Monday 6 March 2017

Work-Life Balance

It's been a while since I've had the time to sit down and write a catch-up style blog post...the kids, work and blog projects or collaborations always seem to get in the way and writing from-the-heart on here annoyingly falls to the bottom of the priority list. 

I love this little old blog, and I'm sad that I no longer get the time to invest in it like I used to. The community that I've built surrounding this blog is amazing - and you guys have supported me unwaveringly through all of my huge life changes over the past five years. You've seen me marry, have babies, shed masses of weight, start my own freelance career - and you've been here through all the stresses, strains, worries and blips - all the moments when it has gotten too much to bear. You've celebrated and commiserated with me...and now five years on since I started writing this blog I often feel frustrated that I can't give it everything that I used to. 

Today is one of those days when I have the over-whelming urge to write - to brain dump my thoughts, put them into some sort of order - and press publish. Today I want to connect, to say "Hi! I'm still here!" and talk about life - my crazy, busy, full-on, ridiculous life. And so, instead of feeling guilty that there are a zillion other things I could/should be doing, I'm going to put pen to paper, metaphorically speaking, and reconnect with the reason I started this blog in the first place - to reach out, to connect, to organise my thoughts and to in turn, be accountable for whatever I've committed to paper (screen!).

The topic for today's ramblings.... work/life balance. A phrase that is bandied round a gazillion times a day - something we all talk of, dream of and wonder if it is ever actually do-able? Can you be a parent and still have it all: a happy work life, home life and personal life? Can you be a parent and still cultivate hobbies and interests? Can you maintain friendships, as well as all of the other "must do's" on your to-do list? These are questions I think we all ask ourselves on a daily basis - if like me, you are a mindful and reflective person, then you no doubt already guilt yourself no-end about all of your shortcomings, all of the failures you stack up against yourself. I'm no different - I give myself a ridiculously hard time and have had to learn-as-I-go, develop coping mechanisms, and weather the ups and downs of trying to achieve that (perhaps elusive?) work/life balance.

I know I'm not alone with the need to brain-dump in order to organise my day to day life... since becoming a mum, and more recently becoming self-employed (coming up 2 years ago - how did that happen?) I write endless lists, have a white board monthly calendar in my home-office, a weekly meal-planner pad on my fridge and I am always furiously inputting dates into my iPhone calendar - all in the hope that I'll stay on top of my crazy-busy life. Brain dumping in this way means I have to rely less on my own memory (which isn't as sharp as it used to be) and can maintain at least some level of organisation. 

My need to organise and be ordered is a deep-rooted one, which I think comes from growing up in a busy, disorganised house. When my house and workspace is cluttered then so is my brain: I feel stressed, genuinely upset and tell myself I'm 'failing' when I'm surrounded by things in disarray, it affects my mental health and happiness, and so I've learnt that staying on top of this is vital to a healthy, happy Lucy. 

By nature I am hard on myself - as an eternal over-achiever and a hugely conscientious person, I have found that this can often be my downfall. I try to work really hard on all aspects of my life: as a mum, a freelancer, a housewife, wife, friend...and often go above and beyond for people - albeit for work, friends or family - and in return I find that I expect too much from myself which leaves me sometimes setting unattainable goals and to do lists that aren't realistic. 

Since becoming a freelance Social Media Consultant in May 2015 I have had to develop my organisational skills to crazy levels. I've learnt to split myself up into different Lucys' - the freelancer, the mum, the housewife, the wife, the friend, the blogger, the crafter, the fitness enthusiast...and find set times to be all of those things, as well as to just 'be'. Yes, I feel as if I'm always juggling about a zillion balls, lots of plates spinning all at once, but ultimately it means I get a balance of all the roles I play that are important to me, that I get to cultivate hobbies, write my blog and hopefully be a half-decent mother, wife, friend and freelancer at the same time. 

