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Can We Have it All? Three Seattle Families Try to Find the Mythical Work/Life Balance



Photo: Joshua Huston

 

One thing unites modern families, perhaps like nothing else: the struggle to make it all work. To find time for careers that stimulate our brains, provide for grown-up conversations, give us identities beyond mom or dad and pay the bills, balanced against quality time with our kids and partners, and just maybe a bit left over for exercise, hobbies and rest.

Can we do it, and if so, how? We talked to experts and everyday folks and learned that families are building multifaceted lives by prioritizing and compromising, by tapping relations and their community for support, by working but maybe not climbing as fast, and by sharing the load with their partners. We could adopt public and workplace policies that make it easier to juggle careers and kids, and we’re taking baby steps towards those improvements.

It’s hard. And there may be no “having it all.” But by adjusting our expectations and better supporting each other, perhaps we can more fully enjoy what we’ve got. 

 

Teresa Wang: Embracing the seesaw of life

For Teresa Wang, staying home with her infant son was a priority. So when Amare was born in November 2013, Wang left her job as an instructional coach for teachers in Seattle Public Schools. She continued teaching yoga, as she had for years, and did private tutoring for students. She and her partner, Atiba Riley, decided to rent out a spare bedroom in their condo in the Columbia City neighborhood for a little extra cash.

“Our hope was not to have [Amare] in care for the first year,” Wang said. “We wanted him home with us to support his growth and development. It’s being with your baby and being there for him.”

Wang, whose first child passed away before Amare was born, loved the time with her son, but the arrangement was less than perfect. The yoga classes didn’t pay much, and while the Airbnb rentals were great for exposing their son to different kinds of people — something the family valued — the logistics were stressful. The situation ultimately proved unsustainable. 

“It was taking quite a bit of energy from me, and I wasn’t able to be as present as I wanted to be,” Wang said. In September she went back to the school district part time, working four days a week. Riley, who works as an AV technician for sporting and other events, travels extensively most of the year. When he’s in town, the couple shares childcare. Amare goes to daycare when neither parent is available. 

The transition back to work was tough for Wang, who worried about producing enough breast milk and was anxious about missing the mini milestones — the new words, steadier steps, funny reactions — that click by so rapidly in small children. She craved hourly texts from the daycare provider or Riley updating her on Amare’s day. 

Many months later, the routine feels more manageable, but Wang rejects the idea that she’s ever going to land in a perfect sweet spot where work and parenting and the rest of life are neatly in harmony.

“I’m kind of losing it at all turns. I’m tired at all turns. I’m just giving it my all at all turns. There is no balance; you can’t find a balance,” said Wang. “It’s just a seesaw.”

Or, she said, it’s like a tree that can bend and sway when buffeted by life’s challenges. “It’s this idea of moving with life, finding that grounding, but moving back and forth,” she said. To other families, she advises finding what works for them, and doing it until something changes. “Then do something different.”

 

AJ Beard: Returning to work puts focus on family

AJ Beard — mom, fitness junkie and IT program manager (among other things) — has a clear sense of what she needs to be happy in life. The challenge over the past five years has been figuring out how to meet those needs.

First it was moving with her husband to Seattle and acclimating to a social scene that can be so much chillier than the front-porch friendliness of her native Texas. The birth of her daughter 3½ years ago, followed by a four-month maternity leave, only added to her isolation. Then came her son 1½ years ago, and another leave of more than a year.

Photo: Aimee Quon

Neither Beard nor her husband’s family were nearby to play a central role in caregiving, so they sought an in-home daycare for their children, something like the daycare Beard’s own mother ran when she was growing up. The hours are more restricted and less flexible at their daycare, but she feels a personal connection with the owners and it’s close to her south Seattle home. “The family daycare really does feel like family,” Beard said.

Beard also found some of the community and camaraderie she sought in Families of Color Seattle, a nonprofit group on whose board she serves. Before she became active in the group, “I was trolling playgrounds looking for black moms,” Beard said.

And she returned to work. “That year and some that I took off after the second [child] was harder for me than working because I had no structure,” Beard said. “I was more frustrated and more tired than I thought I would be. Work helps force you into prioritizing what is important, because there is so much less time in the day for your personal life.”

So while she’s spending fewer hours with her kids, the time is more focused. “When you’re making trade-offs and more conscious decisions with your time, you force yourself to be more present,” Beard said. “It wasn’t until I went back to work that I got into that rhythm.”

While Beard is back working in technology, she hasn’t resumed her upward climb on the career ladder. In fact, she’d be interested in part-time work, but it’s not readily available in her field. Beard’s happy to let her husband’s career take the lead for now, and wonders if she’ll ever resume the climb. “There are days,” she said, “I feel like I’ll never get there again.”

And still she’s grateful for the time off that she had with her kids, and the opportunity to guide them toward good habits and positive behavior that’s already showing benefits.

“Now I’m able to translate the work we put in, and what came out,” Beard said. “And it’s really exciting and fun.”

 

Cayman Ilika: Playing the part of role model

When Cayman Ilika was house-hunting with her husband, Gavriel Jacobs, she would shoot videos at the open houses and send them to her parents for feedback. It was important they liked the place — and not just out of a need for parental approval. 

Ilika is an actress and singer — she’s starring this spring in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the 5th Avenue Theater – while Jacobs is a prosecuting attorney for King County. Their schedules can include long days preparing for shows or trials, schedules that required flexible childcare solutions for their 2½-year-old son, Teddy.

Photo: Joshua Huston

Enter grandma and grandpa.

“I don’t know what we would have done if my parents weren’t around,” Ilika said. “They spend a lot of time with my son. It’s great for their relationship and it’s great for us, and it’s free childcare. My parents are the best parents in the world and I had a marvelous childhood, so I know when they’re with him, he’s having a great time.”

Ilika’s parents live in Snohomish, making it difficult to come and go in the wee hours to their daughter’s home in north Seattle. So Ilika and Jacobs turned their basement into a mother-in-law apartment with large windows and a separate entrance.

Ilika took eight weeks off after Teddy was born, then returned to the theater for three productions over nine months. Then she was off for nearly a year before another part came up. In the fall, she played the lead in Mary Poppins at Issaquah’s Village Theatre, and now she’s in Jacques Brel.

One of the hardest things about performances is missing Teddy’s bedtime. “I love putting him to bed and tucking him in with his stuffed badger and singing him a song,” Ilika said. When her 5th Avenue show ends in May, she’ll likely be off until August — or longer, depending on her next gig. “I will get to be with Teddy all the time and that will be fabulous,” Ilika said.

But chasing down the next part can be nerve-wracking, and when she was pregnant, people kept asking if she was done performing. Her response was an adamant ‘No.’ Ilika’s mom was an obstetrician/gynecologist, leaving at all hours to deliver babies, and leaving primary caregiving to her dad.

“I was so proud of her going off and doing such amazing things, and I want to be that,” Ilika said. “When you tell your kids, ‘Follow your dreams,’ you’d better be setting that example. And part of my dream is parenthood and the other part is theater.”


Read more articles on work/life balance from the April 2015 print edition of Seattle's Child

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