At the prime of my expat career with a global company, travelling across Asia and the world, and having a good relationship with my husband and four kids who were growing up very well, I thought I had the formula down pat on work-life balance. I was able to get to that point of being pretty much okay on both sides of the equation. Then a fifth pregnancy occurred, and the premature delivery of that baby boy put me on the brink of death. I then knew that at that point, the balance just needed to tip towards “life”. Now that the premature baby boy is a well-grown young man at 12, I am back to busily balancing work and life, building a consulting company that I partly own. What I now know is that every working mom needs to constantly recalibrate what work-life balance means to the particular circumstance of the day, of the year, of the ages of the children, of the family situation.
Before getting married, I had built a very good career track with multinational companies. But after I became a mom and experienced the blissful joy of holding a baby in my arms, I cried the first day I came back to work after my maternity leave. Yet I had to embrace the economic reality of life, and of raising a family. I also knew deep in my heart that if I were to be totally honest with myself, I would be a better wife and mom if I had a fulfilling career. And so I prayed and worked hard to achieve that balance.
God answered my prayer and sent my way a very good yaya, one who truly cared for my kids as if they were her own. She ended up staying with us for 19 years. I treated her as part of the family, with a lot of respect and care – she truly became the eldest Ate of the family. She moved with us even when I was expatriated. I could not have juggled work and family without her.
My husband was quite supportive of my career and thus was a very hands-on dad, even while he himself was building a career of his own. He would fill in for some of my mommy duties and became actively involved in our children’s schools.
Even with such a wonderful support system, it still necessitated adjustments on my part. What did I have to do? There are some very important tactics:
- Efficiency – always finding ways to do things with the least amount of time needed so I can do what I need to do at home and at work. Having a grocery list with items organized by aisle, the aisle numbered based on the supermarket layout, and coming in at the first hour of the day, in order to keep my grocery time to be 45 minutes – is one concrete example. I repeat this desire for efficiency many times over, whether at work or at home. Time is the most important and scarcest resource we have as working moms, so I try to maximize it as much as possible.
- Time management and forward planning – having a daily schedule, for both weekdays and weekends, to make sure that everything important gets done. My calendar is not just for appointments, but is essentially a work plan which I set not on a daily basis, but is planned at least two weeks — sometimes even four weeks— in advance.
- Communication – being one call/ text/ message away from home and each of the family members, and enabling them to do so. Even while I was travelling, I made sure that my family knew how to get in touch with me. I readily embraced all communications technology to achieve this end, including a mobile landline number so the kids who do not have mobile phones yet can call me anytime from any phone.
- Delegation and empowerment – I had to be a master at this, by first choosing those activities that can be delegated, then equipping others how to do the task. For instance, while I used to enjoy going to the grocery and market myself, later on I had to delegate that. Delegating to the household staff is an obvious solution. But delegating to the kids is actually more important, because it equips them with life skills. It can start with small things like buying their own things (school supplies, shoes, clothes, etc), giving them money for it but asking for a proper accounting afterwards. Now that we have adult children, they pitch in on driving for the younger ones or on accompanying them to sports activities. This allows me to focus only on the things that only I can or should do.
- Allocate time for relationships and self-care – these need to be calendared too! My husband and I commit to weekly dates. By now I have learned that neglecting self-care is simply not sustainable, and thus I consciously carve out time for exercise and having R&R time for myself.
All these tools and tactics are indispensable in achieving work-life balance. But the ONE crucial thing, the most important ONE, is this: knowing how to draw the line. While we try to do everything that needs to be done, we have to admit humbly that we are not superwomen, we cannot do it all, and everything is not equally important.
How do we draw the line? By asking this simple question all the time: “What’s the most important thing for me to do now?” The answer may be work sometimes; it may be family sometimes. The tactics above enabled me to choose one or another most of the time, such that now I can count in my fingers those moments when I truly regretted having to choose work over family. I had to have my values very clear in my head, and which ones take precedence. When the fifth child came, with God’s wake-up call though the life-threatening childbirth, the eldest child entering adolescence, and enough savings tucked away, I knew in my heart that the most important thing for me then was to invest my time in their upbringing; and so I quit my expat job and went home. I did continue working, but on a part-time, work-from-home basis through consultancy. Now that the family values are fairly well-established and the kids have grown up, continuing to build my consulting practice has taken more prominence, while still employing all tactics to achieve that balance.
Ultimately though, the underlying tactic in all these is prayer. That’s where I re-center and get my energies. That’s where I get the wisdom to decide what’s most important at any point in time. That’s where I find the serenity to manage the stress and chaos of my busy life. The God who gave me this family to take care of and the talent to have a career, also gives me all that I need to balance all of them.
Pauline Gatera Fermin is a high-caliber strategy executive with 20 years experience working for P&G, The Coca-Cola Company, and Beverage Partners Asia, and 10 years consulting experience across various industries in the Philippines. She is part owner of Acumen Strategy Consultants, where she serves as Managing Director and Senior Strategist.