Campus & Community

Power couples share life-balance strategies

5 min read

Flexibility, clarity, humor all assets

Balancing work and family life requires compromise between caring spouses, as well as flexibility and clarity about life, career, and family goals.

And a sense of humor doesn’t hurt.

“We didn’t really think about anything before we got married. We barely knew each other,” joked Institute of Politics Director and former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Shaheen, with her husband, lawyer and former New Hampshire judge Bill Shaheen, shared their story of eloping two months after meeting and then supporting each other through more than 30 years of family life and success in the demanding world of politics.

The Shaheens were one-third of a power couple trio who took part Monday (Oct. 30) in a frank and sometimes funny 90-minute event in the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Starr Auditorium.

“Stopping for Directions: A Conversation About Career, Family and Success,” was sponsored by the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, the Institute of Politics, the University Office of Career Services and its Life Skills Program, and the Harvard College Women’s Program.

Business School Associate Professor Monica Higgins moderated the event and told the audience that she hoped it would be just the beginning of a discussion that audience members would engage in – with both themselves and their partners in life.

Communication, in fact, seemed key to the success of the couples who shared their stories, though the mode of communication varied, from written goals statements to a more informal dedication to each other and their families.

Though the event provided an inside peek at couples who are successful at home and in high-powered careers spanning business, politics, government, and academia, the panelists dumped cold water on those looking for a magic formula to have it all. Balancing career and family success, they said, is about compromise, about giving up some things to have others. And it’s a never-ending process, not a goal to be achieved and maintained.

“I think balance is an oxymoron,” Shaheen said. “I haven’t met anyone who was happy with the balance between work and home life. For me, it was about getting used to the guilt. When I was at work, I was feeling guilty about not being home and when I was home I felt guilty about not being at work.”

Sharon Meers, an author and former managing director at Goldman Sachs, agreed.

“The work-life balance is hard, and sometimes feels really unbalanced,” Meers said.

Meers and her husband, real estate developer Steve Dostart, described their balance as one that arose out of initial conflict. Dostart, who said he always planned to be more engaged in his children’s life than his father was, said Meer’s high-powered career at Goldman Sachs left him carrying the load in their home life even before their two children arrived.

Since talking seemed always to lead to an argument, he told Meers to write down her goals and desires for the family they hoped to start. It turned out, he said, that they shared those goals, and writing them down helped them both realize that.

“The main message was that both of our dreams counted and we’d facilitate [achieving them],” Meers said.

Rakesh Khurana, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, said he always wanted to play a large role in raising his children with his wife, Stephanie Khurana, managing director of Higher Aims LLC, a company that matches high-level professional women with companies that need part-time or project-based workers.

Rakesh Khurana said they sat down early in their relationship and drew up life goals, which ensure that they are moving in the same direction. They review those goals on their anniversary, updating them as needed.

“When those other couples are sitting at dinner not talking to each other, we have this spreadsheet to talk about,” Khurana said.

Though the clarity of written goals does help, both Jeanne and Bill Shaheen said that one shouldn’t be too rigid about planning the future. Life throws unexpected obstacles and opportunities at you and so you have to be both flexible and committed to each other and your family.

The difficulty in striking a work-family balance also comes because the balance point itself is a moving target, as children are born and grow, as people change jobs or take on new assignments, and as individual goals change.

“It’s very, very important when you choose a mate, that you choose a person with whom you really share values,” Bill Shaheen said. “You have to deal with life as it comes.”

Bill Shaheen said that they started out with very little in life: $500 in the bank and no car. He had a teaching job, but Jeanne wasn’t yet working. Everything they achieved, in work and at home, he said, came because of their marriage and their dedication to their family and each other.

Panelists agreed that those struggling to find a work-home balance have to fight societal norms. There’s a lack of child care, a glorification of those who put in long hours at work, and, though there has been progress made on equality for women in the workplace generally, there’s still a “maternal bias” against women who are juggling work and the needs of their children.

Panelists said that part of gaining success comes in redefining what success is. Meers said her own thinking went from her wanting to “have it all” to wanting to have what’s important. In the process, she said, parents need to think more like business executives who do the most important things but delegate those that are less important and let other things go entirely.

“You shouldn’t be doing everything,” Meers said. “It’s not about having it all, it’s about having what is important to you.”

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