But Elsa, Mummy has to prep for a meeting
Juggling work and family life is a delicate art, as many of you will know from experience.
I can’t complain really, as I have things so much easier here in China than I would back home. No need to ferry Elsa to and from kindergarten – ayi takes care of that. No domestic chores – ditto. And I work from home, so I don’t even have to commute. Sometimes, it takes all my ingenuity to successfully wear both the Dedicated Professional and Devoted Parent hats.
My resourcefulness is tested most strongly first thing in the morning. I often have a client booked in for 8am – so ideally the flat pristine, Elsa needs to be out the door, and myself clear of Marmite stains by 5 minutes to at the latest. Ayi arrives at 7.30am, which give us precisely until 7.55am to perform this small miracle.
We’ve long had an unspoken understanding – divide and conquer. Ayi is in charge of Elsa: dress her, locate suncream and sunhat, prepare a drink, remove her Wellington boots (Elsa has a strange fetish for winter footwear), and gently detach her from whichever oversized toy she’s decided should come with her. I, meanwhile, whirl around frantically tidying the bits of the flat that are visible from where my client will be seated and shutting doors on the rest. We do always just make it, albeit with the occasional skirmish at the doorway as Elsa’s wobbly exit on her new bicycle endangers the unfortunate client’s ankles.
You could say this morning struggle reflects the deeper relationship between my professional and family life. The divide works well most of the time (before 2.30pm is work, after that is Elsa) – but it’s so precisely calibrated that even the smallest transgression disturbs the balance. For example, when a particularly knotty work issue lives on in my mind after the day’s allotted work quotient. Whilst an afternoon spent batting purple balloons to and fro with Elsa appears to be legitimate child-related activity, in fact my head is elsewhere, and my conscience knows it.
And that’s the rub. Every family strikes a different balance in the thorny work versus kids battle, but once guilt creeps in you know you’ve crossed your own particular line. Elsa is singularly talented at tuning in to such twinges of conscience, and a master at using this skill to manipulate situations to her advantage. At night, trying to get her to sleep early enough to leave me a decent portion of the evening for catching up on my business’s administrative work is no mean feat. “Don’t work, Mummy, stay a little bit,” she’ll cajole as I tuck her into bed.
I can’t bear the thought of Elsa looking back on her childhood with memories of me abandoning her for work. So I’ve tried to give a more neutral-sounding explanation – “it’s mummy’s time now” – but that concept just doesn’t seem to resonate. In desperation I now intone, “Elsa, Mummy needs to go and eat her dinner, she’s very hungry.” This is slightly more effective. However, I use this line so often that my new worry is that Elsa will grow up thinking I am food obsessed.
Still, an incessant appetite is the lesser of two evils, and I should be grateful that Elsa’s reached the stage of reason. In fact, rationality can come in handy when I need to negotiate extra work time. An afternoon showing of Peter Rabbit buys me half-an-hour to finish off a couple of urgent e-mails; for longer work emergencies I’m forced to offer a trip to KFC (but only on condition she eats the corn on the cob, as her nominal vegetable).
These minor lapses aside, I feel pretty content that I’ve managed to secure the best of both worlds. The work/family scales hover more or less at equilibrium.
Sarah Cooper started her own career and personal coaching business (www.cowsfrommywindow.com) after coming to Beijing with 3-month-old Elsa, who is now going on 3-years-old.