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Career & Family: Surviving the Juggling Act
By Mary van der Boon
(this article first appeared in the XPat Journal)

When my Dutch in-laws express amazement that I manage to balance a busy career with a family of four, I always imagine myself replying "right, can you do something about this family? It’s really holding me back".

I don’t think I could hit the right note of self-deprecating humour in Dutch, though, so I keep the thought to myself. Such sentiment is, after all, tantamount to heresy in the Netherlands.

Work / Life Balance
Until recently most women here simply left the workforce when they had children. New changes in tax legislation, however, have made having a second family income a more attractive proposition. This has been paired with increasing financial pressure on young families (caused in part by the high cost of housing) and the desire by a growing number of women to continue their careers after motherhood. Families across the Netherlands are having to deal with a new phenomenon, the ultimate work / life balance issue: how to combine a busy career with a family. And working mothers are quickly discovering what I did: juggling a career, marriage, motherhood, housework, chauffeur duty, networking, lifelong learning, fitness (and dog obedience training) takes planning, flexibility and support.

Can women ‘have it all’, and is it worth the price? It might be worthwhile for Dutch working moms to look to the U.S., where it has long been common to combine family and career, and perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls. Being superwoman doesn’t come easy. In an annual opinion survey conducted for Shell in the U.S., where men and women are polled on a wide range of gender-related issues, including the workplace, household roles and various businesses’ treatment of both sexes, 34% of the respondents said the difficulties of balancing work and home life is one of the most pressing problems facing young women today.

According to the survey results, Americans are also still conflicted about mothers’ roles in the working world. By a close margin, women say it’s fine for a mother with young children to work if she can handle the obligations to her family and to her job (51%). Forty-three percent of women polled say a mother who can afford it should stay at home with her children. The men polled agreed with this perception. However, women show some concern over the possible stress they face in blending work outside the home with family life. Two-thirds of surveyed women believe mothers working outside the home face more stress than do stay-at-home mothers. Men agree even more, with 72 percent saying mothers who work outside the home face more stress than mothers who stay at home.

What’s the Problem?
So just what are the top challenges faced by working mothers? In another nationwide U.S. survey of working mothers, they rated needing to be in two places at once as the biggest cause of stress, followed by getting to school and work on time, never having enough time, getting it all done, and feeling guilty.

The Big Questions
The key to managing the stress caused by juggling home and office is in first identifying what the problems are. Bluesuitmom.com’s personal coach Sandy Epstein advises moms who want to work outside the home to first examine their values. Ask yourself the Big Questions:
  • What is important to you in raising a family – what values must you teach your children about family and home?
  • Who do you want to be as a mother?
  • What is important to you in your work?
  • Why do you work?
  • Does your work reflect your values and does it satisfy your personal needs such as personal development or contributions to society?
  • Are you trying to ‘go it alone’? Could others around you provide more support?

Translate Values into Actions
The next step, says Epstein, is to live your values by translating them to actions. This means setting boundaries and priorities, and learning to live by them. Some of the advantages of clear family time boundaries are less guilt (reducing the guilt of not being with your family all the time by make a time when they will have your full attention); less stress (reducing the stress of not working right now by setting the time you will be back working); and clear messages (your colleagues will know when they can and can’t contact you so you can give them or your family your full attention). Epstein suggests the following action plan:

  • 1. Boundaries:
    - Write down the times you want to set aside for family interaction
    - Determine what needs to be done to keep these times sacred and do it.
  • 2. Priorities:
    - Write down what stresses you most day-to-day
    - Determine which of these activities you can eliminate, and what you need to do to accomplish this, either through setting boundaries with others or by rearranging the way you do things, and do it.

Workplace Issues
Assuming you have managed to find reliable and affordable day care, worked out the household chore schedule with your spouse and found a way to orchestrate your many activities so you can fit them all into a 24-hour day, there remains one more hurdle to overcome: attitudes in the workplace. Being committed to one’s family responsibilities was seen as the top factor limiting the career advancement of female executives in the United Kingdom, according to a survey conducted late last year by New York-based Catalyst and London-based Opportunity Now. Of the more than 1,000 women interviewed, 46 percent of respondents said family issues are a prime barrier to advancement.

