22

The Two-Career Couple

Managing the Double Balancing Act—Together

There’s the big meeting you’ve got to prepare for, and your partner’s on deadline, of course. And one of you has to drive swim-team carpool tomorrow, and that stack of bills won’t pay itself, and it’s 4:30 p.m. already, and what are we having for dinner?

Being part of a two-career workparent couple can feel as if you’re caught in a spin cycle of logistics and coordination, and with this much to do and to sync up about, your sense of self and of partnership can shift. Maybe you used to take pride in being on top of things at home and at work but all too often now you’re running behind or you’re the person who forgot the groceries. And that amazing human being you fell head over heels for? That’s now the person with whom you manage daycare drop-offs, compare schedules, and argue about the car. Even if you have a rock-solid overall relationship, the two-careers-plus-kids thing can alter its tone, and—ironically, given how much you’re both in this—leave each of you feeling a bit lonely.

What follows is a list of seven techniques to help you shape your workparent experience in a deliberate way and feel more together, in every sense. Starting with a few bigger-picture approaches, we’ll proceed to more-tactical, do-it-anytime moves. While these instructions are written with current working parents in mind, they’re equally usable if you’re an expectant couple or planning a two-career-couple workparent future. Work these exercises through in the same mental and emotional frame in which you began your partnership: as two for the road.

Other fixes

The techniques provided in this chapter won’t bring you the same juice unless you’ve already covered what we’ll call the working-parent baseline. If you’re facing a childcare crisis, it’s going to be harder to maximize your workparent partnership. First things first.

If you have broader concerns about your partnership, out beyond the type of advice provided in this chapter—for example, if the two of you find yourselves in regular, pitched conflict, or if daily communications feel fraught—think about seeking the support of a couples counselor or therapist. If your reaction is No way or you worry that professional help is simply a precursor to a breakup: rest assured, many busy working (and nonworking) couples, including ones you know and admire, have used similar resources and to powerful effect. To destigmatize this kind of support, think about it in sports terms: your favorite athlete has a coach, a trainer, and a sports psychologist helping her prep for play. You may not be on the field during World Cup, but isn’t your career-plus-kids life demanding enough that the two of you deserve someone in your corner, also?

When couples counseling sounds like a good idea but you’re not sure where to start, check in with your regular healthcare provider, community center, employee-assistance program, or house of worship, any of which may offer the service directly and/or be able to make local referrals.

1. Why?

Goal:

In this exercise, you’ll focus on and crystallize the benefits and upsides of your family-plus-career structure and create mutual motivation in the process.

When, how, and how long:

Find thirty minutes when neither of you is working, hungry, overtired, etc.—for example, on a weekend afternoon during the baby’s nap. While there’s no preparation required, be sure to record and store the ideas that come from this conversation.

What to do:

Take turns filling in the following sentences: “Because we both work, we can ” and “Ten years from now, the reasons we’ll be glad we both worked when the kids were younger are

Let yourselves riff and volley. Many of your ideas may be emotional or spiritual or feel “virtuous” in nature, and some of what you blurt out may seem narrow, flip, or even selfish. Don’t hold back.

When time’s up, your list may include items like these:

  • Because we’re both working, we can:
  • –  Live in a safe neighborhood
  • –  Take career risks without undue worry
  • –  Help your mom out financially
  • –  Take the kids on a trip abroad each year
  • –  Tithe to our church
  • –  Stay in careers we love, even though they’re less financially rewarding
  • –  Be role models for the kids
  • –  Feel like me
  • –  Not resent you
  • –  Do work I love (or that has other/special significance to me)
  • –  Spend meaningful time around smart grown-ups instead of only around our kids, which despite my endless love for them would drive me crazy
  • –  Harvest all the hard work I put in during all those years of school/training
  • Ten years from now, we’ll be glad that we:
  • –  Had the chance to keep progressing professionally
  • –  Didn’t ride each other so hard about spending money on sports gear/refurbishing the house/etc.
  • –  Each of us stayed the [merchandising expert/computer whiz/etc.] that the other one fell in love with
  • –  Built up our retirement savings

Note that your answers can be both joint and individual. Maybe as a couple you’re appreciative of the increased financial security of two incomes, but you’re personally glad that the extra money lets you buy top-of-the-line fishing equipment.

