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3 steps successful couples take to balance work and life

Sustaining two meaningful careers and a fulfilling relationship, all while raising well-adjusted children, is a challenge that increasing numbers of couples are taking on each year. Around two thirds of parents in the US are working parents, and the question at the top of many of their minds is: How can we make this work?

I’ve spent the past five years studying over 100 working couples from across the globe (many of whom were parents) to understand what it takes to thrive in love and in work. I’ve found that successful working parents — those who build careers they are proud of as well as a solid family life — followed three key steps.

First, working parents should explicitly agreed on a set of principles about how they will parent their kids and how they will split parenting responsibilities. 

There are many different approaches to parenting, all of which can produce well-adjusted kids if mindfully adopted. Some of us want to be involved in all aspects of our children’s lives, others prefer a more hands-off approach and value the early development of independence. Some of us want our extended families to be intimately involved in raising our children, others prefer a nuclear family approach. Some push their kids to achieve, others prefer to let their kids discover their talents under their own steam. 

Parenting principles are the foundation on which the practicalities of parenting lie. Working parents who’ve thrived, I’ve found, negotiated and explicitly agreed on their principles when they first became parents and revisited them as their children grew. Once working parents had their principles set, they could work through the practicalities of being parents and sustaining two meaningful careers. 

A key question all working parents need to face is how they will split parenting responsibilities. Parenting responsibilities are not simply a question of dividing time — for example, whose turn is it to pick the kids up from school today? — they are also a question of dividing mind: Who is responsible for keeping in mind the health care appointments, the friends network, the holiday childcare plans? 

Working parents who do well often adopt a “divide and conquer” strategy. That is, they claim responsibility for different aspects of parenting. This clarity makes it less likely for things to fall through the cracks because both parents assumed the other was taking responsibility for a certain task. It also means that both parents benefit from the joys of being invested in their children’s lives. 

Some couples agree to have a lead parent who takes the lion’s share of parenting responsibilities, others divide tasks equally and become true co-parents. I found neither model to be inherently better than the other. What made the difference was whether the model was truly agreed and shared by both parents. 

The second important step for working parents to take is to build a solid support network of babysitters, neighbors, grandparents, friends, and other working parents who either regularly help out with or provide reliable back-up for their childcare and family logistics needs. 

Jennifer Petriglieri

Jennifer Petriglieri, author of “Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.”
Courtesy of Jennifer Petriglieri

Working parents can find it hard to ask for help. They may not want to bother others, or they may feel guilty about having others care for their children. 

The truth is, all parents need a support network — working or not. When we have a solid support network, it reduces our anxiety, allows us to give ourselves fully to our work when we are at the office, and makes us more relaxed parents. 

I’ve found that one of the best sources of back-up childcare for working parents was other working parents. It can be easier to lean on other working parents in tough times because they too understand the challenges of keeping two careers and a family afloat and can be particularly sympathetic to last-minute emergencies. As one father noted, “Our best friends [who were also a working couple] get our lives in a way that others don’t. Even though they are busy, I don’t think twice to call on them when we’re in a pinch because I know they understand and won’t pass judgement.” 

The third thing that successful working parents do is resist social pressure to conform to the image of the “ideal family.” 

This pressure is strong. In the US, there is currently a widespread ideal of intensive parenting: a pressure to be fully involved in every aspect of our children’s lives, and a sentiment that if we aren’t, our children will somehow fail, and it will be our fault. 

This puts incredible pressure on working parents — unnecessary pressure. One of the most interesting things about interviewing couples from across the globe was that it exposed these images of the ideal family for what they really were: myths. The things people believe in one culture as ideal, another culture believes the opposite. 

And guess what? Parents in all cultures can raise healthy, well-adjusted kids. When working parents were able to resist these expectations and instead proudly claim the parenting principles and practicalities that worked for them, they could truly thrive in love and in work. 

One couple who adopted a hands-off parenting style that was uncommon in their West Coast community told me how they could resist the pressure to conform to the helicopter parent model because “we both strongly valued bringing up independent children, and we knew that helicoptering simply didn’t align with our values. Our clarity made it easier to politely push back against the norms.” 

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