Work-Life Balance: Tips and Empathy

By Rachel Dornhelm

Karen Witham reads to her children, giving her husband a chance to recharge.
Karen Witham reads to her children, giving her husband a chance to recharge.

A friend once told me conspiratorially that there is no such thing as work-life balance. “It’s more like a work-life see-saw,” she said. “If one thing is up, the other is down.”

I talked to many parents about their efforts to integrate their work and family lives for this story that ran on KQED’s The California Report. Despite the incredible variation, one theme emerged. Often, the details of peoples’ stories – working full-time, part-time, odd hours, being a single parent – made people feel like their situation was so specific they were reinventing it all. The isolation makes it worse.

Some families are trying to change this. The Witham-Price family I profiled in my story set a goal of actively seeking out community and took action by joining a cooperative preschool and a Unitarian Universalist church.

As the mother of 5-year-old twins, the process of talking to people openly about how they struggle with the same challenges was a relief. I’ve put together tips from the collective wisdom below. I urge you to add yours.


But, first, while the radio story focused on what happens in the home, it’s important to note that there’s much more to achieving work-life balance. Many groups, such as MomsRising and the Labor Project for Working Families, are working on getting policies in place that would make workplaces more family friendly.

Other groups are focused on changing workplaces from the inside to allow for more flexible work arrangements. The accounting industry has gotten attention for its flex policies recently and every year Working Mother magazine releases its lists of the best workplaces.

But law professor Joan Williams of U.C. Hastings Center for WorkLife Law says the latest research suggests it’s not just about having the policy spelled out. It’s also vital there is no stigma attached to taking advantage of the policy. No sidelong glances at someone leaving early, or grumbles about people working from home. And that can require a whole culture change, with focused trainings for employees.

Williams also points out the distinctions between the challenges facing salaried workers and hourly workers. Hourly workers are increasingly faced with Just In Time scheduling [PDF], meaning employers change their hours on a weekly basis. This can wreak havoc on child care and work-family balance.

There’s no question lots of structural work needs to be done, but what changes can you make in your home? Christine Carter, sociologist and author of Raising Happiness, says start by zeroing in on the problem spots and bad routines. Then, start small. Being good at The Juggle is not innate to anyone. It’s a matter of building skills, “So maybe this month you’re working on the skill of motivating your kids or the skill of building bigger community," Carter says.

After talking to her, I made this my "Month of the Cleaner House." I've been getting up a few minutes earlier to unload the dishwasher first thing. I put a comb back in its place rather than throwing it on the clutter pile in the kitchen. So far, so good.

Carter, a single mom to a 9 and 11 year old, also suggests setting strict technology boundaries. “I don’t check email after 9 PM and no smart phones are allowed in the dining room or living room, ever," she insisted.

Here are more ideas from parents in the thick of it:

  • Don’t hesitate to ASK at work for what you need. For example, tell your colleagues or boss, “I can no longer come to the Thursday late afternoon staff meeting but will join by phone.” If you state your needs clearly, you might be surprised.
  • If two parents are both working full time consider taking turns being the primary on-call parent, e.g. the one who always goes to doctors' appointments, sports games, etc to allow the other to focus on career. Either switch every year or every 5 years.
  • Let go of some things. If you delegate something, like food, to your partner appreciate that they’re doing it and don’t second guess the way they’re handling it.
  • Get together with a friend on a weekday evening to cook two dishes that can last for a few days’ dinners or lunches. It addresses both the isolation and gets food on the table. Or exercise together.
  • If you’re in a position of authority at work, jump at the chance to codify family-friendly policies so expectations for all employees are clear.
  • Take turns with your spouse each morning (Monday-Friday) getting your kids ready. That could open up solo time for the other parent to exercise, work or engage in a hobby. If mornings won't work for your family, try evenings.

Balancing work and family is a huge subject that takes the proverbial village. Tips and experiences are welcome, and so is humor. One parent observed, “I know I have achieved work-life balance when I feel equally guilty at home and at work.”

Learn More: The California Report special half-hour on parenting.