'Just Let Me Decompress...'
Whether you do it by reading a novel or sharing lunch with friends, taking time out for yourself during the workday will give you more energy and help your energy levels when you transition from job to family at the end of the day.
By Susan Flynn
Lindsay Campbell took what some may view as a drastic step to keep her work at work. Her home is 100 percent computer-free. That means no temptation to check email or go online after she switches roles from mortgage processor to mother.
"I know if it was there, I'd be on it," says the mother of a 4-year-old son. "When I walk out the door at work, that's it. I know it will be there tomorrow."
Claire Spofford, a clothing company vice president, takes the opposite approach. She turns on her computer as soon as she gets home from work - or at least in the driveway.
"Checking that BlackBerry one more time gives me peace of mind," says Spofford, the mother of two, ages 8 and 10. "I'm one of those people who need to know what's going on in both places at all times."
For many parents, shutting off work isn't always easy - or quite so literal, as in Campbell's computer ban. Our jobs, no matter how fulfilling, have this annoying way of getting in the way of parenthood. Projects and meetings run late, cell phone calls arrive during Saturday morning soccer games, and, for many, the work itself has us exhausted even before we walk through the door of home.
Who has the energy left for algebra homework or Lego construction after putting in eight or more hours at the office?
Working Too Much?
1 in 3 - The number of American employees who report feeling chronically overworked.
54 Percent - American employees who have felt overwhelmed at some time in the past month by how much work they had to complete.
29 Percent - employees who spend a lot of time doing work they consider a waste of time. These employees are also more likely to be overworked.
79 Percent - employees who had access to paid vacations in 2004.
36 Percent - employees who had not and were not planning to take their full vacation time.
Source: A 2005 study by the Families and Work Institute, Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much.
"The end of the day is the hardest," acknowledges Emily Brown, a self-employed market researcher with four kids, ages 4 to 15. "From 3:45 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., it takes all the yoga I have ever done. I am constantly trying to breathe."
Career consultant Nancy Collamer, founder of JobsandMoms.com, calls this time of the day the "witching hour," a label used by many work-family experts over the years. "The kids are tired, hungry and want your attention. You are tired, hungry and you want them to leave you alone," Collamer says.
She's only half kidding. Experts in work-life balance say parents who work outside the home often rush to their jobs, rush to get through the work, and then rush home at the end of the workday. For many, lunch anywhere but at the desk is a luxury. Without any downtime, the result for many parents is fatigue, stress and even irritability with the very people they want to have more quality time with - their families.
"I think there is this feeling of guilt that you can't have time for yourself because [as a working parent] work is time for yourself. But the truth is work is not time for yourself," says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, which researches work-life issues and advocates for more balance and support for working parents. "Our myth about work is that it's a marathon, but it's more like weightlifting. You need to rest and recover."
Getting in That "Me" Time
For parents who understand and embrace this, the methods for rejuvenation vary - from deep breaths at the desk to a monthly book club at lunch or reading a novel on the train ride home. The outcome is the same. Parents who take time during the day to nurture their emotional well-being feel better.
Father of two Scott Bugbee views his two-hour daily commute as an ally to a happy home life. He's forced to leave at a specific time to catch the train, and occasionally can sneak in a quick nap on board if needed. The 15-minute walk from his office to the train gives him the chance to turn on his iPod, get some fresh air and decompress.
"That's when I try to get in the right frame of mind so I'm not the grumpy parent," he says. As far as recharging during the work day, Bugbee says coffee - lots of coffee - works great for him.
Before she had children, newspaper reporter Nicole Foy concedes that she spent more time talking socially with co-workers. Conversations now are more limited, as she places a premium on time spent with her daughters, ages 2, 4 and 7. But she still tries to fit in trips to the neighborhood coffee shop with a colleague for some "intellectual" stimulation as much as the caffeine kind.
Some workdays, Geetha Jayaraman heads to her car in the parking lot for a short break, relaxing with some music. "I come back fully energized," she says.
As a product development engineering manager at Intel, Jayaraman's job is time-consuming. She gets up in the wee hours each weekday - between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. - to get in three hours of work before her two children awaken. While all this can be tiring, Jayaraman makes it clear she's not available for any work-related issues between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. - that's family time.
"It's definitely a juggling act, but my job is extremely demanding and something I truly enjoy doing," she says. "There are sacrifices you have to make to succeed, but I consider myself very lucky."
The Line Between Work and Family
If you're a working parent, you need to be clear with your employer and yourself about how much interruption of family time you'll tolerate, says Kathie Lingle, director of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, which promotes better work-life balance nationwide.
