Written by: Nikki Cox

Whether you have returned to work already, or are planning on it, going back to work after full time parenting can be daunting; even when you have a career you love.

You will likely feel a huge mix of emotions; the excitement of working and spending time with adults again, the anxiety about your child’s care (if they are younger), the guilt associated with doing something for yourself, the pain of going back to work earlier than you want, and the self-doubt over being able to actually perform well in your job again after such a long break.

In addition to dealing with this wave of emotions is the angst of juggling work with home duties, family time and self-care. One of the most common discussions amongst working parents concerns the concept of ‘work-life balance’. We all have limited time, and naturally it makes sense that you want to spend that time in the most effective, productive and meaningful way possible, without over-committing to any one area or sacrificing one for the other.

While the idea of having balance between work and family is important, such discussions are often misguided. Work-life balance strategies often separate your life from work, put them into competition with each other, and elude to an equal distribution of time between them. But the real goal should be work-life integration.

If you think about how much time the average person spends working (just over approximately 13 years in total, by some estimates), you can begin to see that there isn’t really a way to separate work from life. The daily actions you take as a part of your job become ingrained in you as habits, which shapes your overall identity. While having some boundaries in place is important, work-life integration is about aligning who you are as a result of work into a larger, holistic way of operating as a person, and a parent.

Try looking at it this way; if you’re an artist, you are an artist outside of your studio. You probably take a creative approach to menial tasks such as cooking dinner, arranging furniture in the house or gardening. You would also tend to do more creativity-based activities with your kids.

If you’re a nurse, you are likely to be a nurse after your shift ends. You probably react very quickly and calmly to stressful situations as they pop up at home, and instinctively focus on what’s happening right now in your family life, rather than what might occur a few years down the track.

Work-life integration is blending together these two areas of your life in a way that works towards a greater quality of life. It’s not about the amount of time you give to one area compared to the other, but rather the equilibrium you create so that both areas are supporting you in living a happy, fulfilling life. What this looks like, however, will be different for every parent.

To figure out the right working pattern for you, you may have to think outside of the box. Flexible working for a parent does not just mean working part-time hours; it can be so much more than that. For example, you could:

  • compress your hours so you can do five days’ worth of work in four
  • delay your start or finish times to allow you to pick up or drop off your children from school during term times
  • consider doing project work only, so you work full-time hours for a project and then take time off in lieu
  • work some of your hours from home
  • enquire about job share arrangements

The reality is there is no single formula for mixing work and family. I have met and known so many mums over the years, and all of them have designed their work-life integration differently. Some have remained out of the workforce for five years or so when their kids were small, and now love working in a full-time role. Some didn’t work for decades, but now have successful careers in the latter part of their life. And some have managed to work through the years when their kids were younger and only stepped back once they became teenagers.

The key is to regularly evaluate your circumstances (including your needs, wants and emotions) and take steps towards changing the things you need to change. This might mean a conversation with your partner, your childcare provider, your boss or the HR manager. Or it could mean creating a more solid schedule to ensure you are spending the right amount of time on work, relationships, family and yourself, according to your life’s needs.

Just remember that any work arrangement you establish doesn’t have to be permanent. Remind yourself that if your childcare situation isn’t working for you, you can change it. If the work schedule you set for yourself isn’t working, you can discuss it with your manager. And if your job just isn’t sustainable for your family in the long run, start looking for a more family-friendly career option. Change isn’t easy; but it is always possible.


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