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Work Family Balance - One of the Holy Grails of Motherhood?

By Mihiri Udabage - 27th February 2012

More than 9 years ago, I became a parent for the first time.  Since then, I've tried on some of the many combinations of work family ‘balance’ that are on offer.  Nine years on, I’m not yet sure that I have it right.  As much as income generation and work satisfaction are important, the question that ends up being the deal breaker is always - does this fit for the children too?  How do you know when you have got the balance right?  What is right?  

The first thing that I’d like to say about this dilemma is…I know I’m lucky to have it.  Employment choices, study, and child care options are only possible because our household has a main breadwinner in the form of a Husband and Dad; we live in a community where there aren’t child care shortages (although the great centres do fill up quickly, don’t they?), we enjoy relative good health, and we have the safety net of grandparent help if required.

The second thing to mention early on is I am assuming there is such a thing as work home balance, or work family balance, and damn it, I’m gonna get me some!

A recent paper released by the Business School at Curtin University in Western Australia referred to a theory called Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Systems Theory - it links parental work schedules with children’s wellbeing. The theory covers a dense set of factors including the child’s environment, their age, parents’ educational background, SES status, work hours, job satisfaction, work stress, familial interactions, parental fatigue, time for close interactions with children, community-based family resources, or and negative developmental outcomes for children.  My mind boggles trying to work out which combination of factors will give my children the best developmental outcomes.

There is also literature linking child health and development to parents’ health and wellbeing. But given the extreme complexity of familial situations and circumstances, the research is virtually impossible to apply to our lives. And having tried a few combinations of work schedules and family life myself, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my journey.

Part Time Work and Quality Child Care
Returning to work part-time when my first child was one year old lasted about 18 months.  To be fair, it came to an end with the birth of a second baby and didn’t resume afterwards because that baby, now my 7 year old son, had health issues that meant he was sick more than he was well.  

That initial return to work was a difficult time.  I missed my baby.  I think she missed me.  I appeased my sadness by finding a great child care centre, where she could bond with caregivers who really did seem to care about her physical and developmental needs.  When I took on an extra day of work, I eased the guilt by finding her an even better centre (so I said to myself).  I had work stressors that I didn’t acknowledge, but my body did - I looked worn down.  

I’d read about the undeniable benefits of helping baby to find secure attachments to her other caregivers.  Of course, that made perfect sense.  What I didn’t realise at the time, was that I was losing some of my secure attachment to this little being who I was getting to know so well.  As much as it made my heart sing to have my baby returned to me at the end of the day, happy and well, with yet another milestone clocked, my secure place in the centre of her universe was being eroded and I didn’t like it.

Self-Employed and Working from Home
Next came working for myself, from home.  It seemed to be the perfect fit.  I would be at home, with the children, whilst also being productive in a non-child-and-home-duties kind of way.  Well…define being productive!  Yes, I had the business card and the baby on the hip as proof I was doing it all.  But the hours I’d normally expect to spend on a work task became 15 minute bursts of interrupted, time-pressured pulses of activity, stolen in between play time, meal time, nap time and story time.  Play time, meal time, nap time and story time became lesser quality interactions too.  

If my children could remember that period, (and I have no doubt they plant little seeds of memory within them from every significant experience) I’d understand if they described it as “15 minute bursts of interrupted, time pressured pulses of activity, stolen in between mum’s work time.”  There’s a sobering picture.  Don’t get me wrong. There are so many benefits to working from home.  I enjoyed every single one of them.  There are so many challenges too.  I wonder if I tried this on too early in my children’s lives.  As preschoolers, my kids were too young to understand and accept that sometimes mummy was home, but also working.  

Studying from Home and Part Time School Hours Work

There have been a few other combinations along the way.  Right now I’m trying studying by distance and doing two dedicated days per week of work, during school hours.  I’m hoping this will be the right combination for us.  With both children in school, I’m expecting that when they are home, they will have the quality interactions with me that they deserve, because I’m planning to get all the other ‘stuff’ done while they are at school. I did say planning, right?

The research that is most meaningful to me comes from the highly unscientific study of my statistically insignificant family of four.  How do the children rate the time they have with Mum and Dad?  How are they interacting in their family, their school, their sports, their wider community?  Are they happy?  Are we happy?   Mostly, families are doing the best they can, with the best of intentions, with the circumstances they are living in.  Sometimes I like to forget my present self, and read the poem below as if it came from my future self, and be reminded of what it is I’m here trying to achieve.

If I Had My Child To Raise Over Again
by Diane Loomans

If I had my child to raise all over again,
I'd build self esteem first, and the house later.
I'd fingerpaint more, and point the finger less.
I would do less correcting and more connecting.
I'd take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.
I would care to know less and know to care more.
I'd take more hikes and fly more kites.
I'd stop playing serious, and seriously play.
I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars.
I'd do more hugging and less tugging.
I'd see the oak tree in the acorn more often.
I would be firm less often, and affirm much more.
I'd model less about the love of power,
And more about the power of love.

What factors are important to you when trying to find the work/home balance?


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