I was driving home with my sick five-year-old after dropping his sister off at preschool. From the deep recesses of my bag, my phone rang. It was a new client. I didn’t want to miss out on booking a job, so I pulled over and took the call.
As the client explained the complexities of his business, I heard a sudden retch. My son was vomiting on himself exorcist-style, a flood of horror slopping down his chest and into his lap. I didn’t want to interrupt my client, so I continued the conversation in the best fake-calm voice I could muster while dealing with my teary son and the mess (‘dealing with’ is probably an overstatement. I stood there dumb-struck, feebly patting at my kid’s face with a wet wipe).
Two years on, I now smile at this memory, a snapshot of what life was like balancing parenthood with a newly minted freelance business. Each day, like many parents or small business owners, I’m a juggler who toggles from kid-wrangling to being a wife, a friend, a school volunteer, a service provider, a writer. Some days are a joy, like when I get to be there for my kid’s athletics carnival or start the day with a gym workout. Other days end in a pile of vomit.
The hardest thing about being a juggler is the singular nature of that word. There can only be one person keeping those balls in the air. When I started freelancing, I was that person. To fulfil my self-appointed role as chief executive of Making Everything Happen, I tried to cram as much as I could into each day, often working late into the night. This didn’t last long because I was constantly exhausted. There’s a reason why mums juggling career and kids often feel stressed.
I also found it hard to ask for help when I needed it. Now, I’m in a fortunate position. My husband’s work has some flexibility, and he partners with me to run our home and parent our kids. I also have a lovely mum who babysits when she’s free.
When I started out, though, my natural tendency was to arrange the family schedule so I could take care of everything. I quickly discovered this wasn’t great for my wellbeing, or sustainable for my family. Although I was doing everything, I certainly wasn’t enjoying it. I needed help, especially when it came to the unpaid – and often unrecognised – business of looking after the family. Asking for help was a key step for me, helping me grow my business while still being the parent/wife/friend I wanted to be. I learnt to tap into that village out there (and in turn, help others when they needed it). Passing balls to someone else every now and then is not a sign of weakness or laziness. On the contrary, it’s smart outsourcing.
I also learnt to embrace imperfection. Part of easing up on my need to be the juggler is accepting that things aren’t perfect, and – here’s the epiphany – no one expects them to be. If I didn’t jump immediately whenever a client rang, they didn’t up and leave. If my kids watched too much TV because I needed to meet a deadline, they weren’t the poorer for it. If we had eggs on toast for dinner two nights in a row, no one fell apart.
Recently, my daughter asked me if I could attend her multicultural day parade on a Monday morning. My mind immediately whirred through the day’s schedule and what I could shift to make it happen, but I stopped myself in time. Instead, I told my daughter that while I would have loved to be there, I was working that day. Her response wasn’t the tears of disappointment I feared, but a shrug of the shoulders as she moved on to whether we could have ice cream for dessert. She understood I couldn’t be two places at once. That I was doing the best I can; that even the best parents can’t do everything. Why didn’t I?
I wonder what would have happened two years ago if, instead of trying to appear on top of everything, I asked my client if I could call him back because my son was sick. Yes, it’s possible I may have lost the job. But more likely, he would have understood that sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan. And I would have learnt a valuable lesson: that even the most consummate juggler needs to cut themselves some slack and accept a hand now and then.