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Finding the balance between family and work

Marisa Thalberg, 37, a working mother in New York City, has not owned an alarm clock for years. Every morning, her five-year-old daughter Hannah or her five-month-old daughter Avery takes care of waking her up in the early hours.

Like millions of women around the world, from the moment her day begins, Marisa starts juggling the competing and sometimes conflicting worlds of work and motherhood.

With women making up approximately 40 per cent of the global workforce, finding childcare that is both high quality and affordable is a struggle for many dual-career families. In many parts of the world, parents sometimes rely on extended family members to provide childcare. Frequently an older child, generally a daughter, is entrusted with care of the younger children – often at the expense of her own schooling.

Fortunately, this is not the case for Marisa and her family.

Mornings are mostly ‘organized chaos’ at the Thalberg home, a fine-tuned routine. Marisa and her husband, David, get ready for work, dress and feed their children, wait for Avery’s babysitter to arrive and drop Hannah off at school. Then they each rush to their respective jobs: Marisa is an executive in an advertising agency, while David works as the executive director of a public relations firm.

Towards the end of their busy workdays, Marisa and David start text messaging each other to see who can make it home closer to 7 p.m. to relieve the babysitter and put the children to bed. It is not easy to juggle all this, but they manage.

“My husband and I are real partners,” says Marisa. “We are partners in providing for our family and we are partners at home. When we both come back in the evening, we don’t regress into antiquated gender roles of me doing housework and him reading the paper. In fact, we would never have a home-cooked meal without him!”

A place for working mothers to come together

After giving birth to her daughter Hannah in 2000, Marisa knew that she would go back to work, both because it was a financial imperative and because of the sense of fulfilment she felt as a successful executive.

“A lot can be derived from work: being with other adults, a sense of self and the feeling that you are making a contribution in the world,” she says. But she felt she needed to be in contact with other women in the same situation. Marisa lives in New York City, which is home to many professional women, but she had great difficulty finding a support group of mothers working outside the home with whom to share experiences, advice and support.

In 2002, Marisa decided to create the group ‘Executive Moms’. “I found that I stumbled onto this gaping need that existed among thousands of mothers all across the country,” she says. “The irony, of course, is that in my efforts to solve my own issues as a working mother, I ended up giving myself a second career!”

Executive Moms offers peer support for mothers who are also professionals, giving them networking opportunities and emotional resources to help them cope and thrive in their dual roles. The organization, which currently has several thousand members, has a website, weekly “Executive Momorandum” e-mails for members and a variety of special events.

In 2005, Marisa was named Outstanding Contemporary Woman in Business by Project Legacy as a result of her work with Executive Moms. She has also become a spokeswoman to the media on issues involving motherhood, careers and busy women’s lifestyles. But perhaps the most rewarding part of her job as founder of the organization has been the opportunity to challenge some stereotypes.

“Many people believe that working mothers are harried, beleaguered and would do anything not to have to juggle work and family,” she says. “But the very first survey that we circulated among our members revealed that 97 per cent of the women in Executive Moms felt that working made them better mothers.”

Despite the many rewards of balancing a professional life and children, the challenges faced by many working families are substantial. “We can’t escape the fact that maternity leave in the U.S. and other countries is shrinking, both in its length and in its quality,” says Marisa. “Many workplaces let you know that it is not OK to check out completely, that you need to come back soon. When you add to that the fact that paternity leave in this country is not well established and it is very hard to find affordable, quality childcare, you end up with a very challenging scenario.”

Given these persistent difficulties in making the ‘juggling’ work, women’s support of each other in the workplace is all the more important. “In my career, I often found that women are not as good to other women as they should be,” says Marisa. “We should leverage some of our maternal qualities and bring them to the fore at work to support one another.”

Social policies and programmes should be promoted to enable women and men, like Marisa and her husband, to reconcile their work and family responsibilities and encourage men to take on an equal share of domestic chores and childcare. Read more about empowerment in the workplace.