I was at my alma mater, Tufts University, yesterday to serve on a panel of business practitioners tasked with evaluating the presentations of students in the engineering school’s entry-level entrepreneurs course. In between presentations, as I chit-chatted with my fellow panelists, one of them remarked on how challenging it must be to be a mother of three young children while working a full-time job.
It’s a comment I hear a lot, and while I appreciate the words of encouragement that often follow I always keep in mind, humbly, that I am just one of a sisterhood who each day faces the challenge of how to “balance” the different responsibilities that both roles require. “How do you do it?” people often ask. “Balance is not a day-to-day phenomenon,” I tell them. “Balance is found in the average over time; it’s a willingness to try things, fail and try again; and it takes lots of baby steps.”
When it comes to the personal side of personal finance, I’ve found that “balance” usually involves figuring out the time value of money. The traditional, purely financial, definition of the time value of money refers to the idea that money available now is worth more than the same amount in the future because of its potential earning capacity.
But in mommyhood, the time value of money is a little more varied, and in my opinion, complex: On a day-to-day level it often means weighing the time allocated to work vs. kids, and how that impacts the family budget vs. the individual emotional and physical health of each child. From a long-term perspective, it can mean weighing the investment of time and resources in a child, or in the family, now in order to help with their (often hoped-for) future growth and development.
For me, looking at the time value of money has become particularly important over the past year and a half, as I began facing firsthand the issues associated with being a member of the “sandwich” generation. I have had several people close to me fall prey to a health challenge, and each instance reminds me of how precious our time really is. At the same time, I have had to look forward, and step up the investment made in my kids’ development as they start to formulate their own ambitions and goals.
I have made a more conscious effort during this period to really sit down and think about how I want to invest my time and resources – which I define not only as money, but my effort and energy. I have created the proverbial bucket list, but this one isn’t about what I want to do before I die. It’s about what I want to achieve for myself in relation to my kids, my husband and my extended family while we have our time together.
Making the list, and setting out the goals, sounds simple and basic. But actually writing the list down and taking the time to make each one happen is an exercise that easily falls into that pile of, “I’ll get to it later” tasks.
Everyone will have a different approach, but here’s an example of how I’ve been thinking about it. Like any investment process, first I think about some broader themes. For me, these include:
• Providing an international experience: Introducing, and exposing, my family to different cultures and people
• Being connected in our community: Supporting our local network and the institutions that provide for us each day
• Achieving a goal or dream, and learning to appreciate the process as much as the goal itself
• Spending one-on-one time with each member of my family and with friends
Sounds lofty, I know. But, I figured, what’s the harm in thinking big? If you appreciate the process (which is one of my “big” goals), you win no matter how far you get.
So what does this mean on a practical level? I try to break it down into small steps so that I can (hopefully) integrate the personal goals into my family’s daily routine, and still make it effective for the family budget. Here’s how I worked through it for the first goal of providing my family with an international experience:
My mom was originally from the Philippines, so like many kids of immigrant parents, I had a lot of exposure to the food, culture, language and family of my mom’s country of origin. Inevitably, there’s dilution as we move through the generations, but I try to retain some of the flavors, literally.
Each week I make a trip to H-Mart in Burlington, which has a variety of Asian foods, and bring my two older kids with me. They enjoy the little tastings the grocery store provides to its shoppers, and I have fun sharing with them the different ingredients that I grew up with in my mom’s cooking. It’s made them more open to the idea of expanding the repertoire of food we make for dinner at home -- and that’s helped to reduce my monthly food bill because I am saved the expense of heading out to a restaurant for an “exotic” meal.
Since my youngest is still a toddler and we are in need of childcare, after weighing the various options we decided to hire an au pair from Germany. If you can get past some loss of privacy in your home, serving as a host family for an au pair for a year is a great way to engage in an international cultural exchange. My kids have learned a lot about how our au pair grew up, and the differences and similarities in their upbringings, and they have enjoyed the opportunity to listen to another language spoken in our home.
I’m also fortunate to have a mother in law from Italy who relishes time with each of her grandchildren. Tuesdays are the days she spends with my kids, and each week she makes sure there’s pasta sauce or chicken soup bubbling on our stove for their dinner.
Both our au pair and my mother in law provide an invaluable, enriching experience for my kids, and the bonus is that it’s allowed us to implement a cost-effective way of handling childcare costs in the family budget.
Longer term I’m saving miles, and creating a cookie-jar fund, for an international trip of some kind. Ideally I’d like to take my kids back to the Philippines so that they can meet some of my relatives there and understand where their grandmother came from. Until then, I’ll travel with them more locally within the US to the cities where some of our other relatives settled so that they can hear the language, taste the flavors and experience the culture, and feel the love of their extended network.
I’d enjoy hearing about how others incorporate similar goals into their lives, or about how you achieve balance. We can all learn from each other about the different baby steps open to us so that we can reach our goals, little by little, over time.
And by the way, I’d like to give a shout out to the Tufts students who presented successfully yesterday and got me thinking about all of this. It was an inspiration to hear your ideas and feel the energy of possibility.
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