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Balancing Family and Work


Family-work balance is a complex issue that involves financial values, gender roles, career paths, time management and many other factors. Hidden values and models from our cultures, original families and other sources influence our choices in ways that we often don’t anticipate or understand and that have far-reaching consequences for our lives.


Like so many of the challenges and dilemmas of marriage, balancing family and work has no easy solution­-no one-size-fits-all approach. Every person and couple will have their own preferences and needs.


Many couples tell us that they have seen the drawbacks of their parents attempting to ‘do it all’ and ending up very much over-extended. Still others hope to avoid the restrictions of roles and experiences that are too narrow or mismatched for them. Couples are struggling with the relative priorities of their values­ family involvement, career and material goals, personal growth and fulfillment.


The most important thing we can tell you about balance: Preparation, intentionality and joint decision-making are the key to creating and maintaining the right family-work balance for you. Many couples experience extremely strong forces pulling them away from the priority that they would like their family to have. If you don’t aggressively plan your balance, these other forces will prevail. Without a clear plan and commitment to maintaining balance, time and energy for family erodes and evaporates.


Family-work balance is a process, not a static achievement. It’s important to make the ‘big decisions’ – selecting careers and jobs, timing children, allocating roles and responsibilities, etc.­ that will provide the opportunity for balance. The real task of balance takes place on a weekly and daily basis, even from hour to hour. This is where couples hold the line to protect family time or allow it to evaporate­where they opt to take advantage of a family opportunity or allow other priorities to interfere.


The process nature of balance means that you can and must adjust as required. No decision, plan or approach need be permanent. If it’s not working or satisfying, you can reconsider and make changes. In fact, constant tactical adjustment and flexibility to keep on target toward your goals and priorities (but not to accommodate outside demands where limit-setting is usually more in order) is a hallmark of couples who are satisfied with their balance.


But how can you tell when you have found the right family-work balance for you and when you need to adjust­make a different plan? According to Sandy Epstein on, good balance, while different for everyone, is characterized by:


·       Having enough time for both work and family without expending great effort, so that your life feels relatively comfortable;
·       Having enough back-up, so that you can cope with minor emergencies like sick baby sitters, car breakdowns, etc.; and
·       Being on the right personal and professional path for your future.


The first big balance decision faced by couples is when to become parents, if this is in their plans. Among the most important, but least appreciated, considerations is allowing an adequate post-marriage bonding period with your partner before children, even if you have been (or lived) together for an extended period before marriage. Experts recommend a minimum delay of one year before trying to become pregnant. Other issues include reconciling personal, career and financial developments with preferred timing of children and biological imperatives.


Another key balance decision is whether one or both partners will work outside the home and the characteristics of their jobs. These decisions will depend on your financial and career goals, the amount of gratification that you experience at work, your energy levels, your willingness to forego a high level of involvement in some aspects of your children’s lives, etc. Talk to both working and at home parents about the pros and cons they have experienced.


Commonly cited pro-work factors include potential income, career continuity and advancement, workplace intellectual and social stimulation, enriched childcare social environment for kids, etc. Adverse factors include reduced time spent with family, fatigue, weekends dominated by domestic chores, chronic crisis coping, etc.


If your motives for working are basically financial, look carefully at the actual net benefit after deducting childcare, taxes, transportation, work attire and other work-related costs, especially if you are earning a relatively low salary.


If you decide to work, one key to balance is finding family friendly employers­employers with explicit, realistic policies, programs and commitment to support the family priorities of employees, such as flexible working arrangements, on-site child care or emergency child care coverage, limits on demands for extended work hours, parent support networks, sabbaticals, etc.


Work options that can promote balance include part-time, flex time, telecommuting, compressed workweek (full-time in 3 or 4 days), extended family leave, freelance and consulting, job-sharing, seasonal work.


Some experts recommend asking about these issues up-front during job interviews in order to promote accurate expectations for the employer and you. They advise that if these discussions lead to your not being hired, it probably wasn’t the right job or organization for your balance priorities. It is critical to distinguish between lip service and real commitment. Committed large employers will have written policies and procedures to address these issues. The attitude of your direct supervisor will be critical.


