Harriette Foulkes-Arnold is the founder of The Contented Agency, a remote-first agency focused on delivering excellent content by a global team, free to work in the best way for them. She has three daughters, including three-year-old twins and believes in a truly flexible approach to business – brands get the very best content when people are empowered to focus on and pursue the things that matter to them.
I meant to write this weeks ago as the holidays were starting, but as many parents of young children will know, from late July until early September, your time is not your own. Instead you become an arts and crafts, sports-loving children’s entertainer with snacks provided on demand. So rather than this article being something vaguely helpful for navigating the holidays, it’s really a reflection on taking the rough with the smooth and making all the good advice out there truly work for you. If you find that this resonates with you, we would love to hear from you. It’s always great to hear you’re not alone!
I’m going to come out and say it. School summer holidays suck. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re really important for teachers and children; especially teachers for a well-deserved break from their pupils! But for the majority of parents, school holidays are a mix of constant juggling between work commitments, guilt-trips, trying to be present with your rapidly growing children and having some time to yourself to unwind and catch up on sleep. The struggle is real and you end the day wondering if you are ever going to win at work or home. If you’re anything like me, I feel the growing dread of school holidays around the start of July, when term end is nearing, my daughters are ready for a break and the summer camps, babysitters and anyone else I can think of, tell me I’m too late to book my kids in.
The average work holiday allowance is 25 days. The average summer school holiday is 33 days. You’re likely never going to be able to be with your kids the whole time and that’s something I have had to accept and embrace. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty at times, but these are a few thoughts on how I’ve had days when I’ve felt like I’m winning. Okay, maybe not entire days, but at least an hour or so!
- Lean in to your village (but know that this means asking for help)
Whether that’s your partner, grandparents, other working parents who are willing to host a playdate, or summer camps. Children don’t just need their parents, they need friends, teachers, a community around them. Having a village around you means you are not alone. It doesn’t have to be a large number of people, even two or three can help ease the burden but a village gives you respite, reinforcement and as the military would have it, a divide and conquer tactic. Sharing the responsibilities means you’re not alone. But you need to be able to ask for help, and that is something that for me is a work in progress. All I can tell you is that when I reach out for help, I already feel supported. I can be vulnerable, allow myself to say ‘I can’t do this alone’ and people come to my rescue. Go on, give it a try.
- Work flexibly (but be prepared for the challenges that this brings)
I understand that for many people, flexible hours aren’t an option. But have you asked? Since the pandemic, more and more companies are encouraging their employees to work from home or have varying start/finish times. Have you had the chat with your boss about the options open to you? These tips for making a flexible working request and the Working Families flexible working guide may help in taking this step.
If, like me, you can be more flexible with your work, try to complete mundane tasks like sifting through emails, sorting folders, raising invoices and general office admin when the kids are watching a film or playing in the garden (or during nap time if you’re lucky enough for that to still be a thing)! Set them up with an activity (nothing too messy or on your head be it when there’s paint all over the carpet), explain that you need half an hour and then you can be with them without having to be involved. I’m not talking hours; no three year old is going to sit quietly for ages. But it does mean you can be savvy with the tasks that need doing, but don’t require your full attention. And if you have lots of household jobs to do, involve your kids. Get them to help sort the washing, prepare lunch or tidy a cupboard. Yes, they are on holiday, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful and learn from you while helping you to complete a task.
Flexible working is sometimes talked about as a luxury and a catch-all solution for the busy-ness of our lives. But it doesn’t come without its challenges and sacrifices. For me, it’s sleep. I wake at 5 and do a few hours before anyone is up or needing much. Then I can have some time with my girls without worrying about the mountain of work I need to do. Maybe it’s working late into the night and having a lazy morning. Split up your hours throughout the day, ensuring you get some time to be with your kids. Efficiency with your time also means you need to say no to some things. If you work for yourself it might be taking on less work or being honest with your clients about timelines and plans.
- Have a plan (just know that your plans WILL change)
I often find I’m living week by week but when I can, I do make a plan, especially during the summer holidays. Schedule the times when you can be present, whether that’s a trip out somewhere or just a couple of hours playing in the garden or visiting friends. Connect with your child(s’) friends parents/guardians and work out if there are any play dates you can arrange to help each other out. Take the pressure off yourself to fill your kids’ days with endless fun things. They also need time to relax and unwind. We recently went to Spain and introduced quiet time every day. The girls could nap, read (not entirely sure what my 3 year-old twins were doing when they chose the reading option but they did manage to stay fairly quiet) or do some colouring. It meant we got to also chill and actually read! And yes there was a sweet if they stayed quiet, because who doesn’t love a bit of bribery?
But as anyone knows with children, plans often change. And that’s ok too. Allow yourself the freedom to let go of your plans. Listen to what you and your children need and don’t give yourself a hard time when you decide it’s pizzas for dinner, for the third meal in a row!
- Be kind to yourself (whether that’s taking a 20 min shower with the door locked* or going for a 10k run)
Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to be present with your kids when you can. It can be relentless and you don’t need to pretend it isn’t. We all have difficult days. Reward yourself where you can, whether that’s with fitness, a quiet 30 mins with a coffee, or a good old Disney with the kids. Forget about the social media advice telling us what we should do for ‘wellness’ and listen to what you need. Don’t thrash yourself trying to get your fastest 5k time when you actually need to slow right down and take a walk. It’s also ok to have some time away from your children. I really struggle with this one. If I’m not working then I should be playing with/feeding/generally keeping my girls alive, right? Well if I don’t look after myself then they’re not going to have a very healthy Mummy! This is definitely not something I’ve mastered yet but I am trying to take small steps.
I hope this has been helpful; to be honest, just writing this has been good for my soul. And if you’re reading this thinking I have no idea what this woman is talking about, I’ve had a fantastic summer with my kids, that’s super. Just know that there are men and women around you who have found it hard and who are looking forward to the school term starting. Maybe give them some time when you see them at the school gates and actually make a date in the diary for a catch up, rather than the classic ‘we must meet up soon’. Happy September everybody, roll on Christmas!
*if you know you know