In the popular imagination, life in a dual-income family is “Stressed, Tired, Rushed,” as a recent New York Times headline put it. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that 56% of working parents say the balancing act is difficult.
Look at the upper ranks of professions, where the hours are long, and it seems the situation must be more dire. At one of my workshops recently, a woman mentioned a rule of thumb that any given couple (particularly those with kids) could work 100 hours a week (total) before things fell apart. In theory, that would mean that only only person per couple could have a big job. If someone’s working 80 hours, the other person could only work 20.
But talk to two-career couples and you find the situation is not so cut-and-dried. First, almost no one actually works 80 hours per week. One study comparing people’s estimated workweeks with time diaries found that people claiming 70, 80, or 90-plus hour workweeks were inflating their totals by about 25 hours. In other words, two people with “75-hour workweek” jobs might both be working 50.
And second, there are plenty of strategies couples can use to manage life even with dual large workloads. Here are some of my favorites.
Control of your time matters more than volume of hours worked. One study done by BYU and IBM found that people who could control when and where they worked could log 57 hours per week before a significant number experienced work-family conflict.
Without that control, the tipping point happened at 38 hours per week. The ability to work from home on occasion, or even just to drive in later and miss rush hour, is huge.
While 100 total hours probably isn’t a strict limit, smart couples naturally ebb and flow to cover each other’s busy times. Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother magazine, often talks about how she and her husband each work late two nights per week while the other covers the home front. My husband and I tend to trade off travel; my speeches get booked months ahead of time, so he can plan to keep those days local.
Eliezer Brodt, an attorney, and Rinna Sak, a partner in an accounting firm, have four children. “If I know Rinna is having a really intense week (e.g., there’s a big conference where she’s presenting), then I will take the lead on getting the kids ready for school in the morning and try to schedule my meetings and calls for later in the day,” says Brodt. Says Sak: “If I see Eli has two nights in a row he has to be at work late, I will try to make my week work around that.” In other words, “We try to help each other.”
Lots of parents with big jobs work what’s called a “split shift.” They leave work at a reasonable hour, spend the evenings with family, and then do more work at night after the kids go to bed. That makes it possible to work long hours while still having time together.
Brodt and Sak have long observed the Jewish Sabbath, which may be a religious requirement, but it has a happy side effect of creating open space in their schedules. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, “that’s guaranteed family time,” says Sak. With no work and no electronic devices, they get at least two meals with their children all gathered around the table. “That makes us feel a little bit better about the crazy weeks.”
Laura Deitz Shaughnessy is an attorney and her husband is an engineer. She says that they “both endeavor to get our running/fitness in during lunch, so that we can spend evenings together.” Brodt and Sak will ride the train from their suburban home into Toronto together, and turn what could be lost commuting time into couple time.
Doing some work at odd times may also make the pieces fit. Antonia Taylor owns her own PR firm, and her husband also works long hours. Taylor says she wakes up early a few days a week to log extra time, and works two to three hours on Sunday afternoons. “Sunday afternoon is my thinking time,” she says. “My brain’s rested from a day off on Saturday, and I am less cluttered mentally so I can map out the next 168 hours while also looking at building the business side of what I do.” Her husband uses those Sunday afternoons as quality time with their children, ages 7 and 8.
Yes, you’ll likely need a lot of paid help. “Having full-time daycare (7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) and a person clean my house monthly is key,” says Shaughnessy. “We are also fortunate to have grandparents nearby as emergency backup.” Friends and neighbors may be willing to pitch in during busy times if you chip in when things are calm for you.
Not every family wants to keep going with dual long workweeks forever. Claire Roper’s husband works 45-60 hours per week, and she used to, but she recently decided to go freelance instead. She now works about 35 hours per week. “The biggest difference is probably that I have a little more time to look after the house, cook nutritious meals, and prep things in advance,” she says, such as “gifts for family birthdays, suitcases for trips.” One hundred hour couples may rely a bit more on takeout and Amazon Prime. But life can still be doable, if you want it to be.