Work-family fulfilment: The elusive sweet spot

I have never met a woman, or man, who stated emphatically, “Yes, I have it all.” Because no matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all. ~ Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Usually this édu flâneuse blog is focused on teaching, education, school leadership and research, although I have written about self, travel and gratitude. This post, which was incited by reading Annabel Crabb’s 2014 book The Wife Drought, is about partners, parents and families grappling to find collective fulfilment. What does it mean to be a partner and parent in a world where everyone is leaning in?

my two boys adventuring

my two boys adventuring

Recently, as the mother of a two and a four year old, I went on a work trip, my first solo travel since the birth of my eldest. Apart from the very occasional overnight (drop-off-at-bedtime pick-up-at-breakfast) sleepover, I had never been away from my children. My husband had travelled consistently since they were born, but this experience was new to me. As I strode at a grown-up pace through the airport, wheeling a single teeny carry-on, it struck me: this was the first time in five years, since first falling pregnant, that I had conceived of myself as a singular entity, a human being in my own right. Of course, there was still the invisible umbilical pull, but this experience of thinking-only-of-myself was both foreign and like slipping on my softest old comfies.

It got me thinking: What makes our lives whole? How do we prioritise family time, husband-wife time, career time, self-care time and home time? Can we be whole or can we only be compartmentalised parts? Is there a work-life-family-self sweet spot?

lean in to sandcastle building

lean in to sandcastle building

I like Jennifer Dulski’s concept of the Work-Life Mashup. Be with people you love and do the work that matters, she says. Focus on what’s important. I also resonated with Rosa Brooks’s response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: lean out! More is not always better. How about also leaning in to family, happiness and wellbeing?

A good friend recently leant me Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives. Crabb’s message is that, in order to achieve any semblance of work-family happiness, women need support in the home and men need more flexibility to step out of a traditional work model.

Men: supercharged by wives but missing out on lives

“Men’s careers rattle along uninterrupted,” says Crabb. Their wives are the “invisible power-pellet” which makes them more able to succeed in their own careers. “For fathers, having a family gave them a competitive edge,” while for women children make her, “less likely to be employed.” Men don’t tend to take time out from their careers when they have a family. As their children are born and grow, their work lives rocket forward on unbroken trajectories.

The downside of man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker is that fathers are excluded from “a universe of experience … and that’s a sad thing.” Why is a dad looking after his own children called being “Mr Mum” or “Daddy Daycare”, instead of just ‘being a parent’?

My husband recently went to the weekday parent induction for our eldest son’s new school, and he was one of three dads there; the other forty-plus parents were mums. Hopefully he was seen as neither a hero nor a novelty; just a proud, interested and loving parent.

Half-crazed superwomen: doing it all not having it all

Crabb cites studies and statistics which show that women are the ones who tend to adjust their schedules and take on the lioness’s share of the caring and housework responsibilities. She describes this as the age of the “half crazed ‘superwoman’” who attempts to ‘do’ work and family in equal measure, all while having “that feeling that one ought to work as if one did not have children, while raising one’s children as if one does not have a job. To do any less feels like failing at both.” Women tend to step back, step out, or figure out acrobatically-flexible ways to scratch together a work life while their children are small, or pay others to care for their kids.

I have heard an employer say, “if you want efficiency, hire a part-time mum” and Crabb asserts that she uses “every scrap of the day like an Italian farmer uses all of the pig.” We all have our multi-tasking, time-saving routines. I wrote here about the way I approach my PhD schedule. And there are always circumstances under which the delicate ecosystem of childcare, work, family and self, tips on its axis and sends us sprawling.

Social media: help or hindrance?

Social media allows us all to connect to others and share our lives. While my professional social media is focused on my intellectual interests and cultivating professional conversations, I use my personal social media to share moments of beauty or delight which I’ve carved out or stumbled upon: a sunrise at the beach, my children playing happily, a wonky birthday cake I made from scratch. My aim is not to craft an image of work-life-mashup perfection, or to suggest that this social media output is my complete reality. This is the highlights reel, not the whole picture! Crabb warns, though, that women who try to make work-family-life juggling appear easy can’t complain when the world doesn’t notice how much they are struggling to maintain their appearance of effortless togetherness.

For some, social media posts are an additional pressure. Apparently there is a thing called ‘Facebook life envy’. The mother who sees others’ decontextualised posts might wonder: How will I assemble a perfect outfit, while making grain-free dairy-free sugar-free recipes from whole foods grown in my own garden, mixing my own eco-organic-fairtrade face scrub, engineering creative craft activities, hand making personalised Christmas cards, and take a ‘no filter’ photo of a house sparklingly clean from all-natural chemical-free cleaning products?

We need to remember that social media is not life. And our lives are our own to live. 

social media is not reality

the highlight reel: social media is not reality

Finding the Work-Family Fulfilment sweet spot

Crabb concludes The Wife Drought by suggesting that we become accepting of men taking time for family or working more flexibly to achieve their own work-life-family contentment. Men should be able to lean out, she says, without being the subject of ridicule or novelty.

I’m lucky enough to have the kind of mutually supportive relationship that Tanya Plibersek talks about in Crabb’s The Wife Drought. My husband and I support each other professionally and share what we do at home. My husband believes in me as a mother, a wife, a researcher and a professional. He supports me in my dreams: to nurture a happy, connected family; earn a PhD; build a satisfying career; have a love-filled joyful adventurous life. And I support him in his: to be a present, treasured father to our boys; build a family legacy with them; grow his own businesses; develop his reach and impact; nurture professional connections and make a difference to the industries in which he is immersed.

We need to believe in each other’s capacities for awesome, and in each other’s dreams.

It may not be easy or perfect, and my husband and I may live our weekday lives by the ding of an Outlook calendar, but we both want to actively parent our children and be – really be – in their lives. We both work a semi-flexible working week. We share housework. We both have times when one of us is parenting our children and the other is working or traveling. We have lots of time when we are all together. Our boys see us, I think, as equally their parents. They experience us as a whole family unit in which we all work together to support each other as we seek individual and collective happiness. These choices are based on our beliefs. I know many happy families who make different, equally fulfilling choices for their own circumstances and principles. Each family needs to find its own changing recipe for the sweet spot of ‘this works for us, for now’ and ‘this makes us happy’.

Perhaps discussions about work-family-life fulfilment should be less debates in which we tally the percentage of housework done or hours worked or dollars earned by each partner. Can we focus more on talking with our partners and our employers about how we can support each other in our dreams for our selves and our families? What might that look like for our particular family, based on our visions, dreams, opportunities and resources?

There is no “invisible power pellet” or perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for finding the work-family-life-happiness sweet spot. We can only make choices which work for each family at any given time, riding the ebb and flow of life’s messy randomness together, and with a view to serving each individual (parents and children) and the whole.

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures

carve out time & space for joy & simple pleasures

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