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‘How I Make It Work’: 10 Working Parents Share Their Coping Strategies

Does work-life balance even exist? Ask any working parent how they manage to hold down a job, take care of their family, and carve out time for themselves – at least enough to go to the dentist semi-regularly and maybe eat a vegetable now and then – and you're likely to get an earful. The upshot: balance is hard to achieve, hard enough to make many wonder if the whole thing is a myth.

Does work-life balance even exist? Ask any working parent how they manage to hold down a job, take care of their family, and carve out time for themselves – at least enough to go to the dentist semi-regularly and maybe eat a vegetable now and then – and you’re likely to get an earful. The upshot: balance is hard to achieve, hard enough to make many wonder if the whole thing is a myth.

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(Photo Credit: James Jordan/Flickr)

The reality of balancing home life and professional life is important, because as PayScale’s report, Inside the Gender Pay Gap, shows us, combining career and family has real implications for women’s pay. Even after controlling for factors like job title, experience, and management responsibilities, married women with children earn 4.2 percent less than married men with children.

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The common argument is that women take a hit to their paychecks because they’re more likely to take time away from work to deal with family responsibilities. However, PayScale’s data show that married men with kids are actually more likely to report taking time away from work one or more times a week to attend to their family. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be penalized when they do take time for family: when they do so at least once a week, they earn 4.3 percent less than men who do the same.

Of course, for most working parents, not taking time for their families isn’t an option, even if they wanted it to be. For the vast majority of people who can’t afford a round-the-clock nanny, something has to give – which “something” it is tends to vary, depending on which crisis merits the most attention at any given time.

To get a better sense of how working parents make it work – or don’t – we asked several to tell us how they manage. Here’s what they said:

1. “I went freelance.”

Jessica, Copywriter: “After five years of holding down a full-time job with a long train commute and a young daughter at home, I hit a wall. Even though all outside appearances were reasonably fine, I was experiencing an inner burnout like never before and was constantly feeling two steps behind on everything in my life. This led to a lightbulb moment: I only have one child. And she’s only little once. I needed to find a way to be physically closer to her during the day and have a flexible schedule so I could pick her up from school.

“So, two weeks ago I made the bold decision to resign from my job and go freelance—which I had been thinking about for a long time. So far, the decision appears to be a sound one, as I immediately landed several clients and was even offered remote-based projects from my full-time employer. And thankfully, I have health insurance through my husband. The long-term effects remain to be seen, but for now, it looks like my leap of faith will pay off and I feel like I can breathe. I know I will still have to juggle, but will be able to do so on my own terms. Like working on a project after my daughter goes to bed, or even while dad takes her to a movie on Saturday.

“Also wanted to add this thought:

“When you’re a full-time working parent, there’s always SOMETHING you’re neglecting — whether it’s spouse, friends, gym membership, sex life, housework, or some combination thereof. I’ve yet to meet one working parent who can keep every ball up in the air at the same time without sacrificing at least one area of their life.”

2. “We keep a structured schedule.”

Mary, 911 Dispatcher: “We keep the kids on a structured schedule (they always know when dinner/homework/bedtime is) and we try never to make promises we might not be able to keep. We attend every concert, game, performance – no matter what, one of us WILL be there. Our kids are now old enough to know that sometimes they have to sacrifice time with us in order to have the things they need and want. Oh, and we also have a few events we attend every year and they know we work hard to make that happen.”

3. “I set limits and expectations.”

Dan, Web Producer: “Set limits and expectations with your employer, stick to them and don’t feel badly about it. Help create a culture where balance is accepted and respected.”

4. “I pay for help.”

Lynn, Engineer: “Sometimes you have to pay the team (e.g. house cleaner, grocery delivery, daycare). Sleep and non-family social engagements are definitely limited. It is very hard to slow down or you realize how tired you are!”

5. “Some balls smash.”

Anne, Marketing Director: “It’s a constant balancing act. The best thing I’ve done is to learn to prioritize which balls bounce and which balls smash. Being a single working parent also means everything in my life is as efficient and planned as possible. Routine is my best friend, and it has also made me much more efficient at work. I also find it very hard to slow down and stop – and I pay less for ‘stuff’ and more for services to keep us up and running.”

6. “Stay-at-home husband.”

Elizabeth, Designer: “Stay-at-home husband when the kids were young and all the immense privilege the fact I can say I had that implies. I have employers who value flex schedule and work-life balance. If I say I need to work from home to make a 3 p.m. parent-teacher conference, they’re fine with that. I wish that were the norm.”

7. “Cleaning? Not so much.”

Joy, Writer: “When the little one was REALLY little, both my husband and I worked part-time at jobs with flexible schedules (me 100 percent at home marketing/consulting/writing; he adjunct at a university, plus tutoring on his own).

“We had family help for childcare, part-time. We shared household tasks pretty evenly – he did the grocery shopping and lots of cooking; I did the diaper laundry (ew) and all the breastfeeding. We ate a lot of pasta and didn’t clean house very well, but had a small and easy-to-maintain condo, which helped a LOT at that stage.

“When my husband landed a full-time faculty position and I took on more client work, we had even MORE family childcare help and the household stuff shifted to me more or less 100 percent.

“Day-to-day health and financial survival meant:

  • Keeping the kid on a really regular sleep schedule, so she’d nap three hours in the afternoon and I could work!
  • Meal plans, grocery lists, and cooking for leftovers and packing lunches just like the pretty bloggers tell us to do.
  • Taking turns going to the gym or doing something for our own wellness (not often but in fits and starts).
  • Cleaning? Still not so much. Laundry? Every day. Socializing? Not enough.

“Now the little one is pre-K, and we don’t have the holy grail of family help anymore. And we both work a lot. And we don’t have an easy-to-maintain small condo anymore. So, we do what a lot of people in America do – we throw money at it (towards as much preschool as we can afford … more takeout than we used to … summer camp when my husband was away for months and I was on my own … I even have a cleaning lady on deck).

“Finding other nice parents with similar work-life-kid situations and trading playdates and/or just socializing with them too so you can stay human and help them and be helped. It’s not balanced. It’s really hard for almost every parent I know. There is always an area of deficit. But you do what you have to do.”

8. “Everyone is responsible.”

Michelle, Manager: “We had an everyone-is-responsible approach. The kids learned to do their own laundry young. We rotated who prepped and cleaned up dinner. Friday night was FFYOFFF: Forage for Your Own @$#% Food Friday. On Saturdays, I would take the kids to breakfast and then we would run errands. We also had a chore rotation for everyone. Because I was a student myself, we all often did homework together at the kitchen table. And, very important here, we didn’t worry about things like folding the laundry if we didn’t have time, or dusting.”

9. “What’s work-life balance?”

Jan, Editor/Author: “Work-life balance? You’re funny. In all honesty, the answer is I have no idea how I manage it. When I slow down to think about how it all gets done, I get absolutely paralyzed. Although, because we have kids with special needs, it may be a little more complex. When my career started taking me on the road for book signings and speeches and so forth, we had to make a decision that my husband was going to be a stay-at-home dad/student for a while. We couldn’t both work and be available to deal with all the unexpected things that come up.”

10. “She worked nights, he worked days.”

Jack, Retired Accountant: “She worked nights and some weekends, he worked days. Worked at first because [the kids went to] Grandma after school. Then, when older, frighteningly responsible children [made it work], as napping on the couch kept Mama alive. By [the time the kids were in] high school, I said to my wife, ‘Hey, I think I knew you way back when … (pause) you’re kinda cute!'”

Note: All names have been changed to protect the exhausted.

Tell Us What You Think

How do you make it all happen? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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