studio zerbey / the work-life balance

Last year, we had a baby and started our own firm – all within the span of about 2 1/2 months. Needless to say, work-life balance has been a major part of our first year in business.

Being your own boss is challenging and sometimes stressful but it also completely awesome. We sometimes joke about working in sweat pants or happy hours at 4:30 and while there are certainly lots of perks to calling your own shots, the biggest perk has been our ability to stretch and grow during this first year of business and parenthood. Which brings us to our first topic:

Kyle doing code research from the back deck last summer – in what ended up being the one and only time he worked from an Adirondack.

+ Flexibility

For us, this might be the magic word when it comes to achieving an effective work-life balance. Staying flexible has allowed us to thrive in what has been a year of fast-paced changes and growth. We set goals and deadlines, but build in buffers for when things don’t go quite according to plan. We also see our days in 24 hour increments – which can mean going to the grocery store at 2:00 in the afternoon while hosting client meetings in the evenings after Avery goes to bed. If Avery decides to take an extra long nap one day, I keep chugging away knowing that tomorrow she may wake up early. Some days we work more, some days less (which feels like a more natural flow for our project-based profession anyway) – but at the end of the month it usually balances out. We’ve found that although schedule is important (see next section), allowing ourselves some wiggle room keeps us moving forward.

Hey look! Our dining room is also our conference room!

+ Schedule vs. Non-Schedule

I think at first there was an appeal in doing away with the idea of a set schedule. But as Avery went from newborn to baby I quickly realized that her schedule was my schedule and I needed to learn to accommodate it. That was all fine and dandy, but you see – as much as a schedule was important for her, it never stayed the same for very long. This was frustrating at times and for the first 8 months or so I felt like I was constantly re-adapting to her sleeping and feeding schedule. However, as she needed less feedings during the day and we hired some childcare help (more on that below!) things were much more predictable and I was able to create an effective schedule that worked. Now that she’s transitioned to one nap a day I feel like we’re in a sweet spot that will work for the next year or so. Also, I take Wednesdays off (in theory at least!), which gives me the opportunity to spend more one-on-one time with Avery. In the mornings, we meet up a group of seven or so mamas and kiddos (we’ve been getting together weekly since our toddlers were newborns!). It’s 2 hours a week, but the support is invaluable.

Now, Kyle also has a schedule but it’s not the same as mine. We eventually realized that we function best on slightly shifted clocks so instead of fighting it, we embraced it. In a nutshell, I get up earlier in the morning and he goes to bed later. Although it was a schedule that evolved over the last year, we realized that it gave us something that is hard to come by when you work from home (with your spouse!)(with a kiddo!) – personal downtime. I love having a bit of quiet time in the morning, then making breakfast for Avery and me when she wakes up. For Kyle he has that sliver of quiet time at night to finish up some work, unwind with Netflix or meet up with guy friends. It’s a small thing but has a big impact.

One year in, the takeaway for us is that a schedule is important, but it doesn’t have to be the 8-5 that we were used to. Now that it gets dark at 4:30 (bahhhhh!) we’re finding that we need to probably tweak our schedules yet again – meaning we should really take a break to get outside during the day then consider a second shift of sorts after Avery goes to bed. (I think one of the biggest adjustments to parenthood is simply being home bound by 7:00 each night!)

Putting our youngest intern to work!

+ Divide and Delegate

Before forming Studio Zerbey, my plan was to work part-time while taking care of Avery. Childcare is crazy expensive in Seattle (if you can get in!) so this was a plan that made a lot of sense for us. When Kyle joined the firm, we decided that he would continue with his full-time schedule and we would see how it all panned out. This worked fine while Avery was quite young and either slept most of the day or was otherwise content with immobility. (I should also mention that she has been a good sleeper and that alone is HUGE.) Around 8 or 9 months though, we knew we needed to make a change. Although we have prided ourselves in our DIY approach to most everything, we needed some backup. So, we hired a nanny. And a house cleaning service. BEST MOVES EVER.

At first I was reluctant to shell out the extra money, but when you’re self-employed you think about your time in a whole new way. Time is money. You gotta spend money to make money. You get the idea. At first our nanny came 4 hours a day, 3 days a week – filling the time between Avery’s morning and afternoon nap. A few months later we added the 4th day and when Avery dropped to one nap last month we increased the hours to 20 per week. Because we both work from home (and Avery is usually a reliable napper), our nanny is able to leave after putting Avery down for her nap, which in theory gives me 6-7 hours of work time each day. (Of course, there are days when she doesn’t nap as long – see “flexibility” above.) πŸ™‚

I was hesitant about finding a good nanny and how that dynamic would work with us at home, but I’m happy to say that the arrangement has exceeded our expectations. We have actually had two fantastic nannies that Avery adores and somehow we all function in our small house. I’m able to focus on my work, even with the sounds of playing and laughing coming from the main floor. Someone gave me this advice early on and it’s so true – you simple have to hire someone that you trust and then TRUST them. Also, it’s ok to take it slow – in the beginning I would take a break at lunch to prepare Avery’s food, but over time I’ve relaxed my involvement and it’s been totally fine.

