Blending Work and Family: How We Do It

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One common question I’m asked a lot is how we actually balance our work lives and our family lives. Barb sums it up best:

How do you do it? You write tons and tons of stuff for The Simple Dollar, your wife works a full time job, you seem to have tons of time available for your kids, you read quite a bit, and you also seem to have a somewhat active social life. How do you do it? Do you not sleep?

There are a handful of tricks to making this all work. I’ll outline several, but I’ll start with the big one.

The line between work and family is pretty blurry at our house.
As I’ve mentioned before, I set aside a block of time each day to spend with the kids – and my wife does the same. This block usually goes from about 5:30 in the evening until 8:30 in the evening, with the last half-hour or so involving one of us putting the kids to bed while the other one does something else.

Outside of that, the lines between work and family are really blurry at our home. We’ll engage in family activities and in the middle, I’ll yank out my pocket notebook and jot down some notes. I’ll read books for review for The Simple Dollar in the late evenings when my wife is enjoying a piece of meaty fiction. My wife (who is a teacher) will grade papers on the way to an activity while I’m driving, or I’ll gather notes while she’s driving. Sometimes she even helps out with background tasks for The Simple Dollar, brainstorming ideas, correcting posts, and even helping with writing tasks here and there.

It’s not uncommon for us to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a movie in the family room. The kids will choose a Pixar movie we’ve seen a dozen times and my wife and I will fire up our laptops, hers to record some grades and mine to answer some emails.

It doesn’t feel intrusive – at least not to me – because I enjoy the work so much. I love to write. I love to communicate with readers (in fact, I love it so much that I often get behind simply because I want to respond to as many emails as I can). It just feels – most of the time – like just another enjoyable thing to do in my life.

During the school year, the kids do go to daycare, a decision we put a lot of thought into before we chose it. The biggest reason, actually, was for the kids themselves – there are cognitive benefits and health benefits to such attendance. That doesn’t mean that we dump them at the door and run – I often spend days with them, taking them to the Science Center of Iowa or to the library or to the park – but I do try to maximize the time they’re at daycare, doing tasks that they can’t participate in (my work) or would greatly hinder.

The end result of all of this is that my children get my undivided attention vastly more than they did when I was working a full time job. When I had work intruding on my life then, I was either out of the house or mentally distracted when I should have been spending time with them. Now, when they need me and something work-related is on my mind, I have the freedom to slam the door on work whenever I choose. Plus, because I enjoy my work, I also have the freedom to pick it up whenever time allows without hating how it’s interfering with what I want to do – it is what I want to do.

We own one television – and it’s rarely on.
In the last month, the television’s primary use has been twofold. It’s kept us up to date with local storm coverage (since we’ve had some awful weather as of late) and it’s provided the source of our “family movie night,” where all four of us (once a week or so) watch a movie together. Other than that, I think it’s been on roughly two hours (to watch True Blood).

That’s it. The only television we own is down in the basement, and we simply don’t go down there that often. We’re too busy doing other things that we enjoy – activities that often involve active interaction with our children (like drawing pictures or building a giant model railroad).

We do lots of household chores together as a family.
We cook meals together. We clean together. We work on art projects together. We wrap presents together. We do dishes together.

Virtually any task that the children can possibly participate in is done in a social fashion. Everyone gets more out of it if we work together. Sure, there might be minor setbacks when the children get involved, but they offer a lot of help, too. Even our twenty one month old daughter can scrape plates and put them in the dishwasher (seriously) and our three year old loves stirring cookie batter.

The more things like this that we do together as a family, the tighter we bond and the more real world skills our kids have. Doing things this way turns household chores into opportunities for family bonding – and often gets things done just as fast, if not faster.

Many of our friends are also parents.
If you’re friends with parents that have children of a similar age, they’re much more understanding about things like taking kids to the bathroom or washing their hands. They’re also much more likely to be helpful when you need a hand, and you have a lot of experiences and advice worth sharing.

Here’s a perfect example. My wife had four bridesmaids at our wedding – two of them were her sisters and the other two were long-time friends. Today, one of those friends has a son that’s literally one day younger than our own, while the other has a daughter in between the ages of our kids and an infant son. The children have become part of the social bonds tying them all together.

Thus, our roles as parents and as social creatures overlap.

We choose enriching things for our relaxation time.
So when do we relax? Almost every evening, my wife and I spend some time unwinding. That time, though, is often spent reading or playing a game that requires some thinking. Last night, we both read for an hour and a half, side by side, before bed. The night before that, we played Dominion over a bottle of wine.

In short, we make an effort to keep our minds “on” as much as possible during the day.

