It’s no secret that combining work life with parenting is tough. After four years, two children and three jobs, it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about trying to juggle it all.
On top of this, after four years at the same daycare centre, we’ve recently had to find a new one. The process hasn’t been as bad as I’d anticipated (thanks to a very special teacher!) but it has provided an unexpected opportunity for reflection.
Life never stops
Over the past four years, we’ve had a second child and my husband and I have had three job changes between us. None of these transitions were particularly seamless and they’ve all required a shift in family dynamics and everyday routine.
Looking back, I can now appreciate the difference between who I was when I first started life as a working parent with kids in care, and who we all are now. It’s also made me realise how much my expectations of what a daycare should provide have changed, and how important it is to balance my expectations of myself as a working mother.
My biggest lesson so far? You can’t be EVERYTHING you want to be, all at the same time.
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Work after maternity leave: Round one
When our first son started daycare, he was 10 months old and I was starting a new and full-time job. To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. Becoming a mother had changed my world and while my first year of maternity leave presented huge challenges, it also gave me an overriding sense of achievement and peace. In many ways I’d found my calling: motherhood was the anchor I’d been looking for and I loved being home. But life is expensive, and circumstances meant I had to work – and a full-time job at that.
While the job itself was a delight and hugely supportive of my role as a mum, it meant spending a full five days away from my precious little guy. It took a long time for me to get over that. I felt guilty after I dropped him off every day for about a year. But as the second year rolled around, I began to see him thrive. He was sociable, at ease with strangers, independent, and a better sleeper and eater than when he first started.
Work after maternity leave: Round two
Three and half years later, we had another beautiful son, Lachie who also started at the same daycare at ten months old. But this time, I had secured what I’d spent the previous three years trying to negotiate – a three-day-a-week part-time job.
This was a game-changer for me. Knowing I had two days at home with my boys meant I felt better about almost every aspect of working and daycare. It also helped that Lachie took to the routine like a fish to water and the fact that I knew his big brother was there to comfort him, made the transition so much easier.
So, here are six ways I’ve tried to balance the parent I want to be with a busy working life:
1. Be realistic
Understand that you’re not going to be able to have a perfect day, every day. No matter how much you missed your kids, when you pick them up after work they’ll be tired and you’ll be tired. Don’t try and make up for the time you didn’t spend together trying to make things perfect – focus on the easy wins.
2. Make home time count
Our best mornings are the ones when I’ve had time to get myself organised first. Having a shower and something to eat before my kids get up means I am just more focused on them and our mornings are more relaxed. There is time to make them breakfast, get them dressed, but it also allows for a little time for a story, a puzzle, or a lost shoe or hat without the wheels falling off.
In the evening, make play a priority. As Mothercraft nurse Chris Minogue says, as soon as you get in the door, drop your bag and your phone and devote the first 20 minutes to playing with your kids. For days when you’re really exhausted, the bath a great compromise. You tick off one job that has to get done, and it forces you to sit down and interact with your kids. For my kids, the water has always been a happy place too, so they’re warm, clean and a little more chilled out. Just like a shower for us, a bath can help our kids ‘wash out’ the stresses of the day.
3. Drop the idea of dinner
Obviously, you need to feed your kids, but they don’t need a full, cooked dinner. Dietitian Susie Burrell explained recently that daycares have to serve a hot meal in the middle of the day, so your child just needs a snack at night time. A sandwich, some cut-up fruit and vegetables and a cup of milk is ample.
Psst: Same goes for us mums and dads. If your job allows for it, try eating your main meal at lunchtime too. It’s when your energy levels are at their highest and will ensure you get through the day avoiding crash out time or snacking on chocolates from the office charity box (okay, that’s not always a fullproof!) and it gives you back some precious family time in the evening.
4. Put some effort into getting to know your child’s carers
You might be in a rush to get to work and home at the end of the day, but the more you engage with the carers, the more you’ll get back. Even spending 10 minutes each week, talking and looking around the centre and getting to know the other children’s names and their parents too will help. The more you get to know the environment and people your child/ren is spending a day with, the more secure their attachment and feelings of security and happiness will be.
5. Programming and scheduling is important, but nothing beats genuine care
Try and look beyond the bells and whistles of the daycare centre, if you can. Daycare fees are expensive and some centres focus on providing ‘value’ for money in terms of programming. While this is great, nothing should be more important than the way your children are cared for.
Pay close attention to the way the carers speak with your child and the information they give you at the end of each day. Every single day my children have been in care, I’ve either been sent a photo or video of something cute, or given an update on a child who was upset when I left, or given a great description of all their activities for the day. This helps build trust and connection and has helped me feel part of my children’s day, even when I am not around. It has also made me feel that I can rely on the carers and educators to give me insights into my child and their development, on every level.
6. Manage your expectations of yourself
What hindsight has taught me most is how carefully you need to manage the pressure you put on yourself as a working parent. Especially the expectations versus the reality of how I can be the parent I want to be (present, consistent, calm), while not being around my children every hour of everyday.
Working is tough, being at home is tough. Trying to combine the two and being great at absolutely every aspect of both is literally impossible. Try to be honest with yourself about your boundaries and also the things you simply won’t compromise on. For me they are continuity of carers, not having to rush in the morning and ample time for play and relaxation in the evening.
If it all feels a bit hard right now, that’s probably because it is. Find a way to really check in with yourself a couple of times a week and make a list of the things that are working well, and the things you want to change or the things you’d like to add to make life better for you. Every bit counts.