Balancing Your Career And Your Family.


Striking a balance between your career and your family takes discipline, understanding, and commitment. I find that traditional career development discussions typically focus solely on career advancement, while time with family is expected to simply “fit” into work life. My guess is that most of us place a higher level of importance on developing meaningful relationships with our family than we do on our career path. This post acknowledges the imbalance between career and family and seeks to help you better understand how to find balance in your life.  

For the purposes of this discussion, I use the term “family” in the loosest possible terms. Think of family as the people you love. Whether it’s the person you decide to marry, your children, or your tribe, your family is an incredibly important part of living a happy life.

Early in my career, my dial was decidedly turned towards career focus. My first job at a university was as a sabbatical replacement for a tenure track professor who was not likely to return to the position. Knowing that this was a potential shot at winning the tenure track professor lottery, I treated the part-time job as a full-time position in order to win support from my colleagues on the faculty. Some years later, I crunched the numbers and determined that I paid more in tanks of gas than I made that year in order to accomplish this feat. 

In 2006-2007—the academic year I served as a sabbatical replacement—I had been married for four years and was 29 years old. Imagine the conversation with my non-musician, non-academic wife. 

Nate: “I got a job!”

Cristen: “Finally!….. I mean, congratulations.”

Nate: “It’s a sabbatical replacement and they’ll only be paying me a small fraction of a full-time salary for the year. I’ll need to drive down to Bowling Green, OH at least three days a week in order to show my commitment to the job in hopes of maybe winning a full-time position.”

Cristen: “………” followed by an eyeroll. (walks away)

Of course, Cristen was ultimately supportive of that decision, but she knew way before I did what a negative impact it would have on my ability to balance work and family. 

In my 20s, I remember having a distinctly career-first approach in my life. I told myself that in many ways, this was a temporary endeavor. If I put in the time it would pay off in the long run. My gamble paid off. In the spring of 2007, I earned the tenure track position, which happened to coincide with the completion of my Doctorate. 

There was only one snag in this plan, we were homeowners of a house that was 77 miles north, which happened to coincide with the popping of the largest housing bubble in our country’s history. 

Home Ownership Regrets
When my wife and I moved to Michigan in 2004 so I could pursue my doctorate at the University of Michigan, we purchased a little bungalow in Ypsilanti, MI. We had zero business purchasing a home. My wife had just finished her Doctorate of Physical Therapy and we knew she would get a job but was not yet working. I was getting ready to start my doctorate and expected very little income for the next 2-3 years. With $25k saved up for a downpayment on the new home, we qualified for a $250k mortgage without either of us having a job. In 2004, mortgages were so abundant that anyone could qualify and we were living proof. In the words of my grandmother, we purchased a cute little $30k house for $175k. 

When I landed the tenure track position at Bowling Green State University in 2007, we had been homeowners for three years but still owed so much on our house in Ypsilanti, MI that selling was not an option. So began my five-year affair with US-23, a straight stretch of highway largely used by semi’s, tractors, and state workers repairing long stretches of the road. The job was great, the commute was not. During the entire time I held the tenure track position, I lived 77 miles north in Ypsilanti, MI. 

I remember my commute with mixed emotions. After it became clear that we weren’t going to sell our house and move to Bowling Green, I accepted the fact that making the hour and fifteen-minute commute through the rolling farmlands of southern Michigan was going to be my way of life. I was often the only person on the open road, which gave me the headspace to dream big about my life and career. My commute also allowed me to prepare for the day, set goals for my work, and—for the guy with the classic “type-B, roll with it” personality—the commute forced me to plan. I couldn’t just “drop-in” to work and I had to be completely intentional about when I was going to be on campus for my students. 

The position created a level of financial and career stability I had not experienced as an artist but it also began an unhealthy balance between work and family. For five years, I pushed the gas pedal on my career. I performed in two orchestras, taught a full studio of bassoonists, ran a non-profit organization, and was omnipresent at work in order to pave a clear pathway to tenure. At the start of each school year, I would set a schedule so that I would travel to campus four days a week, but almost immediately, that turned into 5-6 days each week and during some cold, dark winter stretches, I would travel back and forth for countless weeks in a row, attending auditions, concerts, recitals, and meetings. 

