Keep picking up balls: juggling professional development and parenthood

The ILN blog has been taken over by the team from the QUT Information Studies Group  to guest curate a discussion topic on professional development. Today’s post is by Kate Davis who has coordinated the series: 

Photo CC0 by Laura Lee Moreau

Photo CC0 by Laura Lee Moreau

A couple of days ago, we had a comment on one of our posts about balancing work, PD and parenting when you’re a mum of young children. I thought this was a topic that might be of interest for quite a few ILN readers, so I contacted a few colleagues and asked them to share some insights on this topic.

In this post, you’ll be hearing from a couple of academics who work with me at QUT: Kate Devitt and Kathleen Smeaton. (Side note: The Kate I mention in this post is Kate Devitt, rather than myself!) You’ll also be hearing from some librarians who work in a variety of library types and who also balance that work with casual research assistant, tutoring and marking work with us at QUT. These people are Clare Thorpe, Katya Henry, and Lyndelle Gunton. They each have two kids, except for Kathleen who has three. Their kids range in age from babies to teenagers.

I asked them a series of questions:

  • Do you find time for PD? How do you do that?
  • Do you have time for professional networking? How and where do you do that, and how do you fit it in?
  • Do you ever suffer from FOMO? How do you overcome that?

Each of them has their own approaches to managing PD, some starkly contrasting with the approaches others take. What is evident in their responses is that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. It’s personal, dependent on family circumstances and personal priorities.

Here’s what they had to say.

Do you find time for PD? How do you find the time?

Kate, Kathleen, Katya, Clare and Lyndelle all find time for PD, in different ways, but they all acknowledge that it’s difficult to manage all the balls they juggle.

Kate pointed out what I know I easily overlook: the professional development that happens every day as a product of doing our jobs:

On the one hand, PD is at the core of what I do every day. There is never a day I’m not learning more skills to be more useful in the fast-changing work environments I find myself in. In order to develop, I have to bite my tongue, put aside perfectionism, try stuff, and reflect on what worked and what faiIed and what to do next time. I always welcome opportunities to work in supportive teams, because I find it easiest to learn with others and for us all to help each other learn new skills as we go and forgive the missteps.

Katya seconds that. She says, ‘Like Kate Devitt, PD is something that I do every day. As I am a relative newcomer to this profession, I am constantly learning from my colleagues, my role, my institution.’ It’s easy to forget that we are constantly learning and growing on the job, and the value of on-the-job development shouldn’t be overlooked.

The group all have different approaches to getting stuck into their professional development. Kate Devitt takes a very planned, strategic approach:

In terms of specific PD outside of normal work, I do it by making it a priority. I allow myself to dream up a few future scenarios I’d like to be a part of. I write in a Moleskin, a planning app, or an online site like Pinterest, or on a big piece of cardboard that I put up in my office/home . Then, I work backwards in terms of what I would need to do to get there. Once I have a clear vision of what I need to do, then I start talking to my partner and my family about what I want to do over the next 12 months and how it will contribute to my 5yr plan for success. I discuss what I want to achieve and how I plan to achieve it. I create a project plan for my own personal development that I communicate to my ‘stake-holders’, i.e. hubbie, children, extended family and my work. I lock down funding. I set aside time weekly, monthly and yearly towards these goals. I build in ‘risk management’ strategies that predict the inevitable snotty noses, man-flus, crises and family interruptions that will ensue while I’m trying to scrape away time for myself. When a planned activity can’t happen, I rebook it for later. I make sure I’m not always giving, giving, giving, without getting my time at some point down the track. I manage my complex emotions when taking time for my own PD by reflecting on how great it will be in the long term for my family to have a happy, fulfilled mumma. I also don’t try to do more than is mentally healthy for me. I make sure I plan quality pockets of time with my kids around the edges of taking time for myself.

In contrast to Kate’s vision-based approach, Katya says,

my approach to PD is much more haphazard, or let’s say I have a more serendipitous approach to my PD. I grasp every opportunity I can. I follow the shiny things! Whether that be going on secondment, taking on an additional role or project, going to a public lecture, an in-house training course, submitting a proposal to a conference, meeting someone new, attending a webinar, simply checking out my Twitter stream.

But like Kate, Katya talked about the limits on her time:

I grasp every opportunity I can. Can being the key word here. There are many times that I simply can’t (or don’t want to). I cannot attend that conference, I can’t go to the pub to network, I don’t have time to submit a proposal, I don’t have the energy to submit that proposal, my kids are sick of me being away. My kids are sick. I’m sick of Twitter. And that’s OK.

