Finding a Balance Between Family and Work

November 05, 1999

In a recent message, a reader noted that men and women early in their academic careers "are paying a tremendous price for their career ambitions, and the pieces are being picked up by divorce courts, relatives, and churches."

I've received many other poignant comments about the seemingly non-negotiable claims of family, career, and life, and I venture with some trepidation into this territory. Trepidation because much is sacrificed by generalizing about these issues, which take such individual forms.

But it may help simply to know that others are struggling with what can be boiled down to a few general issues. Here are some recent comments from readers:

Which spouse's career takes precedence and when.

"When I was turned down for the last principalship [in Sacramento], my husband was chosen for a much better position here in Reno. I hated the prospect of starting over in another district here. I took a job in a church-run preschool at $8 an hour for the first year and began the healing process. ... I am now half-way through a three-year Ph.D. program in literacy, loving it and planning to look for a university teaching job. My husband will retire when I finish and we will go wherever my job takes us."

How much to "sacrifice" career for the children and who (usually, but not always, the woman) makes the primary sacrifice.

A recent Ph.D. in educational psychology found an ideal job as interim director of a university laboratory school, which enabled her both to continue to supply over half the family's income and to care for her 4-year-old and 6-month-old children. Because this job is temporary, she worries about how to create another stable job that would demand less from her than would an academic career.

How to manage as a single parent.

It is true that, as a single parent, you lose the constraints imposed by your spouse's career, but the added pressures of having to do it all do not make for an enviable tradeoff, in my opinion.

"I am an instructor/academic/adviser/doctoral student/mother/estranged wife. This involves so much coordination, time, preparation, etc., that sometimes I want to just give up some of this. However, I worry that people will say I'm not 'supposed' to quit. ... I am the one who eventually has to make the decision and live with it. I think I am going to prioritize the things in my life, and if I have to let some things fall by the wayside, then so be it."

How to create a life outside work and family.

"I am single, and for six years I have devoted my time to really immersing myself in leadership thought and practice. I have a passion for leadership work and I have created a unique way to teach it -- a simulation methodology -- but my life seems empty and emotionally depleted."

While it may seem impossible at first, there are things you can do to bring more balance into your life. Here are some suggestions, based on many years of working with students who struggle with similar issues, as well as on my own and my friends' experiences.

Get clear on your values and set priorities. The single mother/grad student/adviser quoted above hit the nail on the head: Try to be clear about the relative importance of the various elements of your life -- your work, your family, friends, and other things you value.

Here is an exercise that may help. Write down as many of your values as you can think of, then select the 10 most-important ones and rank them in order, with 1 being the most important. With your significant other or a friend, start from the bottom of the list, comparing first 10 with 9, then 9 with 8, and on up the list to 2 and 1.

Even though it sounds contrived, say to your partner with each comparison, "In order to honor my commitment to _____ (the more important of the two you are comparing), I am willing to give up ______ (the less important value) forever." Pay attention to your feelings. If this choice seems impossible, try reversing the order and giving up the other value.

You can also talk it through, but one of the virtues of this exercise is that it brings choices closer to a visceral level. Your partner should listen sympathetically to your struggles, but NOT comment or interject his or her values. (If you can get that person to do the exercise as well, all the better.) In my experience, the order of values almost always changes. I encourage people to do this exercise periodically, because your priorities do change over time.

Set and adhere to firm boundaries, according to the priorities you identify. This is likely to mean limiting your work life, since that is often the most open-ended commitment, but it may mean setting boundaries around the time you spend doing things for others, to the exclusion of your own needs. My observations suggest that people who think well enough of themselves to set boundaries still manage to have career success, while minimizing burnout, stress, and guilt. (By the way, I am better at giving this advice than taking it!)

Some specific ways to draw boundaries:

  • Set a firm limit on the number of hours you are prepared to work each week, and violate it only under rare and extreme circumstances.

  • Build in commitments to other activities in your life -- join a club or team for exercise or make a regular date with a friend -- so it's harder to let them slide.

  • Set aside inviolable time each day for your children, completing work during their sleeping hours, if necessary. I suggest doing the same with your spouse since it's very easy to take that relationship for granted.

  • Learn to say No to additional work and to unimportant things in your life.

Try creative problem-solving with your spouse or partner. Open and honest communication is essential, as is a commitment to get beneath your conflicting "positions" to your common interests.

For example, a historian I worked with had moved up from a very good job at a state university to a more prestigious and exciting job (with tenure virtually assured) in a less family-friendly location, with slim prospects for a tenure-track position for his wife. To better satisfy their common interests, they negotiated a joint package at his former university that included a tenured position for him and a tenure-track job for her. (By the way, she completed her degree later than him partly because she assumed primary child-care responsibilities.)

Other creative solutions include commuting (think carefully about whether and how you can make this work), picking a compromise location that serves both partners better than either individually, or one or both partners' changing careers to increase job options.

Try negotiating with your spouse and children over whose career dominates at any given time. The former principal's situation quoted above demonstrates one fairly common model: husband and wife alternate. And note that in this case, a "sacrifice" for her husband's career brought her a new career path in a new city.

Try changing the lens. Imagine yourself looking back 10 years from now. Can you see your current choices as temporary, until circumstances change? What can you learn from your present situation?

Think about how you would feel about your choices on your deathbed. I've heard it said that few if any dying people regret not having worked harder. I can reiterate that I have absolutely no regrets about "sacrificing" my potential academic career to attend to my son with special needs (happily, not permanent). Truth be told, it probably wasn't the right career path anyway.

Perfect solutions are rare in our world of over-commitments and inevitable tradeoffs. But, if you have made a good-faith effort to find a solution in accordance with your core values, trust that the outcome will be at worst benign. In the unlikely event of a "bad" outcome, you can always adjust your course of action.

Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Please send your comments to