I recently wrote about Aligning Careers With Your Physician Spouse, on how to pursue your own career in ways that complement your spouse’s career. In my case, that means recognizing and flexing around the ups and downs of my wife’s career as a doctor.
But sometimes simply “complementing” isn’t enough. For working parents, the ups and downs of two jobs sometimes overlap in ways that cause significant challenges. How can we manage overlapping stress points with two working parents? Let’s dig in…
Dad Career Stress Points
I work in economic consulting. I analyze economic questions, which often means writing reports and traveling to testify or explain my findings to clients or a courtroom.
Most of the time, it’s a manageable workload. I have an amazing team that assists with research, analysis, and calculations at my direction. My schedule allows me to take the kids to school, work a few hours, exercise, work a few more hours, then be home for dinner.
Sometimes, though, my work is demanding and challenging, especially when traveling. While I can be present and available as a Dad for 80-90% of my work days, I’m on the road and out of the picture for the other 10-20%. My two older sons call my travel “dumb-ness trips” instead of “business trips.” It causes them real stress when I’m gone.
I’ve always chalked this up as an undesirable but necessary aspect of my career in consulting. I really enjoy the work, and there are many things to celebrate about it, but my travel can be hard on the kids.
Measured on a scale from 1-10, I’d say that work demands are usually around a “4” when I’m home (with some ups and downs, of course) and a “10” when I’m gone, reflecting a complete absence while on the road (i.e., out Hunting the Elk). Here’s what my typical schedule looks like: mostly 4’s, a few short 10’s, and every once in a while a sustained 10…
Mom Career Stress Points
My wife is a doctor. She works very hard. Most weeks, she’s working 50-60 hours a week. Every once in a while, when on call, she’s up above 60. It’s meaningful work, but, at times quite stressful.
She’s more like a “6” or “7” for baseline work demands (compared to my “4”), but with very little travel. She gets up to an “8” when on call or when deep in research, and then only up to a “10” a few times a year when traveling for conferences.
Here’s what her stress points look like, with a higher average but fewer peaks:
Overlapping Stress Points
So what happens when you overlap work demands of two careers while raising four kids? Most of the time, it looks okay, something like this:
In the picture above, the work demands are largely non-overlapping. I travel and my wife holds down the fort. She’s on call and I take the reins. Most of the time, we balance each other out and share the parenting load.
Sometimes, though, we end up with overlapping peaks. For example: what happens when my wife’s conference overlaps with one of my trials? Ugh — here’s the overlapping schedule, which sometimes creates a challenging double-peak:
So what’s a family to do? The primary objective here it to alleviate the correlated stress point as best as we can. It’s a time of maximum instability, risk, and overall challenge for the family. If we don’t cushion the stress, it can create an unsupported environment for our kids.
As a result, we employ a full-time nanny and have regularly revolving babysitters to cover us and provide help every work day from 7am – 8pm , sometimes longer when I’m traveling and the kids need to get to school. Childcare is by far the biggest item on our family budget. Sometimes I look at how much we’re spending on it and wonder if we’re making the right choices — why work all the time just to hire someone else to watch our kids?
We choose the short-term financial pain for the long-term career gain. Our childcare is more than we need during low-stress times, but it’s desperately needed for our high-stress times. We absorb the expense during the valleys in order to survive during the peaks. It’s the only way our family can thrive through the ups and downs of two careers.
Here’s the key point: Overlapping stress points are the times that might break you. During those times, you have to do whatever it takes to stay strong, healthy, productive, and, most importantly, not broken. Protecting yourself against ruin is an important concept from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile — that is, you must protect yourself as your most valuable asset to stay in the game and survive to play another day. Finding support and taking extra precautions during overlapping stress points is like buying insurance — you pay up front to cushion the blow of an adverse event.
It doesn’t always feel great when my wife and I are away from the kids. So we do what we can to make those times as manageable and loving and supportive as possible, within realistic constraints. We’ve had our share of childcare disasters (another story for another day), but we’ve also been pretty stable overall considering the circumstances. I think that’s because we recognize and plan for the work demands in advance, so that we can alleviate them as best as humanly possible.
There’s no perfect solution here. Thriving with two working parents has many challenges. In the long run, two careers also has many benefits — dual incomes, independent pursuits, career fulfillment — as long as it doesn’t break us in the short run. By recognizing and rising up to meet the challenges of overlapping stress points in advance, we persevere. The stress points don’t go away, but we absorb them as best as we can. For our family, that has made all the difference.