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Cate’s top tips for work-life balance success

23 December 2022

A good work-life balance is a challenge for all of us - but when you’re a parent with two young children the challenges can be huge. In a new interview Opencast chief people officer Cate Kalson shares her approach – and explains why an electric cargo bike is a must-have for her success.

The interview is part of a series on Parenting by Design, a project to uncover the systems and principles successful working parents use to thrive.

What does your normal working day look like?

My normal working day routine starts when the kids wake up (or at 6.30am if unusually my alarm goes off before they wake up!). We tend to have a snuggle (technical term!) in bed before going downstairs for breakfast and the general “getting ready for the day” tasks. I let them watch some TV together so that I can do a few jobs and have a cup of tea in peace. I run them to nursery and school in our cargo bike at 8.15am, and then get to the office at 9am.

Evenings vary, on Mondays and Tuesdays we have a nanny who picks up the boys and takes then home for dinner and the bedtime routine. On these days I can then work later, go to the gym or meet friends for dinner etc. Wednesday and Thursdays I finish work at 3pm so I can do some 1:1 activities with Max (5) before picking up Nino at 5.30pm. Fridays I finish work at 5pm and aim for this to be a firm work cut-off before switching into full family mode for the weekend.

How long have you had this routine?

My husband Nick is currently working on the other side of the country, so I’m solo parenting through the week. I had to think pretty hard about how to set up the week to be sustainable for me, enabling me to get enough work time in to fulfil my role but also some time for myself. I find that the routine is now set by the school year, and I revisit the rhythm of it and make tweaks as we move from one term (semester) to the next.

How has it changed as your children have gotten older or as your family has grown?

One thing I have learned since I have had the kids is that the routine is constantly changing. I think as an adult with no dependents you can have quite a set routine for long stretches of time, but I’ve had to adapt and become a lot more flexible to an ever-changing routine. The transition from one to two children was definitely a big one - a lot harder to get out of the house on time! Also the transition once the older one started school, as then there is a much stricter time that you must be there to drop off, plus I had to adapt to dropping off the kids in two locations.

What boundaries have you set around your work and how did you work with your colleagues to enable them?

I have to stick to strict time boundaries, as when I am with my kids I don’t want to be trying to do any work around them. So I block time in my diary and let people who I work closely with know what they are. I also let people know that I can flex my boundaries for really important things, but that I need advance warning so that I can get exceptional childcare. When there are particular high intensity times at work I do find that I need to create additional time for work in the evenings once the kids are in bed, but I have found that I need to make sure these periods are time-bound, as if I let that become a permanent habit then I risk getting burned out.

What systems do you have in place to have a successful day?

I have a big chalk board in my kitchen where I plan the full week ahead every Sunday. It has the days of the week across the top, each member of the family down the side and it highlights what I need to remember each day for each person. I try to look at this each evening and prepare what I can before I go to bed - the sports kit for school, reading books to return, my own gym kit etc. I also pick out my own clothes the night before so that in the morning I have got very limited decisions to make.

Switching to weekends, what are the most important things to get right to have an excellent weekend day?

We really enjoy having some weekend rituals that the kids enjoy - these do evolve and change over time but include things like going to get pizza and ice cream from our favourite seaside pizzeria, going to our sports club for swim and brunch, watching a film together with popcorn. On Friday evening we suggest a couple of options and let the boys input as to what they’d like to do. We find if we have a plan ahead of each day then we are more likely to have an excellent day. On Sundays we really like to spend time with friends, so we actively plan to do things together so that the kids have fun and we parents also get time to chat as adults. Often more kids makes the childcare easier than just having our two!

How do you "turn off work" and give the kids your full attention?

I avoid having notifications on my phone for work email and Teams. That way when I close the laptop I’m less likely to get distracted into work. Sometimes it’s just the case that there’s something going on at work, which is harder to get my mind away from. In these cases I’ll try to make sure the kids are well fed and then put the TV on for them, before time-boxing a 30 min session in front of the laptop to address whatever it is that’s on my mind. Then I find I can go back to them with my full attention for whatever is happening next, often in my case the bedtime routine of bath and stories.

