Scene One: Monday morning. Your eight-year-old daughter is sick with the flu. You and your spouse are in crunch mode at work. Which one of you stays home to take care of the kid?
Scene Two: Your team leader wants you at a meeting, 5 PM sharp. That's exactly when you're supposed to pick up your three-year-old from day care. What should you do?
Chances are, if you're married with children you've found yourself in predicaments like these, wondering if there really is any way to "balance" work and family.
The truth is, there isn't. You can't do even more for your job and your family. And in this economy, you certainly can't do less. All you can do is make trade-offs -- doing a lot of what you don't like so you can get to the stuff that you really care about. That means, for example, crashing on a deadline until two in the morning, which frees you to spend the weekend with the kids.
There really is no other solution to the work-versus-family dilemma. Most of us don't have the luxury of quitting our jobs in the hopes of finding a more humane workplace. So what follows are strategies for making trade-offs: tips and tactics that have been road-tested by three real-world couples. They live and work under very different circumstances. But they have this in common: each couple works as a team to come up with creative solutions that benefit both husband and wife. They still make sacrifices, but ones that won't compromise their family's well-being. And that's the best any of us can hope for.
The Dual-Career Couple
The Team: Rachel Silber, 35, quality assurance team leader at Ontos Inc., a Lowell, Massachusetts-based software company; Scott Lefton, 38, engineering director at Fishman Transducers, Inc., a Wilmington, Massachusetts-based audio equipment manufacturer.
Their Children: Jacob, 10; Talia, 7; and Gabriel, 4.
The Challenge: To be there for the kids -- without sacrificing their careers.
Lesson #1: Limit your flextime.
Six years ago, Silber was a computer programmer working on a crash project to fix the bugs in a program when Talia came down with the chicken pox. She decided to work at her office from midnight to 8 AM until her daughter recovered.
But Talia was home sick for a month, and Silber's night shift soon became a nightmare. She saw her coworkers so infrequently that when they changed the project's strategy, no one told her. At the end of the month, she discovered that the work she'd been doing into the early morning hours was largely unnecessary. "It was extremely demoralizing," she recalls. She quit five months later.
Now Silber makes sure she works the same core hours as her coworkers so she never falls out of the loop. "Flextime taken too far can get you in trouble," she says. "Unless you have 10 people supporting you, you need to be there when everyone else is."
Lesson #2: Manage your home commitments the old-fashioned way: create a paper trail.
Silber and Lefton feel strongly that the kids should be in after-school programs tailored to their individual interests -- not their parents' convenience. The trade-off? They must create a complicated patchwork of transportation arrangements and oversee them with military-like efficiency.
To keep straight which kid needs to be picked up where and when -- along with the play dates, school closings, and the holidays that wreak havoc on any parent's schedule -- they use a two-foot-by-three-foot, at-a-glance monthly calendar. It hangs on their kitchen wall, with all the relevant details (such as phone numbers) scribbled in for each day. So far, they haven't had any snafus.
Lesson #3: When a crisis hits, negotiate.
If you're a dual-career couple, it's a sure thing that a sick child, a snow day, or a looming deadline will blow up even the best-laid plans. When the unexpected inevitably occurs, Silber and Lefton aren't thrown into turmoil. They don't even argue. "We talk it out with each other, and we negotiate," says Lefton.
Typically, that means one parent will spend the morning in the office, while the other works in the afternoon. But if they both need to be at the office at the same time? "Whoever is in the biggest crisis gets to go," Silber says. Teenage sweethearts who've been married for 13 years, they think of themselves as a partnership rather than individuals vying for limited time. "We guard our core work hours jealously," she continues, "but we also have a strong commitment to help each other succeed."
Lesson #4: Overcommitting yourself can actually help.
You might think that managing three kids and two high-pressure jobs would overwhelm any couple. In fact, Lefton and Silber pile the work on, filling up every spare moment with hobbies and a small side business.
Are they crazy? Perhaps. But they've discovered that being overextended is a good thing. It forces them to weed out anything that's extraneous, and to focus on executing. It even energizes them. Work life, family life, and personal life, it turns out, need not always be at odds. "It helps," says Silber, "that we don't own a television."
Coordinates: Scott Lefton, email@example.com ; Rachel Silber, firstname.lastname@example.org .
The Executive and the Househusband
The Team: Mark Beckwith, 38, CPA-turned-househusband; Karen Beckwith, 36, vice president of finance at Ceridian Corp., a Bloomington, Minnesota-based human resources outsourcing firm.
Their Children: Janie, 9; and Charlie, 4.
The Challenge To find a solution to the work-versus-family dilemma, because "balancing" the two doesn't cut it.
Lesson #5: Assign roles based on earning power, not on gender.
For Karen and Mark Beckwith, there was never any question that one of them would stay home with the kids. But when Karen was pregnant with their first child, they needed both of their incomes. They agreed that Mark would ask for a six-month paternity leave.
Mark earned about $50,000 a year as a tax manager for a computer-leasing firm. Karen was earning about twice as much as the controller for Deluxe Corp., the check-printing company. "It seemed natural that I'd be the one to take paternity leave," he recalls. "Her career was taking off, whereas it was always hard for me to get fired up about accounting."
