Helen Letchfield, co-founder of Parent and Professional, talked to working parent Lucy about her experience of sole-parenting and how she has managed the work family balance challenges and focused on the positives.
Lucy was made a widow 6 years ago whilst pregnant with her daughter Jennifer. She works in HR for a global professional services Firm, on a 3-day a week job-share.
THE CHALLENGES OF SOLE PARENTING & WORKING
Let me talk you through a situation I faced at work only last year... I was working with a leadership team, on a high-profile event, focusing on team building which was scheduled to be held in London. I was really involved in the preparation, and was due to be a facilitator, which I was looking forward to as it was an opportunity to put some high performing team training I had recently done into practice. Just before the event it got moved to Manchester! This made for an impossible situation, as try as I might, I just couldn’t line up the logistics to enable me to have an overnight stay. My parents were away, my sister was too far away and my daughter still too young for a sleepover at a friend’s house. I remember poring over train times, but nothing worked out and I just had to accept I couldn’t go. I had a real mix of emotions. I felt annoyed and frustrated and on top of that a generous dose of FOMO (fear of missing out)!
The biggest challenge I face is the sole-responsibility on both the emotional and practical level. Practically, you only have one set of annual leave to use, which doesn’t go very far over the school holidays - making these periods much more expensive because of the paid child care. When Jennifer is sick, this is also hard because there’s only me to take the time off and manage the practical and emotional difficulty of an ill child.
At work, I am quite restricted in what I can take part in outside of core hours – so breakfast meetings or evening events or those where I need to travel outside of London are really tricky to attend. I have to rely on other people for everything when I’m not with my daughter, so I’ve learnt to be smart about what I use my resources for.
LEARNING TO FIND THE POSITIVES
Because of work situations like the one I’ve described above, I’ve had to do a fair bit of self-coaching:
‘it’s not the be-and-end-all’
‘there will be other meetings and opportunities’ ‘my time will come again later’
This is something that has become a habit now – searching for the positives. So what are mine? I guess I’m a lot more effective now at work. I don’t have time for as much of the social ‘chit chat’ in the office so it has made me much more focused on my key deliverables - I’ve even started to book time out in my diary to complete tasks so that I utilise my day effectively. In the evenings, I don’t have the conflicting demands that many couples do – so that when Jennifer is in bed, I don’t feel guilty for logging back on to work. My situation does give me a high level of control in that respect.
The other positive that has come around over the years is that I’m much more open to accepting help and seeing the benefits that others bring to my daughter. I struggled a lot with this at the beginning, and it made me feel like a failure every time I had to ask for help. I kept thinking over and over again ‘I must be able to do this by myself’. But when I finally took a step back, I realised this very much a Western cultural mindset, and that actually there are real benefits to be gained by children being surrounded by lots of family and friends!
I think the adjustments I’ve made in my life as a result of being a sole parent prepared me well to be successful in a job share arrangement. I share all aspects of the role, which means you aren’t there for every meeting or important conversation. I know that over the course of time things balance out, but you have to accept each week how the cookie crumbles! Working as a job share brings me so many positives; I’m in an interesting job, that brings me challenge and stretch (and that I enjoy!), I have a high level of resilience through working 3 days a week, and have genuine work and family balance.
ON REFLECTION, I’VE LEARNT A LOT ABOUT MYSELF!
However, I do admit that these points took me a while to come up with!
Over time I have manage to build a new ‘normal’, which has brought smiles, laughter and happiness back into my life. I suppose I’ve realised I’m more resilient than I ever gave myself credit for. I’ve been through a lot, I still juggle a lot, and yet I can still feel happy.
I was also quite surprised by how much I value having a career. When I worked 5 days a week, the downtime at the weekend would fly by. But now I work 3 days a week I definitely enjoy work more and feel more motivated and driven to improve and develop both professionally and personally.
I would say I’ve got a whole new level of empathy and perspective now. I have a much better appreciation of issues people are facing – there are so many difficulties and problems people bring to work which I didn’t used to fully appreciate. I’ve learnt to really understand the value that peoples’ differences bring.
MY TOP TIPS FOR OTHER SOLE AND SINGLE PARENTS
- Plan your childcare very carefully – especially before and after school arrangements. If you can find a childminder with flexibility to go above and beyond, even better – if they can help your child get their homework done before you pick them up it really takes the pressure off the evening/weekend routine
- Don’t be afraid of accepting help at home and at work – no-body wins if you keep saying no and putting on the brave face. People who offer genuinely want to help, and repeated rejection may even start to be taken personally!
- Try not to do/be everything to everyone all of the time, otherwise you will feel like a constant failure. Be kind to yourself.
- Be honest and upfront about what is and isn’t possible. People are much more understanding that you might think. Whenever I get a new key stakeholder at work I explain upfront that I will struggle with early or late meetings
- When you do get childcare or babysitters, make sure you use this time for socialising or ‘me-time’ as well as work.
- Return the favours – help others so it’s not just all about taking. You can build up ‘credits’ by offering to take other children to activities whenever you can.