Now, the house. We love ol’ chezerbey but she does get dirty. I blame the toddler. And the golden retriever. Oh, and the two adults who are home 90% of the time. (But mostly the golden retriever.) So, we got some help in the form of every-other-week cleaning. Guys, it’s awesome and our entire house is clean in an hour. Granted, there’s still regular tasks that we have to do ourselves, but it’s been both a practical and psychological relief to be able to delegate that out so we can instead focus on our business or our family.

Kyle and I celebrating our 8th wedding anniversary a few months ago.

+ Make Time for Yourself and Each Other

When you simultaneously become a new parent and a new business owner, this one can be tough. Admittedly, we have only been on four dates since Avery was born but we’re getting better. (It still feels odd to plan them in advance, but so worth it.) Since we’re together most of the time and regularly go out to dinner as a family, I think we underestimated the need for the occasional date night. And then we went on one and oh hey! there’s not that little human that requires a percentage of your attention at all times. And yes, we totally talk about work during date nights, but more in the vein of hopes and dreams rather than “so, did you figure out that scupper detail?”.

Also, make time for yourself. It can be easy to back-burner that pedicure or time at the gym, but it’s time well-spent. For me, this means working out at least twice a week and getting out of the house by myself(!) at least a couple of times a month.

On a sunny October afternoon we took a spur-of-the-moment (and crowd-free!) trip to the zoo.

+ Get Out of the House!

This is another tough one for work-at-home parents, especially during the cold, rainy months. (In fact, we would appreciate any suggestions on this subject!) So far, we’ve found that getting out for an early dinner is effective, or we’ll tag team it in the evenings to grab a drink with friends. If we want to get fancy and get out during daylight, then there’s usually a small sliver of time after Avery’s nap where we’ll head to the library or run errands. We also try to take advantage of the weekends, doing things together as a family.

photo 1

Doing as-builts (in the rain) for a new project when Avery was about 3 1/2 months old. Also, it looks like I am wearing a stuffed animal.

+ Focus on the Awesome

Y’know, it’s easy to knit-pick the details when you’re your own boss. For me, I often feel like I’m straddling a line between SAHM and WAHM, sometimes feeling inadequate for either not spending enough time with Avery or not working enough. There are days that are challenging and days where everything falls into place and I feel like I’m doing awesome at both jobs. And I think that’s the key – focus on the awesome. Kyle and I regularly find ourselves stepping away from a particular situation and taking a moment to feel thankful for what we have. It’s a perspective shift that only takes a second but re-motivates us to keep pushing forward as architects and parents.

So there you have it – our strategies for making it all work (thus far!). We’d love to hear what has worked for other parents/business owners!


20 Responses to “studio zerbey / the work-life balance”

  1. Anne says:

    No kids for us yet, but my husband and I both work from home, and I’d love to have a nanny for future childcare. However it seems like we’re ALWAYS on the phone for conference calls or just to chat with clients/coworkers. Is the nanny/Avery noise ever an issue for that scenario?

    • Lauren says:

      Good question – I have a door to my office and that helps a lot. Since Kyle is in the loft he has less acoustical separation but it hasn’t really been an issue. Every once in awhile he’s gone in the backyard or something but it’s not too bad. (Avery’s not a super loud kiddo…yet!) Also, I think we probably email way more than we talk on the phone.

  2. Chelsea says:

    You guys are doing a great job!

  3. Modfrugal says:

    Impressed, as always, with you guys and how you make things work in a smart and adaptable way. Tackling parenthood and entrepreneurship at once is no small feat and you seem to have navigated it very well without sugarcoating the tough parts. Kudos!

  4. Alan Michael says:

    Posts like this are so inspiring! I love hearing about the ins and outs of running a small business (nerdy, I know). I’m particularly curious about organization techniques, which is something I have trouble with.

    It’s clear that you have a “system” and I’m sure other readers might be interested in how you organize supplies, digital files, forms/contracts, and paperwork. Is your office generally “paperless”? Does your local jurisdiction accept pdf drawings and markups in lieu of paper copies? How do you use technology in the firm? How do you keep “work” stuff separate from home stuff? Do you have a unique “brand” in graphic standards for your office ( a Zerbey font, etc.) or did you piece together office standards from previous offices?

