Tips for managing time for your children and time with your spouse—while managing your career
Modern parenting can seem more like a sprint than a marathon—but a sprint where the finish line keeps moving!
You and your spouse are trying to balance work responsibilities and responsibilities to your children, and then there’s your relationship. You may feel that you’re failing on all fronts.
Maybe you compare your lives to those of people you know vaguely or have heard about who seem to do it all effortlessly.
Maybe you have the idea that you should have a photo-shoot ready home with everything neatly in its place at all times, with handblown glass holiday decorations you’ve made yourself, and a Julia Child recipe you’re preparing each night for dinner after leading your team at work to new sales records or a 7-figure settlement for your client. The children are well-behaved, tantrum-free, and the older ones manage their homework and school projects using their planners, along with keeping their sports equipment repaired and their uniforms spotless.
You feel bad because your reality is a home with toys and clothes scattered about, dinner is what you can order online while your kids are fighting. The oldest forgot about a project due tomorrow, the youngest is dealing with friendship drama, the middle one’s soccer uniform hasn’t been washed and there’s a game tomorrow, and your boss has moved up the due date for your report. You and your spouse haven’t been on a date since 2015, and you can’t remember the last time you had an adult conversation—with each other.
I’m Diane Spear, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice for 22 years, but I can’t wave my magic wand and make it all perfect.
I can help with tips to help you manage the juggling act that is modern parenting, to help you manage time for your children and with your spouse while managing your career. That’s a tall order!
But first you have to let go of the idea that life can and should be perfect!
Outsource what you can and scale back your expectations
Your kids will benefit much more from time with you than from a beautiful home and healthy gourmet meals.
Scale back your expectations for appearances.
If your house looks like no kids live in it, your kids don’t have permission to be kids. Yes, you can clean up at the end of the night, and when your kids are old enough, you can enlist a little help from them. But keep things in perspective.
Creativity is messy. As a writer, I know that the quickest way to shut down my creative process is to try to write the perfect sentence. I have to write freely and write badly to get to something worthwhile.
Buy child-friendly home furnishings. You can always upgrade when your kids are older. Kids need the freedom to make mistakes in order to learn, grow, and find their process. Without having to worry that they will get in trouble for having accidents. Put the valuable things on high shelves, rather than following kids around saying “Careful! No!” I had a friend with a young child. She was buying an expensive new couch. I suggested that she buy one that would look good with grape jelly. You want your children to feel relaxed and confident, not worried that they’re going to make a mistake and break a family heirloom. I’m not suggesting that you give your kids markers and let them mark up the walls and furniture, but that you remember that living children are more important than furnishings and appearances.
Scale back your expectations for dinner.
Your family will be fine without a homecooked meal every night. Better to have a calm atmosphere and take-out than stressed parents and a Martha Stewart dinner. If you can cook some on the weekends for the week, great. Or make it easy with take-out and drive through during the week and save your cooking for the weekend. If you have young children at home with a nanny, ask the nanny to prep some food during the kid’s naps. Outsource whatever you can to spend time with your kids. Your kids will benefit much more from time with you than from a beautifully-prepared meal and a neat home.
If you and your child tend to get into power struggles around homework, outsource that help.
Hire a tutor in a particular subject, whether an advanced high school student or a pro, so that your child is getting competent help without the relationship dynamics that can make learning a chore instead of enjoyable. Your child may learn a tough subject better from someone else. Someone I know had severe math anxiety growing up. When her daughter was in second grade and began talking about sets, the mom panicked. “How can I help her?” she wondered. She was a bright woman who was certainly capable of learning enough math to help her second grader. But she didn’t want to transfer her math anxiety to her daughter, and she preferred to spend her time with her daughter doing more enjoyable things. She took her daughter to a program that helped her with math, and continued to outsource math help. The daughter became much more competent with math than if the mother had taught her! And they had nicer experiences together.
The choice to outsource homework help isn’t a negative commentary on your parenting skills, just another version of “choose your battles,” and whenever possible, avoid them altogether!
Divide and nurture
Think creatively to come up with a solution for one-on-one time for each child.
If you have two kids, that’s not so hard.
With three or more, you’ve got significant challenges. Time for creativity and planning!
Maybe you hire a mother’s helper to stay with your younger children while you take your older child to a special class or activity. And you trade off with your spouse to get alone time with the others.
I had special time with my dad growing up when he picked me up from my piano lessons each week and we walked home together. My mother helped my sister with homework during that time.
Or it may be juggling bedtime routines, so that each child has a special time with mom or dad, whether it’s storytime or singing, and the kids know that they have mom on this night and dad on another, and you work in shifts.
Be prepared for all of that to change when someone’s sick or out of sync. You can fall apart, or model making the best of the situation at hand.
Find the funny!
Actively look for the funny things when you’re annoyed.