Research Validated Models for Successful Family-Work Balance


       Both Full-Time Employed


According to a recent study (Zimmerman, et al, 2003) of dual-earning (both partners full-time employed) middle-class and professional couples with children that perceive themselves as successful in balancing family and work, these couples strive for marital partnership to support balance by:


·       Sharing housework (negotiating equal division of labor)
·       Mutual, active involvement in child care (wives resist monopolizing and controlling, make room for equal contribution by husband)
·       Joint decision-making (free expression of needs, negotiation and compromise­wife perceived to have slightly more influence)
·       Equal financial influence and access based on joint decision-making, planning
·       Valuing both partners’ work and life goals (husband’s careers somewhat more prioritized, support for separate, individual time and activities)
·       Sharing emotional work (primacy of marital relationship, time alone together


These couples (Haddock, et al, 2001) also employ adaptive strategies, including:


·       Valuing family as the highest priority over professional responsibilities and advancement
·       Deriving enjoyment and purpose from work
·       Actively setting limits on work by separating family and work and negotiating with employers
·       Focusing at work­they experience limits as making them more productive at work
·       Prioritizing family play and fun
·       Taking pride in dual earning
·       Living simply, giving up some material amenities in order to reduce financial pressures and work hours
·       Proactive decision-making: “If you just define success as what you do at work, then that is all you will do. Whereas, if you define success as having a happy family and a happy marriage and [being] happy at work, then you make all those things happen.”
·       Recognizing the value of and protecting time for family, being present oriented


While this is not the only set of strategies for balance, it has the virtue of being one that is derived from the experience of satisfied couples.


       Modified Traditional


A study (Marks, et al, 2001) of working-class, white couples produced a very different model of balance-­a ‘contemporary variant of traditional marriage’ where primary gender responsibilities are clear, with men earning while women are caretakers. For these couples, husbands’ role balance is related to higher income (better providing) and spending more leisure time with their families. Wives’ balance is enhanced by contributing through paid work of their own, involvement with relatives and friends, and when husbands spend time alone with children, are communicative about their own needs and are willing to change their own behavior to meet their wives’ needs. Financial strain detracts from balance for both partners.



Whatever your work arrangements, experts recommend a range of coping strategies to enhance balance:


·       Make a list of essential activities and involvements that you want to maintain.
·       Set and guard limits and boundaries to protect these; say no firmly to activities that would interfere with your essentials.
·       Make a list of ‘don’t want to do’ items that are aversive, waste your time, sap your energy.
·       Delegate these and other non-essential tasks and find or hire help.
·       Negotiate to achieve the most advantageous arrangement possible when it’s not feasible to reject or delegate an activity or task.
·       Clark (2002) found that individuals who communicate with work associates about family and with their family about work are more satisfied and higher functioning in both arenas.
·       Make long-term plans with your partner to meet your individual and mutual balance goals.
·       Engage your partner in regular short-term planning: Briefly review activities and arrangements for the coming week every Sunday evening. Briefly review activities for the next day every evening.
·       Organize division of labor with your partner so that you each cover those tasks that are easiest and most enjoyable for you.
·       Try to let go of the responsibilities your partner has accepted or you have delegated to others. Try not to control or criticize. Let go of guilt.
·       Strictly prioritize tasks. Include ‘slack’ time in your plans and schedule. You won’t be able to maintain a schedule plan that commits 110 percent of your available time, let alone accommodate ‘emergencies’. See our time management article:
·       Take care of yourself first whenever feasible. You can’t do very effectively for others if you are depleted. ·       See our stress management article:
·       Always be professional at work. Arrive at work early; leave work on a strict schedule. Block out work when at home or confine it to strictly scheduled times. Minimize weekend work. Be prepared for family emergencies that call you away from work. Train subordinates to cover responsibilities when you are away from work.


Recognize that it will be hard but necessary to accept compromising some of your goals in order to protect higher priority involvements and activities. Remind yourself frequently that these strategies are critical to maintaining a life based on your true values.




BBC work - family balance site


Beth Sawi, Coming Up for Air: How to Build a Balanced Life in a Workaholic World
(By a senior brokerage firm executive with advice, exercises and real-world examples. Available remaindered or used for a few dollars.)

Click here to buy this book: After clicking thu to B & N or Amazon via any of our our bookstore links, search for the title, then click the used copies link.


Arlie Russell Hochschild, Ph.D., The Second Shift
(A landmark book about the dynamics of dual career households based on research by a sociologist. She concludes that, despite great societal changes in the United States allowing women more choices in life, women are still responsible for the majority of household chores and child care and that this has profound implications for marital happiness for both men & women.)
Click here to learn more about or buy this book through our bookstore link.



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Copyright 2004, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.







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