But when he asked for paternity leave, his boss just laughed. "He thought I was kidding," Mark recalls. "When I told him I wasn't, he just said no." So Mark went home and worked the phones. By the end of the weekend, he'd rounded up a few clients. Then he told his wife he wanted to quit his job and work from home as a consultant. She agreed. "It just made sense," she says. A few years later, when Karen landed an executive position at Ceridian, Mark closed his home office.
Lesson #6: If your ego is turning to jelly, remind yourself just why you've become a stay-at home parent.
For Mark, becoming a full-time parent has required some big-time adjustments. First, there's his pride. Until recently, he wouldn't even acknowledge that he's a housedad. If someone asked where he worked, he'd say he was a self-employed CPA. "I didn't want people to think I was a freeloader," he recalls.
Mark sometimes thinks about going back to work, especially when he meets with former colleagues. Recently, he had lunch with a friend whom he first met when they were young CPAs at Deloitte & Touche, the Big Six accounting firm. Now his friend is a partner. "I had this twinge of jealousy," he says. "That could have been me."
When doubts surface, Mark reminds himself what life would really be like if he were still in an office. "I know some parents who have to do their grocery shopping at 10 PM -- with their kids -- because there's no time during the day," he says. "When I see something like that, all the doubt vaporizes."
Lesson #7: Check with your spouse -- and yourself -- to see if the trade-offs are still working.
Juggling work and family responsibilities always involves compromises. The challenge is to make the kinds of compromises that both of you can live with. Even a rock-solid marriage will crumble if one of you resents the sacrifices.
The Beckwiths talk periodically to see if either one of them wants to change their arrangement. "It's like any decision in business," says Karen. "Just because you made the choice once doesn't mean you have to live with it forever. Mark is making a tremendous sacrifice for the sake of our family. I don't want him to wake up 20 years from now, when the kids are gone, and feel all this regret and blame."
For now, though, Mark says he has no intention of changing his occupation. "I'm always making up excuses not to go back to work," he says with a laugh.
As for Karen, she wishes she could spend more time with the family. But she loves her work and feels fortunate that her husband is willing to at stay home. "At a senior-management level, it would be very difficult to not have one spouse at home," she says. "Besides, knowing that our children are being cared for by their father, and not a stranger, gives me peace of mind."
Coordinates: Karen and Mark Beckwith, email@example.com
The Team: Margaret Kelliher, 33, a computer scientist at General Electric Corporate Research and Development in Schenectady, New York; and Tim Kelliher, 33, also a computer scientist at GE's R&D division.
Their Children: Kate, 7; and Colleen, 4.
The Challenge To keep home and work lives on cruise control when one spouse is traveling.
Lesson #8: Focus on the most important tasks, and let the other stuff slide.
Tim grabs most opportunities for travel because he wants the visibility -- he hopes to become a program manager, where he'd oversee roughly 10 to 30 computer scientists. When he's away, it's all up to Margaret.
Margaret ruthlessly prioritizes when he's on the road -- and lets go of the less-than-urgent tasks. Housecleaning? That can wait until Tim gets back. Dinner? Take-out and frozen foods work fine. Shopping? "We've found some very good catalogs," she says.
Margaret no longer "wastes energy" getting angry when Tim leaves on a business trip. Instead, she's learned to downsize her expectations of what she can really accomplish. "I'm a pretty capable person," she says. "But when Tim is away for a week, it's like trying to run a marathon in leg irons. I can't. And the smartest thing I can do is admit that I can't."
Lesson #9: Ask yourself if you really need to make that meeting.
At least once a week, Margaret was 30 minutes late picking up her daughter from day care. The reason? Late-afternoon meetings. One day, when she was even later than usual, a day-care worker confronted her. "She reminded me that she, too, has a family to get home to," says Margaret, still uncomfortable with the memory. "And I had to agree."
Since then, Margaret has cut back on late-day meetings. When someone schedules a meeting for 4:30, she'll ask if it can be pushed up. Most of the time, the answer is yes. If the time can't be changed, she'll ask a coworker to take notes for her. "I don't think anyone resents it," she says, "because they know I'll reciprocate."
Lesson #10: Make your work-at-home visible.
When Margaret comes in to the office late and leaves early, she often compensates by working at home after the children are asleep. But until recently, no one knew. Then she happened to send her team an email at 2 AM The next day, everyone told her she was working too hard. "It's a technical field, so sometimes you think that the only way you're measured is by technical skills," she says. "But that isn't the case. You have to manage appearances."
Now she looks for a reason to send late-night email and voice mail, which are time-dated. "If people see you leaving early and they think you're slacking," she says, "you've got to let them know that you're working your tail off -- you're just doing it at a different time."
Lesson #11: Talk your boss's language.
Recently, Margaret's boss scheduled a business trip for her on the day of her daughter's seventh birthday, with a return flight arriving at 8 PM the same day. In the past, she might have gone along and tried to "sneak back" early. This time, she spoke up in terms he could appreciate -- and convinced him to change the date. She told him she'd made a "commitment" to attend her daughter's party -- adding that she'd be happy to make the trip a day earlier, which would work just as well for the customer. "You have to speak your boss's vocabulary," she says. "Saying you have a 'commitment' sounds more important than just saying you have a party."
Besides, managers don't want to hear you whine about your problems -- they want solutions. Adds Margaret, "You don't want to go in there saying, 'I can't.' It's always better to say, 'Here's an alternative.'"
Coordinates: Tim and Margaret Kelliher, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pamela Kruger (email@example.com) writes on business and women's issues for many publications, including "Working Woman" and "Redbook."