The Juggle Struggle: Strategies for Balancing Work and FamilyPublished: December 01, 2010
Adrienne Barnes knows how to juggle. She became a single mother in her second year of college, but still graduated on time. On the day she gave birth, she persuaded a classmate to come to the maternity ward so she could hand in a homework assignment for Barnes, and bring her the next one to work on.
Now Barnes, 31, has two children, works full-time, is an officer in her local Toastmasters International chapter, and volunteers with the parent-teacher association at her children's school. Oh, and by the way, she is also working on her MBA at Mills College in Oakland, California, where she is an executive assistant to the coordinator of the MBA program.
While Barnes and the other MBA students at Mills are learning how to run companies, she is also living the central challenge for most working women: managing a career and family.
Be Ahead of Your Game
Barnes, who received a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women scholarship to finish her MBA, says the key to making it all work is ensuring that the people in all facets of her life understand her priorities. "There has to be clear expectations in the family, at work and at school," notes Barnes. "But everyone knows that my kids come first. I will always make sure my kids are safe."
Another important piece is planning and building extra time into her schedule in case the unexpected occurs. "A lot of people just try to stay current," says Barnes, "but the key to preventing those disasters is to be ahead of the game in everything you are doing so if something happens, it doesn't hold you back."
Barnes grew up in Oakland and took a year off from her education after graduating from high school. She worked as an assistant to a local real estate broker, liked the job and continued in real estate while she earned her undergraduate degree at Mills -- even after she had her son, Bryson, now 10, and began to raise him as a single mother. "There was no partying, no hanging out in general," Barnes recalls. "I really did have to put a lot of my social life on hold." As an undergraduate, Barnes pulled her share of all-nighters because she often did not start on schoolwork until 9 p.m., after her son had gone to sleep.
At various times, Barnes had help from family, but mostly she has relied on daycare. After graduating in 2002, Barnes worked full-time in residential real estate until the market collapsed in 2008 and she was laid off. She had tried to go back for her MBA in 2004 after her daughter, Anaya, was born. That was when she learned that working women might be able to do everything, just not at the same time. "I thought I could do it all because I did it with my son," Barnes says, "but my daughter was a different personality, and it was just not feasible for me at that time to raise her and work and go to school."
While Barnes comes with solid, real-life management skills, one of her professors, Barbara Blissert, notes that Barnes is now receiving an overlay of theory that will help guide her as she grows and assumes more responsibilities in the business world. Barnes is taking Blissert's communication class to develop skills that will help in the workplace, but also on the home front.
Cell Phones and Baby Strollers
According to Blissert, technology is changing the way woman juggle work and family. Technology allows managers to give employees more flexibility in their schedules by making it possible to work from home. At the same time, workers can become tethered around the clock to the workplace even when their family needs attention. "It can be a benefit or detriment," notes Blissert. "That's where women need to be able to set their parameters and balance their time."
Another Mills faculty member, Nancy Williams, who teaches leadership and ethics, stresses the importance of maintaining attention to the task at hand for women who are working while raising a family. "We should focus on work at work and focus on relaxing when we are with the people we love," she advises. "The whole concept of multi-tasking -- talking on the cell phone while pushing the baby stroller -- always seems counterproductive to me."
Barnes says Williams' ethics class resonated with her. The class didn't help her cope with the distinction between right versus wrong. "That's easy," she says. "It's the right vs. right decisions that are hard. Like is it right to leave the kids in daycare longer so I can go to school to better provide for them in the future?"
Barnes says she tries to head off this kind of dilemma with straight talk upfront. "I am proactive," she says. "I try to talk through everything with [my children] and involve them in the decision-marking on their behalf so that they understand. Even if they don't agree, they understand my reasoning and I hope, eventually, one day will agree."
Barnes has now added yet another role: wife. This summer, she married her daughter's father, Marcus. Having another set of hands for carpooling and other daily parenting chores has been a great help, Barnes says.
When she goes to the gym, Barnes gets up at 3:52 a.m. Otherwise she sleeps in until 5 a.m. Williams says Barnes, and so many others she has seen in the workplace, prompt her to wonder whether certain people are born to juggle or whether they develop the skill with practice. "Sometimes the very busiest people are the most organized and the most efficient," she observes. "I don't know if that is because they have so much on their plates or because they were the kind of person who could handle a lot in the first place and took it on. I suspect it is the latter."