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Reconciling an exciting job and a family. Impossible? - [Part1]

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

A help guide for well-educated men and women in two parts.

Aristotle is reputed to have said, "You can't change the wind, but you can adjust your sails."

This ancient Greek polymath knew that we are exposed to a multitude of influences and conditions that we can hardly influence or control. Instead of fighting windmills, it is often wiser to accept the external and internal conditions and make the best of them.

In this article you will learn the following:

  1. How to know yourself better and stand by the decisions of your heart.

  2. Examples on how to share the load of gainful employment and care work.

  3. How you learn to deal with pushbacks and resistance.

Eine Person, die Silhouette vor der Sonne, springt von einer Felsnase zur anderen, darunter eine tiefe Schlucht und der Schriftzug "Impossible". Das "Im" von Impossible bricht auseinander, so wird aus dem Impossible ein Possible.

To illustrate what I mean by internal and external conditions (limitations and constraints), I will outline some typical examples.

A female professor at a university encourages female academics with doctorates to fight their way to the top. She herself is the best example that it is possible to climb the career ladder, publish widely and attend congresses abroad even when you have children. But when someone asks how she managed it, she replies, "I was lucky that my husband took care of the kids and the household 100 percent." Many in the audience looked at each other in disbelief. Most had probably expected a different answer.

The traditional bourgeois model (breadwinner model)

Why actually? Such a distribution of roles may well be ONE possible option. The professor did not reveal anything about the exact circumstances of how this came about. We should therefore not judge too quickly. It was probably not a decision that was made overnight.

A female colleague with a doctorate, herself a mother with an 80% workload and a partner who works full-time, was very indignant because she understood the call to the women with doctorates on the "appeal ear" (see "four-ears model", also called the communication square, by Friedemann Schulz von Thun). She heard, "Hey dear colleague, why don't you find a stay-at-home dad to watch your back, or take your kids to boarding school, and you too can have a traditional career as a professor! It's that simple."

Past the needs

Most well-educated women today, and an increasing number of men, want both: an exciting, responsible job as well as time for their children (see my blog post on work-life balance). External childcare offers and the call from companies to bring the children to work so that additional work can be done on days off or weekends miss the mark with this group. This is because their internal conditions are such that they only feel comfortable if they can spend "sufficient" time with the children. For them it is important to take over certain things themselves: Dropping by for lunch at least once or twice a week, accompanying the children to music lessons or sports classes. They do this because they are aware that the time with the children is limited and they want to use it to build deep relationships. After all, by the age of 13 at the latest, children often prefer to spend their free time with their peers.

Children often find their parents embarrassing at this age and important conversations about consumption, peer pressure, dealing with media, bullying, etc. should take place earlier (for this a book tip: Claudia and David Arp "Suddenly They're 13: A Parent's Survival Guide for the Adolescent Year", Zondervan). For these parents, it is important to be able to actively shape their time with flexible working time models, so that they can be there when the children come home from afternoon school. For them, part-time work or working independently of time and place is usually the only option. They would rather not work at all than miss those years with the kids. Smart employers listen to the needs of well-educated professionals and create opportunities for them to combine their care responsibilities with gainful employment. This is also good for employer branding: many people have issues besides work for which they need time, volunteer work, a political office, an elaborate hobby, caring for elderly parents. They also benefit directly from the achievements of their parents, and the company thus assumes social responsibility.

In der Mitte des Bildes steht "Personal Growth" geschrieben. Pfeile zeigen von dort auf verschiedene Aufgaben, z.B. "Vision", "Goals", "Planning", "Learning", etc.

The egalitarian family model

For many parents, therefore, the egalitarian family model is the model of choice (in my workshops on the topic of "Partnership-based division of gainful employment and care work", this desire is regularly 90 - 100%): Both parents work part-time (60 - 80% each) and share the care of the children and the family tasks equally and as fairly as possible. This way, the mental load (all the little things you have to think about, too, like renewing the kids' ID cards or returning library books) is spread across both shoulders. Maybe the couple has made a plan about who is responsible for what and when. For example, they take turns dropping off and picking up the children from daycare, support each other with shopping and cooking, and take turns shopping for clothes or organizing birthday gifts when the children are invited to a party. They both attend parent-teacher conferences at school or take turns. It can be difficult when the children are sick and should be at daycare. Negotiation skills are needed here, and each couple has their own ideas about how to handle this.

In practice, however, it is often difficult for both of them to realize their desire for part-time work as they would like (only 7% of parents with children under 12 live this model today, although the desire for it is great - source: FSO 2020).

Eliane would rather work 60% than 80%, but this is not possible from the employer's point of view. Her husband is an engineer and cannot reduce his hours in his current position. Eliane always has a fixed day off and then does a lot with the children. In the past, when the children were small, she regularly attended congresses. The whole family went along, and they combined the congress with a family vacation. So, she could have the children with her even when she was away. Since the children are in school, that is no longer possible. Since her husband is also often away on business, she currently avoids congresses abroad. The external conditions do not allow it, because they do not have grandparents who could fill in overnight, and Eliane doesn't want to simply impose the children on a neighbor or hire an unknown nanny.

What helps these parents?

Genuine interest and inquiries on the part of the employer as to how they can be supported prevent well-intentioned offers of help that miss the mark! In Eliane's case, home office and more flexible working hours for both parents have contributed to the fact that the children are no longer in the after-school care center and thus the desire for more participation in the children's lives can be fulfilled. For Eliane, this was an enormous relief! She often felt guilty because her children did not tolerate after-school care so well and cried in the mornings and did not want to go to school. It was just too noisy for them there. It used to be different: they were in a small after-school care center, there were a maximum of 22 children in the group and it was always the same caregivers. They liked going there. A few years ago, the city built a large central after-school care center, which was unfortunately much too small. The small after-school centers in the settlements were closed. Now there are several hundred children at the same time in this large after-school care center, and the caregivers are constantly changing. Unfortunately, the architects did not think enough when they built it: up to three hundred children cavort on three open floors at the same time. In the middle is a wooden staircase that leads upward.

