Work-life imbalance?

How do you manage working from home with the whole family there, too?

When I’m spinning out about something, invariably work-related, my wife has a favourite zen-like phrase: 'It is what it is,' she tells me. It’s hard to argue with, and more useful than it often sounds in the moment. The situation is what it is, and it isn’t what it isn’t. Resisting or resenting it won’t help. Accepting, even appreciating it, just might. 

For example, working from home – well, my mother-in-law’s house – with two kids downstairs and three adults alternating childcare with their actual jobs isn’t optimal productivity-wise. It isn’t the co-working space at which I normally hot-desk. Having worked from home at various points in five years as a freelance writer, I prefer to separate professional and domestic if possible, and not be surrounded by dirty dishes and clean laundry. 

However, it is an opportunity to spend even more time with my kids than I did before. I used to walk five minutes from our flat to my co-working space, drop our three-year-old off at her nursery en route and pop home at lunch to hang out with our one-year-old for an hour. Now, I can make them breakfast, hang out, join them for PE with Joe Wicks and still be online by 9.30am – if I’m not on childcare duty.  

Having my kids around isn’t exactly conducive to work, but it is to taking breaks: five minutes of horseplay while the kettle boils and the tea brews instead of compulsively checking my emails on my phone or scrolling social media, which isn’t really taking a break at all. We have lunch together every day as a family, which we never did before – not even at weekends. Most days, work permitting, I down tools at 5pm to make the kids’ dinner, slotting back into home life in the time it takes me to walk downstairs. 

I’m prioritising efficiently, if nothing else. I’m not at my 'desk' – the spare bed – just because it’s work hours. If I’m not doing work that needs to be done right now, then I’m with my kids, and relieving my wife or mother-in-law. Because childcare is also work – I knew this already. But the more I do of it, the more I appreciate it – and the heroic Early Years educators, 98 per cent of whom on average, in the UK and globally, are women. 

I was lucky to spend more time with my kids than most men did with theirs. And most men have never spent as much time with their kids as they do now – including me. I recently interviewed Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, for a Men’s Health article about the future of work. His own research shows that women have long opted – or been forced – to work flexibly because they still do the vast majority of childcare, but men have resisted because they thought it would 'adversely affect their careers'. I suspect also because they just didn’t want to do childcare. 

I feel the same mixture of guilt and relief shutting myself in the spare bedroom to write this that I did at nursery drop-off. Childcare is not easy. But it is hugely rewarding, and beneficial for men’s relationship with their kids and their partners. Even if they go back to work like they used to, men will appreciate the work that their partners and childcare professionals do. And having reflected on what’s truly important, they may opt – or be forced – to work more flexibly, or not at all, in order to play a more prominent role in their family. 

Lest you think that I’ve achieved the nirvana of work-life balance, I still spin out. The difference now is that my kids are here to take me out my own head. My work set-up, my output, is what it is. It isn’t what it was. But maybe that isn’t bad. Maybe it’s good. Maybe it’s, as Sir Cary thinks, 'a big reset button'. After all, when did we decide that work was more important than life? 

Jamie Millar is a contributing editor to Men’s Health, and writes for a number of other publications about subjects ranging from fashion to fitness and football

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