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Work/Life Balance and Lessons from Managing Two Careers

My wife and I both work. We’re not alone, obviously. But since we had a baby last year, we’ve thought a lot more about our careers. There seems to be a growing group of people who look a lot like us: two people who want to not just continue working because they need to, but two people who would like to keep moving up in their careers.

After baby arrives, some couples choose to have one spouse stay at home. We’ve had a few friends who have done that and it’s seemed to work out well for them. We know others who spent some time away from work but ultimately returned. For us, we knew early on that we’d both be returning to work.

It’s not always a perfect arrangement, though.

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A little backstory

Jen and I married somewhat young compared to most of our peers (23 and 24, respectively). We’re going on ten years of marriage. Since being married, we’ve moved a lot (almost as many moves as years together). Nearly all of those moves were due to Jen’s job.

You see, Jen works in wine production. She started off as an intern in Walla Walla, became a cellar master in Portland, moved to the lab in Seattle, and then finally an assistant winemaking position in Kennewick. She didn’t have to move. But, being able to move lets you consider more opportunities. We were young and we didn’t have any kids.

Meanwhile, I started off my career in HR but after our first move from Walla Walla to Portland, I started looking at alternatives. Since 2009, I’ve worked primarily out of a home office in six different zip codes. It’s worked out really well for everyone.

It didn’t make much difference where I was or if I was even home before a kid. Now, it definitely does.

Career Compatibility

Jen’s job is fairly predictable. Between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, we don’t have much of a life. Jen is working 70+ hours a week plus a 1.5 hour round-trip commute for wine harvest. When it was just us, I would schedule time for me to be away constantly. We barely saw each other, anyway. The rest of the year, she works 4-10s most weeks and has a fairly light travel schedule. As she moves up, her travel schedule increases.

file3241282942100While I don’t travel to as many conferences these days, I have other trips scheduled either out to clients, for business development, or to visit headquarters in Texas. These are less predictable but seem to typically happen most heavily around the spring and fall (+/- a month).

Outside of wine harvest and some dates for travel that are set in stone for me, our work is pretty flexible. So, for a week I am out of town, Jen is able to get off early, grab the baby, and take care of business. When Jen travels, I’m able to mesh my schedule with the needs of the baby too.

So, last week and this coming week, I’m the primary parent. Jen went from a full week of out of town work, to a weekend class, to a week of out of town guests for blending and tasting. She said to me, “I’m feeling very work/life unbalanced right now.” No kidding!

The thing is, in June, we’ll be reversing roles. I’ll be out of town for a week early in the month and then on shorter trips over the rest of the month.

Work/life balance isn’t fair

When I look at some months, I know I’m relying on Jen a ton. She has to spend less time at work or the baby has to spend more time with someone else. Other months, I carry the torch. By the end of November, I’m spent.

It’s not fair. There are a series of compromises that take place every week to make it through successfully, though. Some weeks, it feels like I’m doing too much and others, too little.

We’ve made it work, just not always perfectly and fairly. But after more than a year at this, I can tell you the keys to success are pretty simple:

  1. Good employers – When you think work/life balance, you probably think of flexible schedules, generous parental leave, and the like. Although a winery can’t be managed remotely (yet!), having an employer that is understanding of some of the issues that come with being a parent (in and out at flexible times, sick kids) helps take the stress out of that week to week management.
  2. High level of awareness – Your workplace is just like any relationship, though. If you take advantage of understanding managers and coworkers without putting the work in yourself, you’ll find your career stunted. You have to be aware of what’s going on at work and at home, and make decisions based on that awareness. Sometimes, that means telling your spouse no or talking through and seeing who has the bigger priority.
  3. Common goals – I want her to be successful, she wants me to be successful. We’ve been pretty good at simply raising the tide rather than one of us succeeding over the other. If you are honest with your spouse about your career ambitions, it’s much easier to figure out the types of jobs that will mesh well with that path as well as the awareness needed to help make him or her a success.

How to identify career compatibility

When I talk to other unmarried people who ask how you find out if someone might have a compatible career path, I shrug my shoulders. We got married in 2005, and we met and dated off and on since 2001. There is no way I would’ve been able to predict that we would’ve worked together this well. Essentially, we grew into the balance we found and the trust we have in each other to say yes and no at the right times.

BeachBinoculars_8x10The problem is, as you get older, your career becomes a bit more refined or nuanced and it’s more difficult to find someone out of the gate who might be close to perfectly compatible for your career. You add in kids, and it can become even more complicated.

Outside of a few jobs (like members of the military), I don’t think career compatibility is on the short-list of concerns for most couples. For us and many of our friends, having a spouse that takes a complementary career role when the kid comes has become one of those sneaky issues that can create a lot of stress when things are out of balance. It can create resentment from the spouse who gives up part or all of their career or from the person that would like to be spending more time at home.

It’s not just a one time conversation to figure things out, either. As careers change, priorities change as well. I don’t know if we’ll always be a two career family forever (even we both still work two jobs).

What companies can learn

What I do know is managing work/life balance is more than a slogan or a slate of benefits that an organization offers. It’s a posture that’s ever shifting to the needs of both parties.

For example, we go to great lengths to not tip over the apple cart during the fall for Jen. We try to keep her healthy, as stress-free as possible, and at work every single day. As work slows down there, her ability to flex in and out increases dramatically.

Having a manager who understands what it means to support a spouse in that situation is critical too. We’re both lucky to have smart managers who understand the demands of the job our spouse is doing. Only on the rarest occasions does a situation ever come to a head where we can’t find a solution and when she isn’t tied up, I can flex up into more work as needed and have her step in.

It isn’t always easy, perfect, or fair. But being on the same page as everyone else, with clear communication of priorities and expectations makes it about as easy as I think it can be without being independently wealthy.

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