When I emailed her and asked for a contribution to this post, Clare happened to be in the UK at a conference, actively engaged in PD. She pointed out the irony of being asked to contribute to this post while she was at a conference on the other side of the world! She said that in general her ‘level of engagement is not very high but it’s enough to stop me from getting too insular in my prof practice I hope.’

Lyndelle highlighted what is implicit here in Clare’s response: for her, remaining engaged with the profession generally is really critical.

PD can be very difficult to make a priority when doing the work-life juggle. I made the mistake when I had a young family of disconnecting from the wider profession, something I later regretted, and had to work hard to rebuild my connections and confidence. I also found it necessary to return to formal study to catch up, something I’m not sure I would have needed to do if I had retained active involvement and commitment to PD from the beginning of my career. During those times I was not working or working part-time, it sometimes felt like I was isolated or out of touch with industry trends, professional discussions and emerging career paths.

Interestingly, for Lyndelle, who has older children, the balance is still hard to find, indicating it’s not just mothers of young children who struggle to find time for PD.

Now, 20 years after I began work as a librarian, my children are older and I have returned to the profession on a full-time workload, but on reflection, I am not finding it easier to prioritise PD. The juggle is still happening – the balls are just different colours and sizes.

Lyndelle also highlights that it’s not only challenging to find time for PD, it’s also challenging to prioritise herself in other ways. As someone who self funds quite a bit of PD, she says ‘I continue to struggle to make this investment in myself when there are so many other expenses and personal and workplace demands on my time.’ She uses a range of strategies to fit PD in.

My role in a small special library requires me to be across a wide range of library tasks and responsibilities so I try to actively participate in online conversations and professional association learning opportunities. Incorporating some form of PD into my daily tasks has become an important way of prioritising this. I see the opportunity to supervise fieldwork librarian students as a means of continuing my own learning. Explaining policies and processes and demonstrating tasks always challenges me to reconsider the way we do things. I also regard it as my responsibility to promote the value of PD to library staff in my role as manager. To this end, I make a point of sharing literature and encouraging discussion about topical issues as well as requesting their contribution to decision making using evidence based practice.

Clare offered a few ideas about how she manages to fit in, which might be useful to others:

Join your library association and read stuff they send you whether it’s their magazine or enews. This will expose you to libraries beyond your four walls.

Time shift your learning. I can’t always take part in live Webinars or tweet chats but I can catch up on the recordings when I have time. The USQ Salon series this year has been fantastic.

Join social media and follow libraries, people and other organisations. I get great ideas from all over the world via Twitter and Instagram. But I do limit my social media sometimes. Digital detox once a week is good for my mental health!

Do you have time for professional networking? How and where do you do that, and how do you fit it in?

All of the group blend online and in person networking, noting that sometimes it’s hard to get to events or conferences. Kate highlighted the fact that ‘online is easy enough: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, Skype etc… In person it’s harder, but I do try to attend at least some conferences per year.’

Kathleen’s approach to networking involves nurturing relationships formed in person in the online space.

I do professional networking in conferences mainly and some functions. I do intense quick bursts, and then keep the connections up on Twitter. I can’t attend everything, so I make sure what I go to I make lots of connections and then maintain them virtually.

For Lyndelle, the networking is critical and she notes this is much easier now because she can maintain connections online: ‘The emergence of active PLNs and networks through social media means that information professionals can engage wherever and whenever. Our supportive PLNs mean no question is dumb and no contribution ignored.’

While Kathleen talked about meeting people in person and then nurturing relationships online, Lyndelle talked about the value of meeting people online and the positive impact that has on her experiences of in person networking.

As a new librarian, I really struggled to form professional relationships. I found it difficult to attend conferences and meet people. However, the emergence of PLNs in online spaces like Twitter means that I now enjoy these face-to-face networking opportunities because I have already met many other potential attendees through introductions and conversations online. Due to this, I find I make more time to attend these kinds of events. Being actively involved in ALIA events also provides reasons for networking. Being on a committee or organising an event means you have to interact with other professionals and this helps to build confidence and make connections. Consequently, introducing myself and making conversations with others does not create in me the same anxiety that it once did.

When it comes to attending conferences in person, Kate’s approach is to plan ahead and consciously make time and funds available to allow her to go to conferences.

I manage the family’s budget to enable me to go away just as my partner goes away on business. I make the time. My partner and children manage just fine without me and they appreciate me a lot more when I get back. In fact, I’d say that our family works much better when I go away for chunks of time.

Do you ever suffer from FOMO? How do you overcome that?

As someone who is always distracted by shiny things and wants to take up every opportunity that comes my way, I wondered whether fear of missing out (FOMO) impacted on my colleagues’ PD. The answer: it depends.

