How Successful Working Parents Keep Their Careers On Track

The right strategies can make the difference between having it all, and thinking it can’t be done.

How Successful Working Parents Keep Their Careers On Track
[Photo: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

Life is not always easy for working parents. Managers sometimes treat people as less committed to their jobs just because they have kids, and school hours seldom align with workplace ones. Society could do a lot more to help people balance work and life.


Yet as I’ve studied the schedules of families (including my own), I’ve found ways that parents undermine themselves, too. In 2013-2014, I collected time log data on 1,001 days in the lives of women who earned six figures and had kids. I interviewed these women about their choices for a book on the topic. Some told me they felt harried and stressed; others took the juggle in stride.

The difference? Often, it came down to whether they had good support systems at home. A stay-at-home partner is awesome if you’ve got one, but even many high earners don’t. That means the choices a family makes about childcare matter a great deal. If you want a situation that helps you and your partner focus at work so you can keep building your careers, use these strategies that separate those who have it all from those who think it can’t be done.

Strategy 1: Think about your day-to-day life

Child-care decisions affect daily routines, and small annoyances add up. I adore my children’s preschool for many reasons, but a key selling point is that it is half a mile from my house. A mere 10 extra minutes per commute of driving would add up to nearly two hours of additional car time per week; 15 minutes adds up to 2.5 hours–the weekly quantity of time the CDC tells us to exercise.

For many parents I interviewed, this focus on day-to-day life pointed towards choosing child care that came to them (that is, a nanny) rather than the other way around. A physician in a two-physician couple told me, “Switching from day care to a nanny has made our lives so much more relaxed and pleasant. Instead of rushed mornings, we get to sit with both little ones eating a leisurely breakfast. We never have to worry about waking kids in time to leave.”

Strategy 2: Be realistic about how many hours you need

Since good child care isn’t cheap, parents are sometimes tempted to pay for as few hours as possible. This impulse is magnified by the constant cultural message that using child care is somehow a bad thing. People can argue about whether that’s true, but I do know this: Once you have decided to hire care, you may as well go all in, because arranging too few hours is an invitation to madness. My 40-45 hours of coverage only works because I’m willing to work at night after the kids go to bed (see “The Post-Bedtime Ritual Of Successful Working Parents”).

A couple whose jobs require 50 hours of in-the-office work weekly may negotiate with a nanny for 45, and then wonder why she and their managers are all unhappy (and the couple is likely bickering too). Since you don’t want to burn out any one caregiver, don’t be afraid to stack different kinds of care to get the coverage you need. A full-time nanny plus preschool or a part-time sitter might be realistic if both members of a couple work late hours or travel. Families with school-aged children sometimes bring in an au pair to cover early morning and evening hours.


Strategy 3: Think through trouble spots

Maybe your nanny has a night class at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, but your boss has a meeting with his boss on Thursday mornings. That means he’s always in intense preparation mode the night before. He may understand if you refuse to stay late, but that decision will likely have career consequences over time.

So what to do? People faced with a situation like this could bemoan their woes and face a crisis every Wednesday, but a better option is to plan ahead. A couple might decide that the other party covers Wednesday, with the first party taking another night. Someone on her own, or with a partner also facing long Wednesdays, might hire a relief sitter who’s on call to take over so the nanny can still get to class on time.

Strategy 4: Let it go

The best child-care situation in the world won’t improve your focus if you don’t let people help you. Micromanaging isn’t a winning strategy at work, and it isn’t at home either. If you and your partner have hired competent people to work for you, those people can arrange play dates, buy presents for birthday parties, remember when your elementary school-aged child needs to wear sneakers for gym class, and so forth. When you stop fretting about those things, you can deal with work at work, and use your time at home to relax and enjoy your family, secure in the knowledge that nothing is falling through the cracks.

Adapted from I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Laura Vanderkam, 2015.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at