Work-life balance is a term that is becoming more important as digital media blurs the boundaries between work and home life. In an age with flexi hours and where we are always contactable via smart phone, the question becomes, are we really managing that balance, given that the average Singaporean spent 2,371.2 hours at work in 2016! (reference AsiaOne 28 July 2017).
In our competitive society, it seems impossible for married couples to juggle work-life demands – how do you pursue meaningful work, an intimate marital relationship and bring up three or more emotionally well-balanced kids who would continue to embrace the Catholic faith and virtues? How easy is it for one or both spouses to neglect the needs of the family due to work commitments? Can the modern-day married couple really ‘have it all’?
The Gospel of work
What does the Church have to say about work, which is often seen as a ‘necessary evil’? Man, who was created in the image and likeness of God, was given the dual responsibility of tilling the soil (Gen 2:15) and of abstaining from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (2:17). From the beginning, God gave Adam dominion over the plants and animals that He had created and charged him to care and to tend it with a priestly service. Man is to serve and guard the world that God had entrusted to him, keeping it safe and pure from profanation and abuse. By this task, Man is to worship God. Thus, in God’s plan from the beginning, Man becomes Holy through work.
Indeed in Laborem Exercens (LE) (1981), Pope St John Paul II affirmed that work is Holy – it feeds our family, transforms the temporal world, and it brings about growth and fulfillment to the individual. Whether as white- or blue-collar workers, we are challenged to uphold the dignity of man even as we drive towards contributing to a successful organisation.
Pope St John Paul II reminds us in LE that labour is the participation in the work of the Creator and the Redeemer. Jesus was a man of work and proclaims the Gospel of Work. By enduring the toil of work in union with Jesus Christ, we unite ourselves with the sufferings of Christ and participate in His redemptive work.
It is important for married couples to discover the true meaning of work and to put this to the service of the family through finding work-life balance. A parent who says “I am working to build up my retirement fund so that I can retire after 40 and be able to enjoy myself” is not teaching their kids the right values of work. On the other hand, a parent who says “I work to feed my family and make best use of my talents to help others through my secular work” edifies their children.
We become more human as we work for the benefit of others, for those who gain directly from our daily work and also the families of our colleagues when we help to build viable organisations. Having work-life balance will help us to prioritise the well-being of our family while doing our work well. Children form their attitudes towards work by watching their parents and they will hopefully proclaim the Gospel of work when they grow up and join the workforce.
Let us hear from Julia on how she and her husband Paul are striving to live the dream of work-life balance in reality.
Learning to take a different view
Paul and Julia have been married for 10 years and have four kids between the ages of nine and two. Paul works in his family’s property business while Julia is a part-time Human Capital consultant in an oil and gas company.
“We met in late 2004 through the Verbum Dei missionary community here. Both of us had recently graduated from the US and returned to Singapore to start work – I to serve my bond, and Paul as a regular in the Armed Forces,” explains Julia. “We were both coming out of unhealthy relationships and thus began our story, a dramatic comedy of errors. Long story short, we were married in September 2008, and our marriage experience started out on a solid footing – with a one-week pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela for our honeymoon. We were very much in love, and annoyingly affectionate – for about two months.”
Growing up, Julia had a very specific dream – to be married with two kids before she was 30 years old. God seemed keen to give her a boost to fulfill that childhood wish as she married close to 30 and quickly found herself pregnant with their first child, Ryan, born in July 2009.
“As a ‘blindly faithful’ Catholic couple who did not use any form of contraception, faster than you could say NFP (which for the record, we had not been trained in at the time), we were blessed with two more children: Eden Joy in 2011 and Erin Grace in 2013. We lived comfortably as a double income family and, to the outside world, we appeared extremely efficient in our family planning. In reality, there had been no plans or discussions,” says Julia.
The couple never talked specifically about their career ambitions, neither did they have a clear vision of the “lifestyle” they wanted to achieve, but they both had idealistic dreams. Julia wanted to “save the world”, specifically children, and Paul wanted to rid it of terrorists. Through their journey with the Verbum Dei community, the idea of being a missionary couple also lingered at the back of their minds.
Making tough choices
Soon after Eden was born, Julia began to be concerned with the demands that Paul’s role in the Army was having on him and how that was impacting family life. He would sometimes be sent overseas at short notice and, at the time, the world seemed unstable.
Not blind to the issues, Paul left the Army in 2012 to work in his family business, partly to give himself the flexibility to be a more involved father and husband. However, in doing so, he also took a significant pay cut, and Julia found herself being the main breadwinner.