It is not always plain-sailing, in fact there have been many times that I've felt so over-whelmed by all of my responsibilities that I just want to jack it all in, and run for the hills! But it's at those times that I remind myself why I'm working as a freelancer, and how much better it is in comparison than when I taught full-time. 

I 'officially' work for 13 hours per week for my six current social media clients - some weeks I have extra hours from clients, or one-off jobs to complete, I have my invoicing to do, emails to check and respond to and my blog to write/run on top of those 13 hours. I mostly work from home, with the odd meeting thrown in here and there. On paper my current work life consists of under half the amount of hours I worked when teaching - yet I earn only about 25% less now than I did then. I can work around the school run, and other parental commitments like doctors appointments, school assemblies and ultimately, I choose when to work - fitting the hours I'm committed to around my family life. 

Bert now goes to pre-school for 2.5 days per week, so these days have become my official work-days... on these days I still have Connie in tow, as she doesn't have any form of childcare at the moment, and so I try to work around her naps and downtime. Making the most of any moments when she'll allow me to get on. It isn't easy - and some days I get hardly anything done, and so have to work during the evenings and weekends when Liam is around to help with the kids in order to catch up. It can be frustrating, but it would be so much more frustrating to have to commute each day, working long hours, dropping off my children so that other people could look after them - I'm so lucky to have this option, and not have to go to an office each day - whenever life feels hard and overwhelming I remind myself of all of this. I am my own boss, and that of course comes with its own pressures and stresses, but ultimately it is the best decision I ever made. 

One of the hardest parts of freelancing (aside from chasing invoices!) is getting people to take it 'seriously' as an actual, factual job. I have been patronised, had it called a hobby, and all sorts in-between - in fact, on some occasions it has only been when I've talked income that I've been taken seriously, which isn't cool. It is also hard to set boundaries - to make people understand your work hours, and respect them. 

A better way to explain it is like this: you wouldn't turn up to someone's office unannounced to have a cup of tea and a catch up, would you? If someone worked as a Teacher, or Police Officer would you expect them to be able to drop everything if you turned up to chat? Similarly, you wouldn't drop round to a surgeons house and expect him to perform an operation in his spare time. But that is often how my work is regarded...and it's not anyone's fault - because it is the nature of the job - in theory I can do it at "any" time, and in reality social media never sleeps - there is no 'out of office' for a Twitter account, and my clients' accounts are being interacted with 24/7, there's no school holidays for social media and my work hat is never truly off. The only way I can fully step away from my work is to turn off my phone and shut down my laptop and that rarely happens (I need to do this more!) because of this and in order to keep my shiz together and not have a complete nervous breakdown I have to try to work with some sort of order and regularity. Yes, it's fluid, and subject to change, but on the whole I try to stick to working officially all day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and then Thursday afternoons. On those days I have learnt to try not to schedule anything other than work stuff. It doesn't always work that beautifully, and of course the nature of freelancing is that it can be unpredictable, but over the last two years I have had to become good at being honest, strong and confident about when I'm 'free' and when I'm working. 

I'm lucky at the moment that Bert is only in pre-school 2.5 days a week, and I've been able to select those days, which for me and the kids has meant creating a weekly schedule that works for us. We have Mondays and Fridays at home all together with no school-run - these are my days to just enjoy being with the kids, make plans with friends, enjoy days out or run errands, Tuesdays and Wednesdays see Bert at pre-school all day and are so my work days, Thursdays we have a slow morning followed by pre-school/work and the weekends are then in theory our own to do things together as a family. Obviously, it doesn't always work that smoothly, but the intention is there. Come September, when Bert start's school full-time (HOW?) I will have to work even harder to address the balance between work/life, and resist the temptation to take on so much extra work that I knock any semblance of balance I currently have off-kilter. 

Something else I really struggle with day to day is that elephant in the room, that we can all see, but try hard not to acknowledge - mum-guilt. Gosh, it's horrible! When Bert was a baby I spent the first 19 months of his life at home with him as my number one priority. My days consisted of taking care of him, housework, loads of long walks with Bert in the buggy, blogging and cooking the evening meal. When I look back on those days now I wonder what on earth I did with myself all day? I realise that those 19 months were an absolute luxury, and I will always look back on them so fondly - life was brilliant and uncomplicated, and Bert was absolutely spoilt with my time and attention. 

Fast forward to now, and it's a whole different ball-game since Connie's arrival. Nineteen months of maternity leave with Bert morphed into just two weeks maternity leave with Connie: I worked continuously through my pregnancy and then worked double-time over the last few weeks before she arrived to ensure all of my clients accounts were scheduled in advance to cover those first newborn weeks. 

Day to day Connie not only has to share me with her big brother, but she also has to put up with my work hours, me going out for client meetings (when my lovely Mother in Law steps in to look after her), and the upheaval of the school run. Life doesn't stand still for the second baby...and I feel immensely guilty so often that it overwhelms me. Then I give myself a good talking to... Connie is a lucky baby, she is so loved and spends 99% of her time with me by her side, she adores her brother and is blessed to have such an awesome sibling and play mate - and as for the work hours, she will always come first - and I will work late into the night on the days that she needs my 100% attention. I couldn't do that if I were in conventional employment. My work allows me to do all the school runs, to cook all of my children's meals, and to be here for them at home if they are poorly: yes there's no sick pay or benefits, there's no pension scheme or work away-days, but there's flexibility which I use to my advantage on a daily basis. 

A perhaps over-looked part of my work-life is that it allows me to be 'me' again, just Lucy. After becoming a mum you can quickly lose your identity and forget that there is even a 'you' in there. As much as I adored my time off work with baby-Bert, at times I felt useless, bored and boring! Since working for myself my mental health has dramatically improved - I feel useful, intelligent, and productive - I get to 'adult' with other adults, and my sense of achievement is great. Obviously, I do it mostly for the income - which has undoubtedly made our day-to-day lives much more comfortable financially, but money really isn't my only motivator when it comes to working for myself.

I've been judged before (often by other mums!) for the amount of "extra-curricular" activity I manage to fit into my life - gym twice a week, date nights, nights out with friends, sewing, crafting, cooking, baking, blog/press trips, my on-going vlog watching habit...

"How DO you do it?"

"Where do you find the time?"

"Don't you feel guilty, getting all that you-time?"

"I've NEVER left my children overnight, like you!" 

(All genuine things that have been said to me!)

And my response? 

I do it by sleeping on average for only 4/5 hours per night! I do it by being uber-organised and by knowing and prioritising what it vital to my happiness. I do it because I have a super-supportive, like-minded, hands-on husband who sickeningly so is the ying to my yang, he steps up and steps in whenever he's at home and he never judges me or makes me feel guilty for any time out of the home I manage to get. I hope he can say the same of me. 

I don't feel guilty - I need all of those things in my life to be happy, they are all vital parts of my me-ness and without them I'd be a useless wife, mother, freelancer and my family understand that. 

You've never left your children over night - why? If you're short of a babysitter then can I look after them for you? You poor things! We all deserve a break. Give yourself one for goodness sake. 

Don't apologise for your occasional selfish behaviour, as parents selfishness is a rarity, you spend 99% of your life post-children thinking of them first and foremost, so allow yourself a bit of slack and attach some realism to your life - happy parent, happy baby and all that! 

I don't want you to think for one second that I feel like I've mastered a balance - I haven't. Some weeks I'm absolutely tearing my hair out - tired, wiped out, frustrated, over worked and overwhelmed! Other weeks are eerily calm... I work steadily through my to-do list, the kids comply and I manage the gym, a date night and a play date to boot! But therein lies my point - it is a balancing act, it is taking the rough with the smooth and most importantly it is embracing life whole-heartedly with a commitment to at least try to have it all. 

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