It really is possible for both parents of young children to go out on a limb professionally at the same time and come out the other end the better for it. Both can end up feeling engaged and satisfied without feeling like they have shortchanged family life.
This counterintuitive strategy can require plenty of support from other family members and, in most cases, hiring household and child care help. When life is busy and hectic often stepping up the intensity doesn’t tip the scales that much.
Michelle Martin was working from her San Diego home as a marketing consultant and caring for her two small children in 2014 when she noticed a job opening nearby. It was for a communications specialist to promote wireless technology in developing countries. “It was too perfect to pass up,” says Ms. Martin, 38. She had wanted to do international development work since traveling and volunteering overseas in college.
The job for Qualcomm Wireless Reach, a mobile-technology unit of San Diego-based chip maker Qualcomm Inc., has her traveling to such countries as Morocco and Myanmar. Her husband Brett also has an intense career as a psychotherapist. He typically works late into the evening, and often responds to after-hours emergency calls from patients.
“There was no question that Michelle needed to be offering her talents and passions to a wider community” after caring for their children at home for several years, says Mr. Martin, 41. They met during college while both were studying in Spain, and he understands her desire to do international development work. “It’s kind of like, ‘You can’t stop the wind,’” he says.
He knew it would be hard to manage child-care schedules and emergencies. He doesn’t have much flexibility in his schedule. When he and Ms. Martin decided to bring an au pair into their home to help, he had doubts about the setup, Mr. Martin says. “We just figured we’d make it work.” The au pair lived with them for two years and did well, and Mr. Martin’s mother, who lives nearby, also helps.
They miss out on a lot of sleep, but both see the rewards as worth the effort. “We have the support of one another to pursue our dreams,” Ms. Martin says.
What’s important to couples’ well-being isn’t necessarily advancing both spouses’ careers, but ensuring that both have activities they find fulfilling and rewarding, either paid or unpaid, says Peter Fraenkel, an associate professor of psychology at City College of the City University of New York. He has studied and written about dual-earner couples. Each partner needs to show respect and appreciation for work a spouse values, whether it’s running a company, making pottery, organizing a protest or planning a play date, he says.
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A spouse’s promotion can sometimes free the other partner to explore rewarding new pursuits. Elise Kern stayed home with her two children until they entered preschool. After that, she and her husband Byron were on parallel career tracks for several years in Chicago and shared responsibility for Leo, 7, and Mikaela, 5. A turning point came last year when Mr. Kern, a global product manager, was offered an enticing new job and a big jump in salary and status as a director of product management in Portland, Maine.
Both had been looking for new jobs and Ms. Kern had some leads in the region, but relocating without a job offer of her own caused her some anxiety. “The partner who is stepping forward has to be aware of how hard this can be for a spouse,” Ms. Kern says.
She found a silver lining when a marketing agency near their new house offered her a director title, flexible hours and a chance to start an analytics unit for the agency. She had to take a pay cut, but “it allows me to scratch the entrepreneurial itch,” she says.
Both foresee shifting gears again. “Down the road, if she gets a fantastic job opportunity somewhere, I’ll follow her,” Mr. Kern says.
The balance of power between spouses can shift in these situations, sparking competition and sometimes threatening the supporting partner’s self-esteem, says Carrie Capstick, a clinical psychologist in New York City who treats many dual-earner couples. She advises couples to find ways for the promotion to benefit the family as a whole, such as planning an additional vacation or activities for the children.
Keith Friedman and his wife Rachel work together to cover their jobs and caring for their home and two sons, Aaron, 9, and Joshua, 5. They share decisions ranging from when Ms. Friedman plans to travel on business to how quickly Mr. Friedman takes on new clients in the estate-planning and insurance firm he heads in Stamford, Conn. “We’re in constant conversation about where we’re going professionally and how we’re going to get there,” Mr. Friedman says.
Both were unhappy when their equilibrium got out of whack briefly in 2013. Ms. Friedman took a new job as a senior account executive, and Mr. Friedman took over most child-care duties to allow her to commute to her employer’s New York City offices for a month. He was also distracted by overseeing the rebuilding of their home after Hurricane Sandy, and his business suffered, Mr. Friedman says.
He began rebuilding the business and regained momentum within a few months, after Ms. Friedman settled in on her new job. She’s doing well and now works from home much of the time. “We figured out a plan so that we both can be successful,” she says.
Write to Sue.Shellenbarger@wsj.com
Q: I’ve seen your columns about how stress affects performance. I recently hid keys to my car, motorcycle and golf cart before leaving home for a vacation, but couldn’t remember when I returned where I put them. After ransacking the house, I spent $450 to replace the keys—which turned up two days later. What’s going on here?–D.F.
A: Your memory failure is probably rooted in the same factors that cause athletes or other performers to choke under pressure. Worrying about a burglary may have made you anxious. Re-entering your house and failing to find your keys right away made it worse. If past experiences have led you to doubt your memory, worrying about another memory failure probably darkened your mood.
All this triggers a stress response, including a rising heart rate and blood pressure, and leaves fewer cognitive resources available to remember things, research shows. Your emotional response, worry and fear, also impair working memory. The good news: People with a higher inborn working-memory capacity are more debilitated by anxiety than others, so you’re probably among that group.
Remedies proven in research include training yourself to approach anxiety-provoking tasks as a challenge rather than a threat, or writing down your worries to clear your mind before undertaking a stress-inducing task. When hiding keys, you might just make a note to yourself or tell a family member the location.
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