How to take it forward:

When you’re clear on your whys, and have a more vivid view of positive future outcomes, two-career workparenting will seem more powerful and natural—more like a first choice, instead of something that requires constant second-guessing. To keep stoking that sense of confidence and purpose, refer back and add to your list on a regular basis (for example, each year around the holidays), during particularly pressured phases of workparenting, or—better yet—both.

‘‘My husband and I met in the military. We’re both committed to our careers—and to our children. So we’ve figured out how to optimize for convenience: we live near work so we have short commutes, we pay for a meal-delivery service. We’ve figured out ways to be able to work hard while being the parents we want.”

—Katherine, chief of staff to the COO, mother of two

2. Template Talk

Goal:

To build a more specific, shared vision of how your two-career workparent life together can work, while eliminating stressful, often unspoken conflicts about how it “should.”

When, how, and how long:

Set aside at least one quiet, uninterrupted hour and speak in a private place. Agree that during this time, you will begin an important dialogue—one of the most important of your workparent partnership—but need not finish it. Through this conversation, you’re simply setting a more effective, collaborative frame for future ones.

Explanation:

In chapter 1, we examined your Workparent Template: the collage-like collection of advice, experiences, and observations that have formed your personal view of working parenthood. Your template is individual, and thus unique, and thus inherently different than your partner’s. Which is fine: you certainly don’t have to be carbon copies of each other to be a happy workparent couple. When your templates bump up against each other, though, it can lead to arguments of a particularly distressing and bewildering type. Why can’t your partner just understand that it’s impossible to be a good parent working these kinds of hours? Why is he or she so completely blind to your keenest anxieties about combining career and children? Why does it always lead to a spat when you suggest ordering in dinner, even though your budget allows it? You’ve always been such good partners in crime, so why do you now both sense this lurking tension? It may be because of a template difference.

What to do:

  • Get out the sketch you did of your Workparent Template back in chapter 1. If you haven’t each yet completed the exercise outlined in table 1-1, do so now.
  • Take ten minutes, in turn, and walk your partner through your template. Describe those experiences and glimpses of working parenthood—inside your family of origin, among friends and mentors, on social media, and so on—that have shaped your view of what a working parent is and does.
  • Be thorough and honest, and as much as you love each other, don’t assume your partner is clairvoyant. He or she may not know that yes, your father was a wonderful provider but that his constant work left you craving his attention or that you’ve heard colleagues make snide comments about part-time work.
  • When each of you is done speaking, have the other gently paraphrase back what he or she has heard. You don’t have to recite back every point, just ensure understanding. “So the other parents in the social-media group keep telling you that having a second child will be harder careerwise than the first?”
  • As your partner speaks, avoid any urge to editorialize, advise, or “spouse-splain.” Comments like “that doesn’t surprise me, knowing your father” or “well then maybe you should just get out of corporate law” will bring this process, and any goodwill that comes along with it, to a screeching halt. Instead, ask gentle, open-ended questions: “What was that like?” “How so?” This should be a safe-harbor discussion. If the emotional temperature spikes, take a break.
  • When you’re done, make up three lists: 1) how our templates mirror each other, 2) where they differ, and 3) where one of us has had strong template-shaping experiences and the other hasn’t. Maybe you both work for bosses less open to flexible work arrangements; one of you is the child of a happy two-career couple and the other isn’t; and one of you has overheard a gazillion conversations about childcare, and the other none at all.

You too?

Is that new colleague, or the person you’ve just met at the kids’ school event, also part of a dual-workparent couple? No matter how genuinely curious and well intentioned you mean to be, asking “do you both work?” or “Is your partner at home full-time?” may feel—or come off as—judgy.

