Family Marriage Work-Life Balance

Cover Story: What does Work-Life balance really mean?

What does Work-Life balance really mean?

The urban Indian family is faced with the dilemma of ‘work-life balance’ everyday. There are innumerable tips and advice available on how to maintain work life balance but in reality are they really practical? How do real couples with demanding careers, busy lives, young kids and hectic social calendars manage to do all this in real life?

Mr. Wilfred Davidar, an IAS officer and his wife Dr.Shanthi Davidar, a psychiatrist, definitely have had a lot of experience in this area. Being a civil servant and maintaining a medical practice while raising three sons has given them a wealth of experience that is worth sharing with those in similar situations. In this in-depth, deeply personal interview, they share how they learned to balance the needs of their family with the demands of building successful careers.

Can you provide a little bit of background about your family?
My wife and I met through a mutual friend, were engaged in a week’s time and married six months later in 1989. I was then an IAS officer at my first posting and Shanthi a medical doctor with two years experience. We began married life in Aranthangi in Tamil Nadu. The boys soon came along. Ashwinth, the eldest arrived (1990) when we were still in Aranthangi; he is now in his final year of MA Social Work.

Abhishekan (1993) was born when we were at Madurai and Shanthi was doing a year-long PG diploma in Counselling; he is now a first year Medical student. Ashikanth the youngest (1995), born in Chennai, is now in his final year in school. With babies being born, bags to pack and careers to develop we really had to work at maintaining a work life balance.

What is work-life balance to you?
Work-life balance is to recognise that one needs to work to sustain the family and fulfil life’s ambitions while at the same time not getting carried away with the periodic push of adrenalin to be seen as an achiever at the cost of the family. Work-life balance in this context is also to recognise that there is a definite calling on each one as husband/ father and wife/mother apart from earning incomes. The pressure to disregard the balance is equal for both husband and wife.

Is it possible in reality?
It is possible – but not easy. In the early years there is a tendency to run like crazy and get pumped up whenever there is a feeling of accomplishment. Added to this is a sense of satisfaction every time you know it’s been a job done well. In fact, the tendency is to stop only when you are personally satisfied with your performance levels (internal standards) and this can adversely affect the balance.

If my self esteem comes from a progressive career, earning capacity, status levels and so on, it will be difficult. The realisation of the futility of ‘chasing the wind’ can come in quite late. In such a situation, work-life balance will be hard to come by. Add to this, an attitude that family life will find a balance of its own and this is a recipe for disaster.

How did you maintain the balance in your home through the years?
We were able to fairly maintain this balance to the best of our ability by always filling in each other’s gaps. Let me explain – when I have been on a tough assignment, Shanthi has made it a point to be available to the boys and vice-versa. We made it a point to spend some good quality time with our sons, often trying a bit of de-briefing at the end of the day.

It has also meant going on vacations together, eating out, celebrating birthdays, trade fair visits, feeding each son’s interest in sports/music, ensuring our presence at their school days/sports days and the like. We need to mention that as they grew up, their desires, interests and approach to the time spent with us changed. There interests were different and it seemed wiser to consult them on various things while gently telling them the ‘non-negotiables’.

How did you make time for each other and your marriage?
There’s so much to this that it’s difficult to make a list as though it was all planned and meticulously executed. Sundays were kept free. This required some degree of ‘explaining’ to our managers that we had a commitment to God and family. Openness, telling each other the stories of the day, excitement on the progress that the boys were making – all of this made it very easy to have lots of fun at home. When you have fun at home it’s easy to disconnect from work.

However, when there was pressure at the workplace, it took quite an effort to unwind and connect with each other. We had to work harder when both of us got heavily involved in work and other commitments. However, we were quick to pick up the warning signals that we were not spending enough time with each other and that is the key. We also really enjoyed our prayer times together.

What were the challenges you faced while trying to maintain this balance?
Ensuring a relaxed time with each other as husband and wife on a daily basis during high pressure assignments was definitely a challenge. There was a time after our third son was born when we had to make a difficult choice. Shanthi had to complete her studies in psychiatry in Madurai, 300km away, while I had to get on with one of my biggest assignments at that stage of my career.