For Kate, FOMO is a constant challenge…

But, I overcome it by focussing on achieving towards my vision. E.g. when I finally sat down to write and finish my PhD, it and my family were all I focussed on for 12 months. There was absolutely no point being distracted by shiny conferences or other things. I had a singular focus and because of it, I finished my work and my family still loved me! There is plenty of time in the future for travel etc… right now, with young kids, I just need to progress a little bit at a time each year and follow through on my commitments. Oh, and I turn off Facebook! Social media is the worst for FOMO. Sometimes I take a month off to recalibrate myself to my own life, instead of comparing myself to other people’s.

For Clare, FOMO is not really a concern. Similarly, Kathleen says she never suffers from FOMO

because I think that if this opportunity passes me by, something else will come up. If I worried about what I am missing out on too much, then I would spend all my time worrying and never get anything done! I look at FOMO as a viscous circle. You have to ignore it and just accept that you can only do so much. I will never be at every function, I will never be able to jet overseas for a conference at the drop of a hat. But I can still have a great career, just a different one to the one I would have if I had no kids.

Katya echoed this sentiment about having a great career that works for her and her family:

Of course I feel torn, and wish I could do all the things. If I were ten years younger, if I had no kids, if I won the lottery… I waste waaaay too much energy on the what ifs. But by saying ‘yes’ whenever I can (and want to), I can still develop a very rewarding career. It may not be the career I could have had if this, if that, but it is the rewarding career I can have with these children, in these circumstances, in this life.

Lyndelle also said she has felt torn in the past and that the “what if” questions sometimes drove her to distraction! She also noted that being actively engaged in social media can increase the sense of FOMO. Interestingly, though, Lyndelle said her role as a mother is causing her to try to consciously adopt a healthy, balanced approach to work, and that includes PD.

Now I have a teenager, I am acutely aware of the need to model good work-life balance; to not be always attached to a device. I want to encourage my kids to develop passion for a career, to recognise and practice the value of working hard and smart, and the value of lifelong learning, but to balance that with other interests and hobbies, as well as making commitments to personal relationships and general wellbeing.

The magic recipe

I started out this post by saying that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to managing PD when you’re a busy mum (or dad) of young kids – or older kids. From reading Kate, Kathleen, Katya, Clare and Lyndelle’s responses to my questions, it seems to me that the key is to run your own race. Define the career that you want, and that works for your family. Participate in PD in a way that works for you, and try not to hold yourself to some external standard. The answer seems to be to do what works for you and your family, in this season of your life. Sounds simple, right? I think all of the women who’ve contributed to this post would attest to the fact that it really isn’t simple at all. There are tough calls to be made, time is limited, and there are a lot of balls to juggle. But I think if women like Kate, Kathleen, Katya, Clare, and Lyndelle – and you! – keep talking about this, sharing stories and strategies, and generally being open about the challenges, the sense of solidarity might just make things a tiny bit easier.

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2016A and tagged , , , , .


  1. I totally agree that professionals must try to keep the levels of PD. Sometimes its indeed difficult when we have children, but its all a case of balance, structure and resilience.

  2. I khow hard it is with a family to manage as well. I also get that daily work tasks can be seen as PD, but that’s my job…to be innovative and show initiative. To be professional. IMO, the key word in PD is ‘development’…being challenged or exposed (formally or informally) to new skills, new info, new methods.
    I totally identify with Clare’s advice on joining your Library Association; news articles (read while relaxing in the bath or commuting, for example) and the PD opportunities that you are able to take up, will hopefully inspire and challenge you, and so develop your professionalism. Join a LISTSERV. Check Twitter, even if it’s only once a week… guaranteed there’ll be something to learn from if you follow other (worldwide) librarians, libraries, businesses and not that famous celebrity. 😉
    Sure, tailor PD to your needs and to maintain work-life balance, but continue to assess yourself, to develop, alongside the requirements set by your community of users AND by our ever-changing profession called librarianship.

  3. Ugh, typos…I read and reread and still missed the fact that I had deleted the word ‘how’ in my first sentence. :p

  4. Pingback: advice from mums on juggling life, kids, work and professional development | when the moon shines

  5. Being an ‘older’ librarian now with my children grown up, I (presumably : )) have more time but somehow ‘work’ just seems to expand to fill a lot of it all the same. I wish you all well and wish I could make things easier for other younger parents in the profession and everywhere.

  6. A common thread among Kate’s, Kathleen’s, Katya’s, Clare’s and Lyndelle’s comments was commitment. A commitment to PD and one which they honour. In particular, it was Lyndelle’s responses which resonated most strongly for me. I was saying to myself, that’s me, I too have felt like that.

    My PD to external events has definitely dropped off, so congratulations on this forum, as it creates an impetus for me to reflect upon what I want to achieve with own PD.

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