    Sorry for all the questions, but I would love to know!

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks Alan. We aren’t completely paperless but we’re able to minimize it quite a bit. Some jurisdictions we work with accept digital files and others don’t, though I’m guessing most will be “paperless” in the next few years. Same goes for projects – we have digital versions of everything but some physical stuff too (we still sketch by hand on trace paper!). πŸ™‚ All of our Studio Zerbey files are in a completely separate folder on our server from personal stuff so it’s pretty easy to keep everything organized (and because we’re on a server we can both access everything easily).

  5. Sharmila says:

    Can I just say, your doing an awesome job. Yes , I’m a stranger but also a (part time) working mum w/ two little ones under five- I can TOTALLY relate to your story. I’m glad you have a cleaner and childcare help. (YAY! For help!) My kids go to childcare as well. Its the opposit here in Australia, nannies are more expensive than childcare. But it took me forever to find a centre that I felt was high quality. Congrats for making it work! Also, thank you for writing a story that was an honest, work in progress way of how your managing as a FAMILY to make both your dreams come true. :0)

  6. Becky says:

    I found your post thought and helpful, despite being neither a parent nor a business owner. I’m an academic and work at home *a lot* (and for all of this year). Being flexible and kind to yourself is toughener than people who work 8-5 think. Y’all are doing great.

    I struggle most with “make time for yourself.” It’s pretty rare for me to not spend the bulk of each of the week’s seven days working on something, and I have dogs that need walking. I also need to eat. Everything else — seriously, everything down to taking a shower — feels like it falls into the “not strictly necessary” camp. That is especially true of things that cost money. The psychological weight of those two forces can be huge.

    I’m saving money this year by not using a dog walker, and your post inspired finally me to hire a house cleaner for my new place. Time is money, yes, but also the house cleaning is just one more thing that binds you to the house and lurks over you when you should be working or — here’s an idea — not working. Every confrontation with a fur bunny needn’t be a reminder of our shortcomings, but rather can remind us that we’re learning to delegate.

    Keep on keeping on!

  7. kristin says:

    Great, inspiring post! My husband and I are architect/landscape architects parents of young kids (2 years and 7 months), and while we work in offices away from the house (with the kiddos in childcare), much of what you are talking about here is resonates with us. Every working family is different. You just find your stride and (try to) rock it. That being said, I’d love for us to go into business for ourselves someday (and when we get the guts/cash to do it, I’m going to be asking you a lot of questions!). I love the idea of a housekeeper. Maybe once my oldest goes to kindergarten (three more years!), we will be able to afford it πŸ™‚

  8. Janna says:

    Loved the detail in this post! Good job making the life/work balance fit your family. I thoroughly enjoy your writing style. Plus it looks like your little intern might be interested in some structural engineering, do I see her examing foundation details there?

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks Janna! Hahaha…one of her favorite activities is playing with blocks so you just never know. πŸ™‚ There are a lot of engineers/architects in my family so I think it might be genetic…

  9. Shannon says:

    I’ve been following your blog for sometime and really enjoy it. I’ve come out of lurking territory to ask about your hose real that is in the background of the first picture of the post. Probably not what excites most people but I know that it is hard to find a good looking hose real! Does it function as good as it looks?

  10. Nicole says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I really enjoy your blog and am especially interested in your Avery posts as my first child is due at the end of February. I’m curious about your part-time schedule with work and taking care of Avery before you got help. Did you have set hours for work while taking care of Avery at the same time? Or was it that you worked around Avery’s schedule and your working hours amounted to a part-time work arrangement (but perhaps were broken up, late at night, etc.)?

    After maternity leave, I may work from home part time, and I have been wondering if I could also take care of the baby. I would love to know more about your experience.



    • Lauren says:

      Hi Nicole, congratulations! Before we hired a nanny, I mostly worked around her schedule though I should mention that she generally slept a lot her first six months or so and even if she was awake, I could usually squeeze in a an hour or so while she was in her swing/rocker/etc. (In other words, I got lucky!) I also worked a lot of evenings after she went to bed, which allowed a larger chunk of continuous time to focus on tasks (otherwise it was an hour here and an hour there). So yes, definitely broken up and varying depending on the day/week/month. The downside to working evenings of course is that you don’t know what kind of night it’s going to be sleep-wise. πŸ™‚ Things definitely got harder once she was mobile and I lost that time during the day while she was awake (and that’s when we hired help). I’d say it’s worth a shot and then you could always have a back-up plan if it doesn’t work for you and/or your baby.

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