It cannot be said loudly or often enough: having a single, shared, visible, usable, all-in-one calendar is critical to making the moving parts of your working-parent life come together effectively. You want to be able to see job commitments next to school breaks, dentist’s visits, vacations, work trips, caregiver time off, and anything else that may affect the efficient running of your complete workparent system—and see it all quickly, without confusion or fuss. Whether you’ve already set up a working-parent calendar that feels like it’s doing the job, or you’re just now facing that task, here are the guidelines for making it all as easy and as useful as possible—and for keeping it that way over time.
Do it your way. Your family calendar should reflect how you think about time, what your work and home obligations really are, and how you personally operate day to day. A “good” workparent calendar is one that enables easy coordination and swift retrieval: it lets you sidestep conflicts and timing gaffes, and lets you put your hands on the right information quickly. How and if you color-code or label things is just a matter of personal choice.
Keep it simple. Beware of setting up a system that takes more time to manage than it gives you back. While it may be tempting to adopt the newest, most complicated technology, or a twelve-shade color-coding system, avoid those things if a more basic, streamlined version works for you and your family.
Treat the calendar as sacred. A calendar only works if you actively use it and add to it. Make a plan to review it weekly, both on your own and with other family members and/or your caregiver. Consider having a dedicated time to look over the coming week, especially when there are changes to the regular schedule or special events looming.
Grant access more broadly. Before kids, you could keep your calendar private. Now, your partner, your caregiver, your child’s Third Parents, and maybe even a trusted colleague at the office should have access (even if “read only”). Sharing the calendar is the most powerful way to bring your Village together, to distribute responsibilities, and to make sure everyone knows what needs to happen and when. If the idea of allowing a caregiver to see your full calendar freaks you out a little, remember that that person already has total access to the thing that’s most precious in the world to you: your child.
Adapt the system, based on age. When your first child is a baby, the Google Calendar that only the adults can see is just fine. But school-age kids should be in on the act of keeping themselves on track and on schedule. Even if they’re not fully computer literate yet, they can develop good time-management skills. Print out the weekly schedule and post it in the kitchen, flagging that playdate on Thursday, or reminding the kids that it’s their job to remember to bring their instruments in for band practice.
Avoid recreating it. Many stressed-out workparents, keen to make the calendar feel more “real” and visible and to get various members of the family on board with it, will do things like handwrite a version up on a big whiteboard in the kitchen, in addition to keeping the online version. While this is a good instinct, it’s a terrible technique, because now you’ve essentially committed yourself to maintaining two calendars instead of one. If you do want to focus the family on the week’s schedule, print it out and display it, or better yet, print, display, and discuss it.
Having a clear, realistic working-parent budget is important, but so is simplifying and streamlining the actual block-and-tackle operations of your financial life. When you’re this busy, you never want to spend what could have been a relaxed evening with the kids hunched over a spreadsheet and a stack of bills, or to find yourself without any cash on hand to pay the emergency sitter. Happily, whatever your finances look like, you can probably cut down on money-management logistics—and on the time and effort you put into them. A few good approaches:
Consolidate. If you’ve got multiple checking, savings, investment, or retirement accounts, consider merging them and maintaining just one of each. The more accounts you have, the harder it is to understand your true financial picture, and getting so many different statements each month creates clutter and distraction. If you’ve moved jobs or changed family structure within the past five years, there’s a high likelihood you’re hanging on to some legacy accounts. Go as streamlined and simple as you can.
Automate. Put all your regular monthly expenses—including the daycare bill, your daughter’s violin lessons, and the money you’ve committed to setting aside toward college savings—onto a direct-debit plan or autopay. Avoiding those repeat manual transactions will save you significant time. Next, activate the “account alert” features your bank and your credit-card company offer. With automated updates, you won’t have to log in as often to check your spending or balances.
Go completely electronic. If you’re still receiving paper statements or bills, or if you’ve handwritten more than a couple of checks over the past year, it’s an opportunity to streamline. Opening paper statements and then feeding them into a shredder is a complete waste of your valuable time (not to mention no good for the environment). Log in to each of your accounts and authorize e-notification. Ensure that you have a cashless system worked out with the Village, also—an app that lets you pay the sitter electronically, for example.
Stash cash where you’ll need it. Even in our superefficient, cashless world, you’ll still need it. Always keep small amounts of money in small denominations in the kitchen, at the office, in the diaper bag, in the car—and you’ll always be ready to tip the pizza-delivery guy on the night you don’t have time to make the kids dinner.
Food and Mealtimes
Let’s accept right here and right now that since you’re a busy working parent, eating out, takeout, and fast food are all likely to become a regular part of your arsenal. You may not want to turn to them every day, but with a little forward thinking you can keep your nutrition and family dynamic on track even when someone else is doing the cooking.
Hold on to your House Rules. Even in a different physical space, or when the food comes in a cardboard container, you can still apply regular standards, whether that’s milk with the meal, utensils, or no complaining.
Take control of the ordering process. Just because there’s a menu doesn’t mean everyone has to choose. Consider ordering family style, or multiples of the same dish, to simulate the environment at home.
Use the “add healthy” approach. If you’re running late from work and decide to stop at the drive-through on the way home, don’t beat yourself up. Sure, it’s not your finest culinary moment, but we’re dealing in reality here. Serve up the takeout with some carrot sticks, oranges, and glasses of milk and suddenly you’ve got a meal with vitamins A and C and calcium. Add healthy, lose the guilt.
