Pete and I always used to discuss getting an au pair at some point – he was a an au pair in Germany for a few months after he finished university and he really enjoyed it. Now, with two children, and the associated childcare costs, it’s starting to feel like a real possibility.
I’ve always been fascinated to hear how other families organise their work and childcare, as there are so many ways to do it! I’ve already written about how I returned to work full-time after my first maternity leave while Pete went part-time and what a positive experience it was for all of us. Recently, I quizzed a few of our friends with children to see what they love (and hate!) about their current set-up.
Working in an office full-time
I work full-time in university administration. My job is very varied and has some busier periods with pressured deadlines as well as some periods with heavier meeting loads. I typically work Monday to Friday from 9ish to 5ish, sometimes picking up where I left off from home after our son is in bed. I do my best to avoid any weekend working, but it’s not always possible. My husband also works full-time. We have a little boy who’s 20 months old. He goes to the university nursery three days a week, and my mother-in-law drives for two hours on a Wednesday evening to come and stay with us and look after him on Thursdays and Fridays. I’m normally responsible for the nursery drop-off and pick-up, but if I need to travel or stay late for a meeting my husband can usually step in.
Our nursery is excellent and easy to get to by bike. Our son loves it there and they’ve been great at making time to meet with us to discuss his needs. He’s formed good bonds with the staff and his little friends. They also manage to get him to do things he would probably never have done at home – lie down for a nap, take a bottle (when he was little), sit nicely at the table, and eat with cutlery. On the other hand, I like that he also gets the benefit of quality one-to-one time with his grandma – it’s wonderful that he gets to form such a strong attachment to another family member. Grandma also has dinner on the table and attacks some of the housework and washing which is amazing! I really believe that it takes a village… but we live relatively far from family and friends, so for now he might just have to make do with a whole lot of Mummy and Daddy.
Generally, I’m very happy and I think we are really fortunate with our set-up. However, there is no contingency time in my diary now – my days are packed and I don’t have the option to stay late to clear my to-do list or inbox. So if, as last week, the toddler is ill or the childcare doesn’t work out, it has a huge impact on my stress levels and productivity. Trying to play catch-up all the time on very little sleep can make me anxious, and it now takes me longer to recover mentally from very busy work periods. The toddler also has an in-built clock and knows what time I should arrive home or to nursery, so if I’m finishing a task or coming from a meeting a little late he can be quite distressed when I arrive. It’s hard to think of him asking after me.
If I could change one thing about my life it would be getting a solid eight hours of sleep a night 🙂 Then I’d have an inbox fairy sort, delete, and prioritise my email and manage my calendar – ideally I’d hire myself for an extra hour a day to take care of that. I could also do with someone to project-manage my house – tidying, cleaning, DIY… we just don’t have the time or mental space to do this as well as we’d like and it’s not my priority (although I have developed a new passion for cleaning the kitchen while listening to podcasts). Finally, the hours my son and I have together before and after work are so precious that I’m loathe to give them up – I’d rather give him a bedtime cuddle than go to an interesting lecture or post-work drinks, so I miss out on networking and socialising. I might allow myself more flexibility to miss occasional bedtimes if I were working part-time.
I’m a freelance graphic designer. I now pretty much work full-time, but not all the work is done during normal office hours. Three days a week my boy is at nursery from 8.30am to 5.30pm, so on those days I manage to get a full day’s work done. Either my husband or I drop our son off at nursery (mercifully, it’s less than a 10-minute walk away), and one or other of us will pick him up in the evening, depending on who has a busier day planned. He and I are both self employed, which gives us that flexibility (the downside is that there’s no set plan or ‘default’ parent for any particular parenting job, so these have to be ‘negotiated’ on a weekly basis, which can be a little tiresome).
My husband will usually look after our son on one weekday and I’ll look after him another (we have nominally assigned days, but again, those are up for grabs depending on jobs). So we each get four weekdays at the office. Grandparents get involved quite a bit too, which is amazing. However, if things get really busy I regularly have to work two or three evenings a week after bedtime, and a few hours over weekends as well.
I love that I have a pretty creatively fulfilling job, quite a lot of freedom, no boss to ask permission of, no workwear or office politics to stress about, and a desk at a really friendly co-working office that gets me out of my house and away from domestic chores and keeps me connected to lots of interesting people who don’t want to talk about poos and tantrums. I love that our son loves his nursery and that it’s so close, so I’m never far if there’s an emergency. I love that whilst he’s still little, he has a good balance of structured days with lots of activities and lots of friends, away from us, but also plenty of days just pottering around with one or either of us, where we stay local and pretend we’re stay-at-home parents for the day. And I love that our parents are around so often, so he has built a really strong relationship with them.
However, I struggle with the fact that I’m a ‘yes’ person who regularly ends up taking on more jobs than I can really cope with, and then work crazy late nights in order not to let clients down – often to the detriment of my health, my free time and my quality time with my husband. I hate that I always have to take my laptop on holiday; everyone thinks that being self employed gives you this great work/life balance, and in many ways that’s true, but the flip side is that you have no job security, no pension or paid maternity or paid holidays, and if you’re of an anxious disposition (cough) you can overwork yourself silly. When my son was born, I only had two months off before I started doing bits of work again. Looking back I wish I’d been a bit more relaxed and just enjoyed my newborn rather than stressing about losing all my clients.
If I could change one thing, I’d like to be in a financial position to hire some sort of assistant or even a business partner. Being completely self employed can be lonely, especially when things go wrong. Without fail, when I’m on tight print deadlines my son spikes fever at nursery, I’m called to fetch him, my husband will be away and I HAVE NO PLAN B. Everything is so finely balanced there’s no room for the unexpected – and being a parent means there are lots of unexpecteds. So I’ll swear a lot and have a mini panic attack, go and fetch my ill son, and somehow manage to figure things out without pissing my clients off or looking too unprofessional. There’s a lot to be said for having a little team – or even just one other person – who’s got your back at work!
Working in an office part-time
I work three days a week in an editorial position in a large company . My hours are 9.30am to 5.30pm, but realistically I probably start at about 9.15am and work until close to 6pm. Our youngest son (19 months) goes to nursery and our older son attends a primary school with a breakfast and after-school club – so it’s a long day for him. I drop off the kids and my partner picks them up; my journey to work, including two drop-offs via public transport, takes about an hour and a half – then I take a bus and the Tube to work on my own, which is when my day really starts.
I love having the freedom to spend more time with my children than I do without them while maintaining a career I find exciting and challenging. My partner picking up the kids means that I can stay late at work if I need to, and keep some sort of after-work social life, if I have the energy and am prepared to miss bedtime.
Working part-time isn’t always as part-time as it seems – I feel I’m expected to be online and available to answer questions in a way that a colleague who was holiday wouldn’t be. And I’ve paid a big price in terms of career progression and pay in return for the flexibility of working part-time, and for taking maternity leaves. At times, it can feel like I’m doing a half-assed job of everything; at others it feels like I’ve got the perfect balance.
How do you juggle a career and a family? What works in your current set-up and what would you change?