Being a working parent is a reality for many in the US. In 2018, the US Department of Labor reported 33.6 million families with children under 18. At least one parent was employed in 90.8% of families with children, and 63% had both parents employed. Trying to balance caregiving and work is no easy task. We’ve interviewed leaders across different industries — some in our new podcast, In Pursuit — to get their perspective on how they do the juggling act. If you’re a parent who struggles to find balance (if finding balance is even possible), take some advice from these inspiring leaders who are in it with you.
Don’t tap out. Even when things get tough.
Brené Brown, University of Houston research professor, New York Times bestselling author, and star of Netflix Special The Call to Courage
Even though Brené Brown is wildly successful now, her path to success was never easy. She has two wonderful kids and a rocket ship of a career, but she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much without giving up alcohol. She says, “I can’t separate anything powerful or good in my life from my sobriety. I attribute everything that is good and right and true about my life to that, [like] being able to look at my kids… and be proud of the way that I’m raising them… I guess at the bottom of everything that I feel proud about… is my willingness to show up and keep showing up when it got hard, hard, hard. That’s because I have just built a practice of not tapping out with beer, with taking care of other people, with numbing.”
She also loves her work, so finding balance is a constant struggle which she works hard to maintain. “For me, finding balance is a daily discipline. I have to sleep eight to nine hours a night. I have to work out four to five times a week, and I have to have healthy food, which means I have to do some cooking. When work starts eating those things up, and I go three or four months without working out because I’m too busy, or I don’t have time to cook or I’m not sleeping very much, then I know it’s gone too far.”
Let go of full control. And control only what you can.
Jason Fried, CEO, Basecamp
For Jason Fried, parenting is “a very good reminder of how out of control you actually are in a sense. And then realizing the things you’re actually truly in control of, which is really only primarily your reaction to things.” This means doing things like sleeping earlier to get the full eight hours of sleep he needs to be productive. “…[My] wife and I go to bed based on the kids’ schedules, not on when we want to go to bed. That way, I can get a full night’s sleep and be a good husband… a good father… a good coworker… a good boss… and a good business owner. Because if I’m on six hours of sleep, I can’t be any of those things.”
This also means figuring out how to deal when your kid just chooses not to do what you want. He says, “The thing I’ve learned from it all… is that you simply can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do… So, hey, maybe we’ll just bring the shoes along with us in the car and put them on later. It’s just a good moment to figure out how to deal versus how to break a stalemate and figure out a compromise and get around that.” This way, both your and your kids’ needs are met.
Recognize the imbalance and just do your best.
Lara Bazelon, Author and Law Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law
Lara Bazelon doesn’t believe in work-life balance. In fact, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids.” She feels that women often get asked how they balance work and be the best mother they can be, and that this question “puts this pressure on women to chase after what I think of as a mirage in this exhausting quest for this perfect equipoise that doesn’t really exist.”
The advice she always tells herself: play the long game. She explains, “I think with issues like childcare, work-life balance and relationships, it’s so easy in that moment to think, I’ve really messed up and everything’s falling apart. I made this horrible decision at work or at home, and I’ll never get past it.’ The truth is, almost everything is repairable in the long term. If you have very specific goals and you are committed to your job and you love your children, most likely it’s going to be okay — you just sort of have to keep your eyes on the horizon even though there’s a little fire in front of you that you’re putting out.”
Lara had to make some difficult decisions and tradeoffs between her kids and her career. At one point, she served as a trial lawyer on a case to free Kash Register, an African-American man who was serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. She had to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles to be closer to the courthouse and the case. Lara thought it was important to have an open dialogue with her kids so they knew the reasons behind her decisions. “I was talking with my son about how much I was away, and I said, ‘Look, Kash’s mommy has been waiting for him to come home for 34 years — his mom needs him to come home, and that’s part of why I’m doing this…’ That was part of helping my kids understand what I was doing — that I was reconnecting and re-uniting a family.”
Still, while she’s at work, she also makes it very clear that her children are important to her. “This past semester I taught criminal procedure, which is a class for about 70 students… Normally, I turn off my phone and put everything away so I can focus on my students. But I said at the beginning of class, ‘Look, my son had an accident. He’s at the doctor, and we’re waiting to hear whether or not he has a broken bone. I’m leaving my phone on and if the doctor calls, I’m going to take the call and step out of the room.’ She didn’t happen to call then, but if she had, I would have left. My students have seen me in the moment struggling with childcare falling through. It’s not like I bring it all out and overshare, but I’m very upfront about saying, ‘Okay. This is what it looks like when you are a working mom — sometimes you can’t perfectly separate everything.’”
Plan ahead and embrace the change.
Marcus Yco, Head of North America, Waze Local
When you’re expecting a little one (or two or three) on the way, it’s important to do your homework. Marcus Yco’s best advice to soon-to-be fathers is to really “Understand your company’s parental leave policy. Discuss up front with your leadership and HR to help plan and take 100 percent of your leave. Prioritize your family!” He also adds, “Be sure to understand your employer’s policies, as well as Federal and State laws. If you’re not aligned with your employer’s policy, discuss this directly with your manager and/or your Human Resources partner, and come to the discussion informed.”
Being prepared is equally important if you’re looking for work and expecting. Research the parental leave policy and culture to understand if the company and role will meet the needs of your growing family. Once you get an offer letter, it may also make all the difference to let the HR team and your hiring manager know upfront that you’re a soon-to-be parent because how they respond to the situation will speak volumes about how much they will support you throughout this stage in your life. This could help you decide whether or not to take the job.
Change in lifestyle and priorities are inevitable when you have kids. Yco also knows this all too well. He says, “My perspective on work-life balance has become clearer as a working parent. Needing to reprioritize and be thoughtful about this balance has helped me to become a better leader.” Yco says that “Many things will change when you become a new father! Before I had children, I routinely worked evenings and weekends. Even after our first was born, I would leave for work before she woke up and come home well after she had gone to sleep. I realized I was missing out on my daughter’s life entirely and needed to reprioritize around my new family. Now I own mornings with my kids. I make sure that I come home before they go to bed so that I can say goodnight and spend a few hours with my wife.”
Listen to your inner voice.
Valerie Jarrett, Former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama
Valerie Jarrett had a successful career at a big law firm when she had her daughter, Laura. But she was doing something she didn’t find fulfilling. For Jarrett, listening to her inner voice meant swerving to find a new career path. “Going back to work, I thought, ‘I’m leaving my daughter to do something that my heart isn’t in. Will she ever really be proud of me if I’m doing this?’ The separation was getting to me and the work was getting to me, and I thought, ‘Let me do something that I care passionately about,’ which meant I had to learn to listen to the most important voice — the quiet one inside of all of us that we all too often ignore.”
Valerie had fallen into the trap of trying to make everyone else happy. “My family and friends were really proud and impressed by this fancy office and big salary that I had, but it wasn’t rewarding to me. And when I took that pivot into local government for the city of Chicago, it changed my life completely.”
Being in a career you’re not excited about can be very draining physically, emotionally and mentally. Add children to the mix and the toll can go up exponentially. Doing what you enjoy gives you more energy. That positive vibe not only rubs off on your children, it also gives you the extra boost to deal with the demands of raising kids.
Find your balance.
There isn’t one answer, or even a right answer. Trust your gut to lead you down the path that feels right for you and just remember not to be so hard on yourself along the way.