You’ve procured a meal, you’ve gotten everyone seated, simultaneously—now what?
Keep things light. For the Family Meal tradition to take hold, time at the table needs to feel like a shelter from the experiences of the day—not a task but a reward. So stay positive: share any good news about weekend plans, for example, or an upcoming visit from Grandma, and start comments with upbeat lead-ins like “The funniest thing happened today,” or “You’ll never guess who I saw.” This isn’t the time to interrogate or broach tough subjects, like yesterday’s geometry test.
Use a conversation starter. Dinner-party-style chatter and “let me tell you about my day” type recaps don’t come naturally to children, and family members of whatever age can experience performance pressure if, as soon as they’re at the table, they’re expected to be forthcoming, or hold the floor. What can work well and naturally is:
A simple fill-in-the-blank-style opener that you’re willing to kick off yourself, like “The best [or most unexpected, etc.] thing that happened to me today was …” or, “a kind thing I saw someone do this week was …”
Telling a family story.
Play a guessing game, like Twenty Questions.
Asking a lighthearted hypothetical like “If you were [an animal, a flower, etc.], what would you be?”.
Be brief. Children have shorter attention spans than adults do, and good behavior lasts only so long. Fortunately, Family Meals don’t need to be long to have impact—it’s their regularity and quality that count. When starting your new routine, aim for just fifteen minutes around the table. That timing will naturally lengthen as your kids grow and as the practice of connecting over shared meals becomes an essential, treasured habit.
In certain professions—medicine, the military, certain branches of professional services, for example—learning how to work when utterly exhausted is an important and/or explicit part of the training. You don’t have to be in those fields to borrow their particular compensatory techniques, though. When you’ve been up all night with a sick child and have to be “on” and functional the next morning at work:
Break it down. That whole day or massive pile of work may feel impossible to tackle, but if you can focus on just a small piece of it, it won’t be so overwhelming. Pick some part of the project or your task list you can make good headway on, or think about tackling just the next thirty minutes. Think near vision, small goals, short sprints.
Knock out the work with a one-two punch. The first thing that goes out the window when you’re exhausted is your ability to fully “see” your work—and catch mistakes. If, however, you can allow for some time between producing the work and finalizing it, you’re more likely to bring the critical and accurate eye it needs. Write the memo in the morning and proofread it in the afternoon, or have that supplier call now but put the purchasing orders in tomorrow.
Save the interpersonal issues and judgment calls for later. Nuance, emotional equilibrium, the ability to read small personal cues, patience: all go out the window when you’re overwhelmed and underslept. Deliver the goods you need to, but avoid having that difficult feedback conversation or making decisions related to strategy, hiring, or career issues until you’re a little more rested.
Draw a line. Is what you’ve done good enough—or good enough for now? Then stop! When you’re feeling more energized, you can go back to being more of a perfectionist.
Enlist a second. Ask a colleague or team member to eyeball your work: to read over the message you’ve just drafted and check it for tone, for example, or to play devil’s advocate on the argument you’re about to make to your boss. You can’t lean on your colleagues for backup like this every day, but you can certainly ask a favor occasionally, and their help may allow you to avoid a lot of unforced errors.
Pretend you’re an actor, playing a role. You don’t have to be high-energy and full of optimism and vigor in that meeting, or on that call, or in that interview, or when greeting the kids after getting home—you just have to seem like it, temporarily. Think of your professional impact the way a doctor would his or her own bedside manner—as something deliberate, considered, and cultivated. How can you inspire trust and project competence? Take a deep breath, step into character, and “give good professional,” or “parent,” until the next break.
Sooner or later, you—just like almost every other working mother and father out there—will face serious stresses as you try to combine career and family, and will go through periods of guilt, apprehension, and self-doubt. If you find yourself …
- Drooping at the sight of your seemingly endless to-do list
- Questioning your own choices or competence
- Feeling remorse about having missed that big work meeting or school play
- Hurt and/or angry on the heels of a colleague’s (or your mother-in-law’s, or a neighbor’s) snarky comment about how you’re combining career and kids
- Imagining the potential terrible outcomes of your workparenting (emotionally damaged children, a derailed career, etc.)
… know first and foremost: you’re not alone.
Know also that you have the power to make yourself feel better. There are effective means of putting yourself onto more stable emotional ground. To get you there—and quickly—we’ll start by pinpointing the source of those difficult feelings, and then go through effective ways for you to manage and defuse them.
Of course you want to be your authentic self on the job. Be careful, however, of indulging in too much detail or candor about challenging workparent feelings in your workplace. It’s fine to tell coworkers, or even clients, that “managing three young kids with this job can be tough” or that yes, you do have to focus on balancing your competing responsibilities. Yet as soon as you start spending significant airtime on those matters, or providing a lot of detail, or describing the psychological effects the experience has on you, or using down-in-the-dumps vocabulary like struggle, tension, conflict, guilt, overwhelm, shame, or hopeless, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Think about it: no one wants a distracted, or completely beaten-down, nurse, or editor, or fireman, or consumer-products marketer, or [fill in the blank, your profession]. Maybe you’re being honest, but you risk eroding your professional credibility in being so. Reserve that type of all-cards-on-the-table conversation for trusted mentors, personal supporters, and professional helpers, like a therapist or members of a parenting support group. You have the right to be yourself, and to blow off steam regularly as well—just be mindful of the context.