October 25th, 2011 | 6:00 am

10 Tips from Dual-Career Couples Who Are Making It Work

filed under Work-Life

iStock_000016142689XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In 1970, 30 percent of children under the age of six had both parents working outside of the home. According to Catalyst, the amount of dual-earner marriages is now closer to 80 percent and that number is only expected to increase as more families seek out greater economic security. We’ve had over half a century to get used to the idea that both partners in a family can be career-focused while also maintaining a happy, healthy home life.

But as Marie Wilson, Founder of the White House Project recently mentioned, each generation of women is told that they need to return to the home for the sake of the family. In the 1980s, she said it was the “new traditionalists,” who were featured in glossy magazines discussing how they’ve left their high-level jobs to tend to their homes and children. According to Wilson, “the pictures and magazine covers were alluring, inviting women to join the exodus.” Later on, the tactic was fear. How could anyone forget the 1986 Newsweek article about the poor marriage prospects of educated women over 40 that included the line, “Women over 40 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than find a husband”?

And in the early 2000s we learned about the so-called Opt-Out Revolution, a term coined by Lisa Belkin in her now infamous New York Times piece. Today we see reports of radical homemakers and homesteaders of the green movement, which are urging women to make their homes the center of their lives by opting out of “consumer culture.”

In fact, we rarely see portraits of women as career-focused as their partners. That needs to change. Here are profiles of thriving dual-career couples – and ten tips for making it work.

Maintaining Flexibility

Jennifer Pereyra’s relationship with her husband Ignacio seemed fated. While in college, she lived with a Spanish family while participating in a study abroad program in Madrid. Ignacio was a friend of the family and just one year after meeting, the couple tied the knot. The couple have now been together for 13 years and are working together to make their dual-career family work.

Ignacio is an account executive in the banking industry and Jennifer is a regional account manager in the healthcare industry. Both work from home and though they don’t have traditional work schedules, this works to their advantage and disadvantage, especially while raising their two young daughters, ages six and three. “The advantage is we have more flexibility when it comes to trying to coordinate schedules and be there for important events for the girls. The disadvantage is the office is at home and it’s easy to go in with the idea of just sending an e-mail or two and end up staying there a couple of hours,” she said.

Jennifer Pereyra wrote the book on managing a dual-career family – literally. When her oldest daughter Rebeca began asking questions about why she and Ignacio had to spend so much time working, she searched for a children’s book that would shed light on the issue, but when she couldn’t find one, she took matters into her own hands. In April of this year, her book Mommy & Daddy Work to Make Some Dough was published in hopes of helping other dual-career parents better explain to their young children why both parents work. Though the couple’s children are now in school and more understanding of their family’s situation, Jennifer Pereyra and her husband are still constantly working on ways to improve their communication and ensure that quality time together is spent. Rule number one: there are no rules.

“There are no hard and fast rules in our house,” she explained. “As we all know, things can change on a dime and if we set certain rules, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. One truth we have learned is to change our perspectives and look at balance over months and years as opposed to days and weeks. If you are trying to achieve balance on a daily or even weekly basis, you are setting yourself up for failure. However, if at the end of a few months or the year you can look back and feel good about your life, I think you can safely say that you have achieved the balance that is appropriate for you and your family.”

The pair has no formal outside help, besides the occasional babysitter, but they do carpool and share parenting responsibilities with Jennifer Pereyra’s best friend, whose son goes to the same school as their daughter Rebeca. This becomes especially important when either Ignacio or Jennifer Pereyra have to travel for their work, which happens fairly often. When they can’t ensure that their travel schedules don’t overlap, Pereyra’s best friend can step in and watch the girls until one parent can make it home.

Planning ahead also helps the couple make sure that their day-to-day lives run smoothly. Jennifer makes sure that their daughter’s clothing is washed and laid out for the week, small snacks are made in advance for the girls to grab-and go, and any reminders that Ignacio may need are listed on post-its.

According to Jennifer, here are five tips other dual-career families should consider:

  1. Have a plan: Plan in advance and have a method for tracking each other’s schedules. “In our house, if one of us has a meeting or work travel that falls outside of normal business hours, we send a meeting planner through Outlook to make sure the other is aware. We also use Outlook to set up recurring events, such as dance practice,” she said.
  2. Be flexible: A give and take that has to take place. You have to be willing to compromise and understand that not everything is going to fall into a neatly-defined schedule.
  3. Ask for help: Whether it’s asking a friend for help with home responsibilities or asking a co-worker to cover something for you, there is no shame in asking for help when you need it. The alternative is only setting you up for failure.
  4. Outsource: Whatever you can afford to outsource, you should. “In our case, it’s the house cleaning,” she said. “It may be something different in your household, but outsource those things you don’t absolutely have to do yourself.”
  5. Prioritize: Understand that perfection is a myth. Eventually, something’s got to give and it’s better if you come to terms with that up front. Define what is most important for you and what you are willing to allow to slide. For the Pereyra family, this means that the most important parts of the house are clean, but you’ll likely find dishes in the sink and toys on the floor.