I was posted as District Collector of Vellore (District Magistrate/DC) and Shanthi could not give up her course in psychiatry. All three kids stayed with me and that proved to be an amazing experience for both of us – not that we enjoyed it. Shanthi had to force herself away from the family on each visit, while I had to ensure that the kids were well cared for. The boys were 7 years, 4 years and 2 years respectively.

My mother lent a helping hand and stayed with us at Vellore to look after the boys. We managed that period because we knew that there was a calling on Shanthi that meant she had to complete her course in psychiatry.

Were there any sacrifices you had to make with either the family or work?
‘Sacrifices’ imply a hardship connected with family life, of having to give up something dear to oneself for the sake of the family. This is not entirely true for us. On the other hand, getting lost in one’s own individual pursuits will definitely lead to friction. At the core of our relationship, both of us are one in knowing that God united us and is in control and even a difficult decision is fine knowing that it is ‘God in that situation’. This has helped us to enjoy most things – even when it appeared to be a ‘sacrifice’.

What did you enjoy doing most with your family?
Going out as a family and especially so when we were on trips together. All three kids play musical instruments and when we are in the mood we have a great time of singing and music. In fact, over the past few years, Christmas time has seen us cooking up a small production and performing at small family functions and that has been a time of great fun.

One more aspect about the family scene is when we have serious discussions on issues that concern us. We discuss finances, future plans, career discussions, life issues and so on. Everyone gets serious and it’s been fulfilling to experience the concerns and depth of what family relationships are all about.

What were some of the things you had to guard against to build a healthy marriage and family?
One has to be on guard all the time on a wide- ranging set of issues. Inability to spend time with one another is definitely an indicator that things are slipping. Feeling each other’s pulse and needs at any given point of time helped us both to connect at all times in the marriage. Personal, selfish ambitions and a one-track mind that the family gets time only when ones ambitions are fulfilled has destroyed many a marriage and we were aware of that. If husband and wife are not careful, the soul of the marriage can be lost and may lead to emptiness in the relationship while the ‘shell’ remains intact.

Did you still find time to grow as individuals despite all the demands?
The answer is surprisingly –yes!!! When we look back, each member in the family has recognised the opportunity that another is provided with to grow and encouraged that person to benefit from it – even if it meant a little cost to the rest of us. Whether it be Shanthi, myself or our children, each one who had great opportunities that required the rest of the family to adjust on finances/time/ facilities has done so. It has been this attitude which has proved to be a real blessing to our family. Perhaps, the most important growth indicator in our family has been that all of us have grown emotionally, spiritually and into our individual personalities.

What is your advice to couples who are struggling with work-life balance?
Your home should be built and your workplace as well. The two are different and require different functional responsibilities and abilities. One without the other will also lead to destruction. Often, the workplace is well-defined and easy to understand and operate in. The home is not so. At work, my job-description is clear.

At home, I need to identify my role and flow into it. What is my calling as a husband/wife? What is my role as a parent? Greater clarity to these questions among both will lead to lesser struggle. Slow down. Get to some place for at least a weekend where the two of you can sit and talk. If necessary, find someone who can help you think things through. If the struggle is for a brief period, that may be easy to handle.

On the other hand, if it has been for a few years you may need first to identify your belief systems on your respective roles and then to take some hard decisions on how to create time for each other and the family. Do both of you really have a day off? Do you have time to listen to each other or is it a struggle? Are you fully available for each of your children when they want to talk to you or when they are excited about something? The answers to some of these questions will provide solutions to the work-life balance struggle!

What is your advice for parents who are juggling demanding careers and children?
There are formative years, when the children are young and need a lot of emotional and other forms of support. Being unavailable at such times can lead to irreparable damage and bring in a permanent gulf between you and the kids. Bridging that gap is difficult. You will need to determine the length to which you want your career or business to grow at the cost of time spent with your spouse and both of you with your kids.

As they grow up into their final years in school or college they will be more independent and will come to you only if they have the confidence that you mean well for them. That belief is built in their minds in the formative years. We have to choose what we really want and not feel pushed. God wants us to build our homes and that takes effort. Again, a good time to slowdown and draw lines!

Mr. Wilfred Davidar and Dr. Shanthi Davidar currently live in Chennai. While continuing their professional careers they also conduct family, marriage enrichment and parenting workshops and seminars.

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