Blending Work and Family: How We Do It

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.

Our Tactics for Blending Work and Family

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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