The Holy Grail of Flexible Work

Babies and commuting and working and cooking and changing and feeding and trying – trying very hard to keep it all together. That’s how it was for me in the early days – like for so many others – as a new mother trying to maintain a career.

I vividly remember reading an article by Gaby Hinsliff – she talked about trying to find a balance between work and home – a topic that was newly interesting to me as a first-time-mother who had just gone back to work. She talked about the challenges, the stress, the demands – all of it rang true. Then she talked about writing in her home-office, and coming out some time later to have lunch with her son. Ah. That was the difference. I didn’t have a home-office or the option of lunch with my daughter. I had a full-time five-day-a-week office bound job as an operations manager in Funds. The article was interesting, but I felt it didn’t fully apply to me anymore. And this became an ongoing issue for me – I’ve read many, many well-written, incisive, thought-provoking articles by working mothers in the intervening years, but as they tend to be written by writers (naturally) and writers tend to have the possibility to work flexible hours and from home, there was a gap between their experience and mine.
Working Mother - Office Mum

I started to believe that in my current role, I couldn’t achieve any kind of balance – any kind of set-up that would ease the guilt; that would allow me more time with my children, but without quitting my job.

I remember having dinner with friends one night, having just returned to work after my second maternity leave. Still in that muddled, knife-edge first six weeks, when it seems like it might not be possible to keep going. I talked about how difficult I was finding it working full-time with two small kids in creche five days a week – gone from the house for eleven hours a day. I couldn’t stop counting those eleven hours. Surely the kids would be in therapy in years to come, pouring forth on their lack of home-life in the early years.

One friend suggested looking for a four-day-week. I wasn’t so sure. I was worried I’d be put on the mommy-track; that my boss would assume I was stepping back. And I wasn’t convinced that one day off could make much difference – I’d still be in work four days a week, the kids would still be gone eleven hours for each of those days.

But a year later, I finally caved and nervously broached the subject with my boss. He was wonderful about it, and I slipped happily into “part-time” work. A few more years later, I work a day from home too, and I also start early so that I can leave work at 4pm and be home for joyous homework-time with my kids.

I’ve finally found a balance – less stress, less guilt, and more time at home for all of us. I’ve stopped counting the hours that the kids are out of the house.

work life balance office mum

But it’s tenuous and I know that. I have no contract that confirms these conditions – the ones that have shifted my life from unbearable to really something close to perfect. And if my job changes or ends for any reason, it’s back to square one. There are no four-day-week-with-one-day-from-home jobs in my industry – not for someone walking in off the street. So like so many other women, I’d have to work full-time or quit altogether.

There are mothers who no doubt enjoy working full-time (well, I haven’t actually met any, but I’m sure there are some out there) and there are many, many mothers who enjoy being at home full-time with their kids. But so many of us are looking for something in between – continuing a career, but not to the detriment of family-life. A balance of some sort – it varies from person to person – but ultimately, something that allows us to thrive at work and still be present at home. Not because we want to sit around watching day-time TV (though maybe just one day of that would be nice…) and not because we’re trying to shirk work or leave more for our colleagues to do. We want it because it feels right; it feels better – better for our kids and better for ourselves; for easing of guilt and for maintenance of sanity.

But many employers are afraid to open the door to flexibility, So we muddle through. Those of us who have a balance are taking care to make it work; to defend it at all costs. Working harder and faster and smarter.

And those who don’t; they’re biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to show how well it can work. And they’re asking. They know that they need to keep asking, over and over. We’re not there yet, but I believe that eventually, all employers will see the benefit of balance, and then everybody wins.


This article first appeared on Lifeshifter

Lifeshifter Andrea Mara

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12 thoughts on “The Holy Grail of Flexible Work”

  1. Snap we have the exact same job/hours but I am now tired of being grateful for it and breaking my neck to do it all without being noticed that I am ‘part-time’ or working from home! I feel I have proved my mettle but you are so right it all still feels like a favour for me and a situation that can alter at any time….

