Having children is the best thing in my life. But it is also the most complicated.
My spouse and I are challenged by a never-ending stream of choices related to our family. And we’re just getting started, with a 2 year-old daughter and another due in October. When we harmonize, the challenges of balancing work and care help us get to the next level. When we diverge, the same challenges stress us out.
This is never more true than with decisions about work. We’ve both experimented with ways to integrate caregiving with our professional careers. What works for her doesn’t always work for me, since she works at a large company, and I work at a startup.
That said, here are five practices that we’ve found work well in combining work and parenting for a healthy work-life balance.
1. Introduce children to work colleagues
My wife was worried at first about bringing our daughter to work. She thought she would be pigeonholed as someone who didn’t take her job seriously and was now all about her family. I didn’t face these stereotypes, so I brought our first child regularly to the office. When my wife eventually tried it, she was also pleasantly surprised to find that no one judged her.
We’ve both made it a point to have our closest work friends — peers, subordinates, and bosses — meet our children as soon as possible. Babies and toddlers tend to be cute, or at least cuter than grown-ups. It’s much harder for people to dismiss your family-related requests once they can put a face to the name. It’s even better if the people at work develop an emotional connection.
If you have to leave work for a milestone-related event in your child’s life, tell everyone. They’ll be surprised at how fast time passes and how quickly your child is growing. These small touch points build up into a relationship, and that relationship gives you more margin when the inevitable scheduling conflicts arise.
2. Plan meetings for mid-day
My wife and I both missed — or showed up breathless and late — to a lot of meetings in the first few months back at work after our children were born. We learned the hard way that you can’t be efficient with a kid. So we gave ourselves a lot more margin, as much as we could get, and then did whatever it took to over-perform.
Do everything possible to avoid meetings that are at the beginning and end of work.The probability of delays due to a family incident is always high. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Ideally, you would be able to squeeze all your meetings into the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. window.
If the meeting time can’t change, ask to dial in to meetings for a some specific period of time (e.g. three months) until your schedule normalizes. When that time is up, you can point to your performance and ask to extend the privilege if needed.
3. Share responsibilities
Since I work at a startup, my job is more flexible than my wife’s. That allows me to take up a lot of the slack when it comes to caring for children. But over time, I started to resent the situation. Surprisingly, so did my wife. Neither of us was getting what we wanted: a fair share of the parenting time. We decided to split responsibilities between morning and afternoon, which gives her a chance to “own” one side of the equation.
Break down caregiving responsibilities into the early and late stages of the day. Share and rotate these responsibilities as appropriate, ideally by talking through the week’s schedule on Sunday evening or Monday morning. This will help get both parents on the same page, while also ensuring that any issues are addressed.
4. Check your results
I have a hard time holding myself accountable. And it’s even worse when we’re talking about family-related balancing acts. My wife and I have learned to rely on temporary changes to figure out the best ways to adapt.
Sometimes we determine that a big change is needed, but don’t want to commit fully to it. So we set a specific period of time, then agree to circle back and review the results. For example, if I want to start leaving earlier for work, maybe 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m., then I can try it for two weeks, and we’ll sit down together and discuss whether this is a sustainable change. That makes the conversations easier than if we were shifting in some big, irreversible way.
Decide on an important change that one or both of you thinks will improve your marriage, family, and/or work. Create an event in two or four weeks — whatever seems appropriate — for an evening after the kids go to bed. Invite your spouse, and make sure to follow through.
Did the change improve or make things worse? If it was good, do you want to keep doing it? Or do even more of it? If it was bad, do you want to revert back to what you used to do? Or try something new entirely?
5. Understand that marriage > family > work
Our marriage suffered somewhat early after the birth of our first child. Neither of us understood how to prioritize the two of us over the baby. We both wanted to spend as much time with the baby as possible, which stole all the time normally reserved for the two of us. The remaining time was devoted to making money, of course, so we had enough to invest in our children’s education and development.
We’ve talked to a lot of other parents who initially made the same mistake, with similar consequences. We had to unlearn the idea that life revolves around our newborn, while also avoiding the tendency to dive back into work. But kids grow up and leave. And we’ll end up switching jobs. Marriage is a life-long proposition. When the dust settles, only one person will be standing next to you.
William Treseder is a husband, father, author, and former Marine. He’s a Partner at BMNT, a startup solving national security problems. Connect with him on LinkedIn.