Colour photo of woman with two children sitting in cargo bike
"Having a cargo bike means I waste no time sitting in traffic and can ride right up to the nursery/school gates, which saves loads of time"

Do you have anything that works particularly well in your childcare situation?

Having a nanny two evenings a week where I am not responsible for the evening childcare routine has been a game-changer. I really cherish this time to focus on fitness and my own friendships, plus be available as a work overspill for those weeks where I need to put a few more quiet hours in to feel on top of things. The kids also really enjoy having our nanny on these days, they look forward to telling her what they’ve been up to and showing her some of the latest things they have done / learned. I think it’s great for them to have these additional adult relationships in addition to those of us as parents and wider family members.

What have been the most impactful things you've done to save time/energy in your family?

We have a housekeeper who comes in three times a week for two to three hours each time. She is self-directed and spots what needs doing – cleaning, laundry, ironing, watering the plants etc. This means I don’t have to worry at all about keeping on top of the house during the week. It also doesn’t matter if I leave the house in a mess in the morning, which often happens!

What principles have served you best in your parenting?

When I was near the end of my first pregnancy and preparing for maternity leave a colleague recommended to me a great book “The Secrets of the Baby Whisperer” by Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau. The overall principle from this book that has served me well from the beginning, is that it’s worth the effort to create habits and routines that work for your baby / child but also crucially work for you as a parent to get the space that you also need to rest and recover. In the early days this was about getting my babies to nap in a cot (rather than on me) so that I could then use that time for what I needed. Nowadays that translates more into having good bedtime routines so there is some evening time left between the kids going to bed and me going to bed, and as mentioned above using TV to create short chunks of time for myself if I need that when we’re all at home together.

Is there a primary parent in your household or do you split the parenting evenly?

My husband Nick is currently working on the other side of the country, so I’m solo parenting through the week. From a practical/hands-on perspective I am very much the primary parent during the week and then we focus on collective family time at the weekends.

If you answered 'other' please tell us a bit about the parenting model you use and how you make it work.

We have worked together to figure out how Nick can support from afar, so he takes the lead on things like planning for the weekend / holidays and researching specific things we want to do for the kids eg finding sports activities. At the weekend Nick usually gets up early with the kids so I can have a break from the early morning routine. 

What is your process for updating your parenting model as a child's needs or a parent's needs change?

We sit down and talk about what’s changing, what the consequences of that are and how we can set ourselves up for success. We do this ahead of big changes e.g. before Nick was embarking on his current one-year role away from home, but also more ad hoc when we feel like we need to flag that we need support from each other e.g. when one of us is feeling run down or tired.

What is your most life-changing parenting purchase under $100?

We love mountain biking and Max has also taken to cycling. To help us be able to do more as a family we found a product called Towwhee, which is a bungee tow rope that means you can assist kids pedalling up hills. This is great as then doing longer rides and more downhill descents (the most fun part) is possible. You can feel confident that if he gets too tired then you can pull him home.

How do you bring play and fun into your time with your children?

We love doing sports and keeping fit. We found a great sports club to join that is designed to be a place you can hang out as a family and all do something you enjoy. There are kids sports lessons, other kids activities eg Lego clubs, adult sports sessions and a swimming pool. When we go and hang out there for a few hours we can do a mix of activities, some together and some individually. There’s also a healthy cafe. We’ve found this is a great way to spend time together, and certainly much better for us as parents than carting the kids around to activities for them where we have to sit and watch.

What piece of advice do you give to all new parents? What advice should they ignore?

Get an electric cargo bike! Commuting around a city with kids in a car is a nightmare, using a cargo bike is awesome. I have to navigate the city centre with drop offs in two locations and then go onto my office. Having a cargo bike means I waste no time sitting in traffic and can ride right up to the nursery/school gates, which saves loads of time that would otherwise be spent walking a toddler/small child from a car park to the gate. It’s also great for more than one child and still works when you have bags to transport with them. I got one after having seen how commonplace they are in Copenhagen where my brother lives – we can learn many things from how the Scandinavians approach parenting!

Blog reproduced with thanks to Lyndall Schreiner. For more interviews with working parents, visit Parenting by Design.

Colour photo of woman smiling at camera
Cate joined Opencast as chief people officer in 2021

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