19 Jul 2017

By Kate Barnes

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I am a working mother, as are many of my friends and past colleagues. Naturally we often debate the challenges of getting the balance between work and family right.

Personal circumstances vary widely and have a big impact on the choices one has, but my solution has been to work on a part-time basis. I have been lucky enough to do so for the past seven years and to me it seems like an excellent compromise. Yet there are many times when it feels like balance is the last thing I am achieving – in fact, I have the distinct feeling that I am failing on every front – my kids, my husband, and my boss, colleagues or direct reports, all want more of me.

Perhaps the truth is that I want too much. I want to be stimulated, challenged and to feel like I am adding value in the work place, but I also want to see my children more than the average, full-time working mother.

Many working mothers have made decisions involving changes to their working day in order to manage the work-family balance better. Unfortunately, I have found that one of the biggest issues is that one cannot simply decide on an approach, agree it with your employer, and then settle into whatever routine that entails. You might agree an arrangement to work 5, or 6 or 7 hours a day, or 30 hours a week, or to arrive at work early and leave by 3 or 4pm. But in most jobs, you will have to consider the balance equation on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. Is today the day I give more to work because there is a demanding deadline and everyone else is working late, or is it the day I give more to my child, because he is receiving an award at school or swimming in a gala?

And often the call has to be made taking into consideration not only what is happening today, but also looking at where the pendulum fell yesterday, or last week, or over the past couple of weeks.

As with any decision there are consequences, even if at first they are unforeseen. In the early stages of my career, I like many, was an idealistic youngster with dreams of holding a very senior, leadership position. I was ambitious, and some might say that I had much of what it takes to achieve my goal. Some years down the track I was being interviewed for a prospective job and the potential employer noted from my CV that the achievements in my career (or lack thereof) were not in line with my academic record, and he wondered why this was. I can't remember what my response was, but I know I knew the answer. I even knew at exactly which point in my career the upward trajectory slowed. It was the day I was working at a large corporate, and I asked for flexitime. I negotiated that on two afternoons a week, I would be allowed to leave at 2pm and I would make up the time in the evening, after my young children were asleep.

Shortly thereafter, when a potential internal move to a new position was being discussed I was informed that I could not be considered for the role as I was 'part-time'.

This was a wake-up call.

Initially I refused to accept what many told me – that it is impossible for women to have the really big corporate job and to be a mother. Or at least it is impossible without her making major sacrifices in terms of her family, so that she can keep working, not just full-time, but putting in the really long hours required to make it in the corporate world. If she continues to work on a very flexible basis (to a certain degree this depends on the kind of work she does), or if she progresses to working reduced hours as I did after a few years, she will not see her career progress nearly as fast, if at all.

For many women, part- or flexi-time is not even an option. Some of my friends were in a position to stop working altogether. Many women cannot consider this due to financial constraints. They may be single or the family cannot do without the second income. In other families I know, the wife has become the primary breadwinner and the husband the main caregiver.

Some might tell you they have no option but to work full-time. Yet if they made different decisions regarding moving to that fancy house or upgrading to the latest car, or sending their children to an expensive private school when there's an excellent government school down the road, some flexibility or reduced hours might be an option.

Either way, your family will be impacted – sometimes positively sometimes not.

For those women fortunate enough to be able to stop working and take full-time care of their children, there is no doubt that their children benefit from a mother who is more available, able to attend all the prize-giving assemblies and sports matches, to assist with homework every day and exam preparation when it is needed.

But it is not always a perfect situation either. Many of the full-time mothers that I know are bored and frustrated, while simultaneously feeling guilty about the fact that they should be grateful and have no reason to complain…especially not to their working friends!

Where a choice can be made, it is of course a deeply personal one. I for one cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like not to earn one's own money and to be financially dependent on someone. For me, this would be untenable.

The full-time working mother has no choice but to 'outsource' many of the parenting activities, either to family members, or a domestic helper, aftercare facility, driving service, au pair…or whatever other plan she can make. On the plus side, there is little doubt in my mind that her children become more independent and self-sufficient at a much younger age.

But it is also a challenging situation, overlain with almost constant guilt about not being there for your children, and often still requiring daily remote management – from the car on the way to work, or from the office – even from within meetings or presentations. Plans that were made the previous evening, or even that morning, quickly unravel as the weather changes, events are cancelled, or items meant to go to school are discovered lacking on arrival at drop-off – requiring more planning, un-planning and re-planning, as the day progresses.

