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Dual-Career Couples & Kids: How To Make It Work?

Regina Gomez (MBA ’25) reflects on research around the family dynamics of working couples.

In our first semester of the Required Curriculum (RC) year, we delved into a LEAD case that presented a dilemma faced by a working couple at a significant juncture in their lives: Should she continue her flourishing career, effectively making him the primary caregiver for their five children, or should she take a step back to support his career growth? The case sparked a heated debate among my peers at HBS. Views varied drastically – while some argued that the protagonist should leave her husband, others believed she ought to relinquish her professional ambitions. For me, this discussion was particularly harsh, as it made me think of a personal dilemma I had not fully contemplated.

As an MBA student at HBS, I am driven by the goal of climbing the corporate ladder to join the leadership ranks of a major, influential corporation. Concurrently, having recently married my lifelong partner, I cherish the dream of starting a family. My husband, a litigation lawyer – arguably one of the most demanding professions – harbors his own aspirations to become a partner and eventually own a law firm.

The class discussion left me with a disheartening ultimatum: the seeming impossibility of fulfilling both my career ambitions and family aspirations. This realization was both disappointing and saddening. However, a thoughtful conversation with my husband that evening sparked a new resolve in me. I decided to look deeper into research, seeking practical strategies to balance these twin goals. I was determined not to cede either dream. The insights I uncovered were enlightening and instrumental in my own journey to find a balance. Here are the key non-exhaustive strategies that I found most effective and how I plan to apply them to my personal situation. I share these in the hope of empowering others who face similar crossroads, steadfast in my belief that one need not sacrifice career for family, or vice versa.

Tip 1: Set goals and discuss them

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Jackie Coleman and Joe Coleman emphasize the importance of couples engaging in “open and honest” discussions about their individual aspirations. Such dialogues are crucial for aligning on key decisions and understanding each other’s “non-negotiables.” For example, I have set a personal benchmark: if offered a job with a salary exceeding a certain threshold, I will accept it. Similarly, presented with the opportunity to lead a firm (under specific conditions), my husband would accept that offer..

Jennifer Petriglieri, a renowned authority on parenting, advocates in her 2019 Business Insider article for establishing “parenting principles” as the foundation of family life. These guiding tenets shape the practical aspects of raising children. Reflecting on my own experiences, I recall how my in-laws adhered to a principle of always tucking my husband into bed, a practice that significantly influenced their family routine during his early years.

Tip 2: Assign roles 

Jackie Coleman and Joe Coleman also emphasize the importance of clear role assignment for couples. They advocate for clarity on who handles various responsibilities, which significantly “streamlines” everyday tasks. Amy Jen Su, in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, further reinforces this idea by suggesting that families operate as teams, leveraging each member’s strengths and interests.

The critical element in this process, as highlighted by the Colemans, is to understand and express what role each partner genuinely wants to take on. This approach requires a willingness to sometimes step into roles that may not be our preferred choice, but are more efficiently executed by one partner than the other. In my personal experience, I love cleanliness and organization, while my husband is more inclined towards managing finances. A practical division of roles in our case would be for him to oversee financial matters, such as bill payments, while I take charge of our schedules and maintain the orderliness of our home. Those are the roles that would make sense for us -- they could look entirely different for other partnerships.

Tip 3: Negotiate

In her 2019 Harvard Business Review piece, Jennifer Petriglieri sheds light on how couples should navigate career and family decisions. She points out three common traps to avoid in these discussions:

Look Beyond Just Schedules and Tasks: It's not all about who does what and when. Petriglieri urges couples to talk about more than just practicalities. Share your feelings, fears, and what really matters to you. For example, I value an equal partnership highly, so this is always part of conversations with my husband.

Money Is Not Everything: Decisions should not just be about who earns more. Petriglieri warns that if we focus too much on money, we might end up ignoring other important things. Even though my husband could have a well-paying job, being close to my family in Mexico is a big deal for me. So, when we decide where to live, being near an airport with flights to Mexico is a must.

Forget About Perfect 50/50 Balance: Trying to split everything equally can be unrealistic. Petriglieri offers different models for balance. One is the ‘Primary-secondary’ model, where one partner’s career takes the front seat for a while. Another is ‘Turn taking,’ where you switch roles over time. Then there’s the ‘Double-primary’ model, where both careers are equally prioritized, but it is a continuous juggling act.

Tip 4: Reiterate

Life changes, and so do we. That means our goals and how we handle things at home need to keep up. Every now and then, we have to sit down and check if what we are doing still makes sense. Pick a day every few months to talk about everything you have agreed on. Are you both still cool with who does what? Is anyone feeling overwhelmed, or like they are not doing enough? It is like a team huddle – make sure everyone is on the same page and nobody is dropping the ball.

So, dual-career couples, remember: A partnership is not just about ticking off tasks. It is about making sure you are both happy and that things are fair. Keep it real and kind when you talk about how things are going. Things change, and that is okay. What matters is that you adapt together.

Regina Gomez (MBA ’25) was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico. She graduated from Tecnológico de Monterrey with a degree in Economics. Prior to HBS she worked at Mastercard and an early-stage fintech as a Global Strategy and Operations Manager specializing in the payments industry. 

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