“When I became pregnant with Erin the following year, I began to feel pangs of the notorious “mom guilt”. Both Ryan and Eden had gone through phases at the toddler stage where they wanted our helper more than me,” Julia recalls. “The pain of that was scarring, and, each time, I would become very emotional and want to quit my job.”
After many months of deliberating whether she should hand in her notice and be a stay-at-home mom, Julia picked up the courage to request a part-time work arrangement. It was not an easy transition for her as she still had the same work responsibilities, but fewer hours in which to deliver the same results for less pay. The trade-off was that she could leave work early. Yet, she found herself having to catch up on her work at night.
“It was also emotionally trying at work when my colleagues passed judgement on my work arrangement and made me feel like I was a drain on resources,” Julia explains. “Despite the negativity, this was what I wanted – to be able to have more time with my little children. And so I ploughed on, giving my best at work and at home.”
Occasionally, the question of regret came up in conversations for the couple. There was guilt that perhaps one had not reached one’s professional potential, added to the stress of resources running out: time, energy, mind space, finances.
Financial strain puts a strain on the marriage
The couple’s income had reduced significantly, and, perhaps a little late in the day, they began to realise that they needed to make lifestyle changes.
“These decisions created tension between Paul and I in big ways and small,” Julia recalls. “I started to nit-pick about little things, like Paul buying new sports shoes that I thought were unnecessary, for example. We changed the kindergarten that our children went to so that it would be more affordable, but I resented the fact that our younger kids couldn’t get the same educational experience as the older two. We even sold our house to provide ourselves some financial buffer.”
Julia would even suggest going back to work full-time. Even though it was something she really didn’t want to do, she felt that the family wouldn’t be able to survive without additional financial resources.
Getting into deeper water
To add to the stress, Julia gave birth to their fourth child, Tara, in 2016. It was a very emotional time, especially when her mother, who had been the main caregiver to the children, felt she couldn’t help as much and suggested putting Tara in infant care.
“This filled me with remorse as once again,” Julia explains. “I felt that we were being unfair to our children. Shortly after, I was made redundant at work. This was a huge blow to me personally, and also to us as a family, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was hired for a contract position that was flexible and part-time. This meant that I could spend time with Tara in the morning until her first nap before going to work and leaving my helper with her. This greatly alleviated the burden on my mother and I also didn’t have to resort to infant care. Still, the voices of guilt, worry and discontent did not leave me.”
A paradigm shift
It was at this time that Paul and Julia were introduced to the Couple Empowerment Programme. At first, they were reluctant to join, given the new addition to the family and an ongoing recalibration of where they were in life. But the CEP family rallied around and, as they journeyed together, they began to make sense of their calling as a married couple and as parents. They also met many couples who were juggling work, large families and couple ministry work, but who somehow exuded a deep joy and peace despite the obvious difficulties they faced. They seemed grounded and down to earth in their marital spirituality and strategies.
Paul and Julia learnt importantly that God does not want them to become slaves to their work, but rather that through embracing the toil of work, they should glorify Him.
“Each of us are called differently; no guilt and envy is necessary as I am where God wants me to be at this moment,” affirms Julia.
Through CEP, they also learnt that work/life balance requires them to make purposeful choices to carve out time for each other (by going on dates) and also to deliberately make family a priority. Small changes like Julia not checking emails after hours and Paul avoiding late meetings made a big difference.
“Many of us tend to think that a quieter day will come – it won’t. Being Holy is about being present in the here and now,” explains Julia of her insights through CEP.
People often ask the couple how they manage being working parents and having four kids, and for Paul and Julia it has been the need to shift the paradigm. You can’t have four children and be “balanced” in the sense of being in a static state of comfort and ease. Instead the couple has learnt to live in a state of dynamic balance. It’s not about “having it all”, but about giving your all to those you have, and about choosing what is really worth having.
The couple continues to make trade-offs, some more difficult than others. They recognise that they are not a perfect island unto themselves and are not afraid to call for help. And when they make mistakes, they try to remember to seek reconciliation.
“Most importantly, we have grown closer together as a married couple,” Julia concludes, “learning to lean even more on God and to stay united. We’re not living the dream we had 10 years ago, but we’re shaping our reality to realise God’s dream for us.”
Couple Empowerment Programme
Starting 23 March 2019 @ Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
Truly live out your marriage promises to each other with this catechesis and formation programme, which helps you to build a strong, emotionally intelligent family. Register at http://tinyurl.com/CEPRegForm
Childminding services are provided.