A New Balance

Two dual-career couples’ experiences with new parenthood offer lessons in resilience.

By Alina Bartley, SWE Editorial Board

CREDIT: simplehappyart

It is well documented that women suffer career disruption after becoming new parents. New dads are also beginning to feel the same pressures, mental health challenges, and disruption to their work lives. Dads are becoming more involved in their children’s lives than their fathers were. And with fewer role models, many dads are still learning how to navigate a career while supporting their partner’s career and facing increased household responsibilities.

Today’s environment offers an opportunity for parents and partners in nontraditional family units to build resilience in the first few years of child-rearing. Recent examples from the lives of two SWE editorial board members’ families illustrate the challenges and potential solutions.

Alina Bartley and Brian Bartley

My husband Brian and I had our first child in 2021 and our second in 2022. I work in management consulting and Brian works as a chemicals manufacturing leader. We are currently raising two toddlers with the majority of our work being in the office.

For me, a key challenge after returning to work was experiencing pronounced feelings of imposter syndrome, or increased self-doubt in my overall capabilities as a consultant. This was in part due to juggling in-person work with frequent illnesses, reduced sleep, and an inability to maintain sustained focus during peak workloads. These are all very common responses when there are babies or toddlers in the family. Still, while I rarely forgot an important event or deadline before I became a mother, these errors became more frequent after having children and contributed to my temporary loss of confidence at work.

A key issue for Brian was the loss of routines and the extended periods of time he used to have available for deep focus. Before becoming a dad, he could spend uninterrupted hours at night or on weekends to catch up on work or maintain healthy routines. Now carving out time for consistent workouts or social outings has become challenging. Losing these longstanding social networks and routines during his most challenging work assignments to date further decreased his resilience.

Oftentimes, expectations for high performance can come from believing you should still be operating at the same level at which you operated before becoming a parent. Your leaders may not have the same expectations.

Sarvenaz Myslicki and Stephen Myslicki

While Sarvenaz and Stephen welcomed their first child in 2023 and only recently returned to work, they have begun to experience new constraints and trade-offs. Sarvenaz reported feeling more hesitant to take on stretch assignments — work beyond her current capabilities designed to build her knowledge base and develop her leadership skills. She also had to let go of “extra” activities, such as volunteering or outreach, which she loves to do.

Before becoming a father, Stephen frequently took on remote assignments to manage dual careers, at the caution of bosses who indicated his career would plateau in the long run if he did not prioritize in-person work.

Both have felt the pressure of being on waitlists for day care and wondering if one partner would need to take a career pause and stay at home because of the inaccessibility of child care. For Sarvenaz and Stephen, this was resolved when they finally received a spot at a day care and could go on planning to both return to work.

Although both couples are still learning to adjust to their new lives, they are already applying lessons learned. While not exhaustive, the following suggestions can build resilience in not just working parents, but employees in general:

  • Focus on what matters now. With new at-home commitments, there is less time for side projects; precious hours should go toward key objectives. For example, before children, I frequently took on discretionary work or felt less compelled to push back when assigned small extra projects. Now, my day-to-day focus remains on the primary work. If I do take on stretch work, it must serve a longer-term goal, such as becoming a mentor to more employees or building my personal brand in a subject matter by speaking at conferences and authoring white papers.
  • Set clear expectations. When Sarvenaz and Stephen are both working at home and caring for their child, they have to occasionally hand off child care duties between calls, which can make one of them late to their next meeting. Stephen now routinely sets his meetings at five minutes past the hour to allow himself extra time between calls. Instead of appearing “always late,” he is instead on time while being up-front with co-workers about his other commitments.
  • Ask for feedback. When suffering from imposter syndrome, one remedy is to ask for frequent feedback from leaders and mentors. Oftentimes, expectations for high performance can come from believing you should still be operating at the same level at which you operated before becoming a parent. Your leaders may not have the same expectations; in fact, they may instead expect that you delegate more often or ask for help.

Raising children can lead to increased skills in organization, crisis management, and problem-solving.

  • Leverage new, transferable skills. Raising children can lead to increased skills in organization, crisis management, and problem-solving. While raising a toddler who refuses to accept help using utensils or putting on shoes, I learned how to do less and teach more. This has strengthened my leadership skills at work, where I take on more coaching roles with my direct reports.
  • Avoid recency bias. When there is a short-term imbalance in household responsibilities due to one partner’s work travel or deadlines, the other partner typically takes on extra duties. This can sometimes lead to recency bias, which is when someone overemphasizes recent experiences to predict future events. For example, if one person drops the children off at day care four days in a row, it can suddenly seem as if their partner “never” drops off their children. Focusing less on the short-term uptick in responsibility and more on how this supports the other partner at a critical time should be the goal. In my partnership, we address this by each starting the year with a pool of 25 “hours,” borrowing or lending those hours to one another as responsibilities vary. For example, if I go to a happy hour and Brian does day care pickup, makes dinner, and handles bedtime on his own that night, I “borrow” three hours from Brian; he does the same when he attends board game nights with his friends. This creates long-term visibility, and as long as no partner ever reaches zero hours, it reassures us both that a semblance of balance is being achieved and any recent trends will soon change course.
  • Accept some sacrifices. All the planning in the world cannot prevent some events from stacking up and causing one or both parents to miss something important. This happened to Brian and me during WE23, SWE’s annual conference, when I was traveling for a few days and Brian had to watch both children by himself. On top of all of the day care pickups and drop-offs, bedtimes, and toddler tantrums, our baby got sick with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and Brian had to take some time off work to be with baby. It was a difficult week and caused him extra work the following week.

In the moment, weeks like these can feel insurmountable, and some work will get delayed. In the long run, these are sacrifices we begin to accept as new parents, and where possible, we ask for more help from friends and family, or reduce our commitments.

While there is no single answer to managing dual careers with small children in today’s environment, these lessons learned can increase confidence and build higher resilience for working parents.

About the Author
Alina Bartley (she/her) is a director with Alvarez & Marsal, assisting clients with supply chain management solutions. She graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering and from The University of Texas at Austin with an MBA. A SWE member since 2009 and a member of the SWE editorial board, Bartley has enjoyed working as a leader within her local Houston Area Section and with collegians at the global level.