October 10, 2012

Work-Family Balance

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Marlene P. Freeman, MD

Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts


It seems almost silly to me to write about attaining work-family balance because I feel far from expert, and there are challenges every day. Yet, even putting out there that it is hard and a work in progress might be important for women coming up in our field.

I am convinced that policy changes made to encourage women’s success in the workplace will benefit men as well and that, in this day and age, both men and women are likely to struggle with similar issues of balance. More often than in preceding generations, men have working spouses, but also men both need and want to be more involved with their children.

However, let’s be honest: the psychological struggle of work-family balance is different for mothers than for fathers. Women get mixed messages about how to prioritize work and family, and conflicting ideas arise from the media “mommy wars.” After having children, whether a woman works full-time, reduces her hours to part-time, or stays at home with her children, she is giving something up. She mourns the path she did not follow, and there are long-term implications for her career.

The question has been raised whether women can “have it all,” ie, successfully achieve their career dreams while raising children. I think we can, but “having it all” might not look exactly how we imagined. In my own life, it has been an evolving struggle. Before I had children, a senior male colleague told me that, to succeed in my career, I would need a “wife” at home, and I would need to delegate raising my children to another woman. At the time, I found this statement offensive and dismissed it. But now I see it as an awkwardly worded piece of advice with some merits. I don’t want to delegate my home life to another, but having the best possible child care makes it possible for both my husband and me to go to work and not worry all day long. It is also helpful to be able to pay for help in taking care of the house. I never expected to be paying as much for child care and household help as I am, but I also have had amazing job opportunities that I didn’t see coming either.

I also think that being able to do some of my work from home has made a dramatic difference. Some people recommend a stark boundary between home and work. I don’t maintain one. It gives me more flexibility, but the price, as expressed so well by a colleague, is that “you never log off.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts about achieving work–family balance. What do you think? How do you manage?

Financial disclosure:Dr Freeman is a consultant for PamLab; has received grant/research support from Eli Lilly, Forest, and GlaxoSmithKline; and has received other financial or material support from DSM Nutritional Products.​

Category: Anxiety , Insomnia
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