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How to Manage a Dual Career Family

Tips and tricks for managing one household with two incomes

Almost half of marriages in the U.S. are made up of dual-career couples where both partners work, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics; a McKinsey study suggests that number is even higher, in the 70+% range. In those families, household responsibilities—whether they are chores or cooking or children's carpools—don't automatically go to the one parent who stays at home, since that parent doesn't exist.


And while the benefits of dual-career families include improved financial security and the opportunity for both parents to find professional fulfillment, the costs aren't negligible. Managing logistics becomes a huge responsibility, burnout risk rises, and childcare gets more complicated.

Whether you are currently in a dual-career relationship or envision having one in the future, don't fear: it is possible to support your careers and your family at the same time.

The Harvard Business Review highlights the most important one in their to-the-point article titled "If You Can't Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single": make sure you first choose the right partner!

This is especially important for women in heterosexual relationships, where longstanding gender norms about who stays home to clean and who goes out to bring home the bacon may put pressure on the woman's career path. "Professionally ambitious women really only have two options when it comes to their personal partners — a super-supportive partner or no partner at all. Anything in between ends up being a morale- and career-sapping morass," writes Avivah Wittenberg-Cox. She goes on to cite a troubling study of HBS grads, where the majority of male graduates, despite being exposed to research like hers, expect their career to take precedence over their wives' careers. Yikes.

So first things first: shack up only after confirming (I'd suggest in writing) that your partner is as committed to your career as they are to theirs. If it's too late for you…ask for a divorce lawyer from your friends this holiday season?

From then on: follow these tips to manage your dual-career family.

Agree on Ambition

Figuring out the best way to support your career along with your partner's will require first defining what success in that career looks like for each of you. Is your goal to be a partner at your firm? Is theirs to start their own company? Or are your goals financial — like reaching a salary of $80,000 a year to support other goals around retirement and children? Whatever your goals, be clear whether one person's path takes precedence over the other's, or whether you'll support both equally. You might also establish timeframes in which one person's career will take precedence (e.g. focusing on your partner's startup for the next 5 years, after which the focus will be on you so you can go back to school part-time for your masters) — just because one person is the priority one year doesn't mean it has to stay that way. You both just need to be aligned about what's being prioritized and what's being sacrificed.

For serial entrepreneur Christine Perkett, CEO of Mindfull Marketing, and her husband Phil, who works in software sales, success meant following their passions and having enough financial success to support their blended family. "Be sure you're passionate about working because juggling two careers and a family can be tough," says Perkett. "It's busy and hectic and requires, as any relationship dynamic, compromise. You can both feel burned out and you still have kiddos to be there for and take care of. You have to take turns and compromise. And never think that your career is more important than the other."

Plan for Childcare

If you're part of a dual-career couple that has or plans to have children, get in sync with your partner about how you'll deal with childcare. Perkett notes that someone staying home to save money isn't the best solution for all couples: "Often couples decide one shouldn't work because childcare can essentially negate the salary. But remember that working isn't just about money. It can (and should) be about passion and getting out of the house and having a sense of purpose."

Alexandra Fung, lawyer and CEO of recommendation-sharing site Upparent, and her psychologist husband were committed to being the primary caretakers for their first child when she was born. Both were finishing their higher-education degrees in New York City when their daughter was born, which meant childcare occasionally included exchanging their infant daughter while one parent was en route to class and the other was on their way home. But that's what worked for them! (And I imagine their daughter is now entirely at home in the New York subway system as a result.)

Get creative with how you'll deal with childcare. There are plenty of viable set-ups that don't include one person putting their career ambition on hold to stay at home full-time.

Chore Charts (And Calendars) Coming Your Way

Assuming that your partner will come home from work and magically know that you already did the laundry, so therefore they should handle dinner is a recipe for disaster. And if you have multiple children, balancing household chores along with soccer practice snack duty, school drop-off and pick-up, and PTA meetings on top of two full-time jobs, is a nightmare waiting to happen. (Dual-career married couple Elizabeth DeFinnis, who is an occupational therapist, and her credit union manager husband call their life an "organized tornado," which seems about perfect.) Making a system to deal with responsibilities is the only way to get through it.

For Melanie Musson, a writer for ExpertInsuranceReviews.com, and her police officer husband, divvying up tasks keeps their system afloat: she makes dinner, he does dishes. "We're both tired at the end of the day, but we have four children and if you let things go for just one day, the aftermath can seem insurmountable," she says.

Amanda Holdsworth, director of PR and brand strategy at Reink Media Group, and her logistics firm co-owner husband espouse a similar approach—he does grocery shopping and cooking, she does cleaning and laundry—but have taken it a step further with a color-coded family calendar that hangs in their mudroom. They even have shared Google Sheets for planning Christmas gifts, monthly budgets, and annual membership fees. Get on their level.

Be Each Other's Biggest Cheerleader

At the end of the day, it's you and your partner in it together, dealing with the joys and terrors of running a household, raising children, managing finances, and pursuing your career goals. That partnership will go a lot more smoothly if you can remember that you love this person you've chosen to spend your life with, even when they forget to pick up your shirts from the dry cleaner or serve microwave pizza four dinners in a row.

Avoid keeping a running tally of who's done what; it can only end in frustration. "It's so natural and easy to think only about one's own self and pending tasks. And when you do that, you fall into the 'woe is me' trap where you see all the things you do to contribute, but you fail to see what your partner does. Be attentive to what your partner is facing at work and the struggles [they are] overcoming. Notice the contributions they make to your family and home life. Offer your spouse encouragement, praise, and thanks. A few words of support go a long way in lifting each other up," says Musson.

Holdsworth reminds dual-career couples to have perspective. "You can easily get hammered at work; I've worked at organizations (thankfully, not my current one) where every day felt like a battle zone. So to come home and have my husband tell me he's proud of me has meant the world. And I do the same," she says. "There are no egos."

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