A few years ago, while on maternity leave, I resigned from a job that I loved because I knew that the nature of the role just wouldn’t be able to give me the flexibility I was going to need now that I had my son to look after. So, I took the plunge and started freelancing.
In theory being a freelance writer allows me the freedom to work the hours I want, when I want. In practice, I often find myself working longer hours and over the weekend, simply because I have to contend with trying to squeeze work around the demands of now parenting two children and ensuring our household remains in order.
This week alone, in amongst the multiple deadlines I had to meet I had to organise a birthday party, book doctors’ appointments, find a gift for a friend’s child, call the water company querying a bill, do the grocery shopping, plan dinner… the list goes on. And the result is that I often find my days becoming a blur of life admin and work with no clear distinction of what gets done when. And I’m not alone.
A lot of people who are constantly torn between two places.
Research conducted by La Trobe University into flexible work arrangements and parent health found that even with formal provisions made for flexibility in place, it still doesn’t meet the demands of being a working mum or dad. The study surveyed 4000 parents from different occupations and found that 86 per cent still had to rely on informal ‘catch up’ strategies to stay on top of the demands of both work and home.
The reality is that parents are having to make it work somehow, with the study finding that 47 per cent of parents used their break time to attend to family matters or errands, while 59 per cent worked through their breaks to leave work on time. With two-fifths of the workforce comprised of working parents, that’s a lot of people who are constantly torn between two places. What are the consequences of that?
For starters, you quickly discover there’s no off button on both fronts. Jan is a teacher, and after having a baby, took on a job-share arrangement which has allowed her to go back to work part-time. And while she’s in the fortunate position to have the flexibility to be able to go to work while her husband stays at home and vice versa, she finds that the demands are constant nevertheless. “When I’m at work I think about home life. When I’m at home I think about work life,” she says. It’s not uncommon for her to squeeze errands in during her breaks, while she often does school related work while she’s putting her son to sleep. With studies showing that multitasking can impair concentration levels and can reduce productivity by up to 40 per cent, this can sometimes lead to more stress on the job.
The reality of working from home is it just means my work day is longer and I’m constantly trying to do two things at once.
While most parents find that flexible work arrangements aren’t quite enough to allow them to fully manage their family-related responsibilities outside of work hours, the alternative is to have none at all and that’s even harder both physically and mentally. The same study found that having partial or no flexibility whatsoever leaves parents at risk of burnout, occupational fatigue and psychological distress.
While I’m thankful for the fact I have some control over how I manage my schedule, I’m the first to admit that I had imagined perhaps naively that it would be a little easier to be able to divide my time between work and family simply because I wasn’t working in an office. But the reality is it just means my work day is longer and I’m constantly trying to do two things at once. It’s not unusual for me to be writing a story on my phone while feeding my son or putting a load of laundry on before I do an interview in an attempt to stay on top of everything.
In parenting utopia (I hear Scandinavia comes pretty close) having flexible working arrangements would genuinely enable parents to have a clear separation between work and home. We’d be able to work within a designated time frame then emerge and focus on everything else without a backward thought to what we left behind in the office.
The reality is though that modern day work requirements can often mean you’re on duty beyond conventional working hours. Additionally, having a family also can’t be neatly separated into a category that is attended to out of hours, because as any parent can attest, having children is a full-time job in itself. And when you’re trying to do two jobs at the same time, achieving true work-life balance is still very much a work in progress and you’ll take whatever flexibility you can get, however imperfect the system may be.
Tania Gomez is a freelance writer.