Penelope Chan is the Contributing Beauty Editor at Her World.
In October last year, I switched from a full-time work to a half-day arrangement. This decision was inevitable. I’d been growing increasingly unhappy with the imbalance between my work and personal life. I was irritable, impatient and constantly tired, and my kids were all but raising themselves. My mental well-being, physical health and family all needed urgent tending.
Prior to this, my husband and I would have a talk every few months about how either one of us should be home with our kids. We knew that the children would benefit all around, whether with their school work, handling of relationships or outlook on life. Knowing that the most practical person to do so would be me, I would simply nod and change the subject. Again and again, we rounded back to the issue. And again and again, I held back. I wasn’t confident that I had the skills or temperament to embrace the “mum” part of “working mum”. Besides, I liked being financially independent. It just seemed easier to keep the status quo and the “peace”.
But the status quo didn’t give me any peace. Life was one big rush every day, from one task to another. I would sink into an exhausted sleep at night, but have restless dreams. I often had nightmares about dropping the ball on something and would wake up with my heart pounding.
Two years ago, I had an autoimmune flare-up. The disease was attacking my kidneys and my rheumatologist increased my steroids dosage five-fold. It was probably stress, my doctor told me. The side effect of the meds was brain fog, the result of which made me even more stressed out. I missed things I would normally have caught and made stupid mistakes. I felt like I was several steps behind everyone else, all the time.
I realise now that I was truly sick then – my health was paying for my dedication to my job. The meds did their job and the flare- up subsided. Things went back to “normal”. But when the Covid-19 pandemic happened, I found myself suddenly at home 24/7. My husband continued to go to the office while I worked from home. It was frustrating because a thousand more responsibilities now fell on me, but it was also strangely fulfilling. I had first-hand insight into what my kids got up to all day and could see how they were benefiting from having me at home.
The better balance helped not just my mental outlook, but my health as well. I wasn’t constantly on the brink of an autoimmune flare-up, and could tell my husband what the kids had achieved, like “See what I managed to get the kids to do today” and “See what we’ve accomplished”. Being a work-from-home mother, as opposed to a working mum, seemed doable. I felt more empowered and confident, because I felt more in control.
My husband and I had another talk and, this time, we agreed that I would take a gap year, so to speak, for myself and for our family. Two of my daughters have national exams this year and my son is starting Primary 1 (and woefully unprepared for it). They would benefit from having a parent around to support them. We made some difficult decisions about our finances and prepped our kids for what to expect – I don’t think they fully realised what they were getting into.
Being on a half-day work schedule has given me the space and flexibility to manage my day well. I now have the leeway to say “no”. I’m realistic about what I can achieve given my reduced hours, so when a new work task comes my way, I ask myself if it would take me away from the time my family and health are entitled to have. If that answer is “yes”, then my answer to the work is “no”.
While I don’t have the luxury of dropping my work at a fixed time every day, I get to enjoy many more non-work moments. I take the time to write creatively, swim, pray and meditate. I listen to my kids’ chatter and laugh with them. I think, plan and prioritise the different aspects of my life as an editor, daughter, parent, wife and friend.
This new arrangement has improved my well-being and relationships greatly. I’ve learnt how to identify when I’m stressed out and irritable, and am learning how to stay calm when my kids act up. I have time to see to the needs of other people.
I’m now a little over the halfway mark of my year out from full-time work, and will soon have to make a decision about whether to extend this arrangement or get back into the swing of things. Whatever I decide, though, I know with certainty that taking a step back this year was the right decision.
This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue of Her World.