Since 2011, I have had various contracting roles where I have managed to negotiate a 5- or 6-hour-working day. This has meant more time to fetch children from school and be with them in the afternoons. On the downside, I have often settled for roles that would not have been my first choice in other circumstances. And while I have more time with my children and can play a greater part in their lives, I am often managing work demands while I am with them, via my phone or laptop.

But given all the options, it feels like the best for me. I have increased my time with my children, but I continue to have financial independence and to be challenged and stimulated mentally.

Negotiating the part-time arrangement can be tricky. Several companies that I have worked for have been extremely accommodating, but my sense is that it is not a well-accepted approach amongst South African employers. When you begin these discussions, it is worth taking a few things into consideration, and once it is in place, you need to do everything in your power to make the arrangement work. Here are a few do's and don'ts that I have picked up along the way:

  • When pursuing an agreement to work part-time, be very determined in your negotiations – keep this outcome as your number one priority. Unfortunately this will inevitably mean compromising on other factors, such as salary, location of work, level of the role, and the kind of work you will do. If you are not prepared to sacrifice at least some of these requirements, it could take you a very long time to find a position where you get agreement to work reduced hours.
  • It is easier to negotiate from within an organisation, especially if you have been there for some time and have a proven track record for delivery, quality of outputs and reliability.
  • If you are pursuing a role from outside an organisation, be prepared to go to many, many interviews and to face a lot of rejection. I have witnessed an instant shift in an interviewer's body language from positive to negative when I raised the requirement for reduced hours. Even though this can bring the costs down (if you are working on an hourly rate), in my experience most recruiters fear that you will not be committed and will fail to do the job properly. In fact, the reverse is true – you will be very committed and driven to deliver – because keeping the arrangement is your priority.
  • Once you have secured the part-time role, maximise your productivity at all times and make sure you are fully committed for the hours that you are there. Apart from prolonging the arrangement, it will be vital to have a good reference that can vouch for the fact that you have made it work in a previous role. When I speak to colleagues or friends about working part-time, they often point out that it is 'unfair' that I am expected to do a full-day's work in 5 or 6 hours, but if spending more time with your kids is your goal, then this is what you must be prepared to do. And in reality, doing a 'full-day's work' in fewer hours is often not that difficult to achieve, given the amount of time people waste at work!
  • Set the precedent for leaving more or less at the same time every day. This way people know what to expect. But also show team members that when the need arises, you will stay at work and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Try to have a back-up plan for the kids so that you can shift the balance to work, at relatively short notice, when necessary. This may require calling on friends or family to help at the last minute, but it sends a strong message at work that delivering on your promises is a high priority for you.
  • Ensure that you are available via phone or email at any time in the afternoon or evenings, if necessary. Some would say that this defeats the object of the part-time role, but I disagree. I would rather know immediately that there is a major issue, and my input is needed.
  • Prioritise your work load where possible, and learn to put aside some items that can be completed later in the day after you have done that school or extra mural lift. This was very difficult for me in the beginning as I was used to getting everything done immediately and found it difficult to go through my afternoon knowing that some of my work was outstanding.
  • Modern technology has made it more feasible to manage work and home demands remotely. Make sure you have the devices that you need, and that they are set up correctly (e.g. work email enabled on your cell phone, etc.), so that you can maximise this huge benefit of the modern age.
  • If you employ domestic help at home, invest time and money in ensuring they give you the support you require. Manage expectations up front during the hiring process – for example, that you may need them to work overtime at short notice. For this reason, live-in help Monday-to-Friday is probably essential. Consider sending your helper on a cooking course so she can ease some of this responsibility.

Given all of the above, once you have negotiated this arrangement, you will need to keep on managing the balance every day. Some days it feels like you achieved it while on others, even for weeks at a time, it feels like a disaster. You feel guilty about not doing some of your work as well as you could or not having been at work when you needed to be, or you barely see your children… or when you are with them, you are distracted and stressed and may as well not be!

Whether this choice means the end of your career, or at least of the career you had in mind before kids, well…I remain open to views on this one. I know that I have always remained focused on making sure I do the job really well and I have tried to ensure that I continue to add value in the work place. In return, I have been challenged and stimulated both by the demands of the roles and by the many amazing people that I have worked with over the past years.

Now, after seven years of contracting on a part-time basis, I have joined a company as a permanent (though still part-time) employee. This is a rare opportunity, but even more unusually, my new boss disagrees with the view that my career is over simply because I work part-time. It is a refreshing take on the situation, and I certainly feel incredibly lucky. I also know that it will be up to me to change my own mind-set – the 'part-time-my-career-is-over-mind-set' that has become well-entrenched during my contracting years…and to prove him right.

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