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Finding the Balance: "Parent vs. Worker" or "Parent and Worker"?
2005, Q1 (February 20, 2007)
By Mir Haynes

Mir Haynes
Mir Haynes

Having a child changes your life. Nothing is what it used to be—your emotional state, your social life, your financial picture, your mental outlook, and your professional abilities.

Whether you’re new to the field of technical communication, presently employed and on the verge of parenthood, or planning to re-enter the workforce after baby, the question inevitably pops up, “Can I balance the demands of parenthood with the demands of the job?” Whether the end result is balanced or imbalanced depends on your employer and the childcare arrangements you make.

Career is just one component of who we are as individuals, and yet, it may be one of the most affected areas of our lives when we become new parents. I have friends who left career behind to become fantastic stay-at-home moms. I have friends who’ve climbed the corporate ladder with a diaper bag slung over their shoulder. And I have friends that decided the work-from-home route was right for them.

In this article, I tell the stories of mothers (as opposed to fathers) because mothers are most often primary caregivers and because the majority of technical communicators are women. I won’t try to address the unique needs of single parents, parents of school-aged children, or parents of children who have disabilities or who need specialized care since each of those situations would warrant separate articles.

Four Creative Moms Make It Work

Let’s take a look at how four real-life technical communicators in the Raleigh-Durham area have balanced the demands of parenthood with the demands of the job.


Melissa (not her real name) works for the English Department at N.C. State University, putting in between 30 and 40 hours each week. Her daughter is 2½ years old.

Over the past 2½ years, Melissa has found ways to fit work into her family situation. You’ll find her working some early morning before her little girl wakes up, during her daughter’s nap time, and while her daughter attends a “Mother’s Morning Out” program at a local church two days a week for three hours each day.

Her husband altered his work schedule to 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. so that Melissa can go to work and teach two or three evenings a week while he stays with their daughter. Also, in order to make some daytime meetings, she swaps babysitting services with her neighbor. Some weekends when she has a lot of work, her husband and daughter go on “adventures” to give her time in her home office without any distractions.

Now that she’s a little older and developing a longer attention span, Melissa’s daughter can be playing in the room while Mom uploads files or sorts through emails. She likes to imitate Mommy, “typing” on her own keyboard and pretending to send her own emails.

Melissa says that one of the biggest advantages of her childcare arrangement is that she gets to be the primary care giver for her child and show her the world. She appreciates the fact that she hasn’t missed first foods, first teeth, first words, first steps, first cold, and other “firsts.” This mother is grateful that her arrangement allows her to stay active in her career and continue to challenge herself. She loves her job; she says it makes her happy, which in turn makes her a better mom and wife. Also, she hopes that it shows her daughter that work can be enjoyable and challenging. One of the most unexpected perks, says Melissa, is that her husband gets time absolutely alone with their daughter. Since the time their daughter was eight weeks old, Melissa and her husband have shared in all the childcare and household tasks so that she could go back to work. Father and daughter have developed their own routines and rituals which have created a very close bond between the two of them. She says, “His high level of involvement and the fact that they spend time alone together have given him a perspective about raising our child that many fathers may not experience.” As for drawbacks, Melissa reports that it can sometimes be hard to draw the line between work time and family time because she completes a majority of her work at her home office. In addition, it can be hard to plan around the unexpected, such as illness, cancellation of babysitting/Mother’s Morning Out, grouchy two-year-old days, and even emergencies that come up at her husband’s work.

And lastly, she admits that “down time,” such as her daughter’s nap time, is used for work instead of keeping up the house. She says that the house is never as clean or organized as it used to be before baby.


Our second mom, I’ll call her Jenny, is self employed and works from home, but she has partnered with three other independent contractors to form a loose knit team. All of them work from home. Jenny works, on average, about 25 to 30 hours a week. Not all of it is billable, though. Her son is 18 months old.

Because she can juggle work around her son’s schedule, Jenny gets to be with him during the best hours of the day.
Her childcare solution is to work when her son is asleep, and be a full-time mom when he’s awake. For this schedule to work, she gets up at 4:45 a.m., seven days a week, and is at her desk by 5:00. She works until her son wakes up, sometime as late as 7:30 or 8:00. When her son takes a nap at 2:00 p.m., she gets to put in two more hours of work.

