Work, kids and the pursuit of sanity

Work, kids and the pursuit of sanity

By Kate Burke

It was four in the morning, and I was on the bathroom floor, hugging the toilet bowl; struck by a severe gastro bug for the second time in a month. Since my two-year-old had started day care, it seemed we were hit by a different virus every week. To make matters worse, I was heavily pregnant. And I was due on a plane in two short hours, to manage a major conference as part of my marketing job at a big bank.

Of course, I didn’t make it to the conference and the team had to deliver it without me. I felt terrible. The conference was my project from start to finish – and I’d had to leave it to everyone else to execute. 

In my next performance review my boss said, “I don’t know what to do with someone who’s great at the job but struggles to be here.” She had a point. It was obvious my job wasn’t compatible with my family.

I wanted to be there for my kids. I wanted to drop them and pick them up from school, do their homework with them, be there for the school play. When they got sick, I wanted them to be able to rest and recover, without it being a big deal.    

So, I started my own business.

Two years on, things are definitely better… but there are trade-offs. I get to be there for my family; but I’m often distracted when I’m with them. I can turn up to work whenever I like; but I work through most of our holidays. I earn more money and work with clients I love; but sometimes I don’t get paid for months.

I wondered, how do other business owners with kids do it? Do they experience the same highs and lows? Is it possible to balance entrepreneurship with kids, and if so, how? I went out and asked business owners these questions, and I was overwhelmed by the response. In this article I’ve shared their perspectives, together with useful insider tips.   

The chance to design your lifestyle

There’s no doubt that having your own business gives you the chance to design your work life around your home life – to an extent. Many business owners have created freedom and flexibility that would be completely out of reach in a corporate role. For example, Rodrigo Miranda, a motion and graphic designer, was able to take a sizeable chunk of time out when his first child was born:

“We planned and saved enough for us to live for almost a year, even if all clients suddenly disappeared. Obviously, that never happened, but having that safety cushion helped me keep my sanity during the first year, when my wife was mostly out on maternity leave.

“The advantages have been priceless. I took three and a half months of paternity leave, to help out and get to know the little one. Even after those initial months, I could allocate so much more time for us to bond as a family, something that working in a full-time job I could never do. I'm really happy with the decision of managing the fear and not jumping back into a corporate job.”

Portfolio entrepreneur Rebecca Newman added, “I couldn't be more thankful for babies coming into my world on so many levels. I have grown more both personally and professionally than in any time in my life, and I have more play in my life than I had in decades. My health has improved to pre-teen levels, and the bulk of the time I feel unstoppable.

“In addition, my businesses have bloomed, and my revenue has grown while I've been having babies. I have two businesses, three babies, and I work 100 days a year. I used to have a riveting career that I loved at the time, but I worked up to 100 hours a week, my health was the pits, and I rarely saw people I loved.”

Managing the juggle (when the buck stops with you)

At the other end of the spectrum, some business-owning parents – especially sole parents – were under extreme pressure, with one entrepreneur mum telling me, “I'm a single parent and unfortunately I haven't made most of my kids’ school events, as if I don't work, I don't get paid. I feel enormous pressure - especially during school holidays. I quite literally hate school holidays because it impacts my work: my customer service levels, my cash flow, my clients. It impacts my kids because I'm stressed, they're often home alone, their friends are on holidays.” 

Others could attend school events and manage pick ups and drop offs, but at the expense of their evenings and weekends. Architect Simone Strushko told me, “I used to work 40 hours a week at an architecture firm, I had no kids and I thought I was under pressure every day to get all my work done on time. I didn’t even know what pressure was. 

“A typical day now for me is 8:45am drop off, work until 2:40pm. Then school pick up and start work again around 3:30pm. At 6:30pm we have dinner, then I work again until 10:30 – 11.00pm. I realise that I am blessed to be able to do the school run and not have to pay for after-school care or a nanny. I keep telling myself how lucky I am to help out in the classroom and with excursions… but all the while I’m thinking about how much work I have to do.”

Risk, responsibility and reward

Being an entrepreneur comes with huge financial opportunity – you benefit directly from your own success. But it also comes without a guaranteed, regular pay check; you have to hustle for your income. This is particularly stressful when you are the breadwinner for your family. Not to mention when you have a team relying on the success of your business. 

For some, the demands of growing a successful small business simply involve too much sacrifice in the areas of family, relationships and self-care. Brett Roland, former owner of Brisbane hot spot, Brew, commented, “If you plan well and the cards fall in the right way in the long term, you will earn enough to be able to have the holidays, buy the toys, pay for a great education and have the lifestyle you want. But, unfortunately, in the short term – especially in the hospitality space - you will lose time that you’ll never get back with your family.”

Setting up your business for balance

So, what’s the verdict? Does being your own boss make it easier to balance kids with work?

The answer is – it depends. It depends on many things, including the sector you’re in, whether people work for you, whether you’re a sole parent, whether you’re the breadwinner, and much more. Safe to say, better balance doesn’t necessarily go with the territory of being a business owner.   

