You've completed the divorce process. A parenting schedule is in place, the two households are set up, finances are arranged. Both you and your former spouse are working outside the home; this may or may not have been the case before the split, but even if it was, you were able to rely upon one another as partners in running one household, and now, you're on your own. How do you manage? How do you create time for work, for your children, and for yourself?
In my experience, people are surprised to learn that the struggles my clients experience with this transition are similar to what I experience in my every day with a two-career marriage, as a wife, mother, business owner and attorney (and hardly ever in that order). The ability to effectively communicate is key in a traditional "intact" family or in two households. I know it sounds cliché, but it really does take a village. While I don't think there's a perfect equation to striking a balance between work and life, there are steps you can take to better meet your challenges for all working parents. If you are contemplating separation, pay special attention as you are likely going to have to sharpen some skills to maintain your sanity.
First, acknowledge that this new phase of your life is intimidating; it is normal to feel scared. Don't try to do everything yourself! Assess what resources are available to you, and understand your options before you make decisions. Example: getting the kids to and from school. If your child has walked to school before the split, is the bus a better option now? If not, is there a carpool you can join? Are there after-school activities available that would allow you to stretch or flex your workday so that you can either carve out time to run errands or work late in the event of a deadline?
Look constructively at whether the divorce has negatively impacted your children's school performance or behavior. Check in with your school's guidance counselor. Some school systems have programs specific to the children of newly divorced parents. These can range from volunteer tutors to counseling programs as well, to reassure the kids that they're not alone. Know that even though children are resilient, giving them a safe and age-appropriate forum will help them -- and in so doing, you -- in finding a balance. Keep in mind that if you choose a counseling program, you may need to communicate that opportunity with the other parent, as with all major parenting decisions. If you have a parenting plan or court order in place, it is likely to provide you some direction as to whether you can make the decision for your child. Ultimately, maintaining consistency between two households is likely to create a better harmony during an otherwise difficult time.
Becoming a single parent often impacts your relationships at work, particularly as it affects your schedule. If at all possible, some flexibility is ideal: work with your supervisor to find out if you can change up your schedule to better balance the demands of work and family. The initial response may be negative, due to concerns that your request may be perceived to reflect a decline in your work ethic, or your commitment to excellent performance. Request a trial period for this new schedule to demonstrate by your actions that to the contrary, this flexibility will help you improve in both work and in parenting. Hopefully, with the right balance and planning, your supervisor will soon find that by accommodating your needs, your work place is shoring up your commitment to success for both.
When you are home, really try to make it quality time -- make it count. From a quality of life perspective, put down your technology, turn off the TV and truly engage with your kids. You don't have to spend money to have quality time. For example, some schools will allow parents to join their kids at school lunch -- this 40 minutes out of your regular routine can mean the world to your child and give you insight into their life at school, far beyond the answer you'll get to "how was school today?" Even shorter periods of time can count. Whenever I have the opportunity to exercise, I try to take it -- sometimes it is just a short run. It is one of the things I do for quiet time -- for myself. On occasion, before I go on my run, I'll "warm up" with my 6-year-old, running around the block and back together. Afterwards, I stretch with my 3-year-old. Even though these activities take about five minutes, it's a chance for my kids to be a part of something I love and for us to engage in a meaningful and healthy way. This kind of activity also speaks to the importance of routine, which is a vital part of striking a balance.
Even when working within an established routine, prioritize! When you're feeling overwhelmed with one task, maybe picking up a new one will help to clear your head. Prioritizing is practical and paramount. Example: When planning for holidays (and school breaks), every detail does not have to be planned weeks in advance. Take care of the long-lead items -- time off from work, booking travel -- but don't stress out about choosing the perfect gift for everyone too far ahead of time. Holiday co-parenting can be especially complicated in a divided household -- in some families you're juggling between four households, including each side's grandparents. Understanding the calendar, the court order or parenting plan, in advance then prioritizing the "now" allows for more balance. In other words, get a grasp on what to anticipate, settle what needs to be settled, but don't let it distract you from accomplishing what's needed in the present.
Working with my clients has given me an added appreciation for my own work-life balance -- and a commitment to creating it. This may sound simple, but I work hard to make sure that when I'm with my children, looking at them, that I really see them. I know I have lost my balance when I catch myself looking right in their beautiful faces but not truly seeing them. That's when the sirens go off in my head and I know I have to step back and figure out how to create more opportunities for quality time with my kids. Everybody has that moment when they realize they have no balance -- that one's mine. Do you know your moment? If not, recognize that it exists and work on it. Avoid the irony that you desire a work life balance but you overlook the time you already have been given. As shared by Joshua Foer, "Our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by... not paying attention?" Resolve to change the way you spend time with your children and you are likely to find the balance they and you deserve.
For those trying to create balance following a separation and divorce, know that it's never easy. Don't compare yourself to another parent -- you may think they're balancing it all with ease, but appearances can be deceiving. I was once told by a colleague that I made running a law firm look easy. I chuckled and thought she should talk to my therapist and my husband -- and in that order. No, balance is definitely not easy, but I can say that based on my and my clients' experience, the work needed to achieve it is definitely worth it.