The daily juggle of family and career is chaotic and messy. The morning rush, school pick-ups, activities, and mealtimes can feel like hurdles in a daily race to the finish line. Carolyn Hammond, a British expat living and working in Hong Kong, uses flexible working and a mindful parenting approach to turn the ‘long days and short years’ of parenthood into meaningful moments of connection with her young family. Carolyn shares her tips so that you, too, can boost your well-being and joy in a very full life.
Can you tell us a little about your career journey and role?
I’ve built my career in the public relations and communications industry over almost 20 years (terrifying – how did I get that old?!).
I spent 12 years in London, and when my husband was headhunted for a new job in Hong Kong seven years ago, we decided to go on an adventure. I came to Hong Kong without a job and didn’t know a soul, but people here – especially the expat community – are incredibly kind and helpful to newbies looking for opportunities, and I found a role pretty quickly. I spent my first couple of years at Edelman leading its brand team, and after I returned from my first parental leave, transitioned into a newly-created role that my manager and I shaped into a position that played to my strengths, and which I could succeed in part-time.
You’re a member of the leadership team at Edelman Hong Kong and have returned from your second parental leave this year. How are you finding the juggle of work and family?
It’s a squeeze!
I hold myself to high standards and I’m a lifelong people pleaser, so for the first 15 years of my career, I had a tendency to self-sacrifice in order to create high-quality work and meet tight deadlines. The trouble is, there are only so many hours in a day. These days, working for an extra couple of hours at the start or end of the day is no longer an option. I can’t lead a conference call at the same time as looking for dragons on the way to preschool, and my kids can’t wait till 9pm for dinner.
I try to do what I can and not put too much pressure on myself, and only pull the late-night shift when I really, really have to.
The plus side is that my sons are such crazy and affectionate balls of energy that when I’m with them, there’s no headspace to worry about work – because my mind and my hands are 100% full! This is a positive change in my life, which has really improved my happiness and well-being overall.
How has having the children impacted your confidence and ambition?
I’ve never had a long-term career plan or specific career goal. Like many, I fell into PR without really knowing what it was, and amazingly it turned out to be something I loved and am good at. I’ve always aimed to bring my best and make the most of the opportunities I’m given – that’s what’s driven me to where I am today, rather than a fixed ambition.
These days, being present for my children is my top priority, and my personal ambition is intertwined with, possibly secondary to, my desire for my kids to be happy and fulfilled.
I want to progress at work, but since having children, for me, career progression can’t come at the expense of the prominent role I want to play in my children’s lives.
You wrote a reflection of your return to work after parental leave and shared some of the benefits and opportunities. We’d love it if you could share with us your top tips for making the transition back to work as smooth as possible.
- “If I say yes to, I say no to…” – when I’m asked to do something that I know will be tough to achieve timewise, or will fall outside my core working hours, I consciously think through what I’ll miss out on by agreeing to the work request. For example, if I do this evening call, I’ll miss bath-time with my baby. The technique forces me to think through decisions before committing, rather than agreeing in the moment and regretting it later.
- Be proactive and transparent with team members about your work and family routine, and the times of day when you can and can’t be available outside of the working day. When people have this information, everyone’s expectations of each other are aligned. I find that things run much more smoothly when everyone is clear on where the boundaries lie.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself! It’s such a big change to adapt to and it takes time to settle into the new routine and responsibilities. Give yourself space and time to build up gradually, rather than try to come back all guns blazing from day one.
You asked for flexibility in your role and got it. How important is it for you and your family to be able to decide how you manage your work schedule?
It matters a lot. My company, Edelman, has a wonderful policy in Asia Pacific that grants guaranteed permission to work flexibly or part time if the employee has a family reason for the request. It enables people like me to manage work in the context of my family commitments, and flex arrangements as responsibilities evolve over time.
My manager and I agreed that I’d return three days per week. As my return to work approached, I had the idea to spread those hours across four shorter days … I thought it’d give me more time at the start and end of each day to spend with my kids, would mean I’d be present at work during the heart of the working day more often, and would therefore waste less time catching up on what had happened during my non-working days. The approach works brilliantly for me, especially because my commute is pretty short. From what they tell me, colleagues like the arrangement too!
As a leader in your organization, how do you support other parents and caregivers who are following behind you?
I believe that finding the right balance between work and family is different for each and every person. We all have different priorities, and they change over time. I try to be transparent about what that balance is for me personally, and encourage other working parents to do the same so that everyone understands their priorities and boundaries.
When I returned from my first parental leave, based on my own personal experience, I created a simple, practical plan for the company to use when supporting parents pre-, during, and post-parental leave. My aim was to give line managers who aren’t necessarily parents themselves some helpful guidance on what to be considering and offering at each stage of the journey.
There are only a handful of parents of young children in my company. I’m a formal mentor to some and do regular check-ins with others to make sure they are OK. I also speak out if and when colleagues who don’t have firsthand parenting experience need a little help to understand responsibilities that our working parents are juggling every day.
What has it been like starting your family abroad? What support (practical and emotional) do you rely on? Have you established your support network?
It’s been good! Our family – especially the grandparents – would dearly love us to move home, but we try to send them photos and videos every day to keep in touch.
In Hong Kong, there is no centre-based child care, but it’s affordable to hire a full-time caregiver, so our kids are looked after incredibly by their ‘Auntie’ while we’re at work. My husband and I are absolutely reliant on our caregiver – the house of cards would collapse in an instant without her.
During my first parental leave, I spent a lot of time building a network of ‘parent’ friends, but the downside of Hong Kong is that people come and go quickly, and many of those lovely friends have since moved abroad. I had my second son just before COVID kicked off, and because of time pressures and social distancing restrictions, I haven’t managed to meet many new people the second time around. My biggest emotional support is my wonderful husband, but to be honest, I’m always so busy trying to juggle everything that I don’t find any time to think about support networks – I’m just trying to keep the wheels on the track!
Do you have any particular routines or hacks that work for your family?
I’m probably the worst person to ask! Mornings are nuts, I almost always greet my elder son’s preschool educator with an apology for being late (again), and I feel ready for bed once drop-off is done!
Thinking more constructively, I find structure helpful. Most homes in Hong Kong are small – ours included. There isn’t much space for my sons to play and burn energy in our apartment, and they end up fighting a lot, so I like to set up a pretty full schedule of weekday activities for them. It creates variety, keeps them busy, and helps them sleep at night!
In the evenings, storytime before bed is sacred. Both our boys adore books, and snuggling up with them to share a story is a daily ritual that we all treasure.
The best career or parenting advice I’ve ever received… Be relaxed about change. As soon as you nail the routine, things will change and you’ll have to adapt again.
I recharge by… errrmmm … this seems a luxury from a bygone era!
Spending time outdoors recharges and calms me. One of the amazing things about Hong Kong is that it has beaches within 20 minutes of home and 400km of hiking trails. I’m happy when I can see the sea or I’m surrounded by nature.
I’m binge-watching… Trying, on Apple TV+. It’s a gentle comedy that follows a couple who are trying to adopt a child. I love the tenderness and humour, and because it’s set in North London, it reminds me of home!
I’m inspired by… people! Whether it’s by building a business, doing something generous, or just being a wonderful friend, I love seeing people’s achievements and discovering how and why they’ve done it.