There’s an art to doing business in a way that allows you to achieve financial success, combined with the level of balance and flexibility you want. Here are some of the tips that business-owner parents shared with me.

1.     Have a solid plan

Make sure you have a plan – one that includes growth strategies and a clear idea of how you will eventually exit the business. Rapid growth can see you working completely unsustainable hours, leading to burn out (and of course, missed time with your family). It’s not great for your business either. And, unless you want to work in your business for the rest of your life, you better have an exit strategy.

2.     Expect to work hard, take big risks and learn a lot about yourself

In many cases, getting a small business up and running means pushing beyond your limits. This could mean operating way outside your comfort zone, jumping at opportunities that terrify you, or working punishing hours. According to Brett Roland, “You’ll do loads of hours of work, many more than you ever expected - and you will take risks that you never thought you would. You will learn a lot about yourself and a lot about the business world. You can’t learn this stuff at university or when you’re working for someone else. You are where the buck stops and it’s up to you to keep the business afloat. This brings out your true character like nothing else.”

3.     Prioritise your mental and physical health

I find this hard, with two small children and a business. But I’d be the first to acknowledge I need to work at it. Because, if you run yourself into the ground, who’s going to pay the bills? If you feel like crap, how are you going to run an amazing workshop, or give a ground-breaking speech? If you’re completely burnt out, how are you going to play with your kids or support your spouse?

Technology entrepreneur and coach, Cuan Mulligan, recommends getting to know your body – advice that he has taken so much to heart, that he undertook DNA testing. Armed with detailed information about his physical strengths and weaknesses, Cuan can support his body and operate at his peak. He says, “My hypothalamus is not very sensitive to cortisol, the stress hormone, so I overproduce it. I now take a supplement to help me self-regulate. Also, my body doesn’t produce a particular amino acid, so I take that now and I sleep like a baby. I also practice a method called circling, which helps you become more present in the moment and improves focus.”  

Whether you want to get scientific like Cuan, or simply eat better and exercise more, taking care of your own wellbeing needs to be part of your business plan.   

4.     Look after your personal relationships

Running a business can put a strain on your relationships, especially with your significant other. As parents, we get so busy running a household, as well as providing financially and emotionally for our kids, that we forget to turn towards each other, sharing our joys, stresses and frustrations.  Make sure you carve out time to switch off from work and nurture your precious relationships – including your spouse, parents, kids, siblings and best friends.

5.     Have a support team

Who’s on your squad? Many business-owning parents rely on family for support with managing school commitments, activities and the school run. Others have a great nanny, au pair or after-school care/daycare centre. Personally, I couldn’t live without my cleaner. When you have a support team you can trust, it makes it much easier to focus on what has to be done in your business.

6.     Manage your schedule like a ninja

Jackie Strachan, founder of consultancy HR Tactics, told me, “If it’s not in my diary, it doesn’t happen. As well as the obvious things like swimming and ballet, I schedule time in to do homework with my two children.” Jackie also recommends building some padding into the diary so that when priorities change, there’s scope to manage it. And finally, she says starting client work early is key, “Even if I make a very brief start and then go back to it closer to the finish line, it helps me stay emotionally balanced knowing I won’t have to pull an all-nighter the night before the deadline.” 

7.     Get the kids on board

Many business owners report that their kids are surprisingly up to speed with the business and what it entails. From being quiet in the car when a client calls, to helping with tasks like sticking on stamps, many kids relish the chance to be involved. My three-year-old still likes to shout ‘poo poo’ while I’m on important client calls, but it’s nice to know there’s hope for the future. 

8.     Know your non-negotiables

Being a business owner often means compromise – which makes it all the more important to know what your ‘non-negotiables’ are. This could mean that you don’t pick your kids up from school, but you do commit to spending holidays together. Or, it could mean that don’t bump your scheduled gym session because an urgent client project comes in, but you do work late to get it done. Whatever they are, knowing your non-negotiables means you won’t miss the things that really matter to you.   

In summary…

At one end of the spectrum, having your own business can allow you to design your working life around your home life while earning great money… at the other end it can require far greater sacrifice than you’re prepared to make. More likely, it will fall somewhere between those two extremes. To make the journey easier, get clear on your non-negotiables, schedule time for your own health and wellbeing, and put a strong support network in place.    


With thanks to all the entrepreneurs and small business owners who generously shared their insights and experiences for this article.

Kate Burke

Kate Burke is a freelance writer specialising in helping businesses to communicate clearly and tell their stories well. Since arriving in Australia in 2006, Kate has worked for brands including Brisbane City Council, Commonwealth Bank, Queensland Police Service and Opal Aged Care. Kate originally comes from the UK, where she spent a decade working in public relations and advertising, based in London. Kate is one of those annoying people who loves her job so much she can’t believe people pay her to do it. Being a freelance writer gives her the flexibility she needs to juggle work with caring for her two dynamite little people.

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