A more neutral way to ask the question is to frame it around professional identity or life story instead of around current role. Questions like “Does John have a graphic-design background also?” or “Did the two of you meet at work?” then allow your counterparty to respond, “Yes, and he has his own firm,” “No, I’m a paramedic,” or “We did meet on the job, but John’s decided to become a stay-at-home parent for the next few years,” without feeling evaluated.

How to take it forward:

Whenever the two of you find yourselves making different assumptions about working parenthood, or in conflict, or unable to see or “get” the other’s perspective, tap the brakes and ask yourselves: Are we having a template difference? Try to be considerate of each other’s lived realities and perceptions as you work toward a mutual solution.

3. Structured Check-In

Goal:

To reduce the strain, both practical and personal, of covering all the details and logistics of your busy, two-career family.

Explanation:

It’s inevitable that day to day, you’ll have to deal with a certain amount of “life admin” and ping-pong with your partner about logistics. If, however, you can set aside regular, concentrated time to preemptively coordinate the moving pieces of career, household, and childcare, and you have a positive, reliable framework for doing so, it makes things easier.

When, how, and how long:

Shoot to have a Check-In conversation weekly, although you may prefer more often. The precise cadence doesn’t matter as much as the regularity. This should be a habit, not an event. For each Check-In conversation, you and your partner will need your calendar(s) and to-do lists in front of you and twenty to twenty-five solid minutes.

What to do:

  • Use table 22-1 as a basic outline for the conversation, a jumping-off point. If there are items particular and important to your family but not on this list (home renovation? a job search? pet care?), add them in. Tweak the outline until you agree that it touches on each of your essential, recurring responsibilities and feels like us.
  • During your Check-In time, work your personalized outline through. As you go, bear in mind that what you’re solving for here is that “drowning in immediate logistics” feeling. If bigger-picture issues come up—the decision to change jobs, the need to look at your total financial picture, etc.—acknowledge them but keep on working.
  • Repeat each week.

How to take it forward:

Performed regularly, the Check-In should become a straightforward, mutually understood, and mutually affirming routine. You may also wish to do a “bigger-ticket” version on a quarterly or annual basis, focusing on larger, longer-term to-dos like career progression, the kids’ overall educational process, or retirement planning.

TABLE 22-1

The Two-Career Workparent-Couple Check-In Outline

Topic/approx. time

What and why

Example(s)

Look back (two minutes)

What has worked well in your two-career workparent operation since your last Check-In? Call out what you’re proud of and any special efforts each of you made.

•  When you picked Colin up from daycare on Thursday it let me have that important conversation with my boss.

•  Having those dinners ready to go in the freezer was a big help during a busy few days.

•  We both really unplugged this weekend and had fun at the park.

Schedule (five minutes)

•  Preview your work needs, particularly any travel, changes in shifts or hours, or early starts/later departures.

•  Flag any out-of-the-usual-routine child-related appointments.

•  Tuesday is the department monthly meeting, so I’ll need to be at work thirty minutes early.

•  Our appointment with Susannah’s speech therapist got moved back to Friday afternoon, but we can do it remotely.

Care (five minutes)

Is your regular childcare sufficient? Is any extra help needed from the broader Village? Are there any FYIs to or special requests of your caregiver?

•  Susannah can do early drop-off at school, so I can get to the Tuesday meeting.

•  Call Mom to see if she can cover Friday evening.

Transport, food, schoolwork, and household (ten minutes)

Otherwise known as the Four Horsemen of the Workparent Apocalypse. To prevent them from becoming any more time-consuming, focus your conversation on new needs, special events, and exceptions.

•  I’ll need to take the car Thursday; I’m spending that morning at a supplier site.

•  Susie will need a bagged lunch for the field trip—no lunch box, it needs to be disposable.

Me/us/the family, together (five minutes)

How will you stay healthy—and build your own resilience—this week? How do you plan to be present for each other? With the kids?

•  If I want to get a run in tomorrow morning, can you cover?

•  Reading with kids thirty minutes before bed.

•  Date night Friday, if Mom can babysit.

•  Saturday: the park.

‘‘We each have things we like to do, that we’re good at. We divide all the to-dos, and neither of us wants to give our particular roles up. I focus on our family’s finances, on operations. My husband handles groceries and meals. We’re a two-person team.”