Already, the average American works one month longer than the average worker did 20 years ago, Lingle says, quoting Harvard economist Juliet Schor's book The Overworked American. For working couples with children, combined work hours are now 91 per week, up from 81 per week in 1977, according to research by the Families and Work Institute.
While plenty of progress toward work-family balance has been made, not all companies embrace family-friendly policies and practices, such as flex- or part-time job options. Thus, parents need to examine their family priorities and decide whether their jobs are helping them meet those objectives.
Lingle agrees with relationship guru Stephen Covey's suggestion of writing a family mission statement to make clear your commitment to family time. "If you don't, as a couple, set your own private values, then the values of the workplace will set the tone," she says.
Parents should not be afraid to tell the boss that they can't stay late because they need to attend their child's T-ball game, Lingle says. "Ten years of work-family research has proven that employees who value their families are the same people who have great work ethics. If such candidness backfires, then you probably need another job."
Father of three Ben Conway, an investment banker who works from a home office, says his family life is less stressful and more fulfilling now that he no longer has three hours of "wasted time" commuting each day. He's also grateful that he "controls his own destiny," by working for himself and answering only to himself.
Conway's switch back and forth from parent to professional is now far more fluid, as he takes his kids to school and can step out of his office during the day to say hello. But he is rigid about one part of his schedule - exercise, which many busy working parents concede is one of the first things to go.
"I work out religiously or I'd go stir crazy," Conway says. "I'll sacrifice work for the sake of working out."
While company flexibility and technology - which makes it easy to work from home, for example - are a blessing for working parents, these can be a burden, too.
Emily Brown's job requires her to transition between mother and businesswoman countless times in the same day. "The laptop (along with lollipops) is the greatest invention ever," she says.
She can work while her teen gets his braces on, or during soccer practice. But she has also figured out when not to be an "idiot" and scream, "Be quiet!" to take a phone call when the answering machine is a perfectly suitable alternative.
"I've learned not to take on more than I can do," Brown says. "It all seems to fall into place if you believe it can."
Work-family researcher Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., co-author of She Works/He Works, applauds such positive attitudes. She's tired of parents feeling the need to apologize for leading full lives.
"We are a great society for making men and women feel guilty," Barnett says. "They're working so they should feel better about themselves. They're taking the pressure off their [spouse]. The kids get to see a mother who's in the world making a contribution. No one's saying, 'Look at me. I'm terrific. I'm working.' That's what they should be saying."
Collamer, the job coach, agrees. Parents should "relax their standards" at the end of the day, she says. "People say buying take-out is expensive. I consider that an investment. It leads to less stress."
Galinsky says working parents can use many techniques to switch modes. Some meditate before leaving work. Some crank up the car radio on the trip home. Galinsky knows one woman who identified a spot in the road on her commute where she deliberately tries to stop thinking about work.
What It Means for the Kids
In her book Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, Galinsky writes about how she has found that children have the same wish for their working parents - to be less tired and less stressed.
"My experience is that kids are holding up a mirror to us," she says. "The kids are listening to the way the doorknob is turned, how things are put down on the counter, how we walk up the steps."
While bad days at work certainly happen, and it's OK for parents to say, "I'm cranky," the important thing is to actually say it, Galinsky says. Otherwise, children may think they did something to prompt the car door being shut a little harder than usual.
"Life is not supposed to be perfect and we are teaching our child how to handle tough times," Galinsky notes.
Routines and rituals are important at the end of the workday. Alanna Kulchak Rahm makes her switch from worker to mother more official with what one expert calls the "Mr. Rogers technique." She walks in the door, drops her briefcase, hugs her children and then proceeds to change into a T-shirt and sweatpants.
"It's a symbolic thing," she says. Sometimes the transition to family life is thrust upon her, which is fine, too. "The running hug at your legs," she says, "kind of forces you to switch gears."
Susan Flynn is an editor, a freelance writer and a mother of two.
- Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents, by Ellen Galinsky, William Morrow & Co., 1999. Galinsky talked with children about their working parents and found that these kids were generally just as happy and adjusted as their peers with stay-at-home parents, but did acknowledge that their parents were often stressed or tired from their jobs.
- She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off, by Rosalind Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers, Harvard University Press, 1998. Debunks attitudes about the impact of dual-working parents on their children and their families as a whole.
- This is How We Do It: A Practical Guide for the Working Mother, by Carol Evans, Hudson Street Press, 2006. The president and CEO of Working Mother magazine penned this much-talked-about book of inspiration and advice.