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The family way
6:00am Saturday 21st September 2013 in Lifestyle
Getting the right work-life balance is tough for working parents, but Lisa Salmon speaks to a high-flying career woman and mum-of-three who's written a new book explaining how working parents really can have it all.
Many mothers struggle to juggle children and a career, and often feel guilty that working means their children are losing out in some way.
However, two high-flying career women with five children between them desperately want to promote the message that families thrive not in spite of working mothers; but because of them.
The pair have written the book Getting To 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All to discuss the benefits of being a working parent and to share the secrets for successfully combining career and kids.
And both authors certainly know how hard this can be - one, Joanna Strober, is managing director of a private equity fund at an investment firm in California and has three children aged seven, 12 and 15. Her co-author Sharon Meers, 47, has two children aged nine and 12, and currently leads global business development and sales for the commerce platform of eBay.
Both women took three months off work for each child they had, then returned full-time.
Strober, 45, says: "I wasn't happy to go back to work - it was hard, but I knew it was the right thing for me and my family.
"We wrote the book because we saw too many fabulous women quitting the jobs they'd worked very hard to get, not because they wanted to but because they thought it was too hard to combine work and family.
"We wanted to help women like that keep working."
Strober stresses that she and Meers aren't saying mothers must work: "I'm not interested in telling women they should work if they don't want to. But if they want to, they should and they should know that it's fine."
She says research, and their own interviews with mums and dads who both work, shows that children with two working parents gain independence, self-confidence, cognitive and social skills, and strong connections to both parents.
Yes, both parents working means childcare is usually necessary, and there are scare stories about childcare damaging children in some way. However, the book refers to a 2006 study by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which studied 1,364 children for 15 years.
"The conclusions were unambiguous," says Strober.
"Kids with 100% maternal care fare no better than kids who spend time in childcare."
And she points out that how parents behave and treat their children influences their emotional, behavioural and cognitive development at least twice as much as than any form of childcare.
"In other words, stop worrying about leaving your child with someone else and focus on what happens when you and your husband get home."
Simple ideas to make a working mum's home life easier include making simple meals and freezing batches, forgetting about tidiness, accepting offers of help with shopping and errands, and even getting an easy-to-manage haircut.
But the critical key to coping with the demands of a family and work, says Strober, is for the mother to get her partner or husband to share equal responsibility for the home and kids - hence the book's title Getting To 50/50.
Of course, children who don't have a dad or don't live with him can thrive too, but this book chooses to focus on two-parent homes, stressing that if mums and dads embrace 50/50, children will benefit from two parenting styles. However, says Strober, it should be a truly equal partnership, where Dad is treated as an equal, without repeatedly having his efforts corrected or criticised.
Both parents writing 'to-do' lists can help divide the load too, though Strober points out: "We think we're better at home than the men, so we tell our husbands what to do. But men don't want a CEO at home, so to get them to do more, maybe women should be a little less bossy. Try to work collaboratively, and don't try to be the boss - take the business skills you've learned about how to make people feel good, use them at home, and get your partner to split the chores with you."
At work, Strober acknowledges that women - mothers or not - often have to work harder to get the same respect as men.
"It's unfortunate but it's true," she says.
"I think having kids makes you a better manager though, more efficient and compassionate to the people you work with.
"If your manager understand you, they'll appreciate these qualities, but if the work environment only appreciates the hours you put in, then it's a problem."
The belief that working long hours means you're good at your job is incorrect, stress Meers and Strober, who point out that with more focused effort, there's less wasted time and thus increased efficiency. Strober points out that working mums tend to adopt a 'less is more' approach to work, and are more productive as a result. Research shows most people thrive with multiple roles, so being both a worker and a parent is good for emotional wellbeing.
That said, to succeed in both these areas, women need to stand up for themselves at work, plan thoroughly both at work and at home, and take control.
"Having control means you can take your child to the doctor when you need to, and so can your husband."
Strober says many women work because it's important for them psychologically, not just because they need the money, and stresses: "There are a lot of benefits to yourself, your children and your spouse to working."
Working mothers are also good role models for children, she says.
"At the beginning it's really hard, but if you keep going and keep working, everyone will do great and it'll be worthwhile," she promises.
In a nutshell, she says, one part of the problem for working mothers is their mindset, and one part is the relationship between them and their husband.
"All the research shows your kids are going to turn out perfectly fine whether you work or not, so don't quit your job just because you think your kids will turn out better if you do," she stresses.
"If you're aware of the research that says they're going to be fine, then you need to realise that any guilt you feel about working is because you're feeling that you're missing out on something.
"That's really about you, not the kids."
:: Getting To 50/50 by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober is published by Piatkus, £13.99. Available now.
Ask the expert
Q: "My son is quiet and very bright, and has just started secondary school. He's worried about being bullied though - what's the best way he can avoid being targeted, and what should I tell him to do if he does get picked on?"
A: Anthony Smythe, managing director of BeatBullying, says: "This is a very common concern for young people, in fact a recent survey we conducted with Parentdish found that 58% of primary school pupils are worried about being bullied when they start secondary school.
"Most are concerned about being bullied for being too clever or not clever enough, for not being good at things like sports, or not having the latest phone or games console.
"The most important thing you can do for your son is to keep an open dialogue going. Bullying is a difficult subject to broach with your children, but being open, honest and approachable will make it easier for him to discuss his feelings.
"If your son does get picked on, let him know that he can report any problems to his teachers at school. Reassure him that if he's bullied he has a right to get help to stop it, and that you'll support him in getting help from other organisations, such as BeatBullying.
"You can also encourage him to keep a record of when and where he's bullied, and any other evidence of bullying such as damaged property and clothing. It's important that he should know not to retaliate, as this can just make things worse. Tell him to always walk away from potential bullying situations."
:: For more advice visit the BeatBullying and Parentdish Back to School guide for parents at www.parentdish.co.uk/bullying
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