Focusing on Communication

Jackie Woodside and her partner Heather Harker met almost 13 years ago while playing basketball at a local women’s drop-in session in Cambridge. A mutual friend thought Woodside, who knows American Sign Language, would be a good connection for Harker, who is deaf. Just three months after meeting, the couple purchased a home together and the rest, as they say, is history.

Previously a clinical social worker doing psychotherapy and mental health consulting, Woodside recently went into speaking, training, and career coaching, which allows her to have a more flexible schedule. This came in handy because as the director of consulting and executive transition services at Third Sector New England in Boston, Harker was sometimes putting in 60 hours at work. The biggest challenge the couple encountered was making time for each other, but several years ago when they decided to adopt their son Nathan, it required that they communicate at a higher level and masterfully tune in to each other’s strengths, needs, and as Harker said, “natural rhythms.”

“The biggest challenge was not the number of hours we were working, but that both of us often have evening and weekend work. Coordinating schedules while also ensuring family and couples time requires phenomenal and impeccable communication, with a healthy dose of humor and the ability to forgive and be flexible of last minute changes,” Harker said.

Rather than trying to make plans weeks in advance, the couple shares their schedules each and every day, fine tuning every detail to make sure one of them is able to drop Nathan off at school and pick him up.

“The best thing about this arrangement is that I am a morning person, so while Jackie says it’s ‘crazy early,’ it actually feels like my prime time to be productive,” Harker said. “Honoring each other’s natural rhythms has made a difference as well. Before having Nathan, work was more primary in my life, after adopting our son, it became more about balancing the things that are important to me, starting with my relationship with Jackie and Nathan, couples time/family time, work, and then additional things I want to do, such as serve on boards.”

Since adopting their son, Woodside and Harker have learned to tune in to their own needs, as well as the needs of their family unit. According to Harker, sometimes she feels as if she needs more family time and other times she feels more focused on her work or volunteer work. Adjusting their schedule to allow for these shifts is a “delicate art,” but the couple has found a way to honor what they need as individuals, what they need as a couple, and what they need as a family.

“We know each other very well,” Woodside said. “We respect one another’s personal values and we have a clear sense of our values as a family. That is the foundation for how we manage everything.”

Here are five tips from Woodside and Harker that have helped them navigate their dual-career family:

  1. Communicate all the time, especially about what’s important to you.
  2. Respect one another’s values, even if you don’t understand them or agree with them.
  3. Own your own “stuff.” If there’s a problem in the relationship with schedules, work, or anything else – look to see how you can resolve it first. What are you doing to contribute to the stress, how can you be different to resolve the stress? Give 100 percent; 50/50 only leaves you both half empty.
  4. Spend time together no matter how hard it may be. Nurture your friendship, support one another’s goals, ask how things are going, and really listen.
  5. Show appreciation. “This is one of the big things that help Heather and I feel so grounded,” Woodside said. “We thank each other all the time. I don’t think one meal goes by that I don’t thank Heather for preparing it. Similarly, not a week goes by that she doesn’t thank me for doing the laundry. These are simple examples, but they create a strong foundation of gratitude and appreciation.”

Making it Work for Your Family

At the end of the day, it’s about doing what works best for your family. How one dual-career family operates may not work for another, that’s why it’s crucial to write your own rules, communicate effectively, and constantly check in with your family to see where it’s at and what it needs.

“When it comes to family time, we make the most of whatever time we can,” Pereyra said. “We think it’s more about creating quality memories than the quantity of time that is spent together. Obviously, opinions on this differ. There are many ways to arrive at the end goal of a happy, well-adjusted family and your way may not be for everyone, just as long as it works for you.”

3 comments

  1. Marianne

    I am myself in a dual- career relationship and one thing i have experienced first hand is the fine line between compromise and sacrifice. Communication is key within the couple, but I also believe that Corporations could think about innovative ways to accommodate dual-careers.
    My husband and I are both CFOs and one thing we joke about is having the possibility to share one job. Benefit for us- having a portfolio life, benefit for the company- diversity and innovation in action ! Food for thought.

  2. Lesley DeLille

    I just recently returned to full-time work. When my son was born I was going to school part-time/working part-time. until I was done with school I continued to work part-time (16 months). I thoroughly enjoyed being home with my son and only having to work 2 days a week (which actually was 12 hour night shifts (I am a nurse). Now I am working 4 days a week and my husband works 5 days a week. our son goes to a home daycare and we love his childcare provider but it just makes me sad each time i drop him off! When one of my friends says they are going to stay home with their children it makes me feel so jealous. Any suggestions/tips to help me get over the guilt??/
    THanks!!

  3. Kylie Oakes-Ati

    Lesley,
    It sounds like you really enjoy being home with your son.

    One way to look at this might be to think about the following questions:
    -what would you be doing with your son if you were at home with him?
    - how much of this can you still do even with your current working hours?
    - in the time you have available, are you actually using it in the way you most want to in terms of spending time with your son?
    - if not, why not? What is stopping you?
    - what options do you have to overcome the things that are stopping you? (Try to be as creative as you can here).

    Without knowing your situation I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive, but I hope that thinking through these questions might stimulate some ideas you could implement that make you feel you are making the most of your time with your son while still handling your work responsibilities and bringing in income for your family at the same time.

    Best wishes,
    Kylie