Since her early morning stint happens before normal business hours, Jenny saves that precious afternoon nap time slot for phone calls and teleconferences. She checks and replies to email all day long. On the rare occasion that she has an off-site meeting with a client, she enlists a babysitter ad hoc. If she can swing an 8:00 a.m. meeting, her husband stays home and takes care of their son. Fortunately, he has flex time and can get to work as late as 10:00 a.m. If her client can only meet later in the day, she asks her next-door-neighbor or her 19-year-old niece to baby sit. In Jenny’s eyes, increased flexibility is one of the greatest advantages of her current work-life. One thing she didn’t like about working in an office was feeling like she had to be there for eight hours—even if she could do the job in less time. She says, “I’d get to work early, work hard all day, eat lunch at my desk, and be ready to leave after six or seven hours. After all, my co-workers that chatted in the hallways and took long lunches left after eight hours.” Now, Jenny appreciates the ability to let the number of hours she works depend on her workload and how fast she can finish it. Because the demands on her time are greater than they’ve ever been, Jenny has become a better time manager. She finds this personally rewarding, and feels very much like she’s “hit her stride,” developing habits that enhance productivity, organization, and peace. She says it’s like the truth behind the old adage: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”

Because she can juggle work around her son’s schedule, Jenny gets to be with him during the best hours of his day. Whether he’s romping around the park or being cuddly just before his nap, she’s there to enjoy every minute.

As an infant, Jenny’s son wasn’t able to nurse, so she pumped breast milk for him for 13 months. While she recognizes that many women successfully pump at work, she’s thankful that she was able to do so in the privacy of her own home.

Jenny says there are more advantages than disadvantages to her present arrangement, but there are indeed drawbacks. Before she had her son, Jenny sometimes found that people had misconceptions about the productivity of and quality of work produced by professionals working from home. She wonders if that stigma is even worse now that she’s a mom working from home. For the most part, she keeps the specifics of her life and her choice of schedule private, saying vague things like: “Email is the best way to reach me” or “I try to schedule all my phone calls from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. every day. Would that work for you?”

Another disadvantage: It’s sometimes hard when Jenny is in the groove, getting some great work accomplished, and then hears her son wake up. It can be frustrating to hurriedly wrap up what she’s working on and know that it may be a few hours, or even the next day, before she can continue.


Our third mom, Rachel, works for RTI International. She clocks in for 24 hours each week; four of those hours are at the office and the rest are at home, spread across three days per week. Her daughter is five months old.

Rachel says that when she’s working from home, her daughter is downstairs with her Grandma, who has agreed to provide regular childcare. Rachel usually nurses twice during her work day, so she does see her daughter periodically. When she’s on site at RTI, her daughter is at Grandma’s place, which, fortunately, is on the way from home to office.

With such a young baby, Rachel says it’s a relief that she doesn’t have to worry about her baby being exposed to the assortment of germs typical at most day care centers. She says she’s happy to postpone those childhood colds and infections until her daughter is older and in preschool. An added benefit, she hopes, is that she won’t have to sacrifice all the time off she accrues to sick childcare. She says, “If my daughter gets sick, my mom can still take care of her (although I might still take off work anyway). I’ve seen people at work whose kids are sick so often that they can’t possibly ever get a real day off!”

Rachel, who is breastfeeding her child, finds that working from home part of the time means she can minimize how much breast-pumping she has to do. In fact, since the one day she spends in her away-from-home office is so short, she sometimes doesn’t have to pump at work at all. With Grandma stepping in as a childcare provider, Rachel can be certain that the person caring for her baby is very interested in her well-being and cares for her very much, and that she’ll get one-on-one attention. Because Grandma is supportive of the way Rachel and her husband have decided to care for their baby (such as using cloth diapers, breast feeding exclusively, and limiting TV exposure), she doesn’t have to bend to the rules of a day care facility.

And Rachel is thankful that her daughter and Grandma will benefit from having a close, everyday relationship. She says, “My daughter will have another household where she feels truly comfortable—you now, a place where she can just open up the fridge when she’s hungry.” She adds, “I know that’s a ways down the road, but this is where it starts.”

