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Integration is the new work life balance

​Netflix’s sitcom Working Moms first debuted in 2017 so I’m a bit late to the hype surrounding the series but I’ve recently been binge watching my way through each season and I loved it.  The show explores the minefield that is parenting, work, relationships, friendships and all the glorious and grimy bits in between.  It’s comical and fun but equally thoughtful and edgy.  Watching season three, episode eleven, there was a scene that gave me pause for thought.

The shows main protagonist is Kate Foster, she runs her own PR Agency and at a client meeting with a couple of Airline executives, she was invited to go to New York the next day to pitch for their business.  Thrilled at the prospect of working with this new client she proceeds to negotiate another day for the pitch because family commitments (she has two small children) means that she is unable to fly out at such short notice.  The clients can’t hide their disinterest and apathy, so Kate quickly back peddles her way through it, dismissing her family commitments and promises to be on the next flight.

Thinking back, I recall a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a colleague who was unable to be at the office because she had a sick child.  She was worrying about how she was going to manage one of her client’s expectations – she didn’t want to be perceived as unreliable and so she was tossing up the idea of telling the client she was going to be out of the office because of another work commitment, rather than blurring the lines between home and work life by admitting she had a family that needed her.

Why is it that we think putting family first would somehow identify you as being undependable?

My advice to my colleague was pretty simple.  Speak the truth.  We advocate that transparency is one of our values, so she too needed to demonstrate this.  There should be no need to justify what is arguably the most important part of who we are.

I had my own experience with a similar situation only last month when I had a client onsite interviewing for an executive level role.  The final interview was scheduled to finish at 2.30pm. 15 minutes prior to my son’s school pick up time.  Previously, when a client has been on site to conduct interviews I have always been present to debrief after interviews and generally these sessions could last between 20 minutes to an hour.  Processing all of this in my head, I had a few options.  Schadd could finish up earlier to do pick up or I could ask my mum or a close friend.  But here’s the thing – I love Friday school pick up.  Watching the sunshine in my son’s face as he comes down from his classroom.  He is almost always carrying some outlandish art project (usually from recycled materials that I donated the week before), he is dishevelled, happy, tired and since we usually go home via Gelateria he is buoyed by what he knows is to come.  Skipping to the car, holding my hand with stories to share, these are the moments they say you can’t get back.

This time goes so fast. Enjoy it while it last. They aren’t little for very long.

I rang the client a few days before to let them know I wouldn’t be available to debrief as originally planned as it clashed with school pick up.  Her reaction made me wonder why I questioned myself in the first place, not to mention the guilt I felt for second guessing what I should do. 

It’s the quintessential push and pull of balancing work and family life and yet we now recognise that balance is rarely attainable and mostly elusive.  Life is an unpredictable, swinging pendulum and there are many variables at play.  Hannah Tattersall wrote an interesting piece last week for the Australian Financial Review  which resonated with me and shined the light on the idea of integrated working.  Quoting one of the finalists in this year’s business and entrepreneur category, Lucinda Hartley who made the choice to have her children visible in her work life rather than previously keeping her family behind closed doors.  Integration not separation, visibility not balance.

I am an employer, recruiter, wife and mother…though I’m not defined by just one role; they are all like little charms on a charm bracelet, linked but individual.

In truth, I believe I am a better employer and recruiter since becoming a mother.  In no way does this mean I’m a better recruiter than a non-parent so let’s not go there and make this about something it isn’t.  Having a child does not elevate your status in work, or anywhere for that matter, much the same as not having a child doesn’t.  My reasons are personal and complex, and the only person I am comparing myself to in this regard is the person I once was.  The simple truth is that I have more compassion, more insight and a great deal more patience.  When I interview a single mother who needs to work but can only do so a certain number of days and needs to finish by a certain time, I don’t see an inflexible candidate, I see someone doing the best they can, and employers need to do more to support them.  Family commitments go beyond children, because for every person looking after a young child there is another person needing to take care of an ageing parent or family member.

We know that empathy is an important quality of an effective leader and if I was to reflect on my own management style ten years ago to now, I am certain motherhood has allowed me to see things differently, through the eyes of others.  To judge less, to listen more, to seek first to understand and to appreciate what is truly important.  Motherhood is many shades of wonderful, but it has also unravelled me in unexpected ways.  I am more exposed, more unguarded.  This vulnerability has spread across all areas of my life, including work and with vulnerability comes empathy.

So as my work grows, and for this I’m incredibly grateful, I will worry less about the balance and take the advice of those before me.  I may take a call from a client when I have a six year old in the back seat, I may need to bring my child into the office, I will need to schedule work around school pickups, and book parades and I will own my decision to do so, by blurring the lines between all that I am.

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