Turning my mind “off” is done in a very focused way.
Obviously, though, being “on” all the time isn’t the best thing, so I have what I think of as an extremely focused “off” time each day. I meditate/pray for about twenty minutes – I clear my mind and do a few very basic relaxation techniques. Often, if I do this later in the day, I find myself hugely mentally refreshed for the evening instead of burnt out after a lot of work.

I used to try to do something like this during my commute, but it never really worked well, so eventually I settled on meditating/praying right when I got home. It’s a late afternoon tradition for me that I’ve used ever since – and it makes a huge difference in my energy and alertness in the evenings.

Doing these things – blending work and parenting and play, meditating, socializing with other parents, and engaging in activities that are usually mentally enriching – has been invaluable for juggling all the roles we have without needing to shell out the cash to bring in extra help (like a housecleaner, for example).

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18 thoughts on “Blending Work and Family: How We Do It

  1. wow trent, you just described exactly how i would love me life to be someday (once i’m done with grad school, etc). thanks for the inspiration to know it can be done.

  2. Trent – I would love to see you review “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: No Schedules, No Meetings, No Joke–the Simple Change That Can Make Your Job Terrific”. One of the main tenets of the book – measuring job success/progress by tasks accomplished rather than hours spent – seems to be something you have discovered on your own and incorporated into your job. It would be interesting to see you critique a book that is intended to apply the same theory to an office environment.

  3. My personal tip is if you have something you want to do then wake up a bit earlier before anyone else. I love to write articles for my blog. Unfortunately during the school year I also work full time and I have a girlfriend. As a result I have really embraced waking up earlier do write for my blog.

    Another thing that helps me is multi-tasking. I have a lot of time in my day where I am pretty much idle (on the bus, in between classes) and this is where I try to get something productive done.

    Brainstorming has become a large part of my life. Whenever I think of a blog post I immediately pull out my iphone and start typing away. My girlfriend gets annoyed at times but she knows that this is what I love doing.

  4. This sounds idyllic for your children – and for you. It reminds me a great deal of my childhood, and every day I’m seeing the benefits I received from my parents and upbringing. Great job!

  5. For me, at least, the main takeaway is that if you love what you do for a living, then the line between work and play is thin.

    And could you ask for anything more?

    I’m at that point with my normal job. I’ll often times fire up my work email and just make sure everything is running smoothly because I love my work! :)

  6. I think that it is a good idea to balance, work and home life. I work from home anyway, so I do have to set time aside like you and make sure I stick to it. I have two children and they understand when it is work time and fun time.

  7. shucks, i wish you were a homeschooler! i’d love to hear your advice on balancing working from home when you’ve got children around more than you do!

    *

  8. Have you thought about putting up several posts on the board games you play?

    Dominion is a great game! I enjoy both versions (online and offline).

  9. love the ideas of mending activities together…cleaning with the kids is great. there are definitely ways to maximize time with a little creativity and patience. Turning ‘off’ is great. it does take active work and focus to turn on work and off work mindset. i find often that when i get into something work wise, it’s hard to break out of it…and i need to work hard when it is time to go, or time to turn off, and go to family mode, or some other mode. it takes work.

  10. It’s been a long time since I had kids at home (mine are 22 and 30) but I’ve not given up multitasking. Making velvet bags for my ETSY store while watching PBS (Inspector Poirot rocks), and constanting writing notes for my blogs while doing other things is a great way to stay on top of things. I SO admire people who spend quality time with their children – kudos to you Trent

  11. To echo MLR (#9), the key is that you love what you do. That has to lower your stress level a notch or two, or three, or…

    Most people work at jobs they either don’t like or wouldn’t be doing if there were more desireable alternatives. When things go wrong, as they will even when you love what you do, the stress is magnified. Add to that the fact that so many jobs aren’t doable in the time alotted, due to competition, technology, layoffs, etc.

    When you love what you do you feel energetic and refreshed, even when you’re super busy, so you can accomplish so much more. Plus I think you don’t have that looming pressure to retire, which is really the ultimate escape hatch, the “somewhere over the rainbow” we work toward. When you love what you do, you’re already there.

  12. Great post Trent, thank you! What is your
    advice on paying bills? Like payment methods?
    I’m also curious about the timing of bill payments.
    Like should they be divided between paychecks? Or
    paid when they arrive? Both of these issues are
    an ongoing debate in my home.

  13. I have to admit that I think it’s nuts to say that daycare is ‘for the kids’. Yes, you found two studies that support your point of view. That is the crazy thing about ‘scientific studies’, you can find a study to support ANY point of view.

    What about the myriad studies that have shown the opposite? The studies that show how kids that don’t have a parent at home are more likely to get into trouble as they grow older, don’t form the right bonds when they are younger, etc.? You found the studies that were convenient to you and kicked away the others, not to mention years of anecdotal proof that shows that kids raised in daycare are much more prone to having problems.

    I sure enjoy this blog but this seems like a shameful post.

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