Both of you want careers. A look at how to maneuver all this.
The negotiations seemed to never end. Luke needed to leave work early to pick up the kids from school three times a week when Chloe had a mandatory 4 pm work meeting, which ultimately ended in frozen pizza for dinner way too often. After putting the kids to bed, the couple would bicker over whose turn it was to load the dishwasher. At least once a week, one of them would fall asleep on the couch from exhaustion, before even getting to discuss which one of them would help with their daughter’s science project and buy snacks for their son’s soccer game. And laundry? Chloe had resorted to buying underwear in bulk off Amazon for the whole family.
Welcome to what has become a familiar scene for many two-career households. As wages continue to be weak, the pressure is growing for dual-income families, which now comprise 60% of US households. And that isn’t just for partners with children. Even couples with no kids are finding it more difficult to discuss who should make what sacrifices for jobs, whether it be moving abroad to further one person’s career, or forgoing weekend plans because one partner has to work.
“Partners don’t want to feel as if their role is to pick up the slack for the other’s grueling schedule.”
“The power play between partners can be brutal,” says Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist who is founder of the corporate-training firm Building Giants. “One doesn’t want to feel as if their role is to pick up the slack for the other partner’s grueling schedule.”
Some of what makes the two-header so hard, of course, is guilt. Guilt over not spending enough time—or spending too much time—on one thing over another. “I went through internal struggle about my professional ambition coexisting with motherhood,” says Irina Balyurko, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs who now owns a Salt Lake City-based e-commerce consulting business. In her case, she says she realized she needed to accept that she was just as driven on building an empire as she was on being a great mom—and then things started to fall in place. “My life has gotten a lot smoother once I realized that I will not be a good mom if I also don’t strive for high professional goals,” she says.
But guilt reduction is only part of the partner game. Here’s what we learned from other experts:
Have a Long-term Plan
It sounds simple, but one of the keys to making two careers work is to figure out what you value as a unit and what your goals are, career consultants say. Is the aim for you to both earn a certain amount of income to send the kids to college sans loans and retire by 60? Or do you have vaguer goals, such as wanting to just feel satisfied in your job, whether working at home or in a corner office? Once you’re able to identify what you both want, then you can piece together how your careers fit into those mutual goals.
Throw Away the Idea of Perfect Balance
Face it: There will be times when one partner is working more and the other is caring for the home or children more. But one of the best ways to try to achieve balance is to take turns in career development, says Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute. If one partner just started a full-time job with benefits, the other perhaps can focus on building a business. “Two people can set each other up for greater achievements by alternating between holding up the melody and harmonizing over the top,” Orr writes in her career-advice column. That way, both people feel supported while also building up their careers.
Yes, we just said there’s no such thing as perfect balance. But you can be mindful of making sure compromises are going both ways, to ensure resentment doesn’t build up, organizational psychologists say. If that means you’ve moved twice for your partner’s career advancement, maybe it’s time to have an honest conversation about his next move being a lateral one so you can make a vertical jump.
According to one study, 63% of executives said they would switch to being an independent contractor if the right opportunity arose. “Freelancing is no longer a weigh station for people who are between jobs,” says Robert McGuire, publisher of Nation1099, a gig-economy website. In fact, for employers, the single biggest risk to employee retention isn’t another employer but the flight to self-employment, McGuire says. While contract work doesn’t automatically mean a better work-life balance, it does provide greater control of your schedule—and you and your partner more options to work with.
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