The theme for this year’s Parents’ Mental Health Day is Balance. It’s something we all strive to achieve, but how many of us ever even get close?
As a teen in the 80s and beyond, I was constantly told that I could “have it all”. Nowadays I look around and feel like I’m supposed to “do it all” and that the concept of “work-life balance” has just become another stick to beat myself with instead.
But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that burnout, mental and physical exhaustion is real. Forced to slow down, many of us have also started to appreciate that much of our daily striving brings us shed-loads of stress, for very little return.
As an exhausted new mum, trying to keep on top of my City legal career, I quickly realised that I couldn’t have it all. Or rather, that maybe I could, but not all at the same time.
I wanted loads of things -to raise happy, healthy children who were equipped for life; a loving marriage with time for my husband; a successful career; time with friends and extended family; time for myself.
But there simply wasn’t enough time for half of the things I wanted, let alone all of it and trying to fit everything in led to stress and exhaustion. I couldn’t do my job properly if I was worrying about the kids. I couldn’t be fully present with my kids if I was stressing about a complaining client.
Finding balance begins with figuring out what we need, prize and prioritise. Knowing this becomes a beacon by which we can guide every decision or choice we need to make. If I want to tuck my kids into bed at night, then I can’t always do the after-work drinks and I need to find a different way to bond with colleagues or entertain clients. If I need to focus on an important piece of work, I need proper childcare and I’ll need to get support for a good night’s sleep.
Then it means managing expectations – other people’s and our own. We can’t be all things to all people. Joining the PTA is a great way to meet other parents at primary school, but if it means that you’re spending every Saturday away from your family collecting jumble it might not be the best idea. Nor can we do things with the same frequency as we did before the kids came along. Friday night drinks may move to once a month, gym sessions might drop to 3 times a week.
Our time becomes precious, so determining how we spend it and who we spend it with is key. People become disappointed or even offended as we set boundaries and visit less often or are less available for a moan. It can be painful. Some will slip out of our lives altogether. Quality becomes more important than quantity.
More than anything, as I’ve got older, I’ve found that as a parent, balance means slowing down. It means not rushing into situations with a band-aid solution or looking to immediately fix problems. When I take the time to consider things as they arise and process the emotions they bring, then I can move forward with more confidence: the exhausting voice in my head that tells me I should be doing more or questioning whether I’ve made the right choice quietens, and I can focus on what’s in front of me – whether it’s my kids, my work, my health, my friends – or a night binge-watching Sam Heughan on Outlander…
(And if you struggle to set boundaries and say no, then do try our Standing Up for Myself audio on the premium membership – remember, they’re not just for kids!)