Finding a balance between our work and our family life is something that we talk about repeatedly in our offices and with our friends and colleagues. It’s something we all try to achieve and wonder if it’s possible.
It’s daunting to think about how we can have successful personal relationships, raise a family, and manage successful careers. Our local government careers are 24/7 jobs that require us to be present for both late-night and early morning meetings, weekend events, and emergencies that can go on for days.
In the words of Emily Ley (designer and creator of the Simplified® Planner), “balance isn’t something that’s achieved or found. Instead, balance is a carefully choreographed dance: a constant shift from foot to foot. And even in the moments where balance doesn’t exist, joy - founded on grace and intentional simplicity - can.” We couldn’t agree more.
The question is, can we have both a happy personal and family life and the local government career that we dream of? The answer is yes we can, as long as we choose intentional simplicity over perfection because doing so gives us grace in our lives.
Here’s our story. Tamara (Tammy) is currently the acting city manager and assistant city manager of Costa Mesa, California, and Paul is a manager for a Trader Joe’s in southern California. We’ve been married for almost 14 years, and we have two young children. Our work/life balance is not perfect, but over the years, we’ve incorporated the following six practices into our lives to help achieve the balance. In return, we’ve developed a beautiful life at home and fulfilling careers–with grace!
Six Positive Practices
1. Work with your partner and build a supportive team
We could not accomplish the things we do without the support of the other person. We’re a great team! We both know what needs to be done, and we take care of it operating as a team.
Yet, having a wonderful spouse and a two-career household with children doesn’t mean having a life free from challenges. For example, Tammy’s role as a local government leader requires her to attend late-night city council meetings, early morning meetings, and weekend events. Paul has a challenging schedule that also requires him to work some nights and weekends. We work together to coordinate our family schedules.
Technology helps with scheduling. We coordinate by using calendar apps and Outlook invitations so both of us know the kids’ schedules, doctors’ appointments, and other obligations. In addition, we have weekly “calendar meetings” to ensure that we know the plan for the week ahead. A calendar meeting with a glass of wine can be fun too!
Even with all that, we sometimes have to involve other people in our support system—neighbors and family members—to jump in and help by picking up the kids or taking them to an activity. For a single parent, it’s critical to have a backup team ready to jump in as needed.
2. Live, love, laugh
Find time to enjoy life’s special moments. Regular date nights are important. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy—sometimes even having coffee or a glass of wine at the kitchen table is special, and it doesn’t require getting a babysitter.
Scheduling time to connect with friends and family is equally important. We both make it a priority to spend time with the people who are important in our lives and who bring us joy. Family time is deeply important to us. This means putting away the phone to have meaningful conversations and truly connect with people. For example, we have a “no electronics” rule at dinner so we can connect with each other.
3. Stay organized
Having an organized home is important to us. In our minds, household organization helps keep things running so we can focus on even more important things. When the schedule for the week seems impossible, we’re always thankful for the household systems that we put in place. For example, on Sunday we make lunches for the kids for the entire week. We know this sounds crazy, but peanut butter and jelly and other lunch makings have a long shelf life if stored properly in the refrigerator. Each lunch is labeled for the day of the week so the kids can grab it and go in the mornings when we’re trying to get everyone out the door on time.
Our lunch plan is also a huge time saver at night. Not having to worry about making the next day’s lunches when we’re trying to make dinner and provide guidance on homework is huge. Another organizational practice we put in place is having our children organize their clothes for the week on Sunday afternoons. This saves any morning clothing drama and has been a huge time saver allowing everyone to leave in the morning much happier at the start of the day.
The first few hours when we all come home at the end of a long day we refer to as “the bewitching hours.” We try to plan our meals in advance, so we have healthy and easy-to-prepare dinners that take less than 30 minutes to get on the table. Not having to stress about dinner makes for a peaceful evening and might add to extra free time during the week.
4. Plan ahead
We try to plan ahead at work and at home as much as possible. At work, we’re constantly addressing our “to do” lists and making sure we’re staying ahead of deadlines. Although all of us do that, having a family makes it even more important. If our child unexpectedly gets sick, it takes some of the pressure off if that presentation is already completed. Waiting until the last minute causes more stress.
Sometimes, despite the best plans, things still happen unexpectedly that require our attention. That’s where that supportive partner and helpful support team that we mentioned earlier come into play.
5. Stay focused
Whether at work or at home, it’s important to devote your attention to the place you are at that moment. We all have challenges in life. We work hard to focus on our work when we’re at work and vice versa. Of course, things happen where one challenge creeps into the other, but if we focus on working hard to be present in the moment, we will feel better when we switch roles from home to work or work to home each day.
6. Schedule “me time”
We all know that when we try to give everything we have to our families, employers, and friends, we usually have nothing left at the end of the day for ourselves. However, the first person we should be taking care of is ourselves if we want to have the energy to be there for others. That’s much easier to say than to do. Still, we need to give ourselves permission to take time to exercise or to recharge our batteries. For Paul, that might be meeting a friend for lunch or breakfast once a month. For Tammy, every couple of months, it’s a Friday off to run errands without the children. It’s pure bliss to have a few hours to get all those errands done. We each need to have some down time so we can be better spouses, parents, and employees.
The Leadership Lesson
As leaders in our organizations, we need to set the example and model work/life balancer for our staff as well. We need to give our employees the grace and freedom to work remotely when possible or flex their schedule to attend a baseball game or a ballet lesson, because in reality those things really matter. This form of leadership shows our employees that we truly care and, in return, helps keep morale and productivity high in our organizations.
We have to give ourselves, our partners, and our colleagues grace as we navigate our robust work and personal lives. Just know that it is not going to be perfect every minute of every day, but we can achieve work/life balance if we encourage and are willing to help each other.
Tamara Letourneau, ICMA-CM, is acting city manager and assistant city manager, Costa Mesa, California (tamara.letourneau@ costamesaca.gov. Paul Letourneau is a manager with a Trader Joe’s in Southern California.