—Sarah, acceleration-capital fund COO and senior director, strategic analysis, mother of two

4. On Call

Goal(s):

Allow each of you to focus on your careers and selves in a more concerted way for sprint-distance stretches of time—and occasionally hit the Off Switch, as needed.

What to do:

Agree on a defined period that one of you will be the “parent in charge.” That period may be as short as a few hours, or at the outside, a few weeks long. During this window, the other partner will remain a loving, committed parent, but be permitted to step away from the routine challenges that take up so much workparent time and headspace.

Example:

Three days from now regional management will be visiting your partner’s workplace to conduct an annual review. Your partner is, understandably, frantic. Turning to On Call, the two of you agree that for the next seventy-two hours, you’re the go-to parent. You’ll be the one to do drop-off, get dinner on, review homework, take the call from the school when your child misbehaves on the playground, read bedtime stories, and so forth, picking up all the day-to-day tasks that are normally divvied up between you. Your partner will be able to dive into work without a backward glance at those dishes in the sink and keep plugging as long as needed. Yes, it’s a lot for you to handle—but for this short burst of time you can manage it, all while freeing your partner up to “get it done” (and be better positioned to get that promotion he or she deserves). Then, one day next weekend, your partner will switch into On Call mode so that you can exercise, rest, or goof off. Next month, when you’re under the gun to make annual quota, your partner will take a few days of On Call. And so on. The value here is in the clarity: you don’t have to be fully dual-hatting at every moment.

How to take it forward:

Make “shared duty” your default, reaching for On Call as a special way to cope when one of you is especially busy, in the final stages of a major work project, traveling, ill, dealing with other life issues (such as eldercare), pursuing an important personal project, or in need of a recharge.

‘‘The other night the girls had gone to bed, and my husband asked if I thought he should go back out and finish something he had been working on earlier in the day. I said, ‘no—stop.’ He’ll do the same for me; we’re harder on ourselves than on others, and it’s important to help each other find those limits. Because we can read each other well, we also know when to do the reverse: to give each other permission to keep working—to complete that one last thing.”

—Lindsey, farmer, mother of two

5. Joint Activity

Goal:

To spend time relating to each other as life mates instead of purely as joint chief operating officers of your workparent household.

Explanation:

We’ve all been there: you move heaven and earth to get out for a proper date night and then spend your entire, expensive time at the restaurant reminding each other to call your son’s math tutor or talking about the political mess at work. Whatever happened to actually enjoying each other? It’s not even romance that’s missing, per se. You just wish you could be yourselves for a short while without the conversation veering toward potty training, the electrician’s estimate, or your boss’s difficult personality. You may be together, but you’re stuck in gear.

What to do:

This coming week, try to spend thirty minutes together in an activity that’s just physically or intellectually demanding enough that it doesn’t permit you to think about much else. If you both love jogging, or bowling, go for it. If you can make it to one of those evening adult-ed classes at your local community center, great. If you need to stay home, put on some music and get out the checkers set. You choose, but pick something that will let you displace the urge to “get it done,” and simply be in the moment with your partner instead.

The midweek break

If you’re trying to get some quality time together or a minivacation for just the two of you, consider doing so midweek, when your regular childcare is in place and/or school in session. Take Tuesday as a “leisure day” together, or go away for a Wednesday night, and you’ll likely have fewer logistics to think through and less disruption to your family routine than if you tried to escape on the weekend.

For more advice on finding and using time off, see chapter 17.

‘‘There are ways to incorporate the two domains, even when you’re both working and busy. My wife’s a nurse, and she was on last New Year’s Eve. At 11:45 p.m. that evening I piled the kids in the car, we went to the pharmacy, stocked up on snacks and sodas, and then drove down to the hospital to ring in the holiday with her. Both of us have done that—brought our kids to each other during meaningful moments.”

