09/16/2011 01:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

I Know How She Does It

By Morra Aarons-Mele and Ellen Galinsky

By now, you've probably seen the trailer for I Don't Know How She Does It, based on the novel of the same name by Allison Pearson. Kate Reddy, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is in a constant struggle to meet her responsibilities at work, to her children, and to her husband. Kate finds herself under pressure at work to take on more responsibility, while feeling overextended when it comes to being a good wife and mother. She feels she does everything -- badly. Apparently this is meant to be something every working parent in the world can relate to.

We think working parents need to give themselves a break. We want to highlight the many Americans who embrace a flexible and humane approach to work. So we set out to interview women who work for organizations and who manage powerful careers with time at home. It's true, we would have had a difficult time finding seven figure earning fund managers a la Sarah Jessica Parker's character who are mothers and who work flexible schedules. What we found were successful and centered women who embrace the fluidity of their lives. Every woman we spoke with said "this is not the career I thought I would have" -- and all acknowledged the very real and ongoing compromises they needed to make in order to have a flexible schedule and have a vibrant role in the workforce.

And every woman said how happy she felt to be able to be truly present in her kids and husbands' lives.

This is the conundrum many women -- and men -- find themselves in today. The American workforce has changed dramatically in the past 30 to 40 years. Women compose approximately 50 percent of the workforce and contribute significantly to family income. Additionally, 79 percent of couples are dual-earners. This means that two parents are now responsible for three jobs -- each parent has a paid job and must also negotiate caring for his or her family.

This strain on workers has contributed to a "time famine." Seventy-five percent of employed parents feel they don't have enough time with their children and 63 percent of working couples feel they don't have enough time with their partners. It's no surprise then that 60 percent of workers feel they don't have enough time for themselves. These very real problems contribute to stress, poor mental and physical health, and employee burnout.

The only solution for working parents like Kate Reddy or any of us is to change how we work. And this doesn't mean leaving your job to start your own business and move off the grid to a farm, as Kate Reddy does in the book. It means working with your management to literally change how and when you work. We'll give you glimpses into the lives of accomplished professional women who have achieved their versions of "doing it all" thanks to workplace flexibility.


Sariah worked on Wall St. prior to taking six years off to have kids and stay at home full-time. After six years at home, she began a part-time schedule with her previous employer -- just 14 hours a week divided between the office and home.

Sariah hadn't thought transitioning back into paid work would be possible. She hadn't networked, or kept in touch with her former team in banking. But she got in touch with a former co-worker who was now the head of the department she had worked in. This man, who had amassed considerable capital in the organization since Sariah had left, knew hiring her back would be a smart move:

"He knew me, knew my work, and I had a track record with him that was absolutely to my benefit. Also helpful was that his wife has had a flexible schedule for many years, so personally he could appreciate it wouldn't necessarily be a liability."

A few years later, Sariah's husband started his own business, and she began working full time again. Now she works three days in the office, and two at home. Her husband Doug is responsible for most of the day-to-day child care. Their work flexibility allows them to share equally their responsibilities to their kids:

"On the days I am working from home, we allocate household and child responsibilities based on who has time-sensitive deadlines. I can be flexible to a certain degree and pick back up during naps and after hours if Doug has a meeting or deadline. And he of course does the same for me. The older children are in school all day and the youngest has some day care also. Our primary objective is to always be there for our kids, so we try our best to work it out."

She stressed that "The specifics of our situation will not be like this forever. Our work will change, our children's schedules and needs will change. I am trying to savor what we have right now for as long as we have it. I hope that we will be able to continue to create equilibrium as our family's needs evolve."

Sariah had been a valuable player at her bank. And when she needed flexibility to make her life work, Sariah's worth as an employee was not measured by her presence in the office.

For a more detailed glimpse into Sariah's life, please read this post on Chrysula Winegar's blog.

Dialing Up and Down

Lois is currently the Senior Vice President of a non-profit organization in New York City. She acts as Chief Operating Officer and personally conducts every performance review for her organization's employees. A former high performing IBM sales executive, Lois has a very successful husband who travels for business at least three days a week, and has done so for fifteen years. Since her children were small, Lois has been the primary parent.

After leaving IBM and experimenting with a "housewife fantasy" that lasted a year, Lois began consulting part-time for the non-profit she now helps to run. It was three years before she took on a more permanent role. Fourteen years later, there is no typical workweek. Lois averages about one day a week in the office in New York City and works remotely on other days. In July, November, and December she spends more time in the office to meet with the whole staff for performance reviews and to talk about their professional development.

It was the flexibility of being able to "dial down" and "dial up" her career goals when it was right for her that enabled Lois to do it all. She says:

"Corporate America had nice opportunities I didn't even entertain. It was an incredibly conscious choice to go to an environment that would allow me to parent yet still stimulate me. I never once would have wanted to trade places ... you have to understand your priorities. I never missed a [gymnastics] meet or a football game. I never missed anything - ever. That was my priority ... If my priority was rapid career advancement in corporate America it would not align with my priority to participate [as a parent]."

Lois advises those who would like more workplace flexibility to sit down with their managers to talk through what arrangements will work for everyone. She says she also had to practice asking others for help when she needed it, which was difficult at first.

Now, with both kids in college, Lois is traveling more for speaking engagements and events. Even though her kids are no longer at home, she says she can't imagine giving up flexibility, especially since her husband travels so much.

The Surgeon

Lianne is a surgeon at a large academic hospital in suburban New York, and associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology. For several years, Lianne practiced medicine in a large academic institution in New York City. Lianne and her husband, a neurosurgeon, worked full-time while raising their three children. Eventually, their schedules together became too much to handle. She admits she was "bitter about not being to fulfill [her] career goals" because of the additional domestic responsibilities that fell to her as "The Mother." She says her marriage suffered as she became more stressed about her work-life situation.

Lianne left her job because her schedule -- but really her boss -- was too inflexible. He allowed her to work part-time but under a contract that would take away any job security. She decided to leave this practice at a very prestigious institution but keep her reduced work schedule. She accepted a part-time job in a private practice at another academic institution where they were more accepting of her need to work part-time and were desirous of her particular expertise in the care of children. Although she can't be on partner track and work part-time, Lianne has a great deal of flexibility in her schedule, and most important, she practices medicine and engages with patients. She is off Monday and Tuesdays (although freely admits she often sees patients those days for an hour or so), operates Wednesdays, and works in the office Thursday and Friday. Once Lianne began working part-time, she realized she'd been neglecting taking care of herself. Now, she "feels like a more complete person." She concedes shifting work goals can be difficult, and couldn't resist the temptation to compare herself to her mentor, a surgeon who always worked full time and had kids:

"You have this one game plan, and then you're living real life and seeing what the consequences are...[but] you have an ideal. I had a mentor who seemed perfect...I still don't know how she does it."

Younger female doctors often ask Lianne for advice. She tells them they might want to think twice about the work it will take to be a full-time surgeon and a parent, and encourages them to consider a part-time position as part of their future. Despite having to shift her career goals, Lianne says she's gotten part of her life back that was set aside in the long years of training and starting her career. "

We've tried to give some quick snapshots into how three very different women "do it." Finding the right work-life fit can be a career-long process, and it's important to take the long view. As our jobs and families change, we'll need to recalibrate and think about our own needs, the needs of our families and spouses, and our responsibilities to our work. With patience and creativity, employees and employers can come together to make work "work" better for everyone.