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Making It Work at Work Is a Family Affair

By Renee Connolly, Global Head of Communications and Corporate Responsibility, MilliporeSigma

After the loud “thump” comes an even louder cry. It’s 3:15 a.m. “I’ve got this…you have an important meeting today…get yourself a couple more hours,” one parent says to the other. 

Sound like a scene from a TV show? Or like one taken from your life?  

Unsettled nights are common among young families, but for an increasing number, what’s new are the roles partners play in making complex families work—for everyone. It’s taken time to acknowledge juggling both at home and work, and for many, this is a very personal situation that partners are grappling with.

As a mom of four, I can attest to the “grappling” part. It takes conversations with my husband to make everything work. Families have come far, but the hard work of breaking down stereotypes and achieving flexible careers is not finished.

Nearly 40 Years of Change—from Stereotypes to Established Role Reversal 

Forty years ago, the idea of women in the workplace was the subject of jokes. In 1980, movie goers made “9-5” a box office comedy smash despite the sobering subplots addressing harassment, single working mothers and gender discrimination. In this era, family-oriented dads didn’t fare much better. The 1983 film “Mr. Mom” hit the big screen with a role reversal plot about a hapless, out-of-work engineer who becomes a stay-at-home dad. In it, he is portrayed as being inept at changing diapers, feedings and bath time.

Decades later, the situation is vastly different. Thank goodness! Today, kids are just as likely to be dropped off at school by either parent as they are at having either parent coach sports or attend the PTA meetings. This division of responsibilities has led to flexible families demanding flexible careers.

In my family, rarely does the conversation with my husband start, “You do this and I will do this,” or “Your job at home is to do this and my job is to do this….” For us, the conversation is what do we need to do to support one another and make sure our kids have a continuous opportunity to see the benefits of having hard-working parents.

An incremental approach to balancing work and home is working for Yvonne Albert, head of the HR business partner organization for life science at MilliporeSigma. “Our decisions were made consciously but were done one step at a time,” says the mother of one. Her partner, a university professor, has a more flexible employment situation, and as a result, his more prominent role in raising their son provided an opportunity for Albert to take on a more demanding career.

Determining how to cover the responsibilities at home and is just one part of the equation. Deliberately choosing an employer that acknowledges the flexibility families are seeking is another. “After graduate school, I started my career at one of the big consulting firms, where the training was invaluable, but I wouldn’t describe the workplace atmosphere as being family-friendly,” says Carolyn Young, MilliporeSigma’s head of research solutions strategy and a mother of one with another on the way. “As I sought to transition industries and companies, culture and balance became a much more important criterion for me.”

Flexibility Is Relative and Very Personal

Many variables exist in achieving a balance that works for you; it’s almost impossible to follow someone else’s success. As Young puts it, “While I believe very strongly in the power of mentorship and role models, when it comes to building a fulfilling life, I also believe that everyone’s needs and aspirations are different. Balance is very individual.”

Instead of trying to plan outcomes, Young advocates that working families plan for flexibility. “The balance looks different depending on the day, the month and the year. For me, a good goal in terms of balance has been to focus on being able to look back over a given phase of my life such as grad school, or my daughter’s early years and be able to say that I achieved ‘relative balance,’ on average.”

When given the chance to shine in the workplace, partners can find unforeseen joys at keeping the home running smoothly or taking on new challenges for a period of time. Managing both work and kids is riddled with complications and uncertainty for even those families with clear roles. For Albert the best outcomes occur when the family has been open and transparent. “I would suggest that people always be honest with themselves and conscious about decision making,” she says. “In my role, to expect that each day I will be home at a specific time, having dinner with my family is an illusion. Be realistic and pragmatic about what you really want and don’t let anyone tell you what is right or what is wrong for you.”

Simply said, we do the best we can on any given day, and work to reflect on the mini achievements versus the grand pursuit of the perfect life or career.

Renee Connolly is a MA Conference for Women board director. She’s also a special guest speaker this year.

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