There was a season in my life (pre-kids) when I worked 12- to 14-hour days as a high school English teacher, which isn’t hard to do with all the grading, committees, and assigned duties. Picture a hamster furiously running in one of those exercise wheels; that’s about how each day felt for me. But I noticed a strange sense of pride each time I logged a 10+ hour work day. It was a productivity high – similar to the fabled runner’s high.
At the end of these days, I wrote down all I had accomplished, often in the form of Facebook status updates (too many characters for tweets). Each “like” perpetuated my belief that productive was synonymous with successful. If I went a night without working, I berated myself for being lazy and vowed to work harder the next day.
I compared my resume with my colleagues’ and pushed myself to have more conference presentations, more publications, more teaching experiences, more awards. It didn’t really hit me that I would need a change until my husband and I began pursuing our license to become foster parents five years into my career.
During some rare downtime in one of my composition classes, I was casually chatting with a small group of seniors who were curious about what I did outside of school. I walked them through a typical week in the life of their English teacher. They knew my husband and I were hoping to become foster parents. Eventually, one of my students interrupted me.
“Uh...how are you going to have time to be a parent?” she asked. “You know you’re going to have to give a few things up, right? Kids are a lot of work.” The other students nodded along in agreement.
According to the The New York Times, “Fifty-six percent of all working parents say the balancing act is difficult, and those who do are more likely to say that parenting is tiring and stressful, and less likely to find it always enjoyable and rewarding.”
High-profile, successful women like Shonda Rhimes (producer of popular TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”) and Arianna Huffington (editor of The Huffington Post) have spoken publicly about finding this balance and the destruction that occurs when we don’t. A 2016 article from the Pew Research Center reveals that 52 percent of working fathers find maintaining work and home life balance difficult.
My student’s questions hovered over my head like an impending deadline throughout the remaining six months of our foster parenting classes. When my husband and I accepted our first placement, we knew something needed to change with our pace of life. I wasn’t ready to leave my full-time job, but there were a few changes I made right away to prepare for the growth of our family that ultimately paid off.
First, I changed jobs. More specifically, I changed schools, trading a high-pressure suburban school 35 minutes from my house for a large, urban school that was only a five minute commute. My student load doubled, but I went from having to plan for three classes to planning for only one. Of course there were new challenges, but I acquired more time since the commute was much shorter.
When I made the switch, I set more realistic work and personal life boundaries for this new season of life. I ditched the work email app from my phone. Initially, it felt a lot like cutting off my right arm, but I knew that I spent too much time checking emails and responding to students and parents during the evenings. Instead I set aside a specific chunk of time each day to respond to my emails and let my students and parents know of the change. I expected backlash, but for the most part, people respected the boundaries.
I became a fierce defender of my time and adhered to schedules whenever possible. Because I allowed myself to stay only 45 minutes after contract time each day, I learned to use my pockets of time wisely. I tried to save all of my extra work for after the kids’ bedtimes, but I also gave myself grace, realizing there are certain times of the year when I just needed to grade papers or plan lessons when my kids were awake.
When this happened, I rallied my kindergartners and had them help. They often organized papers, “graded” essays with me, or helped me create manipulatives for a lesson. There’s something to be said for kids who see their parents work, but there’s a delicate balance to this. I never want my kids to feel secondary to my work. Adjusting my schedule allowed me to spend more time doing more things that filled me up, like time with my kids, exercise, and hobbies.
Life progresses in seasons. There is a season for working 10- to 14-hour days, but for most, this season cannot be easily maintained once kids enter the picture. If you’re finding tension in juggling work and home, consider what steps you can take to achieve better balance.
The most difficult change to make in embracing a better work and personal life balance is often internal. We have to believe that our worth is not determined by how much we accomplish, professionally or personally.