Balancing School, Work, and Life

A lot of us find it hard to go back to work after a long vacation or parental leave. In my case the challenge was to go back to school after staying home for 3,290 days.

I immigrated to Canada from Pakistan in 1997 with my husband and 8-month old daughter. In my past life I had been a journalist, writing for the largest English-language daily newspaper in Karachi, Pakistan. Before that, I’d had the privilege of working as a business reporter in one of India’s largest papers - the only stock exchange journal published out of Mumbai, the commercial and financial capital of the country.

But all this experience meant nothing after I was benched - the hockey term for being parked out of your job. We had another child, and then I tried to get a job. With no extended family in Canada, the simple task of going for an interview seemed impossible, as my husband - the only earning member in the family - would have to take a day off to look after our kids.

The interviews seldom resulted in job offers. Even when they did, putting two kids in daycare would have left me with pocket change at the end of the month. We did the math and decided that I would stay home till our younger child went to full day school.

After nine years of staying at home, I thought I was ready to face the world. However, I was under no illusions about gaining employment of any kind - let alone in my field of work - without some sort of Canadian qualification.

After much research I decided to enrol in a one-year journalism program being taught out of Sheridan College’s Oakville campus. The program was the Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers, and we would be the first class to graduate from the program a year later. The classes were scheduled on weeknights and Saturdays.

Although I missed dinner with the family almost every evening, I was spared daycare expenses, and while my children were in school I could do my homework and continue my role as lunchroom supervisor in their elementary school. The children were used to seeing me involved in their lives so this setup sounded great.

Except that I soon realised something: while it was not as hard on the kids, it was tiring for me. I had to be creative in order to balance my studies, work, children, housework, their homework and my homework too.

Soon family pictures on the refrigerator gave way to test schedules - one each for the two kids, and one for me. Birthday parties and fun stuff which would find their way on the family calendar turned into assignment deadlines and soon BBQ invitations and soccer matches were declined, as “our mum has a test, or she is in school, so we cannot come!”

The fact that my husband worked six days a week didn’t help. Swimming lessons, skating lessons, and art classes were missed and eventually dropped. March break was all about the kids staying home, as reading week in college didn’t coincide with March break across the Peel District School Board.

By the end of my first semester, I was toast. I had a houseful of unhappy kids and an impatient partner. While I’d tried hard to balance everything, for them it was all about Mum’s schedule. And I still had 2 more semesters and a work placement to finish before I got my diploma. I had to change my strategy.

Around Sunday dinner we decided that each child could pick one activity, preferably on the same day, so that we as parents were not too stretched.

Almost like magic, their attitude changed, as they realised that we were folding their needs into our schedule. While I felt I had done my fair share of taking them to activities while I was a stay-at-home mum, kids live in the present and they didn’t like me not being there.

This change in strategy helped. The rest of the year flew past with fewer glitches than I had anticipated. I finished my internship and graduated at the top of my class.

Now I am a working mum, and prefer to work at two part-time jobs. This permits me the flexibility to spend time with the kids, as well as earn a living wage that also allows for a mini-vacation here and a shopping spree there.

Tips for a healthy work life balance:

• Plan ahead - make schedules and stick to them
• Make sure you factor in some down time on the children’s terms to make them feel important. If anything, let your social life take a back seat not theirs
• Be picky on how you want to spend your limited free time. Don’t waste it on activities or people who sap your energy
• Let the decision to go back to school be a family decision and not just yours alone. If they are part of the decision they will also help with the solution
• While you must let the family feel they are important, also stick to your schedule and do not compromise the time you’ve set aside for assignments or homework
• Best to go off and study in the local library, free from the distractions of home
• Keep a vacation as an incentive for after you are done with school

Canadian Newcomer Issue 44