Rachel is more than happy to give up all the time she used to spend commuting. It’s about 1 hour and 15 minutes from her home to work (longer in rush hour); instead, she can spend all that time with her daughter and not worry about missing or delaying bedtime because traffic was extra heavy. For all the positives, Rachel says that there are some disadvantages of her childcare situation. She says that if she were paying someone to care for her daughter, she could just choose the schedule that best suits her (and her boss). As it is, Grandma is keeping baby for free and so if she wants certain days off, Rachel feels very much obliged to accommodate her. She recognizes that this could wind up becoming a source of stress if, for example, RTI wants her to change her schedule to suit a client and that conflicts with what Grandma wants. She worries how she’d balance that kind of situation were it to happen.

Lastly, Rachel says that Grandma has some limitations. She doesn’t like to get up too early, drive in rush hour traffic, or drive after dark. She’s not able to wrangle the stroller down the front porch stairs by herself, but still wants to walk the baby around the neighborhood. Here again, Rachel feels obliged to (and wants to) make Grandma happy. She says, “Little things like this can add up and make a person feel like she’s having to jump through hoops. Going back to work is hard enough already!”


Our fourth and final mother, Deborah, is self employed. She generally works 40 hours per week, although she bills anywhere from 20 to 30 hours per week. These unbillable hours are spent on work-related, administrative tasks (like invoicing and filing). This mom has two children: a daughter who is almost 2½ and a son who is six months old.

Deborah’s childcare solution varies from day to day and by child. Every day her son is in the house but cared for by either a hired sitter or her mother-in-law (on Tuesdays). Mondays through Wednesdays her daughter is at full-day day care; Thursdays she’s out with the mother-in-law all day; and Fridays she’s at home with the hired sitter. The one exception to this schedule: On Thursdays, her son’s sitter has class from noon to 2:00, so Mom takes a break during that time if he’s not napping.

Deborah says the advantages of this arrangement are that she doesn’t have a commute (other than taking her daughter to and from day care); she gets to be with her son during the day (and sometimes gets to nurse him); she doesn’t have to deal with office politics; and she has relatively flexible hours, although she admits that when a deadline is pressing, her time is less her own. “Of course,” she says, “that was the case in an office too!” What about disadvantages? Deborah feels that the only real drawback she can cite is that, because she has more flexibility than her husband, when childcare falls through, it lands on her shoulders nearly exclusively. She concludes, “Other than that, I really can’t think of any drawbacks. This works great for us.”

Making It Work for You

Now that we’ve taken a peek into the lives and schedules of some working mothers in the technical communication field, let’s broaden the discussion to include some advice these same women would give to others practical tips. What follows are “lessons learned” and advice that our moms had to share. These are the voices of experience.

My wireless router lets me stay connected to the office on my laptop anywhere in the house %and that mobility/flexibity is really nice.
Believe that you can do it. One point all of our moms agreed on was that working from home part- or full-time can be a challenge. And they all expressed the opinion that you really have to want to make it work.

Deborah says, “Lots of people will offer advice and maybe even discouragement. However, if you and your spouse really want an alternative work schedule, then you can work through it with a little creativity and a good sense of humor!”

Melissa adds: “Before you do it, you will have preconceptions about what it will be like working from home. You may see yourself writing at your computer while your baby lies quietly by your side or while your toddler naps. And although this may happen some days, it can be difficult. If you can remain flexible and adjust as your baby grows and changes, then you can be quite successful.”

Don’t rule out a creative arrangement before discussing it with your boss. Rachel offers this advice: “Early on, I was afraid my boss would be very resistant, but in the end she was quite supportive. I think it was important that I had already established a good track record with her (and her boss and our VP), enabling her to trust me to be productive, to be honest about my hours, to accomplish my writing/editing assignments and also meet my administrative reporting needs with little supervision.”

Find some sort of occasional babysitting. “Although I am dedicated to being my daughter’s primary care giver,” says Melissa, “an occasional afternoon to run errands, get a massage, clean the house, catch up on grading, go to the gym, or even nap are very important to my sanity and ability to be a good mother and wife and teacher. I learned that I have to make time to take care of myself so that I can continue to do the best I can to take care of my daughter.”

