Skip to Content

Work-life balance: A pipe dream for working parents?

In April 2014, Jo Kelly was trying to go to sleep when it hit her—a rush in her head followed by a tingling ache in her arm just before it went numb. She roused her partner to take her to the hospital.

“It had been really busy for a number of months at work; my days were becoming longer and longer—not just because of my work,” she says. Her partner was self-employed and traveling across the U.K. and Europe. Kelly, who is a London-based head of marketing and communications for a customer experience consultancy firm compares her schedule then to a hamster-wheel of working and household responsibilities.

After ruling out a possible stroke, tests determined she’d experienced an intense anxiety attack. Her symptoms kept her confined to bed for two weeks. The cause: stress.

“It’s a scary, scary thing,” Kelly says. “This was the point things had to change. It was time to reassess my priorities and listen to my body as it would not tolerate this way of life anymore.”

Kelly is a mother of two, and like many parents juggling their jobs and family responsibilities, she had no work-life balance. She says she never took time to unwind and her mind was always racing. Since her attack, she’s adjusted her schedule, but she still wishes there were more hours in the day.

“Having enough time is always a challenge, but this is against us all,” she says. “Managing it the best you can is important.”

Taffe Mesfin, a director of sales operations at a dental product firm in California echoes Kelly’s struggles and says he feels like “time is always against him.” As a father of two who commuted for two years from his home in southern California to California’s Central Coast during the week, he stayed up until one a.m. to do tasks around the house. But the hardest part for him was missing the daily interaction with his young sons.

“I wasn’t there to see the day-to-day progress for both kids. I came in only on the weekends to see them,” he says.

Both Mesfin and Kelly adjusted their lives for a better balance. Mesfin moved his family three hours north to be closer to his work. Kelly cut back her hours and delegated more chores to her eldest daughter, who is 17. Her partner also took a regular job—and a pay cut—but Kelly says the loss of income is worth it.

“A sacrifice in salary was made, but the quality of life that it has brought to the family makes me feel wealthier than ever!” she says.

Some parents, however, find that working more gives them the balance their family life alone didn’t provide. Danielle Ervin felt unfulfilled as a stay-at-home mother in Southern California, so she started her own real estate agency.

“I compared myself to every other mom and thought I was failing miserably,” she says. “Working, I am definitely a better mom.”

For Ervin, a mother of three children ages 11, 10 and 4, the flexibility her real estate career provides affords her an opportunity to manage both work and family. But the two responsibilities are not always a perfect mix, and her kids are often along for the ride.

“I tell them, ‘Mommy’s got to take this call. Shhh,’ and they sit next to me in the car, quietly,” she explains. “I do the best that I can with being there and being present. But I feel that Mom guilt when we are out doing something and I have to step away to take calls around other parents that aren’t working.”

Whether they work because they have to or want to, all the parents above want more time. Kelly wishes she had more quality time as a family to ensure good memories are being made. Mesfin misses exercising, especially when he sees someone jogging as he commutes to work. Ervin would volunteer more for organizations like Habitat for Humanity to be a good example to her kids.

So can a working parent ever find work-life balance? For the answer, we have to look at how our perception of “overtime” has changed from its original intent, says Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and author of Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over.

“The original concept behind the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime provision was more about ensuring a time away from the office because it’s a penalty, in essence, on the employer for working someone too much,” she says. “We have come to see working overtime almost as a benefit, though.

According to Fredrickson, the Depression-era law was written during a time of high unemployment to distribute work more broadly and discourage employers from working people more than 40 hours a week. But so many workers aren’t protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act anymore, and it’s gotten easier for many employers to skirt regulations, sending us a long way from the act’s original goals. “It’s also because as a society, we seem to think that working extraordinarily long hours is somehow a good thing,” she says.

For working parents the solution to finding more time could lie in adjusting expectations. Kelly admits she learned to say “No” more, while Ervin has set a strict end to her day in the evenings. Mesfin describes his wife, Stacy as “a rock star” who supports him and helps him manage his responsibilities.

Before making any changes, however, busy parents need to make sure their priorities are clear.

“Your family is and will be the most important thing to you,” says Kelly. “Work and your career are there to help you grow and enable your family to do special things together,” she says. “The old saying, ‘You work to live, not live to work,’ springs to mind. Don’t forget it.”