This is the time of year when I often hear from other parents with autistic kids, or kids with other kinds of complex challenges.
It’s the same time of year that often found our own family in crisis: Far enough into the school year that classroom meltdowns or calls from the principal could no longer be written off as transitional struggles. Close enough to the beginning of the year that, even after we switched to homeschooling, we were still working out how each day or week would unfold, what amount of schoolwork was achievable or even desirable, and what our at-home strategies would be on the days things went sideways.
I was reminded of the pain and exhaustion of this season through a few recent conversations with parents going through the very struggles that characterized our family life for more than a decade. It only takes a couple of minutes talking with the mom of another autistic kiddo for me to remember exactly what it was like to live from crisis to crisis, never knowing when I’d have to leave the office to pick up a distraught child, or set aside a looming deadline in order to keep my son safe.
Most of us experience periods of intense challenge during some part of our working lives: Moments when our personal, health or family situation pulls intensely from the time and attention we have for work. It’s hard to avoid these stretches of intense work/life conflict, even if you have found your way to a schedule that genuinely leaves time for your creative commitments, a spouse or partner who carries a significant part of the load, and the financial resources to get extra help when you need it.
When life shows you limits
Life will at some point show you the limits of your artfully crafted work-life arrangement. And when it does—when you’re truly so overwhelmed that you don’t know how to keep your job and keep going—you will likely discover that the modern workplace is not really set up for the intensity of our whole human lives.
You may well have a job that provides enough flexibility for the occasional round of flu, the aging parent who needs help getting to a medical test, or the marriage counselling appointment you book for alternate Fridays. You may only encounter the edges of that flexibility when you need room for a family member with a chronic illness, a parent who needs daily caregiving or the extended grief of a major breakup.
Even in these moments, it is possible to persist and survive. When I talk with other parents who are experiencing the level of intense crisis that characterized our home for more than a decade, I wonder how the heck I made it through….but the truth is, I not only kept working, but I actually advanced in my career, published a book and became a lot healthier in the process.
Here are the strategies that helped me during a very long decade of crisis. They’re definitely not strategies that are available in every career situation or role, but I hope that there are pieces that just about anyone can borrow or re-imagine.
1. Make work a source of renewal.
Early in our years of crisis I realized that as long as our home life required so much mental, emotional physical energy, I just could not have a job that drained me, too. I was incredibly lucky to have the option to do work I found satisfying and enjoyable (writing, speaking, nerding out with Excel), but I also passed on potentially exciting opportunities if they risked increasing our stress load.
If you’re in an extended crisis, try to move your work towards projects and roles that feel regenerative, and away from work that feels taxing or stressful, even if it means slowing your advancement.
2. Work on long deadlines with limited contact.
When I first started working from home while homeschooling, I was doing consulting work that involved a lot of phone calls and a lot of next-day turnaround time. But I soon found out that I was far less able to cope with kid crises when I had un-interruptable phone calls and can’t-miss deadlines.
Restructuring my work to be less interdependent and deadline-driven made the tension between work and family much less acute. Doing more solo work meant there were fewer calls to interrupt, and shifting to work with long lead times meant I didn’t have to whip through crises in order to hit a deadline. But I had to get over my habit of using imminent deadlines as the fuel for my work, and instead learn to hit deadlines well in advance in case a meltdown hit the day before an actual deadline.
Without the tension of client phone calls and looming deadlines, I was a lot more relaxed in handling our son’s meltdowns, and that in turn helped to de-escalate his toughest moments.
3. Maximize your visible work.
Even though we spent a decade in personal crisis, I was able to sustain some professional momentum, because just about all of my work was external-facing and visible—in the form of newspaper bylines, speaking engagements and content marketing projects I could point to publicly. What came off my plate was the portion of my work and income that used to take place behind the scenes, like online strategy and consulting.
While journalism may be an exceptionally visible form of work, social media (as well as internal organizational communications channels) mean that most of us have opportunities to make our work visible, even if it’s just by posting about our most recent projects or clients.
As much as possible, try to pick clients and projects you can talk about by name, because if your crisis situation means you’re only going to be working on one or two things for a while, it’s helpful to be able to talk about them publicly so that you don’t have to go dark professionally.
4. Pay for support in whatever form(s) you can afford.
One benefit of running my own shop, and working with a billable hour, is that I’m really clear the financial pay-off from each hour of productive working time I can create by hiring support. If you know the monetary value of each additional hour you can invest in work (and especially, if you have billable work or a side hustle that can turn additional hours into immediate dollars), you can identify whether and how to pay for additional support.
During the decade when our total available working hours (and even more, mental and emotional capacity) were so limited, we prioritized spending money on creating more capacity—which sometimes meant hiring people to help with billable work, and sometimes meant hiring people to help with our kids or on the domestic front. We drive really old cars and have barely started to save for retirement, but we were able to keep our careers moving forward, because we have had amazing people helping us on both the work and home fronts.
It’s a privilege to have the money to hire help, and a different kind of privilege to have family or friends who step up when paid support is out of reach. Even people with means may feel uneasy about the politics of domestic labor, the financial consequences of paying for help, or the logistics of hiring. All I can say is, nothing has done more for our kids’ well-being, our personal health or our professional effectiveness. And the relationships we have built with the wonderful people who have worked in our home and in our business have been deeply meaningful and mutually beneficial.
5. Invest in your own capacity.
No, I’m not talking about professional development conferences: I’m talking about investing in your mental, physical and emotional capacity. We often talk about things like sleep, healthy eating and exercise as “self-care”, but I look at it as maintaining the tools of your trade.
Just like a carpenter won’t leave an expensive saw out where it could get destroyed by rain, a knowledge worker can’t afford to get run down by an ongoing crisis. The more difficult our personal circumstances became, the more diligent I was about getting enough sleep, booking regular therapy appointments, eating very carefully and consistently, exercising regularly, and eventually, cutting out the booze and pot.
It may sound horrifically Spartan, but I can tell you it is a lot less horrifying than trying to cope with a stressful work deadline and a screaming kid while also feeling baked over.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.