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Finding Your Own Work-Life Balance

Although books and websites on work/life balance abound, finding the right balance between one’s professional activities and home life is largely a personal issue.  What works for one person may not work for another and one person’s vision of “success” may not be right for you.  This resource is designed to help you consider your values and find the path that works for you.

A Few Guidelines

  • You have only one life.  Nobody gets a “work life” and a “home life” - don’t expect to separate the two.  The best you can get is one life that is somewhat balanced, at any given time, between competing needs and desires.
  • What one person considers success may not be success for you.  Try not to get caught up in other people’s goals – what’s right for you is what is consistent with your values and priorities.  Get your values clear first – then think about how to get where you want to go.
  • Men and women in academics tend to be highly motivated, and the same thing that makes them want to do an excellent job academically makes them want to do an excellent job in all areas of their life, including rearing children.  Excellence in everything is impossible– do as good a job as possible with what you have, recognizing that perfection in all things, all the time, is impossible.

The Data

What does the data show about work/life balance for women and men? Much of the data focuses on traditional married couples and does not examine other family arrangements.  Here is what that data shows:

Helpful Suggestions

What works for women and men in balancing career and family issues? A good resource and the source of some of these recommendations is Mothers on the Fast Track: How A New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers (Mason).

Keep in mind that many books and articles presuppose a very narrow version of “success” – equating life success with moving up the career ladder – and that your idea of success may differ. If you believe your goal is to stay on the career fast track, and you have or are planning to have children, here are some suggestions, several of which are based on data from Mason’s research and described in her book.

  1. Stay in the game. The most successful mothers take parental leave following childbirth for a few weeks or a few months and then return full-time. Professional advancement is dramatically affected by time outside the workforce. For many people, dropping out or dropping down to part-time can mean permanent relegation to second-tier jobs. Think carefully before going part-time and, if you choose to go part-time, negotiate a way to remain visible and productive despite part-time status. There is definitely a long-term career cost to cutting back, even if the financial cost is bearable. Recognize that leaving the workforce may be a long-term solution to a short-term problem (childcare) with heavy career costs in the future.
  2. Have a supportive partner. Nearly every successful mother credits a partner as key to success. Partners who are supportive of career goals and active in assuming domestic responsibilities are a key component of professional advancement for both women and men. Without a supportive partner, many mothers feel it is impossible to continue a fast-track career. It’s certainly been done, but will require building a stronger outside network of support. If your partner isn’t supportive, see #3.
  3. Find support. Many successful women describe a strong support network, often including one or more mentors. A supportive department chairperson and a network of more senior faculty, especially women who have been successful, are often important ingredients for success.
  4. Manage your time. Time management skills top the list of explanations for success. Multi-tasking is essential, as is flexibility of work assignments. The technological revolution is enormously helpful, as cell phones and PDAs make personal time management more feasible. In Mothers on the Fast Track, Mason advocates trying to adapt your schedule to “mother time” - negotiating a flexible schedule without becoming marginalized. She advocates keeping the quantity and quality of your work high, but thinking creatively about when and where your work is completed. Critics of this approach argue that that diminished face time takes unfair advantage of the employer, is unfair to fellow employees who are asked to “cover” for the missing mom, and makes it harder for other women to advance professionally since it fosters the belief that women aren’t physically present as much. They believe that women should not ask for special privileges and that doing so erodes the position of all women in the workforce. Time Management Resources
  5. Say no. A key skill is the ability to say no. Focus your energies where they are needed most; try not to feel guilty about saying no to requests that aren’t a priority.
  6. Avoid guilt. Recognize the myth of “momism,” which dictates an ever-increasing parental role. The demands of parenthood have exploded; breast-feeding has seemingly become a requirement of good motherhood; young children have multiple activities many of which require a parental chauffeur/participant; and school-age children routinely receive voluminous homework that requires adult supervision and involvement. Recognize that not every extracurricular activity needs to become part of the family schedule – kids, like adults, need to learn to say no. In addition, sometimes other adults can fulfill the role of a parent, as when an aunt or uncle, grandparent, or babysitter steps in. And sometimes you may feel you just have to be there, such as when your child is ill, and professional responsibilities will need to be shifted.
  7. Prepare for the unexpected. Expect some unwelcome surprises. A sick child, a partner’s job relocation, a divorce, or an ill parent can all wreck havoc on the best laid plans. Step back to get the big picture, clarify your own values and priorities, and then reach out to others for advice and help in rebalancing your life.