These barriers come not only from management attitudes, but also from those of working parents’ co-workers. Resistance or backlash from those who chose not to, or could not have children is a common source of tension in the workplace. Research by the American Society of Human Resource Management quotes evidence of increased friction between single and/or childless workers and employees with children including the following:

  • those without children being asked to cover for those with childcare responsibilities, e.g. medical appointments, school drop-offs, etc.
  • those without children perceiving that those with children have better and more flexible work arrangements
  • perception that those without children will be able to work late, do overtime or travel at short notice and without a reason to say no
  • employees with children being the only ones eligible for family leave.

The Family-Friendly Workplace
Dealing with problems between co-workers is part of a much bigger challenge for employers. A workplace is considered family-friendly when it meets three basic needs of employees, namely economic support, practical care and emotional care. Economic support relates to the need of employees to earn an income from which they can meet their living expenses. The second need, practical care (the area most commonly referred to), relates to helping employees meet their daily care needs, through the availability of flexible working hours (most often discussed in terms of part-time employment), parental leave, child care and time off, for example, to attend doctors’ appointments. Emotional care refers to the principle that the workplace should ensure that employees are not so stressed, tired and overloaded by their working life that they are unable to provide for the needs and emotional care of their children or dependent others.

Emerging Trends
While few employers address all these issues, there are important emerging trends no major firm can choose to ignore:

1. Modern demographic shifts, including:

  • women childbearing later when they are more skilled and senior in the organisation
  • women returning to the workforce full-time or part-time
  • the aging population and the increased responsibilities for caring for elderly relatives
  • aging employees wanting quality of life outside paid work, e.g. time with partner, grandchildren or increased time for leisure of further study
  • a higher number of sole parents, affecting mainly women employees, but also men as either non-custodial or custodial fathers
  • changing ethnic composition of the workforce with diverse extensive family responsibilities
  • more same-sex relationships with family responsibilities

2. Changing social trends, such as:

  • men wanting to have greater involvement in family responsibilities
  • increased number of dual career partnerships
  • pressure for improved quality of life
  • employees no longer identifying with the workplace as they did when job security existed

Under One Roof
Businesses are showing a real reluctance to adapt to the new reality of the workplace, and working mothers in particular, finding their needs are not being met by their employers, are voting with their feet. Many of Holland’s newest entrepreneurs are women, and the greatest motivation for starting their own businesses (often in their own homes) is the flexibility and opportunities this offers for combining a family and career. This brings with it a new set of difficulties, however, so for the many moms who have decided career and kids under one roof is the way to go, the following sage advice from the Christian Science Monitor:

  1. Create your own private work space
  2. Get a separate phone line. Make sure your children know not to answer this phone
  3. Establish rules with your family. Let them know when you will be working and when they may interrupt you. You should also tell them not to bother you when you’re on the telephone
  4. You will probably need some sort of child care. How much depends on the age of your children and whether you plan to work full or part-time
  5. If you plan to start a business, consider how fast you want it to grow, especially if your children are very young
  6. If you never worked at home before, try it first before you have kids!

Sandy Epstein’s top ten list of ways for stressed-out Moms to find balance.

  1. Recognise that balancing roles as mother and business person is truly work in itself, it requires appreciation of your work (a pat on the back)
  2. Take time to think about balance and how to get it this week
  3. Apply your best analytical and creative thinking to problem-solve this task
  4. Remember yourself, your needs, your wants, your happiness - this is the ultimate barometer of balance
  5. Have faith there is a way - don’t put barriers in front of possibilities, you can make it work
  6. Flexibility is important - what works this week may not fit next week - stay open to new solutions
  7. Know the signs of imbalance, including resentment, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, depression, unhappy family members, dissatisfaction with work
  8. Revisit your core values and live them, know what is most important to you today
  9. Remove, delegate the things that interfere what’s really important
  10. Find the joy in the process and have fun with it