When I asked Ashton Kutcher what his biggest parenting challenge was, he said this:
"The biggest parenting challenge is work-life balance. No question. Most people are forced into a situation where they have to outsource the raising of their children through daycare, nannies, parents, etc. Before you have a kid, you have your work responsibility and then your living circumstances, maybe some commitments to friends and family. After you have a kid, it turns completely upside down. You are in a consistent priority shuffle. Your life becomes their life. You feel guilt for every free moment you have that you don't spend with your kids. Your friends go from being leading characters in your personal movie to background actors, unless of course they want to help with your kid. It's a real challenge and this come from a person who has all the tools to buy his way out of the problem if he wanted to."
Here is my response…
As a parent coach, I've noticed that a few topics consistently challenge parents. Work-life balance is absolutely one of those topics. It doesn't matter if the parent is mom, dad, single, married, working class, or affluent; every involved parent I talk to struggles with this issue.
It would be really nice if there was a precise formula to follow. Everyone, including me, would use it! Funny fact: a quick-fix-seeking parent recently asked me, "Is there, maybe, a magic number of hours I need to spend with my son so he gets what he needs and I don't feel guilty?" Um, sorry. No. I understood the impulse behind the question… but no. This is more complex.
So for her, for Ashton, and for all parents who crave a game plan, I have a few super useful tips.
Please note: while I don't believe in the binary of right/wrong parenting, I do believe there is a way that feels right to each of us; it's what I call our authentic parenting path. I hope these suggestions help you find and stay true to your path.
1. Unpack the guilt.
Guilt is a signal that we are doing one of two things: taking care of ourselves or doing something that is out of alignment with who we are.
Either way, guilt is an inner cue that we need to address so we can live from a more grounded place. If we're feeling guilt for taking care of ourselves then it's important to know what gets in the way of us practicing self-care. This is a major topic for parents, especially for those who had to care for a sick parent or sibling with a disability while growing up. It's worth exploring, if this is something that's true for you.
In the second case, when we feel guilty because we are living out of alignment, it means we aren't really listening to ourselves. Maybe we are still saying yes to things we don't want to do anymore. For example, we say yes to the dinner invitation, even though we know it's too late for our baby, so we won't give our full attention to our host or our cranky child, plus we'll be distracted the whole time, and then ultimately feel exhausted and guilty for not being fully present for anyone. Sound familiar?
If so, it's time to unpack the guilt, my friends. Figure out what's true for you, what works for your family, and learn how to say no. Overachievers and people-pleasers: get your "no" on, pronto!
I'm not saying it's easy, but it's definitely easier than living with the internal tension and turmoil of guilt. Name it to tame it is all I'm saying here.
2. Stick to your top five priorities.
This is definitely one of the best pieces of advice I have ever gotten: Every year, list your top 5 priorities and stick to them!
Anything that doesn't fall into one of your top five is something that cannot occupy space in your head or heart. Boom. This may sound harsh, but when it comes to finding real balance in our lives, I know it's crucial. Sit down with your partner (or if you're single, sit down with your sweet self), and make an actual list of your priorities. Put them in order, in case you ever have to make a tough decision between two competing events and you want a tool for quick clarity. Hang the list on your fridge, mirror, or wall. Check it frequently.
This year, mine are: self-care, family time, husband time, work, friends. It's not always clean and not always easy, but having this list clear and visible really helps me stay focused and balanced. (Feel free to steal my list, by the way… it has totally rocked my year!)
3. Choose your choice.
In other words, once you've done the conscious work to make your choice, be fully in the moment with that choice. If you've chosen to go out with friends, be with your friends. If the choice was to work, then do the work. If you're with your children, then please — and I really beg this of you — be with your children by paying deep attention to them. Deciding one thing then regretting the choice makes us distracted in the moment; our half-assed participation only leads to resentment on everyone's part.
Evaluate your choices using how you feel during and afterward as your guide.
Did your choice to be with friends engage you and leave you feeling nourished afterward? Great! Did it honestly kind of bore you and leave you feeling drained afterward? Well then, time to see if it's worth it now that you also have children who really need your time and attention.
One thought is that maybe while your kids are still young enough to want to hang out with you, you let some of the extraneous friendships go for a bit… when your kids are teens and you're not cool enough to hang out with them, you can revisit some old friendships and place attention there if you wish.
Quick tip: Take time to switch gears when you transition between the various facets of your life. For example, when you're coming home from work, take a moment before you walk into your home. End your calls, your song, your texts, whatever, and just be still for a bit (2-5 minutes is ideal). Take that space so that, when you greet your family, you are fully there and ready to receive them. Frankly, that's my favorite trick for feeling more balanced.
The bottom line is that there is no shortcut. There is a lot to be said about the modern culture of parenting and many experts say that the work-life balance struggle is a product of our stressed-out society. I agree. At the same time, though, the fact that so many parents are trying to make it better gives me hope that we are on to something good and our children will benefit. I work with parents on this conscious path every day, and I see the change coming.
Laine Lipsky is a parent coach, educator, and speaker. She mindfully practices what she preaches on a daily basis with her husband and two spirited children. Find out more about her at www.lainelipsky.com or her Facebook page. Laine is also the author of the forthcoming book: Uncommon Parenting: Practical Guidance to be the Centered Parent You Want to Be.
Disclaimer: Ashton Kutcher is the co-founder and chairman of the board of A Plus.