What’s Your Family’s Mission Statement?

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Executive Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused many working families to stop and reassess their values.  Three common work practices can help us decide what to continue doing — and what to ditch. First, identify a family mission or purpose. It will help you focus on what is meaningful, set priorities, and drop items that don’t fit from your individual and group to-do lists. Next, set practical, achievable goals that align with your family mission, using the SMART strategy. And lastly, know what to do when you are thrown off course. When you hit a roadblock, rather than barreling toward your goal, stop and think things through. When new circumstances emerge, our expectations of what we can realistically accomplish may have to change, too.

Illustration by Emily Haasch

There is no adequate word to describe the life of a working parent. Busy doesn’t cut it. The stay-home-and-work-while-teaching-your-children-and-feeding-everyone-multiple-meals-a-day Tilt-A-Whirl that resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic caused many of us to stop and reassess. And, as a new school year begins and some of us return to our offices for at least some portion of the week, how do we get started without getting back on the too-much-to-do treadmill?

Three common work practices can help us decide what to continue doing — and what to ditch.

  • Have an overarching mission or purpose.
  • Set practical, achievable goals that align with that mission.
  • Revisit your mission when you’re thrown off course.

Clarify your family mission

I know a family who has made a tradition of goal setting. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, they go around the table early in the year, and each family member mentions something they want to accomplish in the next year. It could be something momentous, like finding a new job or riding a bike without training wheels, or something simple, like knocking a few seconds off of your personal best for a 5K or setting a number of books you’d like to read in a year.

These New Year’s goals are actually a part of something bigger, an overarching family mission — like the mission statement many organizations have. This family’s mission is achievement: to help every member learn to achieve their own goals and to support the goals of everyone else in the family.

Your family probably has an overarching family mission, even if you haven’t thought about it or spoken about it in that way. Is your family invested in addressing climate change? Your faith community? The great outdoors? Is there a phrase or family saying you use to describe your clan to others? Those are all clues to your family’s purpose.

If you don’t yet have words you use regularly, make up a phrase that fits your family mission. Ask your kids what they think. Make it short so it’s easy to remember and repeat. You don’t need to write it down somewhere, although you could post it on your family bulletin board, if you want. Thinking about it and repeating it will help your family move in the same direction. A family mission helps you focus on what is meaningful, set priorities, and drop items that don’t fit from your individual and group to-do lists.

When I was young, my family used the phrase “We never get seasick.” Yes, we never actually got seasick, but what it really meant was that no matter what others were doing around you (like throwing up), you always stepped up to the challenge. You were expected to speak up and defend your position, even with your parents. That made for loud family dinners and, later, persistent adults.

My friend Christine’s family mantra was “Education: It’s the one thing that nobody can take away from you.” Even though Christine’s father died in an industrial accident when she was four, Christine’s mother taught her children the family purpose, and Christine, her brothers, and sisters all graduated from high school and went on to trade school or college.

Set short-term SMART goals

You probably use SMART goals at work to help create achievable targets. This is what SMART means in the working family context:

  • S=Specific. Instead of setting a goal with your 10-year-old to be “nicer” to your neighbor, set a goal with her to say, “Hi, Mr. Walker,” when she sees him. That makes it clear to her what being nicer means to you.
  • M=Measurable. Setting a goal with your 12-year-old to learn how to do his own laundry is easy to track and evaluate. A leaning tower of hoodies or the aroma of dirty socks shoved under his bed will indicate his progress.
  • A=Achievable. If you set goals that feel too big or try to tackle too many goals at once, you’ll grow discouraged and feel like a failure. To avoid that fate, check in with your family member before asking for their commitment: Is this something you can manage? Will you let me know if it seems like too much? How long do you think it will take you? It’s an important life skill to estimate what you can do and by when. This applies to you, too. So ask yourself the same questions before you launch into a project. Speak up and offer alternatives if you aren’t sure you can achieve a goal in the prescribed time.
  • R=Relevant. Your individual goals should fit with your family’s mission. I know a family whose overarching mission is to make sure everyone learns to be independent — even their chickens are free-range. Instituting an hourly schedule with little flexibility would not fit this family’s mission — or its individual goals. A home-schooling goal where family members identify topics of interest and build out activities to explore further would increase the likelihood of individuals achieving their goals and serve the family mission.
  • T=Time-Bound. While family missions don’t need to have an end date, SMART goals always do. Ask your 12-year-old how long it will take him to learn to do his laundry independently. If it seems reasonable to you, that’s the deadline. But if his red t-shirt dyes all his other clothes pink, or if you have other reasons to think he is struggling, you might want to extend the deadline. But always have a deadline — and one he agrees to.

Revisit your mission if you are thrown off course

What about those well-planned goals that run into major obstacles? Although most people’s first instinct is to look for a way to barrel toward their goal, it’s important to stop and think things through when you encounter a setback. Ask: Do we need to recommit to our mission or purpose? Do we need to change our goals? Set new ones? When new circumstances intrude, our expectations of what we can realistically accomplish may have to change, too.

When Muriel learned she faced a year-long treatment for breast cancer, she called a family meeting to figure out how she and her family could get through it together. Their family mission was commitment to the family — we succeed together by sticking together. By the end of the meeting, the oldest son had decided to take a year’s leave from college to stay home and work nearby. The two teenaged children volunteered to cover household duties. Grandma agreed to check in with the youngest to make sure he did his homework and practiced the saxophone. Muriel’s husband took on the job of personally supporting her throughout her medical treatments, arranging for Family Medical Leave with his employer for the toughest months. Their well-considered plan didn’t work perfectly the whole year; it needed some rethinking and rejiggering from time to time. But the family succeeded in supporting Muriel and each other, while reinforcing their pride in working together.

Someone once told me, “You aren’t really a manager until you’ve figured out what it is that you don’t have to do and still be successful.” These three techniques will help you redefine what life looks like after the pandemic as you decide what you can defer, delay, or dump. You’ll still be busy. Working parents always are. But your priorities will be clear, which will reduce your stress and make you happier.

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