Boundaries over balance: How to juggle parenting with running a small business

Young father working at kitchen bench with his young daughter beside him

Tired of the term ‘work–life balance’? We hear you. First coined during the mid-1980s, ‘work–life balance’ is a notion many of us are still grappling with some 35 years later.

Research conducted by the Commonwealth found that 63% of small business owners identified finding a balance between the demands of work, family and personal pursuits as an ongoing source of stress in their lives. And, alarmingly, 43% of small business owners surveyed said they worked every weekend with no work–life balance.

The tension of which can lead to overload, strain, conflict and increased risk of poor mental health.

The concept of balance, just like the recently debunked myth of multi-tasking, can seem like it’s setting us up for failure. But a recent Harvard Business Review article offers a more sustainable substitute: ‘boundaries not balance’.

Clearly established boundaries help us to take care of ourselves and our relationships, particularly in times of transition. And having healthy boundaries also helps us to be clear about what’s most important – especially when our energy is limited.

Read on for eight strategies for small business owners surviving at the intersection of ambition and parenthood.

1. Plan your transition rituals

Technology has enabled us to not only take work home but also follow us everywhere. For many, answering emails late at night or sending invoices on the weekend is the norm.

Since the pandemic has further blurred our work and home boundaries, transitioning in and out of work mode is more important than ever to ensure we can be present during family time.

Strategies for intentionally transitioning back into family time include:

  • taking a walk around the block
  • serving everyone a snack (or dinner) and chatting about the day
  • playing a game
  • playing a song aloud to help signal to yourself (and your kids) it’s now time to switch off from work and show up in life.

2. Make the boundaries visible

If you’re running a business from home, use physical indicators to communicate when you are free and when you need quiet.

For closed spaces, this could be a shut door or a ‘do not disturb’ sign.

For open spaces, use a traffic light system (where red equals do not disturb and green equals available), or wear a hat to indicate when you aren’t free.

Another useful technique is drawing a visual line between ‘work’ time and ‘home’ time – for example, throwing a sheet over your workspace, switching off your work phone, closing the laptop or switching off the computer.

3. Know your work–life management style

Are you a ‘separator’ who likes to have clear boundaries between work and home, an ‘integrator’ who can easily mix work and personal time during the day, or a cycler whose work fluctuates throughout the year?

Understanding what your work–life style is can help you to be more effective in balancing your career and family – and more effective at managing others too.

For more on how you can work to your strengths, plus a self-assessment tool to help you determine your style, download Managing work–life boundaries in the digital age on Research Gate.

4. Divide and conquer the mental load

If you’re in a relationship, be creative about how you, as a couple, will manage the mental load.

Discuss your priorities and values and consider different ways to split the working week between you and your partner. Understand what you and your partner need from each other and be prepared to negotiate regularly on routines and priorities – it’s not a ‘set and forget’ task.

There’s no set playbook for how to balance your work with parenthood, but Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play comes close. It includes easy-to-follow rules, 100 household tasks and a card game that teaches couples how to create a new system for balancing domestic responsibilities and carve out time for creative pursuits, too.

5. Ask, don’t assume

As a working parent in a small business, it’s important to know what resources, options, support and entitlements are available to help manage work–life conflict. Without the support of HR teams and professionals, finding help is often yet another burden on already overwhelmed parents.

Ask other parents in small businesses what has been helpful for them and learn from each other. Awareness is growing around the cost of work–life conflict, and there are a growing amount of resources available, like the Australian Human Rights Commission’s resources for Supporting Working Parents.

6. What do I want to see when I look back ?

Another helpful way to think about setting boundaries is to use a time collapse technique and ask yourself, ‘Thinking about my business or family in a year’s time, when I look back at what we’ve all been through, what do I want their experience to have been? What are the things that I most want them to remember about the way we were as a team during this time?’

7. Clear your internal chatter

Whenever we look at carrying out a change like setting healthy boundaries, it’s critical we identify any internal chatter that may be sabotaging our ability to keep them.

We can have the best work–life strategies at hand but if we don’t set up a good foundation, we will find our new routine difficult to sustain. This could result in a return to old habits or a refusal to seek out helpful resources if you don’t feel like you deserve to access them.

A useful technique to challenge any unhelpful thoughts around boundaries is to find an alternative and more helpful thought.

For example, if you’re thinking, ‘I should be able to have it all (and do it perfectly)’, challenge that statement with one grounded in reality such as ‘No one can have it all or do it all at once – this is an unrealistic thought that sets us up for disappointment or frustration.’

Next, spend some time thinking about a more helpful thought and set some realistic personal aspirations (which can move with different life and parenting stages) and are achievable and in keeping with your values.

8. Build your lighthouse

We use a lighthouse tool to help people ‘get out of autopilot’ mode so they can make conscious choices about how they want to integrate work and life. As we navigate the uncharted waters of COVID‑19, getting clear on what is most important – our values – is a helpful way to prioritise our precious time and energy.

Once we have built our lighthouse, it’s vital that we don’t leave it on the horizon. We need to bring it into the here and now so that it can guide our everyday behaviours. For example, if staying healthy is one of our values, then what actions can we take each day to stay well – like going for a walk or prioritising sleep over ‘just one more’ Netflix episode!

In short, the need to be intentional about setting clear boundaries for ourselves is critical. If we don’t take responsibility for how we integrate work and life (especially in small business), who will? No one else will do it for us.

For more help

Justine Alter

Psychologist and Co-Founder and Director | Transitioning Well

Justine Alter is a registered psychologist, work–life transition expert and Co-Director of Transitioning Well. With a Masters in Organisational Psychology and over 17 years of experience in short-term individual counselling, coaching and training, Justine has a passion in supporting people, and health and wellbeing at all levels of the organisation.