Hard Choices: Resolving Work – Family Conflict

By Cynthia Mitchell

When I married, I was a seasoned entrepreneur. My business ventures occupied a significant portion of my life.    I worked long hours, I traveled heavily and I enjoyed a full and exciting schedule in a career I loved.  My husband was an entrepreneur too, so needless to say there was a comfortable and mutual understanding for the demands of our respective businesses.

We both wanted children and when I became pregnant soon after we married, we couldn’t have been happier.  It was the greatest wedding gift we could have given one another.  The marriage and the pregnancy brought enormous joy into our lives, along with the possibility to create a loving and purposeful family.

As most women do, I began to ponder what life might be like with a new marriage and our first baby on the way.  I wanted this child, and my new husband to have the best of me.  As we considered how to architect our family,   I wondered, like millions of other working women,  whether it is really possible to balance work and family?  That question would be on the forefront of my mind for the next nine months as the new little life inside of me, began to expand my belly and challenge my thoughts about life, work and purpose.

As I surveyed how other entrepreneurs balanced family and work, I found three distinctively different camps of thought 1) You can have it all 2)  Work has to take precedence over family to be successful and 3) Family should always come first.

You Can Have It All

The first opinion, “you can have it all,” became the mantra for feminism after Cosmopolitan Magazine editor, Helen Gurley Brown’s book “Having it All“ rose to number one on the bestseller list in 1982.  It evolved the feminist movement of the 70’s and was the clarion call for women to get what they wanted without guilt.  The book further blurred the lines of traditional roles, sending women scurrying to juggle work, family and pleasure to get more out of life.

The notion of “having it all” has sparked endless debates over whether women can balance the demands of a career with the demands of family.  New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in her book “Off the Sidelines,” remarks “Please, let’s stop talking about ‘having it all’ and start talking about the real challenges of ‘doing it all.’ ”   Three decades later,  exhausted and stressed out women are feeling inferior that they don’t yet have it all.

Work Has to Take Precedence Over Family

The second opinion, “work has to take precedence over family” in order for a business to succeed, was the subject of Entrepreneur Magazine’s article entitled  “Love Your Business More Than Your Family.”   The author warned that family obligations become interruptions to business success.  He cites Valentine’s Day as a prime example of distraction:  “ By all means, make it an occasion to show your spouse, kids, loved ones that you care. Then get your behind to the office because that’s where you need to be. Your family will still be there when you get home.  The same goes for other special days, like birthdays and anniversaries. You should absolutely make note of them–but not by taking long visits to the country with your spouse or going off on weekend getaways. That’s what jewelry is for. Or treat everybody to a steak dinner. It takes less time, so you can get on with running your business.”

Work-family conflict is much higher in the United States than elsewhere in the developed world. One reason is that Americans work longer hours than workers in most other developed countries, including Japan. A whopping 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict.

Entrepreneurs often justify work preference with the notion that “everybody will be happy as soon as the money starts flowing, ”  but does money really buy happiness?  Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton analyzed the lives and incomes of nearly half-a-million randomly selected U.S. citizens and published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research showed that a lack of money brings unhappiness, but an overabundance of income does not have the opposite effect. The happiness money offers does not keep getting more and more potent – in fact, it plateaus.   No matter how you turn it, the science says once your basic needs are taken care of, money and other rewards don’t make you happier.

Family Should Always Come First

The third opinion, “ family should always come first”  is exhorted by Larry Birnback, a psychotherapist who warns “Failure to give marriage top priority is a major cause of the breakdown of marriages in our country. “

According to Rosemary Frank,  a certified divorce financial analyst, “about one in 10 employees will divorce in any given year. Employees are affected the year prior, and up to five years after the divorce. A divorce is a seven-year event, with 70 percent of the workforce at one stage or another at any given time.  Employee productivity is reduced by an estimated 40 percent. Disrupted co-workers are down 4 percent, during the six months prior and the year of divorce; their supervisor is down 2.5 percent to deal with the situation. For one year post-divorce, employee productivity is down 20 percent; co-workers lose 2 percent, and the supervisor loses 1 percent. During the second, third, fourth and fifth post-divorce years, the employee loses 15 percent, 10 percent, 4 percent and 2.5 percent productivity, respectively. Rather conservative estimates considering the trauma of divorce, realities of “presenteeism” (present in body but not in mind), actual absences and the fact that many divorces do not conclude within one year, the divorce of a $60,000 per year employee is estimated to cost $85,934 in lost productivity. This does not include the costs of mistakes or potential profits on lost productivity.”

The personal loss and the emotional strain of work-family conflict can impose a heavy toll on the family, but never more than the sense of loss of the marital relationship itself.    When two people make a vow, the fulfillment of the relationship rests in the quality and investment of both parties.  If one denies the other, the marriage goes without.  Gaps can widen over time causing resentment, depression and unhappiness.

The impact to kids, however, is probably the most potentially injurious.   There’s no amount of goodies that will ever replace quality time with mom and dad.  Both parents play a vital role in shaping a child’s life and creating a sense of security, childhood joy and critical parent-child bonding.   When one parent is missing frequently or distracted by continual deadlines and endless work demands, it sends a message that family relationships are not valued. The pressures and obligations on the other spouse may grow so heavily, that even their relationship with the children can become exasperated.


After assessing the options, I came to the conclusion that the natural conflict between work and family requires some deep, honest soul searching to determine whether they can exist in harmony.  In my case, it took some trial and error,  a bit of failure and the encouragement of some wins to sort it out.  Inevitably, just when I thought I had what I imagined to be work – life balance, those two living, breathing entities called work and family would shake it all up again.

I came to the conclusion that I could not “have it all. ” Time is finite and tradeoffs are essential.    I also couldn’t buy into the notion “work has to take precedence over family” —arguably the most important people in one’s life.  While there are many seasons, I didn’t want to miss a moment of this one.  I opted to put “family first” and soon discovered that choice was not a singular event but a daily unrelenting endeavor.

I retooled my business.  I slowed down my own personal work pace, delegated more, worked remotely from my home office and made provision for baby to be by my side.  I routinely measured the impact of my businesses on my family, including my own need for rest, refueling and time to savor the sweetness of this all too fleeting season.   When we welcomed our second child, life changed yet again.  With each stage through the years,  I learned how to adjust my businesses to align with my priorities. Though I’m quite certain that work – family conflict never fully resolves, having a clear vision of priority provides a brilliant north star.  For an entrepreneur, hard choices are inevitable and always.

As I look at my two babies today — one graduated from college and off to law school, and the other soon to enter her third year of college studying Applied Mathematics — both learning to make hard choices of their own — I see two fine young ladies whom I would not have traded the world for.  .  .  at least until they turned seventeen — but that’s another story.


About The Author

Cynthia Mitchell is a serial entrepreneur,  consultant and speaker specializing in start-ups.  With more than 30 years experience in media, technology and education, Cynthia has worked with leading brands including Time Warner, ABC/Cap Cities, Maclean Hunter, Times Mirror, Meredith Corporation, Mutual of Omaha and Kaiser Permanente among many others. With a customer-centric ethos, Cynthia’s depth of expertise across business disciplines is an exemplary and unique skill set for new ventures. Contact Cynthia at cyndimitchell.com.

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