For families, the school year can be one long marathon; for two working parents, it can be a decathlon. Research says parents who share power at home have an easier time. That’s our personal experience too, and one of the reasons Joanna Strober and I wrote “Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All.” We have discovered that by mixing it up—putting Mom work and Dad work in a big pot and dividing it fairly—working couples can have a lot more of what they want in life. When parents can get on the same page about what’s critical and what’s not, that’s a huge first step. The next is seeing it though. What helped our families get to 50/50 is being upfront about what we’re passionate about and what we’re not, iterating daily to create space for the good and putting limits on things that get in the way. Here are five lines that every parent should draw to create a healthy work-life balance:
Set a “no-phone time”
We have a rule that nobody can call after 6:30 p.m. A few years ago, I sent an email to my parents and siblings explaining that, as much as we love them, we really need quiet time with our kids. We try hard to preserve 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. as a sanctuary so we can relax and hear about the day from each member of the family. When we’re really ambitious, my daughter leads us in family poker or a game of hide-and-go-seek.
Set a “worth it”/”not worth it” rule
Siskel and Ebert had their “thumbs up” and “thumbs” down for cinema—we use a similar rule for anything that might take away from what is really important. For example, I had an opportunity to take a trip to Asia to talk to clients, but I’d just been in Europe for several weeks and had committed to go to Singapore in November. I decided with my boss that this was a “Not worth it.” International travel for us is fairly disruptive to getting things done at the office, school and family schedules. To make a big commitment such as leaving the country, the impact needs to be very clear. Be relentless with this rule.
Be forthcoming about family commitments
Two Decembers ago, a presentation to a team of 20-plus people was plopped onto my calendar. It was a key meeting to approve a plan I’d been working on for months, but it was the exact same time as my daughter’s holiday play. Since this was clearly a “worth it” meeting, I discussed it with my boss’s secretary, and we figured out how to arrange the agenda so that I could be the last presenter, right after the play. Earlier in my career, I might not have felt OK sharing family conflict, but today, I generally do. In this case, we all won.
Don’t pay attention to what others do
Since kindergarten, my daughter has wondered why I can’t be there at 3:20 p.m. to pick her up “like the other moms.” I told her, “For women to truly be equal, moms can’t be the only ones picking up kids at school.” While Sammy was a little skeptical at age five, at age nine, she gets it. My daughter now takes pride in my professional success, and even in the success of my female friends. And while it’s hard getting to school mid-afternoon most days, both my husband and I now try to do pick up when we can; it’s a special treat for all of us. Honesty—and, again, compromise—help out a lot.
Cultivate togetherness, not “tetheredness”
I have been to homes where one parent is glued to an iPad, laptop or phone. What’s the message their kids get? “I care enough to be home with you, but not enough to give you my full attention.” This is incredibly hard in our always-on world: The compulsion to complete and check in can be really hard to control. I try to motivate myself every day to do better, and set an example I can be proud of. Because, if I don’t, our kids can play this game, too. Listening is an act of love—and you can listen better if your brain isn’t chattering with someone at work. “Put down your smart phone and pay attention at home” is what I tell myself every day, and when I actually do it, our family is happier.
Sharon Meers is the co-author of “Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All,” now out on paperback with Viva Editions. Find her online at @gettingto50_50, Facebook.com/Gettingto5050and www.gettingto5050.com. Sharon leads Enterprise strategy at Magento, the global ecommerce platform of eBay, and was formerly a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs.