You’re a new parent (congrats!), so I’m guessing something in this picture resonates: you’re sitting at the kitchen-table-turned-work-zone, baby cradled on one arm, rocking gently and making “shhh” sounds, and doing your best to steer toward the sleep zone, while your other hand toggles madly between the Zoom call you have on mute, camera off, and ordering sleep sacks, diapers, and onesies in the next size up. The scene is ludicrous, and you’d take a selfie of this moment… if you had an extra hand for that.
Achieving a balance between our family and work lives has been extra difficult over the past year or so. As a new mom pre-pandemic, I found it difficult then too. I went back to work part time when Jude was four months old, and initially my husband, Charlie, and I were able to arrange our schedules so one of us was always with our son. When I went back to work full time, however, that changed. Although I was eager to resume my career and felt Jude would grow and benefit from new relationships, I still found the transition challenging—it felt like arranging a childcare jigsaw puzzle with a piece or two often missing.
Losing our balance
In my work with clients (as well as my own life), I have identified some of the most common life dynamics that throw new parents off balance. Here are five:
1. Where you are in your career. If one or both of you are just starting a career at the same time that you’re growing your family, you may feel like you’re in a double pressure cooker. This isn’t to say you need to wait, but just that the financial and other demands you encounter may make it harder to find balance.
2. When to go back to work.One or both of you may have taken time off from work when baby was born. This may have given you a feeling of balance, but it was temporary. The decision to transition back to work may not be as easy as you imagined. You may find yourself stressing over whether you’re ready to leave baby in someone else’s care. This is a natural concern.
3. One partner is a stay-at-home parent. While this is a good option for some couples, it can be a recipe for imbalance for others. This is because the invisible labor (i.e., unpaid, hard to track) performed by that parent can lead to feelings of resentment and stress over time.
4. One partner works too much. If one of you is a workaholic, the other will be affected. Childcare responsibilities won’t be evenly distributed, nor will the parent-child bonding moments. In this case, I’m not talking about extra work that’s solely a result of financial necessity.
5. One partner parenting too much. Sometimes one partner thinks they must do it all, even if you’ve both agreed to parent equally. They may do this because they think they’re more qualified or naturally capable or because it makes them feel better. This has been called maternal gatekeeping, but I prefer to call it parental gatekeeping because any parent can do it.
Each of these dynamics (as well as others I haven’t listed) is influenced by an underlying dynamic: how well you and your partner function as a team. Couple teamwork is your ability to communicate effectively with each other, take care of each other, make decisions together, respect each other, and always go for a win-win when you disagree. The good news is that couple teamwork is also the key to creating a balance between your family and work lives and for yourselves as partners and as parents.
If you feel your family/work balance might be a bit out of whack, I suggest you do what I call a balance tune-up. Doing this with your partner will be most meaningful, but you can also gain from doing it alone—at least for starters. Here’s how it works. Each of you write down the estimated number of hours you spend per week on the following five types of activities:
- Working on my job or career (e.g., commuting, at your workplace or home office, work you bring home)
- Working on our home (e.g., all household chores, planning for household management)
- Being with my partner, just the two of us
- Being with our child
Using a scale of 1 (least) to 10 (most), rate how much enjoyment you feel in each type of activity. There are no wrong numbers here; this is just data collection to clarify your family patterns, and maybe reveal some dynamics that haven’t been in plain view.
Now share your numbers of hours and your level of enjoyment for each with your partner. It’s important to do this with an attitude of discovery, and without judgment or blame. See what you can learn. And where you might like to find a better balance.
Pay special attention to any discrepancies between your respective numbers and to any ratings that are less than 5. Suppose you spend 10 hours a week with baby, with an enjoyment level of 9, and your partner spends 20 hours, with an enjoyment level of 4. Maybe there’s something to discuss or renegotiate? Perhaps your partner can explain the low rating, and together you can come up with ways to increase everyone’s enjoyment.
One thing I’ve learned from my experience and that of other parents is that achieving family/work balance happens in moments. It’s not something you aim for and then finally arrive at, end of story. You can find balance one day… and lose it the next. This can happen through no fault of your own, due to illness or pandemic, or because of something else beyond your control.
What you can control—and work to increase—is your ability as a couple to function as a team. And that teamwork is the secret sauce when it comes to creating balance for you and baby.
Kara Hoppe, MA, MFT, is a psychotherapist, teacher, feminist, mother and author of “Baby Bomb: A Relationship Survival Guide for New Parents.” She lives with her husband and son in Pioneertown, CA, and sees clients in private practice via telehealth. You can learn more about her at karahoppe.com.