Q. I’m 51 with two kids (one in middle school, one in high school). I love my work, but I’m finding that balancing my family’s needs now that the kids are older is even more challenging than when they were little. I have a high-level role at a Fortune 100 company where it’s not acceptable to put family needs over work. I don’t want to leave – the job is truly great – but I need some advice about how to handle the work-life integration better.
A. Please know that you’re not alone. Based on my research with thousands of midlife professional women, work-life balance is the biggest challenge working women face today. Women at all levels feel they’re letting down everyone and everything that matters most to them. They can’t figure out how to craft a successful career while being the parent or care-giver they want to be. My book Breakdown, Breakthrough, explores this issue.
Work-life balance doesn’t mean you’re walking around every day in a calm meditative state, without stress or worry. It means that you’ve determined what your priorities in life are, and have the courage, confidence and power to honor these priorities. You know what matters most to you, what you’d give up everything for, and are living and working from that vision.
Here are the key steps to achieve greater work-life integration and balance:
1. Decide what matters most to you.
Start by taking my free Career Path Self-Assessment* to gain clarity on what you want to create in the next chapter of your life and work, and what you won’t compromise on. Discover what you want your legacy to be. When you’re 90 looking back, what do you want to have stood for, contributed, shared, taught, and left behind. Then create short and long-term S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) goals that align with that legacy. As an example, when I was VP of Product Management in my last corporate job ten years ago, I knew that I wanted to be in the fabric of my young children’s lives, and would not be satisfied if I missed major events and milestones in their childhood. That knowledge helped me understand what I needed and wanted in my job, and what I would and would not do (travel extensively, etc.).
2. Develop the courage to honor your priorities
Once you know what matters, you have to have the courage to ask for it, demand it, and live with the consequences. As Ann-Marie Slaughter shares in her powerful Atlantic magazine article,
“I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily….. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.”
Work-life balance will not just fall into our laps; we have to fight for it.
3. Stop Overfunctioning
Finally, so many professional women today tend to take on too much, never admitting that they have limits or acknowledging that they deserve respect. This phenomenon is something I call “perfectionistic overfunctioning” — doing more than is necessary, more than is appropriate, and more than is healthy. Women are addicted to overfunctioning out of fear of not being in control, or not living up to someone else’s standards, or being judged negatively by others. They pile tasks, responsibilities and expectations on themselves relentlessly until conflicts invariably arise.
Three tips for stepping out of the “overfunctioning” cycle:
- Prioritize with conviction what matters most to you, then shift your focus away from what matters less to you. Stop worrying about what others will think. Speak up and live from your own values and priorities.
- Embrace asking for help (where appropriate) from all those who would (and should) give it. Empower others, including your spouse and children, colleagues, and subordinates to take on more responsibility.
- Examine your fears about letting go of control. Look at what’s holding you hostage. Perhaps it’s a childhood experience of feeling less than secure, or perhaps you felt loved only when you were perfect, doing it all. Explore the beliefs and patterns that keep you stuck in overfunctioning mode, and begin today to shift them towards the understanding that you aren’t meant to handle everything all by yourself, and do it all perfectly. Let go of the guilt.
Successful and healthy work-life integration comes from a commitment to making sufficient time for yourself, your work and your family. Set realistic and authentic goals for yourself, then filter your expectations and actions through them. The freedom derived from functioning through that mindset will pave the way for more balance and integration.
Career coach Kathy Caprino is founder/president of Ellia Communications and the author of Breakdown, Breakthrough.