Find a good support system. This was a common thread for all of our moms, who agreed that, not only do you need the total support of your spouse, but finding a few other people in similar situations will be enormously helpful. When you’re drained from juggling the demands of child and work, it’s restorative to reach out and affirm that you’re not the only one feeling this way. The next time you’re driving in the neighborhood, be on the lookout for women pushing strollers. They may be candidates for this support network.

Plan for change by padding your schedule. Melissa admits: “I am still working on this one myself. I try my best to schedule my time so that if something comes up at the last minute I am still able to be prepared for meetings. However, the “baby variable” is sometimes hard to cover. A shorter nap time, a stomach bug, a refusal to put on pants, a fall at the park, a reaction to immunizations, and a dozen other uncontrollable factors make scheduling challenging. You’ve got to be flexible, creative, and quick on your feet.”

Use technology to your advantage. Rachel: “My wireless router lets me stay connected to the office on my laptop anywhere in the house and that mobility/flexibility is really nice.” Jenny: “Instant messenger is great because I can chat in real time with subcontractors. Caller ID helps protect my time and defer client calls if the timing is bad (i.e., baby is screeching in the background).”

Introduce structure. Set aside certain times and certain days of the week for routine tasks. Jenny says, “I start and end work at the same time every day (this can be especially hard when working from home). I send out invoices every Friday. I do business development every Tuesday. I make phone calls between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. I actually get fully dressed, shoes and all, before I start work. It’s part of putting on my ‘business brain.’” Melissa adds, “To help create a structured work environment for yourself, and to the extent that it’s possible and beneficial for your family, get your child on a reasonably predictable sleep schedule.”

Prepare for tomorrow’s work today. Jenny, who chooses to work in the early morning hours says, “If you do have to work during odd hours, make sure that you already have everything you need from your client or subcontractors in advance. For me, that’s at the end of workday the day before. If you’re working at 5:00 a.m. and a question arises or you need an additional document emailed to you, you can’t get an immediate response.”

If you’re considering using a relative to help provide childcare, choose carefully. Does your relative have a different parenting philosophy? If so, do you feel comfortable enough talking about areas where you might differ (e.g., cloth diapers vs. disposable, discipline issues, schedule feeding vs. feeding on demand)? One of our moms suggests that, “if your differences of opinion are on important issues or if there are a lot of them, it might wind up being more stressful than taking your child to a regular day care.”

Make sure your work area is suitable. Deciding what your work space should look like will be up to you, and may change over time. Rachel advises that your work space is far away from where your child will be. She says: “I had originally thought I would work downstairs where mom and baby would be, but at the last minute I was able to move upstairs, and even so, I have a heck of a time not coming downstairs whenever I hear my daughter fussing.” On the other hand, Jenny says, “If I do any work while my son is awake, I work at my laptop in the kitchen. He might be underfoot playing with blocks or in his high chair eating lunch, but it works for us. I can’t do work that requires real focus in that setting, but certainly I can check email, prepare invoices, and do other administrative-type tasks.”

Remember, a baby changes EVERYTHING. Melissa says, “I think this is the Johnson’s & Johnson’s motto and it is so very true. Having a baby and altering my work schedule so that I am able to be home during the days has been challenging, frustrating, and wonderful all at the same time. I have discovered just how much I love my job because I am willing to make changes and sacrifices to continue to work. I continue to enjoy my time on the job because I know that I will get to spend the next day with my daughter.”

The Highest Calling

Parenthood is a calling. Your profession is a career. Some days following both will feel like tiptoeing on a high-wire. Even when your baby is sleeping through the night, just getting through day-to-day parenting is tough. Add professional commitments to the mix and you’ve got a formula for serious stress. And you’re not alone. Nearly 25% of working mothers worldwide feel stress almost every day[1] and 80% of women say they feel exhausted on a daily basis.[2]
Balancing on the high wire requires clarifying your personal values and taking a hard look at whether they’re reflected in how you spend your time. Closing the gap between the life that you live and the one that honors and reflects your deepest values may be the highest calling of all and will, ultimately, enhance both calling and career: Parent and Worker.

1. Roper Starch Worldwide, 2002
2. “From Tired to Inspired”, Debra Waterhouse, 2000

Mir Haynes is an information designer and developer who lives in Garner. She can be reached at mir at mirhaynes dot com. End of article.

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