—Steve, educator and pastor, father of four

To be clear: you do not need to accomplish anything, make progress, or demonstrate mastery at this chosen activity. In fact, it may be more effective to try out new ones, or engage in those you have no particular talent for. Note that eating a meal, watching TV, attending a concert or lecture, driving, or getting together with friends will all work less well than more-active, hands-on, just-the-two-of-us pursuits.

How to take it forward:

Make Joint Activity a part of your regular routine, taking particular care to do so during phases of transition (job change, arrival of a new child) and higher-than-usual career pressure.

6. Tell Me More

Goal:

To help your partner feel more heard and understood as a working parent—and closer to you.

How long:

Five minutes—or less.

What to do:

The next time your partner expresses frustration, anger, exhaustion, or indignation or is overwhelmed with any aspect of working parenthood, sidestep your instinct to immediately help “solve” the problem. Instead, actively listen.

Example:

Your partner comes home fuming that her boss has dumped more work on her, yet again, and that your son’s school didn’t mention the science project, due Friday.

As a take-charge, can-do professional, your natural urge might be to say “push back,” “maybe it’s time to get your résumé together,” or “I can help make the model solar system,” but start by meeting your partner where she is in the moment. She’s already feeling lousy—don’t let her reach that even-worse place of lousy-alone.

We didn’t do it that way!”

Your partner’s relatives keep making editorial comments about the fact that you’re both pursuing your careers while parenting. Or at the annual school mixer another parent tells you how glad she is to be at home and “fully focused” on the kids. Or one of the old-guard types at the office asks flat-out how your partner feels about both of you working.

Ignore them—or, if you prefer, gently and directly correct them by saying something along the lines of:

  • “Of course, [partner’s name] and I love our careers so much that, even as dedicated parents, we can’t imagine leaving them.”
  • “It sounds as if you made the right choice for you, which is awesome. Just like you, we’ve gone with what’s best for our family.”
  • “Like so many couples, we’ve found that both working and sharing in baby care has worked out very well—and brought us great joy.”
  • “It’s a mutual and happy decision.”

Then move on. You can’t blame someone else for not having your exact perspective, and the other person’s barbed comments may stem from complex feelings about his or her own situation. Save your emotional currency, and spend it elsewhere: at work, on the kids, on each other.

Put down your phone and any other distractions. Ask a few empathic questions, and make a couple of “mirroring” statements: “That’s ridiculous. Doesn’t he know how hard you’re already working?” “Of course you’re annoyed, who wouldn’t be?” “What happened then?” Make direct eye contact, nod—use your body language to show that I’m listening, and that this is important. Give your partner the clear sense that I’m in there with you.

How to take it forward:

Practice this we’re-in-it-together signaling maneuver regularly, but keep it time-limited. After a few minutes, when things have de-escalated a bit, pivot—together—toward constructive next steps.

7. Public Admiration

Goal:

To bolster your partner’s pride and sense of achievement in being part of a dual-career working-parent couple.

What to do:

The next time you’re in a group setting (a party, parents’ event at the school, or family gathering) praise how your partner is handling things at the four-way intersection of self/parent/career/couple. Making your comments detailed and specific will help the compliment land.

Examples:

  • At your annual family holiday dinner, as your partner discusses the big work project just completed, you add, “It was a huge amount of work, but the incredible thing was how [partner’s name] was really there for the kids, despite the hours. [He/she] would read them stories and tuck them into bed before heading back to work. [He/she] is such a committed [mom/dad].”
  • You’re at a neighborhood get-together a few weeks after your return from parental leave, and someone who lives a few doors down asks how the transition is going. You acknowledge that “It hasn’t been easy. The new schedule is tight and I miss the baby while I’m at work. But [partner’s name] has been incredible—a rock. [He/she] sent me ten messages that first day back, cheering me on. I don’t know how I could have done it without [him/her].”

How to take it forward:

If you’re not the gushy type, this may feel a little awkward. But the two of you are operating in a world that doesn’t (yet) offer workparent families, particularly dual-career ones, much or any positive feedback. It is essential to give each other some direct, in-person, can’t-deny-it approbation. Doing so publicly also lets you provide other dual-workparent couples, both current and future, a bit of role-modeling and inspiration.

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