How do they do it? Women strategize to find right work-life balance

Story by Krista Jahnke
(Detroit Free Press/MCT)
Thu, Sep 29, 2011
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DETROIT — On paper, 37-year-old Jennifer Ballarin of Royal Oak, Mich., had it all.

She had a well-paying job at a respected financial consulting company. Her office offered perks, letting her leave early some days and work a four-day week. She had two young daughters, a helpful husband and a house in the suburbs.

She felt lucky, really. So why was she often reduced to tears?

Ballarin’s major struggle revolved around transporting her daughter to preschool five days a week. She searched for months, but couldn’t find someone she trusted to handle the job. Her husband, Cedric, who works for an automotive company, wasn’t able to drive because of his early start time.

“All eyes,” Ballarin said, “were on me.”

Ballarin, like many women, was seeking a better balance between her work and the rest of her life.

“They (her employer) had many family flexible policies in place that I benefitted from, and it was overall a positive experience,” said Ballarin, who quit last summer. “But what I found was I still needed more. I left because I was really trying to find a way to greater manage my home life.”

In Sarah Jessica Parker’s movie, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” Parker plays out the challenge that many women face, juggling a high-profile job as well as her husband and kids.

For the working mom, the struggle might not be the stuff of Hollywood movies. But the phrase “work-life balance” isn’ t just a buzz word. It’s the ultimate goal.

A recent survey of 670 employed men and women in the United States and Canada by Captivate Network found that men are nearly two times more likely than women to balance their work and personal lives. That’s why Carolyn Cassin, president of Michigan Women’s Foundation, said her staff is collecting data, hoping to add the issue of work-life balance to its advocacy efforts.

Kim Krutsch, 52, found that her former employer was great about acknowledging her needs as a mom. Eleven years ago, when she adopted her son, her employer, a food distribution company, allowed her extended maternity leave, and she returned to work on a part-time basis. Then she lost her job, and so did her husband.

Now, after more than a year of searching, Krutsch has returned to work as a full-time administrative assistant. She loves her workplace and is happy to be employed again. But working eight-hour days then returning home to a messy home and the demands of an 11-year-old isn’t easy.

“I’d say, ’OK Kim, you can set these unrealistic standards, be all pie in the sky, and all you will do is be frustrated,” she said.

“So you bring it down a notch. Be realistic. Spending time with my son or with girlfriends or family is more important than everything being orderly, or knowing the groceries will bought on a certain day and certain time.”

Krutsch has the right idea, experts say.

Being honest with yourself about what matters most to you, and not begrudging the rest, is key, said life coach Cheranissa Roach of Ypsilanti, Mich. “To have balance, you have to continuously take something off and put something else back on,” said Roach, president of CDR Consulting in Birmingham, Mich. “You have to act.”

Roach said that women are natural nurturers. “We want to take care of our kids and partner. We want to do a good job at work. We think if we have to ask for help, it means we’re not doing it well. It’s not true. We have to understand that I do need help.”

But that’s not always easy.

Sheila Suppes, a 39-year-old mother of one, said she’s “in denial” about being able to do it all. She works full-time as director of business development and marketing. She’s involved with a commercial real estate organization and is a board member of her home owner’s association. She gets to work early so she can pick her son up from kindergarten and take him to swimming and soccer practices.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. to hit the gym before work. She refuses to hire a cleaning lady.

“It’s a sense of pride,” Suppes said. “I want to feel like I can do everything, and I don’t want to say it’s too much for me. I don’t want to be the one who can’t handle it.”

But she isn’t spending much time with her husband, Eric. And she sometimes thinks about how her own mother always gave her a hot meal before school.

“My son’s hot breakfast is a bowl of Mini-Wheats and a microwave pancake,” Suppes said. “On the weekend, I try to make up for it and make that hot breakfast.”

Suppes said her key is to not compare herself to others. Not to the other moms in her neighborhood. Not to her own mother.

“I just have to worry about myself and my family,” Suppes said. “I think women can totally be judged on how they are doing it all. It’s not that I don’t want to be home with my kid. But I went to college and I don’t want to put my education to waste to stay home.”

Neither did Ballarin. But quitting her job freed her, she said.

Just months after quitting to stay home full-time, Ballarin saw doors opening. Old clients wanted her to consult. One offered to help build her a Web site. She fought it at first, telling people she fully intended to work solely on her family. But the idea of being able to do what she loves, on her terms, was too great to pass up.

In January, she launched Chouette Marketing. She now has about eight clients and works about 20 hours a week, fitting them into her schedule. She can take her girls to see a movie on a Friday afternoon without a smidge of guilt.

She can drive her daughter to school each day.

She’s in a happy place, she said. Balanced.

“A person has to ask herself what does having it all mean?” she said. “To me, it meant to have everything important to you and in balance. But to be honest with you, that’s always moving.

“What I discovered is a person might be afraid to let go of what they know,” Ballarin said. “But once they let go, there’s a soft landing.”


Make the juggling act work

1. Doing it all is a myth. Doing what you love is the goal. No one is doing it all. If it looks like they are, it’s a mirage.

2. It’s OK to ask for help. If you have a parenting question or if you need an extra hand, ask someone. Don’t assume people will know.

3. As parents, we joke about sleep, but it will make or break your day. Make it a priority. Trade babysitting with a friend and use your free time to nap. Skip your favorite TV show and get to bed as early as possible.

4. Multi tasking creates poor results. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Play with your child, then let the child play on his or her own (or with a sitter) while you do your daily tasks. Put down your phone when it’s family time.

5. Manners matter. Be nice. Play nice. If you send that snarky e-mail, it will only create more work (and a headache) when you have to manage (and obsess over) the aftermath.

6. Appreciate and embrace your current season of life. If you’re potty-training your daughter this month, you might not want to schedule your family vacation to Paris — where public toilets can be few and far between.

7. Comparing yourself to others is the fastest way to a bad day. Don’t do it. Do something creative — whether it’s baking or doodling or a major DIY project. If you’re engaged in something creative, your brain won’t make space for destructive thoughts.

8. Just say no. To unnecessary activities. To extra stuff. You’ll receive requests for your time at school, at work, at church, in your neighborhood, and a dozen other places. Saying no to something so that you can spend a Saturday morning making pancakes with your kids does not mean you’re lazy or unhelpful. This is your life and your time.

9. Prevent Internet-as- blackhole. Schedule your online time the same way you schedule other work or entertainment. Don’t get online unless you actually have time to BE online.

10. Find an activity to call your own, something to feed your soul. It’s easy to forget yourself among your roles as employee, parent and spouse.

Source: Gabrielle Blair of

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