Eliane's children have been complaining about headaches since the daycare change, and she has had to pick them up from daycare a few times because of severe headaches and stomachaches. At home, they said that it was just too noisy for them at the daycare center. Their head was just pounding, and everything was spinning. Eliane approached the director of the after-school center and he admitted: "Unfortunately, you can't really make sure that children who have problems with the constant high noise level can retreat somewhere in the building. There are too few rooms with doors and because of the fire police you cannot just put some in."

For Eliane, it was clear that she did not want to put her children through that for four full days. She needed an alternative. That is why it was an enormous relief for her that with Covid19 she could do practically everything in her home office, so that her children only had to go to after-school care four times a week at lunchtime. In her case, a win-win situation for everyone. Since the kids are older, they could now spontaneously go to neighbors' houses to play, or the neighbors' kids could come over to play after afternoon school. Eliane could continue to work well. However, a firm commitment, such as inviting the neighbor children over for dinner as well, would be too much for Eliane. She enjoys being alone with the children one day, but on the other days she has commitments of her own over lunch. She hopes to continue to stay in the home office more after Corona. She no longer wants to put the children in after-school care in the afternoons. If she has to, for one day at the most.

Models can create pressure

Who has not heard of modern parents who have managed to work part-time to care for their children equally? How did they do it? Let us take the example of Stefan and Anja. Stefan is a partner in a law firm. Anja is also a lawyer. Stefan always thought that you could only become a partner if you worked full-time. That is what he was told, and in the law firm all the other men work full-time as well. At Anja's three-month checkup, he decided that he wanted to take a more active role in childcare and support Anja in her career. This was not possible for him with a 100% workload.

They both had conversations with their respective superiors. Stefan's boss congratulated him and said that was very smart and responsible. Stefan immediately reduced his employment level to 80% but worked 100% until the birth. This allowed him to accumulate time that enabled him to stay home with Anja full-time for 14 weeks afterwards. When he went back to work, he always had Fridays off. Anja on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the child was at daycare, and on Wednesdays, the respective grandparents took turns babysitting. Anja became a team leader and was paid more. All this could be managed well with 80% and the support of Stefan, who also took over the household on Fridays and drove to appointments with the child.

We clearly need more role models like these! Currently, 6 out of 10 employed women, but only 1.8 out of 10 men, work part-time. (Source: FSO 2021 - Swiss Labor Force Survey). Of mothers with children under 25, about 79% work part-time and of fathers with children under 25, about 12%. (Source: FSO 2020).

Most families continue to share the work of earning and caring in the modernized bourgeois model, around 60% of all couples with children under 12 (source: FSO 2020).

The modernized bourgeois model (extra-earner model/modified breadwinner model) - rarely freely chosen by well-educated women

The fact is (as also stated in a report by sociologist Christina Seyler, "Ingenieurin mit Familie: Geht das?" | Die Volkswirtschaf" - Platform for Economic Policy) that many couples are still drifting from the egalitarian model to the modernized bourgeois model. In this model, one partner works full-time while the other works part-time and takes on most of the caregiving and household tasks. This often leads to the classic double burden of well-educated mothers. As a rule, it was not planned this way. Example: Brigitte wants to reduce her workload as a project manager to 70% after maternity leave. Her employer agrees. Her husband also wanted to reduce, at the latest for the childcare adjustment, so that they can help each other with the care work. During the pregnancy, he gets a promotion. With the promotion, he earns more, and he cannot imagine reducing his workload now. This is also an advantage, because Brigitte wants to reduce the workload by 30% and so the loss of income and the high costs for four days of outside childcare (Brigitte is still doing further education and they have no grandparents to support them in everyday life) can be compensated. After two years they are expecting their second child and they take another look at their situation. Brigitte wants a change, she also wants to be promoted, but she wants to keep the time with the children or even increase it if it is possible.

For him, time with the children in the evenings and on weekends is enough. She thinks her partner should relieve her and take on more care work, because she cannot manage a team with a constant care load on her own. And now it was her turn. He already had, she had not yet. - He realizes how much he likes the leadership position he has won. He takes on even more responsibility and an even larger team. He has long workdays, is tired in the evenings. He dreams of having his own house with a garden. He is convinced that this will only be possible if he continues to receive his full salary or it is increased accordingly.

Now comes perhaps the first marital crisis. They experiment, negotiate with the employer, get home office days and more flexibility. They talk a lot. Expectations are high on both sides. It is not uncommon for one of them to slip into a serious crisis, possibly experiencing burnout. Many partnerships do not survive that.

Is there another way? Imagine focusing on what you already have and being grateful for it. (See also 5 tips for a better work-life balance). How would that make you feel? You realize that things change over time, that you can listen deeply to your heart, share your needs, and discuss them with your partner. You appreciate what you have and no longer see yourself as a victim but take active control of your life. You see a perspective, are on a learning path, together with your partner. Even if everything does not always work out the way you want it to, there is hope. You deal with your vision of where you want to go and develop a plan. If you do not know how to do this or want feedback on it, you seek help and contact a coach.

What do you take away from it? Are you happy with your work-life balance? I am happy if you like, share or comment on this blog.

Last but not least:

Parenting is definitely one of the biggest and toughest learning journeys. If things are not going so well for you right now, part 2 of this series may encourage you to see new perspectives on your situation. You can find it here: Reconciling an exciting job and a family. Impossible? [Part 2]


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