Juggling work and family has never been easy. In today’s net-speed economy, it seems harder and harder to maintain a balanced lifestyle while simultaneously achieving career nirvana. Single parents are forced to choose jobs convenient to their childcare situation, and working women have a difficult time convincing bosses that they don’t deserve to be relegated to the "mommy track." Fortunately, an increasing number of employers are listening carefully to such concerns. Even in fields with notoriously grueling schedules, employees are increasingly demanding — and getting — flexible hours, creative compensation plans and family-friendly perks.

At a recent panel discussion sponsored by Wharton Women in Business, four female managers with families shared their personal stories. They were Dana Allen Sands, vice president, global investment banking, at Chase Securities; Kara Gruver, vice president at Bain & Company; Peggy Maher, vice president, product development and statement marketing, at American Express Cards; and Tracy B. Ramirez, manager, Americas reporting, U.S. human health and Canada, at Merck.

All four women emphasized the need for support, both inside and outside the home. Having a spouse with a flexible schedule is especially helpful when balancing job demands and family needs. Sands and her husband have a non-traditional arrangement; her children are in daycare just two days per week since her spouse is mostly a stay-at-home dad. "Try to find a mate who’s going to be supportive of you, early on," she advised. "But it’s not easy. The role reversal is hard." Investment banking, she added, is a tough field for parents because of the long hours and frenetic pace. Her own department is very client- and deadline-driven. Still, her company is flexible.

Ramirez, who works in financial reporting, agreed. Her daughter is in daycare full-time. "The place is open till 6, and my husband is often able to pick her up, which helps a lot." Merck allows her to work flextime or work from home if her daughter is sick.

Maher and her husband both work at American Express. "He and I trade off with our schedule, so almost always, one of us is there with the kids every morning and every night. We live close to Amex in Manhattan, and the kids go to school in the neighborhood. The proximity really helps a great deal." Amex, she said, is very respectful of families: "Lots of people have children and are in dual-career families. There are kids’ pictures everywhere." The couple employ a nanny, which helps if the kids are sick or emergencies come up. "My husband and I both have people working for us, so we can’t really work from home too much; we like our staff to have face time with us," said Maher.

Gruver works part-time at Bain; she was promoted to manager while on her first maternal leave and later became partner. She and her husband, a pediatric cardiologist, take turns every other year: One will concentrate more on work while the other takes more time off to stay with the kids.

Asked how they made the daycare vs. nanny choice, the panelists agreed that it was a personal decision based on circumstances. Sands initially took care of her daughter herself; they tried a homecare situation but that didn’t work out, so they switched to daycare. "It’s affiliated with a hospital and accredited," she noted.

At first, a family friend cared for Ramirez’s daughter. After she turned 2, the couple put her in daycare for a few days a week, later transitioning to full-time daycare. Ramirez is grateful to her neighbors and relatives in the area, who can step in and take care of her daughter when necessary. "I travel a lot, so we really depend on them," she said.

"Childcare is very regional," said Maher. "Urban and suburban customs are different. Most daycare situations have rules for when children are sick. And they tend not to take infants." As Maher and her husband are city-dwellers, having a nanny who works in-home has made their lives easier.

Gruver emphasized that the decision also depends upon the child’s age. "For a younger child, people want more of a one-on-one care situation; for an older child, you want a more social situation. You have to figure out what works for you. We had a nanny for two years, but now we have kids in daycare," she said.

Many companies offer on-site daycare. However, it may not work for some employees. Sands noted that Chase offers daycare, but it’s in Brooklyn and her office is in Manhattan. Since it wasn’t convenient, the couple had to look elsewhere. Au pairs or live-ins, she said, present their own challenges and have to be researched carefully.

Although most of the panelists did not really think about their companies’ policies on family issues when they started their careers, they advised the audience to consider such things when evaluating job offers. "I didn’t know, when I graduated from business school, what my plan was — sometimes you don’t know what you want to be asking your employer," said Gruver. "But pick a firm whose culture you feel comfortable with. A place where you respect the individuals, and value the things they value."

Sands encouraged candidates to ask the tough questions once they got the job offer. "Everyone’s asking such questions. I told one company that I want to have breakfast with my kids, so I’m not showing up before 9. They said, that’s fine."

Gruver acknowledged that the choice of company, and the choice of work within the company, can indeed affect a person’s career path. Deciding to take on only local client engagements, for instance, can affect the breadth of experience that a consultant gets, and thus impact promotion considerations. "The important thing is, get the information you need to understand the decisions you’re making," she noted.

"The best time to have kids," said Maher, "is when you’re ready to have kids. But don’t overplan or overthink your life. These things work out." Sands advised the audience not to wait too long: "You can’t take it for granted that you’re going to have a baby at 35, when you want to. If you’re going to put it off for a long time, consider getting tested. And kids don’t ruin a career. They have to come first."

Company policies on family leave and maternity leave vary. "At my company, you don’t really negotiate time off; there are policies and beyond that it’s your personal decision. Whether you get your job or a similar job can depend on the time taken off. Sometimes people don’t say when they’re coming back. Some people never come back. There are all these options out there," said Ramirez.

Gruver cautioned against making decisions too far ahead of time: "It’s hard to know how much time you’ll want. Some people get home and love it. Ask other people — men and women — to try to figure out your options. Often you can negotiate after you have your child."

"Most companies have minimum boundaries, due to the Family Leave Act," Maher noted. "Pick a check-in date when you call your boss and make a decision about coming back."

Time off from work isn’t just for women, either. "There are men at Bain who have gone on paternity leaves. Some men take time off to train for the marathon. Probably they don’t take advantage of this option as much as women do, but several have," said Gruver.

What’s in store for phase two of these women’s careers? Not surprisingly, each path is different. Sands is thinking about starting her own firm. Maher still entertains ideas of a CEO spot, but said she now understands how different such a lifestyle would be: "You’d always have to be on, attending business dinners and entertaining. The company infiltrates your life. That gives me pause more than anything." Sands agreed, noting that that would be true if she ran her own company.

All four women said they are happy with the decisions they have made in life and wouldn’t have done too much differently. Sands said, "Just make sure you take time to have kids if you want to have kids." Ever heard of a promotion or business deal that could match the joy of a child’s smile?