    1. And I confess, though I use the term myself as a short-cut, I’m not mad about “part-time” in reference to a four-day-week, because it gives the impression of really, really part-time. A four-day-week is practically full-time!
      I am lucky in that I’ve never been treated differently as a result of not working full-time – it made my realise that I should have asked for it sooner than I did. But I do feel grateful, and am very aware that things can change. You are right to be tired for feeling grateful. If flex working was the norm, we wouldn’t have to feel like employers are doing us a huge favour.

  2. I went back to work in October after my second maternity leave, and while it’s definitely easier for me this time around (due to different childcare arrangements) I am considering applying for a 4 day week. Thankfully I work for a company that does offer alternative working pattern, but there are restrictions at management level (even junior management which is what I am). If I was successful it would be for 18 months only. This is to be fair to other staff members who might want to apply in the future. But I think 18 months is better than nothing & would get my daughter up to pre school. And I’m sure I’d get used to 5 days again when the time came. It’s actually the financial aspect that I’m worrying about, my husband is self employed & a guaranteed salary each month means a lot to us.

    1. I think you’re right – 18 months is definitely better than nothing, and you never know what will happen between now and then. Good luck with it – I hope it works out for you!

  3. Great read! I too remember feeling guilty & nervous when asking for a 4 day week and yet being desperate to get it!! Ah its not easy. Now on my 2nd maternity leave, I need to win the lottery before next Feb!!!!!

  4. Love this article, I gave up work to be a SAHM after my maternity leave ended and I cudnt get any flexibility at all with my previous employer which was so desperately needed with my husbands working comittments! I lasted 2mths at home before I felt I needed to work for my sanity nd began to temp a few days a wk nd in turn got an amazing job offer back in my qualified field doing 3 days fully flexi, my days & hrs I set myself once I put in d required number of hrs. I am so grateful for this arrangement nd I am working my ass off to retain it forever!!! I do find however I am forever trying to ram 5 days work into 3 days.

    1. That sounds great! I know it’s hard cramming five days into three, but sometimes I think it’s worth it, if it means three days instead of the “all or nothing” option. Hoping it continues to work for you!

  5. Our work used to be really flexible. Even people without kids could compress hours, work from home lots, and do 9 day fortnights etc. But they’ve realised that there was rarely anyone working on Fridays, and the office was virtually empty so they’ve changed to flexitime with core hours morning and afternoon. You can either do flexi or keep your flexible hours. As a part timer you can have both, but if you’re full time you have to work the core hours – so all those people who compressed their hours to finish early or start late to do school drop offs/pick ups a few times a week are now unable to, or have been forced to work shorter hours in order to access the flexitime.

    I’m full time, but finish early on a Friday to pick up my son from nurswry at 3pm. The rest of the time he’s in til 5.30. It’s not too bad because we only do a 35 hour week and I only commute 12 minutes, but when this contract ends, I’ll be back probably working an hours commute away. I’d like to work a bit more flexibly but I don’t want to cut my pay too much. This job was a big pay cut from my previous one because it’s not for profit, which wasn’t too bad because of the location and flexibility, but reducing hours would make things tighter. No idea how I’m going to do school drop offs because I can’t compress my hours any more. Hopefully family will help.
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    1. I think compressed hours sounds great – I get the feeling it’s relatively normal in the UK but not so common here in Ireland. We don’t really have any statutory flex options, so employers who do grant it do so in a random, ad hoc way sometimes.
      I hope when this job ends that you are able to make it work with the longer commute – it’s never easy, is it!

  6. Ahh Mummy’s guilt! I’ve got two children and have worked part time since they were born. I’m actually finding it harder the older they get as they want me to come to school sports carnivals, assemblies, parents days. Then don’t get me started on school holidays! In Australia we have 12 weeks a year! What do I do with them then! I’ve finally taken the plunge and quit my job last week. Was a big decision but for a while I’ve been working on a stay at home business as a distributor for an international company. Not equaling the money I was earning – yet – but I will. Always other options out there. Highly recommend exploring home based businesses. Plenty of good, not get rich quick scams – out there.

    1. Yes I think school holidays are tough! Great on day one but tricky as time goes by. We are similar here in Ireland – higher even – I think it’s 14 weeks. Which is fine when you’re working full-time and have full-time childcare, but very hard if you don’t.

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