Mark Twain famously said “Humor is tragedy plus time.” I disagree with that because terrorism is never funny; death of a loved one is never funny. I love Mark Twain, but I think the truth is more like this, though it’s not at all catchy: “If you step back from your annoyance and actively look for the humor or absurdity in it, you can laugh yourself out of the annoyance and enjoy your life much more.” Like I said: not catchy. But true and well worth doing.
A friend who’s a mom and a caterer had zested three cups of lemon zest for a recipe and had put it in a glass measuring cup. Her youngest son came running into the kitchen with his arms flailing and accidentally knocked the measuring cup onto the floor. There was glass everywhere, along with the lemon zest. I felt bad for my friend and was curious what her reaction would be. She started laughing! No reason to make her son feel bad. He’s more important to her than her recipe and she showed him that. Well done!!!
Managing time through backtiming
Use backtiming for planning calm departures.
I had a patient who was a producer and she talked me through this. You start with the time you need start, and work backward from there, building in extra time as a cushion.
If you have a talk to give somewhere that starts at 6:30pm, you work backward from there. Since you don’t want to arrive and begin immediately, you build in a cushion after your arrival to meet your contact person, go to the restroom, check the room, determine where you’re going to put your materials, etc. Allow at least 30min for this. Calculate how long it will take you to walk from whatever transportation you use (subway stop or bus stop) to the location and add extra time to have to wait for the elevator, etc. Calculate how long your ride is at that time of day or night and build in extra time, and that will be the time you need to leave your office or home. Work backward from there for everything else leading up to your departure, and that’s the time you need to start getting ready.
Getting out the door in the morning for school and work is a similar experience. Does backtiming sound completely regimented? Yes, but this is where the extra planning can prevent the mad scramble to get out of the house, where uniforms, lunches, and homework are forgotten. And you and your kids are angry and frantic. Not a great way to start anyone’s day! Backtiming can lead to a calmer experience, which is important for parents and kids alike.
Use backtiming for planning homework projects.
If the research paper is due on March 1, your student should work backward from there. He or she gets the components done by dates that will allow the research paper to be done two weeks early. Then the child puts it away to “percolate.” When your student returns to it, he or she can make any changes, further develop ideas, etc., before proofreading and feeling calm and confident about turning it in on time.
Adjust your expectations of yourself and your spouse for home and career—and your boss’s expectations
It’s really hard for a household with children to function very well if both spouses have big, inflexible jobs, so adjust if you need to.
I knew a couple who took turns with the career “off-ramp.” She originally had the big job and he explored career options then got a PhD that would open more opportunities for him. Then she scaled back and he ramped up. They did this in 5-year trade-offs. They both did enough work in their fields in their off-ramp years and were well-networked enough, so that they could step back in and do well.
Other couples discuss this openly and have less fluid arrangements. You have the big job, and I have the one that allows more flexibility for parenting. The idea that the parents will do equal amounts of parenting is nice, but not so workable in the real world.
One mom says, “When our daughter was young, my husband had more flexibility and could take our daughter to school and make her breakfast and lunch. I’d pick her up from school and I was the ‘homework parent,’ because that was a better fit. He went on more class trips, but I was a chaperone for the 3-day 5th grade trip. I put her to bed most nights. Was it even? Don’t know, never did the math, because it didn’t matter. It worked for our family.”
So think creatively, whether that means hiring more help, or trading places with your spouse, or shifting the balance in some other way. Just because your friends aren’t doing life that way, doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Don’t fall into bean counting.
Things aren’t going to work out 50-50. How about 100-100? How about not keeping score, and just having conversations—not confrontations—with your spouse to figure out what works for your family.
Work with your boss on what you’re willing to do for the job.
Three moms I know have negotiated very limited travel in jobs that traditionally require lots of travel. Their strong reputations within their companies and industries allowed this negotiation, even though their supervisors had made very different choices for themselves. One of these moms has a elementary school-age daughter and a younger set of twins. She plans a very different career balance when her kids are in college, but she’s enjoying giving her kids a great start in life now.
Use backtiming at work with projects and acquisition goals to boost your productivity.
Backtiming can work just as well in the professional world as it does in the personal and educational ones. Unless you work in a position where deadlines are pushed all over the map! Use it to get a jump on your assignments and to calm your anxieties if you tend to “amp up” your assignments with exaggeration. It’s not just a meeting, it’s “a huge meeting.” It’s not a presentation, “it’s a really important presentation.” If you tend to amp things up in this way, you can set yourself up for writer’s block. The way out is to stop the exaggeration, and to “dip a toe” in the water of the project. That’s where backtiming can help, so you don’t procrastinate, and instead do manageable chunks of work toward the finished project.
Get creative about time with your spouse
For creative ideas about making time to spend with your spouse, see the blog post “Date Night Ideas for Exhausted Parents.”
But remember that, contrary to what we are constantly told, you can’t have it all. You have to pick and choose and decide what you’re willing to scale back on to make a satisfying life. And that’s all part of the lessons in juggling that define modern parenting!
If you’d like more help in learning to have a more balanced and satisfying life, give me a call at 212-353-0296 or use the contact form. I look forward to helping you find the joy in everyday life!