Remember me? It's been over three months since I last wrote a column. On July 24, we welcomed a new little girl to our family, Larkin Maeve Hall. She's the sweetest baby, easygoing and loves to sleep ... which is very different from what we experienced with her now 4-year-old brother. What they say is true: No two babies are alike.
I worked until I went into labor, and then some. I may have sent a text or 10 from the hospital bed, and I may have taken a phone call or five while in labor. I'm not a workaholic. There were loose ends that needed to be tied before I could shut down my brain and focus. One week after Lark was born, I found myself checking emails, messaging staff and wondering if I should just "stop by the office for a quick check-in."
My husband gently reminded me on multiple occasions to put my phone away and unplug so that I could enjoy the season we were in. After a bit of force, I realized that I wasn't practicing what I preach. I needed to set sturdy boundaries for myself to give my family attention and connection. I needed to put first things first.
Personalities, responsibilities and experiences play a large part in someone's ability to step away from their work, but I believe there are even bigger elements at play, and multiple research studies reinforce my theories. Here are three big obstacles to putting first things first — and what we can do about it.
1. Obstacle: Technology creates unrealistic expectations for responsiveness and availability. Whether it's a boss texting at 9 a.m. on a Sunday or a colleague with a question while on vacation, technology has created an expectation for urgent responsiveness. "The expectation of constant availability ... can lead to longer working hours and a lack of separation between work and personal life," researchers Priya Keshwani and Shweta Patel state in a 2023 report, "The Impact of Technology on Work Life Balance." They add: "The boundary between work and leisure time becomes blurred, making it challenging for individuals to fully disconnect and recharge."
› Solution: Verbally set boundaries and expectations with your co-workers. Our First Things First team established a rule: Email is the primary source of communication for all work-related items. If an emergency occurs or an urgent matter needs to be addressed, a text or a phone call is acceptable even after hours.
What defines an emergency? Something that will harm someone or the mission of the organization if not urgently addressed. All other matters can be responded to within a 24- to 48-hour period.
2. Obstacle: A lack of support for parents means the parent/child relationship suffers. You've heard the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." It also takes a village to support a parent. A 2018 survey by Pew Research indicates that 15% of parents feel completely unsupported by their family or community, while 40% feel slightly or somewhat unsupported. This means over half of parents don't feel they have the support they need to create the secure relationship with their children they desire.
› Solution: Actively ask for help, and accept assistance when it comes. This is easier said than done and doesn't look the same for every parent. In my recent experience, many friends and family assumed I was "fine" because it was our second baby, she was a good sleeper and I'm a "high energy" individual who can "handle more than the average person." When I expressed my need for a break to my mom, she appeared in a heartbeat and said, "Thanks for letting me know what you need." When friends asked if they could come to see the baby, I said "Yes, but please bring coffee, food or grocery items with you!"
3. Obstacle: The average pace of life is faster, which means deep connection is harder to obtain. It can be easy for families to assume that the more we do together, the closer we become. But a recent study conducted by Dr. Robert Whitaker, director of the Columbia-Bassett research program at Columbia University in New York City, found family connections are made at home. Whitaker reports that "the essence of family connection is children feeling that they are accepted and nurtured at home, which allows them to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are in a safe environment as they are building their identity."
› Solution: Slow down and create an environment where children are seen, heard and feel like they belong. "Adults do not need to make grand gestures to bond with their children," says Elaine Reese, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. "Having meaningful conversations is more important for your connection than taking them on expensive trips or doing extravagant things together."
In essence, putting first things first isn't easy, especially in our constantly connected, individualistic and fast-paced world. But the next generation depends on it and the health of our families is determined by it. So the question is: How will you overcome the obstacles to putting first things first in your own life?
Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.