right for you and your family and career and shut out the noise from those trying to pitch their version of the “perfect balance”.

Of course this needs to involve your partner/other people with caring responsibilities for your children, but beyond that it’s the business of nobody else.

I really enjoyed The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.

A great book for giving you some perspective and reminding you what and who is really important and actually worth spending your time worrying about.

6. Recognize the roles we play

The drama triangle helps me to diagnose when I am falling into negative behaviors at work or home.

The idea being that the roles shown in red are the negative response to different situations, and the ones in black, the positive.

For example, I’ve found that over the past few years I have a high level of empathy for people struggling with work stress.

The issue is not my supportiveness and rather my tendency to fall into the role of rescuer.

I’m sure there’s something about me wanting to be needed, but what I do is help too much – take on work, give a lot of time to helping and talking it through when I am already very busy myself.

What I should be doing is looking to play the role of coach.

Offering support with proposed solutions, sharing resources and ideas.

Not taking on the responsibility of solving the issues myself.

"Everyone’s ideal score on the busyness scale will be different and there is no right score to function best at. It’s about being aware of your own and adjusting when it’s not working."

8. Know your busy scale

My counsellor gave me a brilliant tool which I use often.

I now know that I function best at about an eight out of 10 on my busyness scale.

I like to be busy and have been described many times as having a fizzy brain, and a never ending to do list.

From years of working in busy comms and marketing teams, I have a high threshold for a fast pace and am sure I get a high from it.

However, when I get to a 9.5 out of 10 it gets dangerous.

This is when I struggle to switch off and to sleep.

I become more of a control freak than normal and will find myself getting highly irritated by normal home stuff – toys all over the floor, noisy and bickering boys, wee on the toilet seat etc.

Stuff that gets on everyone’s tits, but you can normally let it pass.

In reverse, I am also not comfortable being below a six out of 10.

I’m not talking about holidays where you sit on a sun lounger and read five books in a row. That’s bliss.

I’m referring to the times when things are slower or weirdly quiet at work or when I was on my first maternity leave not working at all.

I can be equally self destructive in these periods too – over thinking, too much time to analyze my faults etc.

Everyone’s ideal score on the busyness scale will be different and there is no right score to function best at.

It’s about being aware of your own and adjusting when it’s not working.

"I am a big fan of a blank piece of paper, line down the middle, and map out what is and is not working."

9. Don’t confuse the wrong job with struggling as working parent

Ask yourself – is it hard because you’re balancing your home and work life, or is it tough because it is time for a change and you’re not in the right job?

I know I’ve got the two confused before.

Speak to your network (see point 1 above) and talk it through.

Use the age-old trusted "pros and cons" list.

I am a big fan of a blank piece of paper, line down the middle, and map out what is and is not working.

10. Know that it’s up to you to make it work

A harsh reality.

Not just with regards to surviving working parenthood, but in your career and in life generally.

That awful moment when you realize it’s all down to you.

Hopefully you’ll have a boss that’s rooting for you, and that you can talk openly with when things are tough.

I know this isn’t always the case, but if you don’t communicate when you’re struggling, they can’t support you.

In truth they are unlikely to be able to fix it all for you, but sometimes they can genuinely help.

I’ve had my fingers burnt in talking to managers when I’ve been struggling – I was put in the box of a struggling working mum.

“Should you find a different, less intense role?”or “Let me see what other roles there are that might better suit”.

But when I look back, I could have handled these conversations far better.

First tip – never have such conversations when you are overtired and at your limit.

Easier said than done, but taking time to create concise and considered talking points makes all the difference.

You are not a struggling working parent. 

You are someone that gives a shit about doing a good job, and there are some sticking points making that hard to achieve.

Be part of the solution

Whilst we all have to own our own shit, it’s also the job of businesses to do what they can to help and support working parents.

That said, it’s not a simple fix, so be part of the conversation and solution if possible.

Is there a working group you can join to share your experiences and ideas?

Are there others at your work facing similar challenges?

Back to point 1 above, I have had a wonderful network of other working parents in my company and they have been an incredible support throughout the pandemic, homeschooling plus work etc.

Find those people.

Create a place to communicate and support each other.

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