How I Balance Family Life & Work from Home in 2021
Sherlee enjoying some special time with her son
It goes without saying: We’re living in strange times.
When my son was born, Singapore had just entered DORSCON Orange, and our organisation had just started to work in a split-team roster. As I was serving my first two months of maternity leave, the number of locally-transmitted Covid-19 cases was increasing by day and safe management measures were tightening. I knew I had to return to work as soon as possible to support my team. I am in corporate services, after all.
Making the decision to postpone the remainder of my maternity leave was no easy task. I had to learn to care for my newborn, while juggling the new format of working from home (Thankfully, my husband is a very hands-on father, and as we were adapting to the new norm of conference calling, he would bring my son out of our “home office”, so I could focus on the work).
Perhaps you could glean a bit of insight from my experience of how my family learned to deal with the situation and find balance in family life and working from home:
The coalescence of work and life
Firstly, you often hear about work and life as two separate things, which need to stay separate in order to find balance and contentment in both. And it is said that for many of us now, the “work-life boundaries” are blurred because of the pandemic. But I prefer to think of it as a work-life integration rather than a rigidly defined “boundary”.
It helps to have a mindset of flexibility especially in these times, when you might have to deal with urgent matters outside of work hours or colleagues pinging after-hours simply because they have a different work schedule. It would then be a matter of intentionally setting aside pockets of time for rest.
Resetting our expectations
During the circuit breaker— I’m going to be honest here— my fuse and my husband’s were a little short. We were stuck together in a confined space, 24 hours a day. Our part-time cleaner couldn’t come in, our air-conditioner needed fixing, our study tables were rickety and falling apart, our taps were leaky. And we still needed to work and care for our son. It was a rough start.
Somehow, we managed to pull ourselves together. We agreed to keep the basic things clean, like the kitchen, bathroom and areas we used the most. I knew that I worked better in the mornings, so my husband and I agreed to take turns watching our son while working— he took the first half of the day and I took the second. We would let our son play in his little toy corner to keep him occupied and carried him around the house when he wanted to explore (or is fussy).
We cooked a lot at home, so that helped us to bond. My husband would experiment with all sorts of cuisines and dishes, and I got to enjoy them. And so we got through the circuit breaker. It took a good deal of communication, consent and compromise. And an adjusting of our expectations of one another, of the house, and how we wanted to live.
Resetting our priorities
Then as our nation entered Phase 2, a second problem surfaced.
Our son had started to crawl, and my husband and I were having a harder time keeping an eye on him while working. We knew we needed help.
Yet we felt bad asking for help. We didn’t want to impose on my parents-in-law. They did offer to look after our son, but we were also concerned, as many parents might be, that grandparents might spoil the child. It took a long time before we finally came to accept that we did need help and our own guilt and fears shouldn’t prevent us from finding the best alternative care arrangements for our son.
We took it in baby steps. My parents-in-law were most understanding and agreed to care for our son for two hours a day. Then that slowly increased to three hours a day, then six, and now they help to look after our son for a full day. It has really helped us to focus and get our work done during the day.
Over time, we grew accustomed to this arrangement and as things got better and more routine, they became more manageable. To help carve out enough rest time for each of us, my husband and I came up with a schedule, which we still stick to rather rigidly, because we’ve found that’s what works for us.
On the weekends, I set aside time to go outdoors and do some urban sketching with friends. My husband would stay home with our son. He’s been returning to the office for work on weekdays, so weekends are precious father-son bonding time for him.
Being fully present in whatever you do
A friend once told me, “It’s not a matter of the time you put in to do something, but the intent in it.” This has stuck with me, because I’ve come to see that being physically present is very different from being really present.
Children are intelligent. They will know if you’re loved, and can tell when you’re emotionally absent. Just spending half an hour— even five solid minutes— of being fully present with your child is worth more than four hours of being physically present but emotionally absent.
To help myself stay focused on the present, I converted a spare bedroom in our apartment into a study, with desks and seats back-facing the walls (so that my husband and I can hop onto virtual meetings anytime without walking into each others’ frame). I make it a point to only do work in this room and step out for everything else.
We started having our meals together as a family at the dining table instead of at our separate desks. And I intentionally spend time with my son at the play area.
Having a different kind of boundary
I think the best advice I can offer parents now is: Let go of wanting to do everything as a parent; otherwise you might overflex your energy and get so tired that your eyebags will have eyebags.
Never be afraid to ask for help. We shouldn’t be superheroes trying to do everything, because reality check: we can’t. Don’t ogle at social media posts of “perfect” mums and dads and wish you were in their shoes. Remember everyone is in a different circumstance. It’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to need help.
If your family needs financial help, speak to a social worker. If you need help to look after your child, there are plenty of decent childcare centres that offer infant care subsidies. If you can’t manage cleaning the house on your own, consider engaging a part-time cleaner. Or learn to live with the mess. Your house doesn’t have to look perfect either— just a good decluttering once in a while, so you don’t lose yourself in the piles of things in your room.
As a working mum, I empathise with the working mums out there who are afraid that their work might be impacted or that they might be treated differently at work because they have a child. If the situation allows, it would be good to try to have an honest conversation with your supervisor. Your work abilities are not impaired because of your child— you just need more time to manage and figure things out, and get used to these new changes in your life.
Remember to be grateful for the little things
While trying to find a good mix of work, rest and family time that works for you, remember to take time to appreciate what you have.
Caring for a child is, at the end of the day, tiring but rewarding. Seeing my son running around the house and hearing him call out to me are some of the little things that keep me going.
I hope this has somehow helped you to refocus on what’s important or encouraged you in your personal situation. These are indeed strange times for many of us, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it.
Corporate Services Manager
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