As most women do, I’ve worn many hats throughout my life. After leaving a demanding career as an attorney following my son’s Autism diagnosis, I did not just feel unbalanced in work and life—I actually was. I recently adopted some policies that eased that crushing sense that I was perpetually failing in one arena, and then the other. I view the work/life dichotomy not as a balance so much as shifting scales, whereby each territory gets its turn in seizing your attention, but then must yield until the next interlude.
1. Do not try to be all things to all people.
The temptation for women to please and fulfill others’ expectations is itself depleting. Figure out what you truly want to do with your down time from work and do it without apology. There is no value in allowing yourself to be drafted into volunteer or other activities you dislike, and you will end up resenting them each and every time. Your time is precious—you have only this life, this family—do not waste time satisfying others’ expectations; instead, define your own and stick to them.
2. Make a few solid commitments that matter to you (once a month is enough), keep them and “own” them.
While you are at these events, be fully engaged, not scanning your phone or distracted. Talk to and listen to others. People remember how you behaved and how you made them feel, more than how often you appear. So show up, be magical (offer your undivided attention) and then disappear until next year.
3. Have an honest rejection paragraph ready.
For a wide variety of invitations and asks, you can give an identical reply, so prepare a quick paragraph you can cut and paste to respond to opportunities you do not plan to attend. This sounds crass and insincere but is actually the opposite. A warm, prepared response that leaves the door open is better than a hurried reaction or a flat “no/cannot attend.” Consider a version of “my work demands have been so enormous lately that I’m struggling to keep up and still make time for the people I love. As soon as I get out from under, I’ll get in touch because I want to connect in a quality way.” Having a prepared statement like this can be a major time-saver and benefits from being honest, while keeping the door open should you decide to engage in the future.
4. If you expect to be especially busy for a certain time frame due to family or work obligations, say so in advance and in writing.
Again, craft a prepared statement which designates the time frame during which you will be less available than usual (or unavailable) and a brief reason (courtroom appearance, child’s surgery), and send to all concerned including friends and colleagues. This type of notice avoids you having to reply to emails while you better focus on the issue at hand. It manages expectations, and once the time frame is over, you can take a day to reply only to truly important messages that require it.
5. Whenever possible, make your kids your personal assistants.
Depending on the discrete tasks of your job, involving your kids nails many birds at once. If you have an oral presentation for work, practice doing it in front of your kids and solicit their opinions. Ask them to help choose your outfit, take photographs at an event, etc. This not only allows you to genuinely prepare, but allows your kids to better understand your work responsibilities. It will raise their self-esteem enormously to be your personal consultants contributing to your career, and it’s less important that you use their suggestions than that you involved them in decision-making. In my experience, you’ll be surprised how useful their feedback can be (i.e., ”you don’t sound serious here, that color makes you look terrible…”). Kids don’t lie!
6. Keep a notepad and pen with you at all times.
Divide pages into sections including: thoughts/creative musings, medical (medicines needed), food and vent. This last one is crucial, it’s extremely cathartic and productive to get your angry thoughts at someone down on paper in whatever words you choose, then turn the page and wait until you’re calmer. Many catastrophes can be avoided by venting in a safe way, pausing for several days and then deciding whether to confront or not. As for the other areas, your mind is busy, especially if you’re stressed, so as things arise, get them off your mind and down on paper so you don’t pressure yourself to remember everything.
7. Don’t assume you need absolute quiet to work.
This was the biggest coup of all for me. It’s an easy trap to presume you need quiet to concentrate on every work task, so often you halt work the minute the kids get home from school or they have a play date. Test this theory by working at “off hours” with television noise blaring, kids playing loudly, etc. Cultivate your ability to focus despite ambient noise and you will find many more opportunities to get discrete work tasks done at places you may not be mentally engaged anyway. I’m not talking about bringing work into activities you enjoy, but rather to those where your attendance is mandatory but your full attention is not (i.e., during kids’ soccer practice or gym class).
8. Keep perspective—few things cannot survive occasional neglect.
Don’t put undue pressure on any of the different scales. Many facets survive occasional neglect: the house can stay dirty, PTA events will continue regardless of whether you attend, even the kids themselves can often manage during stretches where you are unusually preoccupied. Absent a true emergency, allow ”non-triage” matters to languish. In the larger scope of the universe, your own mental and physical health is the center around which the planets orbit, so don’t let the gravitational pulls make you forget that.
Whitney Ellenby is a former U.S. Department of Justice Disability Rights attorney, founder of Autism Ambassadors and a mother residing in the Washington, D.C. area. She is author of the new book Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain.