In honor of Working Mother’s Day, Clark Nexsen’s Becky Brady shares the trade-offs she’s experienced since becoming a working mom and the strategies she’s used to focus on fulfillment over the elusive work/life balance.
When I originally began writing this piece, I was dealing with the ‘typical’ balancing act between work and motherhood. As we all know, that is challenge enough, but the upheaval of COVID-19 has cast what it means to be a working parent into an entirely new light. Suddenly, our home is both an office and a school, with myself and my husband working full time and functioning as assistant teachers for our young children (and thank goodness for their teachers and distance learning!). It can be truly overwhelming even on the best days.
In the midst of this time, I’m reminded even more of how important it is to find ways to be successful in both my work life and home life. When initially weighing my options of working after having children, my aunt relayed her experience in this same decision years earlier, saying that some people, “are not happy and fulfilled unless their hair is on fire,” and the idea of thriving most when you’re busiest has stayed with me. By the time I became a mom, I had 6 years in the workforce under my belt and an established career in architecture. To get there, I spent a grueling five years in Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture and Design, graduating in 2007 and immediately entering the design profession. Within four years, I completed the architectural registration exams and received my license to practice architecture. My career and the time and energy I’d invested in it were, and are, important to me.
Over time, I’ve come to believe a work/life balance is likely impossible to achieve, but that focusing on ‘fulfillment’ is the key to being both busy and happy.
The birth of our first daughter, and then our second, has required a series of adjustments. My husband, Mike, and I both believe it’s important (and possible) to feel good about both our family time and our work. With two kids, we found ourselves quickly worn thin trying to work 40+ hours, spend time with our daughters, make meals, and maintain routine chores and errands. My hair was on fire, but not in a good way. It felt like the fun – the enjoyment of our children and our lives – just wasn’t there.
Here are the strategies we’ve used to be more successful as parents and professionals:
Find opportunities for flexibility in your work and use them
Flexible work policies probably make the single biggest difference for working parents today than in years past. In my case, I was able to make a temporary change in my work hours – from 40+ to 32. Initially, this took shape as Fridays off, and I did chores, ran errands, and had time to think for myself, which freed up our weekends to spend more time together as a family. When our oldest began public school, I shifted my schedule back to five days a week but leaving every day at 3pm, which means I can pick my daughters up from school and be with them in those key evening hours.
Honestly, there is no perfect scenario. While we’re all working from home right now, my typical work arrangement of leaving at 3pm means I’m not available for late afternoon meetings or happy hours, and sometimes I have to run out the door and cut a task short. The trade-off is more time with my daughters and better quality of family life.
Take advantage of technology
Hand-in-hand with flexibility, technology means we have more freedom to work when and where we need to. Often, my laptop comes back out after our kids are in bed and I’m back to working, keeping up with my emails, submittals, and deadlines. That may not be an ideal long-term arrangement, but as parents of young children, being able to work at home after they’re asleep means we can keep delivering at work and keep delivering for our kids. My advice is to take advantage of what technology makes possible – both physical tech, like laptops, smart phones, etc. and tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to stay connected.
Having said that, this comes with an important caveat to also learn when to turn those devices off. Having the flexibility to work all hours can easily turn into working too many hours, which in the end can cause more stress. We all need to rest and decompress to be the best versions of ourselves, at work and home.
Find role models and mentors who’ve been there
Women of my generation in the workforce have one tremendous advantage over those who came before us: because we aren’t the first working mothers, we can find role models and mentors who have been there, done that. One of the things I am most grateful for in my career is the opportunity to work with a woman who has been in my position and excelled, and who wants to see me excel too. If at all possible, find this person. It may be a working father rather than a working mother, it may (or may not) be your direct supervisor, it may just be someone senior within your organization, but having a sounding board and advocate is invaluable.
Have a partner who steps up
Dads are stepping up in ways that were uncommon even a decade ago. Having a partner who shares in the effort it takes to keep a household running is essential to making working parenthood feel fulfilling. You should have honest conversations with your partner about what a fair balance looks like – and those conversations will almost certainly happen more than once, because the demands of work and kids change over time. Having a partner who can put all the dishes away in the right place, braid hair in the mornings, and be available to go over spelling words with kids is critical. It’s not about each person being 50/50, each person should strive to be 100/100. Remember too, that partners may have different strengths, and that’s ok! Know your strengths and your partner’s, and work together.
Have a litmus test for your level of fulfillment
Finding fulfillment in the busy world of working motherhood might not be the same as work/life balance, but it’s a balancing act in itself. I regularly ask myself: am I playing enough Uno with my kids? Are we reading enough stories? Do I feel good about the quality of time spent with them, regardless of the quantity? On the flip side, am I maintaining my deadlines and my client interactions? Do I feel good about my quality of work? Asking these questions gives me a chance to adjust if I need to – and to recognize all of the good things I’m accomplishing every day. Develop your own gauge for what feels right and fulfilling to you, and check it on a consistent basis.
Having said all this, I don’t have all the answers – none of us do – so my hope is that sharing ideas and tips will help us all be more successful. For example, one of my greatest concerns as a working parent is whether I’m on my phone or my computer too much in front of my girls. While it is important to be present with them, they also see that I work, and work hard, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve brought my kids to work on occasion, too – my colleagues see that my family is important, and that’s a good thing too (and in the age of COVID-19, they’re frequently showing up in video conferencing calls!).
Ultimately, having the flexibility and support from people I work with to adapt my schedule to my family’s needs has proven the most critical factor in being able to achieve any kind of balance, and for that, I’m very thankful. In the end, every person and every situation is different. Find what works for you, and don’t be too hard on yourself if things aren’t perfect one day – instead try to recognize what needs to shift in the balance and find adjustments that can be made. It’s worth the effort for a more fulfilling work life and home life.
Becky Brady, AIA, CDT, LEED AP BD+C, is an architect specializing in K-12 and educational design. As a working mom in a demanding field, she has found ways to balance her priorities and advance her career. Becky is a leader in our K-12 practice and a member of a national taskforce created by the Association for Learning Environments (A4LE). To learn more or to speak with Becky, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.828.1876.