The Balancing Act: Work Life After Baby

Experts say working moms and dads must make trade-offs.

Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 01, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Dey Ruano is a working mom who strives to be a star employee and a stellar parent.

"You want to make sure you are giving 100% at work, but that you are also giving 100% as a parent," says Ruano, who is a marketing database administrator with a 10-month-old son.

But is it realistic to give 100% at home and at work? WebMD checked with a career coach and a parenting expert, and both agree the answer is "no."

"I have seen people try desperately to do both and hurt themselves in the process," says Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction and Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America's #1 Career Coach. "Until our culture changes to truly have family-friendly workplaces and community services, it is a matter of choosing," she tells WebMD. "However, it's not an either/or. It is [choosing] which is top priority."

Psychologist Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, says, "To be an involved parent necessarily alters the time and attention one can give to one's career." He tells WebMD working moms and dads must make trade-offs based on their personal values. "What are their values about family and work? How may they live by those values? Are they willing to trade a less affluent lifestyle for more family time?"

Setting Priorities

Shapiro, who is chairman of the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, says it's crucial to be honest with yourself when setting priorities. "The way to make a huge mistake is to be unaware of your personal values or to fight against them. If you feel your career is No. 1 and your children are No. 2, but you try to force your children into No. 1, it will only make you resent them."

It's also important to realize you don't have to choose a single top priority for all time, Shapiro says. While your children and your career cannot be the top priority simultaneously, they can each have a turn as No. 1. Shapiro says this is the key point for working parents who hope to have it all. "It is impossible to have it all at any one snapshot in time. If you live a reasonably long and good life, you can have it all -- but you can't have it all right now."


Ruano understands this. To make her baby a priority in the present, she decided to "slow down on the climb up the corporate ladder." She says becoming a mom hasn't changed her career goals, only "the timeframe to reach those goals." She's confident putting her baby first now won't hurt her career in the long run -- in fact, she says parenthood has made her better at her job. "I think it has helped me tremendously in being able to analyze ideas or projects at work in different ways, giving me a much better perspective."

Sorting out your priorities is a crucial step in navigating life as a working parent, Shapiro says. Other essentials include finding reliable child care and honing your time-management skills.

Choosing Child Care

Child care can mean care provided by a relative, care provided in your home by a nanny, or center-based care such as preschool. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, none of these options is inherently superior -- deciding which is right for your family depends on your values, needs, and budget. The Academy stresses that high-quality care can have a positive impact on your child's emotional and intellectual development.


Maureen Kenny, PhD, a professor of counseling at Florida International University, recommends scoping out child care options well before you plan to return to work. "Think in advance about your child care situation and make sure you have back up plans," says Kenny, who has 10-month-old triplets. She also suggests speaking to your employer about more flexible work hours. "Think outside of the box when planning your return. For example, I may teach one class on Saturday because this is a day my husband is not working."

But if your career is your top priority, Fortgang warns against pushing the boss for special arrangements. "Asking for less travel, not being flexible about morning or evening meetings, and even negotiating a four-day work week starts to telegraph a message that the job is not No. 1 anymore," she tells WebMD. "Some companies then put you on the 'mommy track' meaning they no longer look at you as someone on the frontlines. It is an unfortunate and deep part of our culture that needs to change.

Time Management

Whether your career or your family comes first, both stand to benefit if you can improve your time management skills. This includes becoming more efficient and productive on the job so you can get home on time, says Fortgang. "Be less of a worker bee and more of a queen bee: delegate, become choosier about how you spend your time. ... There is no longer the endless work day where you can stay late to catch up."

Fortgang says good time management also means guarding your personal time, whether it be a date with your spouse or a class at the gym. She and Shapiro agree that scheduling "down time" in your planner is a good start. Shapiro says walking, working out, reading, or doing anything that "relaxes and centers you" will help you avoid "running on fumes."

Ruano says parenthood has made her more careful with her time. She rarely works late anymore and instead tries to make the most of regular office hours. Her advice to soon-to-be working moms -- accept help from your spouse or other relatives, develop a routine that makes morning time simpler, and "don't feel guilty because you enjoy going to work. It will just make you that much of a better mom to your little one when you get home."

WebMD Feature


SOURCES: Dey Ruano, marketing database administrator; mother of a 10-month-old son. Laura Berman Fortgang, head, Life Blueprint Institute; author, Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction and Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of America's #1 Career Coach. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist; professor and chairman, department of counseling psychology, Santa Clara University; author, The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been. American Academy of Pediatrics. Maureen Kenny, PhD, professor of counseling, Florida International University, Miami; mother of 10-month-old triplets.

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