This week marks National Life/Work week in the UK, organised by charity Working Families. The idea of a life/work balance is a beautiful thing and something that professionals across the globe aspire to. But how many of us professional working parents really manage to find the balance in our lives? Once you find it, how can you maintain it?
One highlight of National Life/Work week is National Go Home on Time day, set for Wednesday 26 September 2012, the idea being that whatever your working hours might normally be, on this day everyone packs up and leaves the office on time, according to their contractual hours. Other suggestions from the charity for marking this week are to organise a packed lunch picnic so employees take their proper lunch break (the great British weather notwithstanding) and to hold family open days at the work place.
National Go Home on Time Day sounds lovely, but it raises two questions that hit at the crux of the difficulty professional working parents have with the life/work balance conundrum – firstly, how realistic is it to declare on any given day that you will go home on time that day and stick to it? Secondly, why can’t every day be Go Home on Time Day?
As discussed previously in another blog, the ideal of having it all – work, life, children, happiness – is one that we all aspire to and professional working parents all strive in their differing ways to achieve. But there are days when it is just not possible to drop work and leave on time, despite our best efforts and intentions. For example, if a client calls in a spot of visa bother in an airport on the other side of the world, the average immigration lawyer will put their plans for catching the kids’ bed-time that day on hold. We do so without resentment because we appreciate that this is part of the role and we promise ourselves that we will make it up to the kids next week. Every professional will likely encounter their own variety of crisis situations that require them to stay late at work when their family life expectations might have provided otherwise.
It works the other way too – when Junior falls ill on a Wednesday morning and cannot attend school the professional working parent, not necessarily the mother, will put work on hold to look after the child if no other arrangements can be made. This will have repercussions at work and impact upon the rest of your working week but, again, it’s part of the role and we signed up to this responsibility.
Over the summer, one high profile professional working parent, Louise Mensch MP, announced she would be stepping down in order to spend more time with her family. She tried to balance her work and life commitments and acknowledged that every effort was made to make it work, but ultimately decided that she needed to give up her position in Parliament to take care of her family (the fact that her husband manages rock stars and needed to be in New York may also have contributed to this decision). Everyone takes their own view of how far they are willing to tip their life/ work balance. Other well-known parents have felt compelled to give their work priority over their family commitments at crisis points in their careers, including most famously Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained in Burma while her husband was dying of lung cancer in the UK, in the knowledge that doing so was the only way she could help her people achieve democracy.
Of course, for most of us mere mortals, the conflict between life and work is not as marked as that of Aung San Suu Kyi, nor does it have such far-reaching implications. But it is a conflict that all of us face in our daily lives. Professional working fathers face the same pressures as their female partners in this regard – witness the juggling act of MPs Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, who both balance shadow ministerial positions with family life and children.
Perhaps National Go Home on Time Day should be subtitled ‘where professional commitments permit (as long as hubby/wife is home to cover for you if you cannot leave work on time and provided you make up for it next week if work does not allow)’. It doesn’t sound quite so pretty or inspiring that way, but it might be a bit more realistic.