I don’t believe in work-life balance

“Work/life balance”.  What does the phrase mean to you?  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not a helpful one.  It implies that work is not part of life and, as we all know, work is very much a part of our lives.  It implies that there is work (over there), and there is life (over here), and that they are at opposite ends of a metaphorical seesaw.  Only when the seesaw is perfectly horizontal can we possibly be happy.

What if we there was only life?  Our life, which is made up of many parts, one of which is this thing we call work.  What if we didn’t need to keep work and life separate but could integrate them into one harmonious whole?

You may wear many hats, but you wear the same head under each of them.  You are always you, and everything you do is part of your life, wherever you are and whoever you are with.  How would your life be different if you began to perceive everything in it as part of the same thing?

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Manifesting a Dream

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It may look like part of a historical display, or just a place to shelter from the rain.  But it’s also a dream.

Soon there will be an old-style wooden gypsy caravan in my garden. There is no logical reason for this. Nobody will be living in it or travelling in it. It has no shafts, anyway, so it can no longer be drawn by a horse. Getting it into the garden is causing many logistical challenges. (There is mud. A lot of mud. There is hedge removal – hedge consisting mainly of things with very sharp thorns. There is a narrow lane and there is an electric fence.)

But this is not just a caravan. It is a dream come true. It’s a ride to future possibility. It’s creativity on wheels. It’s a huge, believe-in-yourself gift to my creative heart-led self.

Maybe that seems a lot to expect from a wooden shed on wheels. But squint carefully through the fog of time and, at a distance of about thirty years, you’ll see a little blonde girl gazing up at that shed on wheels with joy and wonder and a visible sparkle all around her. She imagines living a life of adventure under that canvas roof. She’s fascinated by its tiny cupboards and drawers and windows. She wants to snuggle up in the built-in bed and drift away. She writes a story with herself as the heroine and the wooden caravan as the place where magic happens. In the story-within-a-story in her mind, she imagines her writer-self scribbling her stories perched in its open doorway.  To see this wood, iron and canvas dream become real in front of her seems like a miracle.

We don’t all share the same dreams. One person’s deepest longing may be another person’s biggest folly. But dreams are important and it’s vital to support our own and those of others. My husband sees no need at all for a wooden gypsy caravan in our back garden and yet – and I bless him for it – he’s willing to acknowledge and accept that it matters deeply to me and to that little blonde girl I once was (and perhaps still am).

Dreams may be ethereal and mystical, but manifesting them is a strangely practical activity involving a lot of hard work. In this case I’ve sweated for hours removing bramble, hawthorn and blackthorn, suffered injury from all those thorns, carried out complex negotiations with neighbours over access, and been at the mercy of the rain that’s causing the mud that’s preventing final delivery. (My dream would be in danger of sinking into the neighbour’s field if we tried to bring it into the garden now. There is probably some meaningful metaphor here, but I don’t want to over-stretch the point!)

If a dream is going to come true, at some point we have to make the switch from dreamer to do-er. And there always comes a point when you wonder if it’s worth the effort. (A bramble whipping across your face and drawing blood will do that.) But it is. Even if no-one shares your dream, you can make it happen and it will be worth it.

When the field dries out and my caravan comes home, I can’t wait to go out and meet it and my little-girl self again.

Telling it like it isn’t

Running a business from home is not an easy option. There is no support team. Everything you do, you do alone. When the amount of work you have is overwhelming, you do it alone and long into the night. When the amount of work you have is lower, you worry that you’ll never work again – and the only person who can change the amount of work you have is you. When things go wrong, there is nobody to ask for advice except your long-suffering spouse, who you’d rather treat as a friend and lover than a colleague. (And when you move house, you can’t escape to the office but have to somehow carry on working with no desk amongst the endless phone calls and myriad boxes of belongings.)*

Putting family first, and always being there for school runs and school plays and home-from-school-sick-days and holidays, does not mean that your work is unimportant or non-existent. It means you have chosen, and are living according to, your priorities in life. Other people will not understand this and will assume you live a life of ease and luxury.

Working part time, or working around your family, does not mean that you will never earn very much. It means that you are likely to be much more productive in the time that you work, and able to earn proportionally more than you might have in a full time job. This means you will work hard, but it will be worth it. Anybody who does not live in the same house as you will not see this.

Having a partner with a job of his (her) own does not mean that (s)he will pay all the bills. You will be a partnership in the same way as two employed people are a partnership, each making a valuable contribution. You will be forever worried that your contribution might dry up, and will work ever harder to ensure that it doesn’t. Other people will not understand this either.

Living and working at home needs a lot of different skills and personality traits. Chief among them are:

Determination and bloody-minded persistence. This is possibly what other people refer to as ‘motivation’ when they ask how you manage to stay motivated. (They ask this at the same time as they are assuming that you spend all day lying around eating chocolate and watching daytime TV.)

Resilience. To bounce back from all the times a job doesn’t work out, or takes twice as long as you’d planned, or someone assumes that because they saw you out in the daytime you are a person of leisure.

Self-reliance. Because you’ll spend an awful lot of time in your own company so you might as well get on with yourself and trust your own instincts.

If you have those three traits, you’ll find that living and working at home can be great:

– You get to make all the decisions and follow your gut without having to explain yourself to anyone.

– You never have to sit at your desk till 5pm ‘looking busy’ until someone else determines that the day is over.