This was an unsustainable path, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. The dedication to my job and pursuit of the next thing in my career transcended my family. Together, my wife and I decided that a career first mentality was an appropriate approach for someone in their late 20s who was trying to finally have some career stability. 

Food for thought: 

Having a partner that supports your view of career vs family focus is essential. My wife and I decided our path before we even got married. In 2001, when we got engaged, we were living apart. I was 24 and just entering the second year of my master’s degree at the University of Michigan, while at 22, Cristen was just starting her doctorate of Physical Therapy at Old Dominion in Norfolk, VA. We had been dating for four years and, although both of us knew that we would likely get engaged, both of us considered our career choices as individuals. 

When we got engaged, our decision-making process changed. Instead of considering our career decisions as two separate individuals, we decided that decisions about our work lives should be done together.  

We both had career advancement aspirations when we got engaged. Cristen wanted to complete her Doctorate and I wanted to pursue mine. Instead of staying apart so that we could simultaneously work on our degrees, we decided that one of us should be working at all times. I took two years between my master’s and doctorate in order to work so that Cristen could focus completely on her doctorate. Then, when it was my turn to pursue my doctorate, Cristen worked. We spent the first five years of our marriage with one of us working while the other was in school. 

Take away: 

Know what you want and consistently communicate with your partner about a path for your career and family. I have two rules to live by when making decisions about your life and career. 

    1. Before you’re engaged: Make decisions as individuals. 
    2. When you’re engaged/married: Discuss options and make decisions together. 

My First Child Changed Everything
My career first mindset fundamentally changed when my wife and I brought our first child into the world in the fall of 2009. At 32, I was faced with a new challenge; keep up the pace of the tenure track position and three-hour daily commute, while balancing the need to be home for my family. 

To this day, the strategy I use when I have a lot on my plate is to find time to work more. (As I type these words, it is 5:40 am) I routinely spend extra time at work, come home for a bit to be with family, only to go back out and work some more until the job is complete. Bringing a child into the world profoundly changed my ability to place my career above all else and it was a welcome opportunity to shift my balance towards family.  I remember one moment, in particular, that helped me downshift and find balance. In the fall of 2010, my entrepreneurial, dreamer brain had me tinkering around with a new tech concept and I was in the process of gathering information about the idea. It was a fall day and I had just completed my commute from Bowling Green home to Ypsilanti. By this point in my career at Bowling Green State University, the timing of my commute could be predicted to the minute. I remember this particular day being snarly. My predictable commute was interrupted by a pileup on US23 halfway home, dramatically extending my trip. When I walked through the door some 45 minutes late, Cristen was waiting for me, not with a “how was your day?” but a simple, one-word salutation, “Here!,” thrusting our 10-month-old baby into my arms in order to gain a short respite from an afternoon and evening of care for our child. 

That particular evening I also had a call set with a software engineer who had agreed to speak with me about the feasibility of my tech idea. Knowing that taking a call immediately upon arrival home when my wife had just spent countless hours with a cranky baby was political suicide, I sent the engineer an email asking if we could postpone for a couple of hours. 

When we finally got on the phone to speak after my wife and child were in bed, he said something that reframed my entire view of the career/family balance. He said “You know, being an entrepreneur is something that takes great dedication and time. You have to be willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice in order to pursue your ideas fully. If you are serious about launching a company, you should also know that it won’t be successful unless you make that the number one priority.” I thanked him for his life advice and gained some interesting insight on the particular type of tech I was interested in pursuing. More importantly, I realized at that moment that I was not going to be an entrepreneur, at least in the traditional sense. My family was and is just too important. 

Even though I have very traditional stories about my career and family focus, it’s important to remember that these situations are quite universal. 

Take a moment to center yourself in this discussion.  

Who do you define as your family? How does your job fit in with family? Do you see your family enough? Can you give them your full attention when you see them? 

Regardless of whether you got married and had kids by 24 or have no intention of settling down, it’s important to consider how you divide time between work and family so that you can make important decisions about the next steps in your life and career. I hope this post gave you some helpful insights. 

Thanks for reading! 

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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