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Work-life balance – what’s that?

What does ‘work-life‘ balance actually mean for a mother of young children? Or is it more like work-family conflict?

Work-family conflict is the direct result of incompatible pressures from an individual’s work and family roles

My workplace is very flexible and I am able to work part-time, arrive late after dropping off my children at school, take leave during school holidays even if the timing is inconvenient for organisational operations. In return I’m flexible, so I answer emails, Skype calls, and phone calls in the evenings and on weekends, I do work some evenings, and I occasionally travel internationally. On Wednesday this week I put my son into childcare so that I could go to work on my day off (cue: guilt and stress already) to make an important presentation to some visitors. I had cleared the day with my husband 2 months in advance that he would do drop off and pick up from school/childcare so that I could go to work and be prepared and have a sole focus. In the morning it became apparent that he had a gastro bug and the role fell to me, so I desperately scrambled to arrange pick up of both kids at 3:00 and drop off to their Indonesian class, then return to childcare when the class finished. Fortunately the school and childcare were very amenable to my last minute request. However the fact remained that childcare closes at 6:00pm.

My presentation was delayed by 2 hours and by the time that I began to speak I was already looking at the clock and worrying about my children. I spoke well and even managed to make a joke that my team laughed about and one of the visitors later extended the joke so I’m guessing that they got it. Up next was my colleague presenting some of my research so I stayed on to support his presentation and help field questions. As the clock approached 5:30pm I began desperately checking the time every 30 seconds and calculating the absolute latest time that I could leave the office and still get to childcare before they close at 6:00pm. I began to sweat and wish that I had worn more comfortable shoes and trousers instead of a skirt so that I could run faster when the exit time arrived. Finally, just as I was about to interrupt the presentation to leave, my colleague finished and I popped up out of my chair, smiled to everyone and said that I had to go and pick up my children from childcare.

I spent the next 30 minutes stressing over whether I could get there in time or if I would have to pay the penalty rate for arriving after the centre has closed (charged by the minute!). I got stuck behind a slow driver with a steady stream of traffic passing me in the other lane and tried my best to stay calm. Finally I was in the carpark at 5:59 and ran, as best I could in those shoes and skirt, wondering from which childcare room to collect a child first, knowing that I could only sign out one before 6pm came around. By good fortune the kids had been moved into the same room and I was able to sign them both out at 6:00 on the dot. We have never left our children at childcare that late and I felt terrible that they were the last ones there.

Once the adrenaline subsided I became intensely frustrated that I’d had to leave the presentations when they were only 1/2 way through and shown to everyone in that room what I perceived as a weakness. Later I railed to my husband that I strive hard every day at work to be super-human and never to show weakness. I went on to say that in some ways motherhood in the corporate world is treated as a disability (I apologise to those with disabilities and mothers for this non-PC statement but I was in a bit of a state) and I never wanted to be the mother that has to leave an important meeting early. I felt that it would leave a permanent black mark against my name with our visitors.

Women feel compelled to work like ‘surrogate men’ to succeed

Obviously I can’t know what they really thought about me but interestingly the next morning when the visitor saw me the first thing he asked was whether I’d made it to the childcare centre in time and then commented on how lucky I was to avoid paying the penalties for being late. He went on to talk about his own young children. As he said this I realised that it may not have been a black mark after-all … or maybe he was just being nice?

With clients I avoid mentioning my children because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, in fact I avoid being overly feminine because I want to be considered on my own merits. I’ve always hated seeing ex-colleagues from the research institution where I worked during both pregnancies and the first thing they all ask me is how are my children. That makes me cringe because I feel it isn’t genuine and they are really just putting me in a box.

I hide my true self at work and create a persona that I think will suit other people but I can’t know what others are thinking and it could just be a limitation in my own mind. What do you think, did I construct it all in my own mind? Is it a weakness to leave an important meeting early and admit to needing to pick up children from childcare?


4 comments on “Work-life balance – what’s that?

  1. Is it a weakness to leave an important meeting early and admit to needing to pick up children from childcare? Well, I say no and I’d question anyone who thought otherwise, but I suppose what I wish for you is a friend you can call to help with the children or a husband who goes to get them sick or not. 🙂 I mean, it was an important meeting, right.

  2. strivetoengage
    September 23, 2013

    Hi ODRS, you make a good point about the importance of networks and hence social capital. I too wish that I could have called upon a friend or relative to help. Unfortunately my relatives live interstate and none of my friends have enough child car seats to accommodate an extra two children, nor do they have authorisation to sign my children out of the childcare centre. I suppose that this must be a common enough occurrence for working couples and I wonder how others deal with it.

  3. William Filgo
    November 3, 2013

    I feel that ODRS hit the nail on the head. If playing with the big boys is that important, then you must have depth. The big boys have assistants to take care of details, they are only big picture. Organize a barter organization that provides services to those that participate. It won’t be easy, but then you will be in game. Is that really what you want? You will have to give up something else that you have in your life. The bottom line is where in this reorganization is the family. Won’t everything change if misfortune strikes someone that is dear to you? Only one makes it to the top, will fortune really smile on you long enough to make the long shot? An old adage says that to make God smile, tell him your plans. I have always lived the life that was best at the time and not given credence to those wearing masks and living half a life. When you wear a mask, you can’t take it off and be yourself when you do get that shot. You will only disappoint yourself and everyone else. What do you think?

  4. strivetoengage
    November 3, 2013

    Hi William, thanks for your considered comments. You are right about everything and I should establish a barter system with friends for reciprocal care arrangements. For the first year of my daughter’s life I did a 1 day a week baby swap with a friend and that worked very well. Since then I’ve failed to find people who I can rely on every week so I’ve opted for 1 afternoon a week of after-school care because that is totally reliable.

    I am conflicted about what I want from my work/career. Until now I’ve simply done the best job that I can and not given much thought to where I will be in 10 years time. I’ve worked part-time since my first child was born and we all benefit from the flexibility that affords when it comes to illness etc. It now seems plausible that I am actually on a career path that is leading towards a management role. It’s a conflicting scenario because as you said very few succeed and I don’t think many or perhaps any are able to maintain a true work-life balance. Some are financially privileged enough to pay for outside help and that would certainly be lovely but not possible for us. Others have extended family networks that help daily with essential tasks, again this is a luxury that we don’t possess. If it became necessary for me to work full-time and long hours to do my job how could I maintain the current activities that I do with my family, charity work, school, and sport/exercise? Why would one choose work over these other aspects of life; but if one doesn’t choose work first then what sort of work comes after that and how rewarding is it? I’m fairly young and I only started my first job 10 years ago and I’ve had career breaks for children so I am mystified about what to expect next and what steps to take.

    You make an excellent point about masks and I’m conflicted about that. It’s not easy navigating the modern workplace as a working mother. I had a boss who said it was disloyal of me to leave my job to take up a new role with a different company because he felt that I owed them for the unpaid maternity leave that I’d had with his organisation. It’s attitudes like these that make me wary of ‘unmasking’ myself. Do you think that I’m being false by protecting myself? Am I crazy to think that there’s a need to protect myself? Myriad studies such as those that I cited in my post suggest that I’m not crazy and women all over the developed world face the same challenges. Anna Goldsworthy in the Quarterly Essay ( writes an excellent review of the new reality for women since the gains made by feminism. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and helping me to think these issues through from a different perspective.

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This entry was posted on September 23, 2013 by in Me and tagged , , , , , , , .
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