– You get to structure your own day, around the things, and people, that are important to you.

– You can take all the credit, because you did all the work.

– You get to make a living while still having a life.

Living and working at home isn’t easy. But it is worth it. What makes it hard for you? What makes it worth it? And what traits do you think you need to make it work?

*Ask me how I know! The new house and garden are lovely, thank you. The boxes are still in evidence and may be for some time.

A taste of things to come

It’s 8:45 am.  I’m at my desk, fresh cup of tea to hand and fingers at the ready.  But I’m 45 minutes too early.

The boy had to be at school early this morning, so our morning routine was brought forward by 45 minutes and that gave me this gift of extra working time.  But it’s also a glimpse into the future.  Come September, the boy will be on a bus at 8am without me even needing to get dressed, let alone leave the house.

And so things will change again.  A working day of 8am to 4pm starts to line up with the ‘normal’ routine of the outside world.  l don’t want to sleepwalk into this change and, without thinking about it, find myself working (almost) nine to five.  (As a wise woman once sang, “What a way to make a living!“)

I came into this live and work at home life so that I could build work around life instead of the other way round, so I could be present for my family and have time for myself.  Until now, my work time has been boundaried by someone else’s needs (nap time was the only work time for a good while) and by the outside world (school hours, clubs and activities).  That’s not going to end completely, but slowly the potential work time is increasing and I need to make some conscious decisions about how much work I can take on and still be true to myself.

I chose this live and work at home life.  I choose it again now.  I choose to mix work and home, work and play, responsibilities and freedom.  The challenge is in finding a new way to make it work, for everyone.

There’s always something

There’s a moment every spring when I think I’ve cracked it. All the spring seeds are sown. The beds are neat, and the weeds so small that I can kid myself I’ve pulled them all out.   I’ve even emptied the compost bins of their ‘black gold’ and there’s room to dispose of our veg peelings in them again.

And then it happens.

There’s an explosion of growth and the weeds are suddenly towering over my previous seedlings. Or a mysterious mildew appears in the greenhouse, or a late frost destroys the lush new leaves of the potato crop. There’s always something. You’d think that I’d have learned this much earlier but now, after many years of repeated lessons, I finally realise that gardening is never finished, not even temporarily.

Neither is a business, or a way of life. There’s always something. We suddenly have more work than we can cope with – or none. A new opportunity or idea raises its head and we’re thrown into a crisis of indecision or a whirl of frantic activity. The family routine changes and everything must adjust to follow suit – or the work routine changes and the family has to somehow fall into line. (This always happens the day after you find yourself thinking, “Now we’ve got the balance just right.”)

But here, in this moment of stillness as I look over the vegetable beds, I find a moment of clarity. Change is constant. We never find balance and stay there. Like riding a bike, we make constant tiny adjustments in order to stay upright.

So I’ll enjoy this time of looking over my almost-tidy, spring-poised garden, knowing it won’t last. If it did, there would be no flowers and no harvest.

Remembering why

I pause on the kitchen step, watering can in hand.  The sun is dazzling.  Nothing can be more beautiful than a spring day.

I take in a parcel for a neighbour and chat to her when she calls to collect it.

I speak to a client about the work her charity is doing – work that I’m helping to make possible.

I stop work at 3pm to walk up the road and collect the boy from school.  I’ll only be doing this for a few more short months.  I savour them.

I remember why.

I didn’t go freelance because I wanted to be an entrepreneur.  I didn’t start my own business to make waves, or to make millions.  I didn’t want to be a businesswoman; I wanted to be here.  In living and working at home the purpose, for me, is to live.  To notice and enjoy the everyday moments.

How often do you stop?

Can you ever stop when you work from home?  When clients rely on you for your work and your family relies on you for food and clean underwear, can you really stop?

And if you did stop, what would you do?  Could you actually do nothing?  What does “stopping” look like?

I’ve been trying to stop.  It’s taken me a week to work out how.

Lessons learnt from a minor ailment:

Working from your bed isn’t the thing to do, despite what I tried to tell youSleeping in your bed is a much better idea.  It’s actually not possible to do decent work when you feel inhuman, and as well as potentially making yourself worse, you’re simply wasting time that you could be spending recovering.  And quite possibly making stupid mistakes that you’ll have to fix later.  (Of course I would never do this.  Ahem.)

If someone offers to help, say yes.  Whether it’s the school run, making dinner, doing the shopping – if someone else is able do it, and is volunteering to do it, say yes even if you think you could probably manage.  Don’t even think about saying to yourself, “but I should be able to cope”.  Says who?

If they don’t volunteer, ask.  They’re only not volunteering because they don’t realise you need the help, because you always manage.  Don’t be a martyr.

Giving yourself time off is hard.  That’s why you need to take more of it than you think.  I promised myself I’d take at least four days off to recover and spent two of them working the whole time because I just couldn’t switch off.  Now I’ve got that out of my system, though, I’m beginning to work out what “stopping” involves.  I just spent a whole day pottering: walking, writing, reading, trying to sleep (this one still needs practice) and a good helping of staring at the sky.  I saw a fox on my travels and did a lot of not thinking.

Perhaps you can’t do as much work as you think you can.  Not forever, anyway.  Or maybe just not now.  Not if you want to be well and to notice and enjoy the spring that’s just beginning.  Perhaps it’s time to stop, just for a while, until you work out how much work is enough work.