Early-Career Psychology

For the first four years of her older daughter's life, Ohio psychology practitioner Lisa Damour, PhD, was rarely able to eat dinner with her family. She saw clients during the afternoons and evenings when her husband was home, so that she could spend mornings with her daughter.

Sarah Honaker, PhD, a mother of two and professor of pediatrics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, has arrived late for work and missed more meetings than she'd like to admit to care for a sick baby or take part in her daughter's class field trips.

"It's been challenging," Honaker says. "Some days I feel like I have it figured out, whereas other days I feel like I am dropping the ball both at home and at work."

Like many early career psychologists, Damour and Honaker are tackling two major life challenges at once: raising young children and starting a career. While psychologists are supposed to be "experts" in life balance, they often find that striking the work-family balance can be just as difficult for them to navigate as for the clients they treat or the students they mentor.

"Especially in an academic environment, the work doesn't end at the end of the day," says Honaker. There are always client files to update, conference presentations to prepare and new research to stay abreast of — tasks that are often relegated to after-work hours, she says.

This type of balancing act, while difficult, is worth it, she says, because it means you also have two very distinct areas of your life that can bring you satisfaction.

Research summarized by University of Wisconsin–Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde, PhD, suggests that having multiple roles is beneficial for both men and women when it comes to our mental, physical and relationship health. In addition, successes in one role can also buffer us from the negative effects of stress or failure in the other (American Psychologist, 2001).

Here's advice from Damour, Honaker and others on how to make it work:

  • Lose the guilt. A study drawing on 50 years of research shows that, in spite of several well-publicized reports to the contrary, infants and toddlers with working moms are likely to grow up well adjusted. They may even, on average, be more academically high-achieving and less likely to experience anxiety or depression later in life than their peers whose mothers didn't work when they were young (Psychological Bulletin, 2010). Researchers at Macalester College in Minnesota looked at 69 studies from 1960 to 2010 and found that, aside from doing well academically as measured by achievement and intelligence test scores, grades in school and teachers' assessments, children of working moms benefited from the added income earned by their mothers — which often translates to higher quality day care, early education and private schooling. The children also developed close ties with their other caregivers. "I've found that daycare has helped my kids develop skills such as delaying gratification, self-soothing and socializing well with others," Honaker says.

  • Plan for it. Damour recommends that early career psychologists who plan to have children start saving for child care in advance so they can afford to cut back on work when the time comes and not have to change their lifestyles dramatically. If you plan to go back to work full time after having children, it's also important to find out about all the resources you have access to through your employer, such as flexible spending accounts to use for dependent care.

    It helps to start researching child-care options as early as possible, particularly if you plan to use a university or other employer's on-site day care program — because administration can be quite competitive, says Allison Ponce, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. Ponce applied for a spot at one of Yale's on-campus child-care centers when she was 12 weeks pregnant with her first child. Even then, she didn't find out whether her daughter would have a spot at the center until two weeks before she had to return from maternity leave.

    "The timing can be tricky," says Ponce, who now has two young daughters. "I was lucky to be able to take a full three months off, but I know many people don't have that flexibility."

    In addition to on-campus child care, Yale provides new and expectant parent employees with a "new parent packet" containing information about lactation rooms, back-up care and babysitting services as well as tips and advice on developing a flexible work schedule to ease the challenges of balancing work and family life.

  • Create a flexible workplace. Honaker says it is also worth asking your chair or colleagues about the possibility of restructuring your schedule to a four-day work week. "Having an extra day to be home with my kids allows me to have that stay-at-home-mom experience and do things like music classes and play dates," Honaker says. "In a lot of settings, you can still get benefits and good pay at that level."

    If reducing the work week is not an option, carve out flexibility in other ways, Ponce says. Despite working long hours and often devoting time in the evenings and on weekends to attend conferences or finish a report, Ponce visits her daughters' daycare center — located just a few blocks from her office — almost daily to nurse her 5-month-old or have lunch with her 2-year-old.

    "From day one, the center has welcomed me to be there anytime and to stop by at any point," Ponce says. "And I've been able to balance things because my colleagues know that I work hard and follow through on my commitments."

  • Get your children to sleep. Research shows that being able to get five uninterrupted hours of sleep can make a significant difference in an adult's level of functioning, says Honaker, who is also a pediatric sleep psychologist.

    Getting enough rest is important for children, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between the ages of 1 and 10 get between 10 and 13 hours of sleep each night. In addition, evidence suggests that young children who get less than 7.5 hours of sleep at night are at increased risk for being overweight and experiencing anxiety, depression and learning problems as adolescents (SLEEP, 2011).

    "Take proactive steps to get your kids sleeping long stretches as early as you can," she says. That may mean sleep training approaches, or alternating shifts with your partner to ensure each of you gets a good stretch of sleep each night. "It really does improve quality of life for the whole family."

  • Adjust your expectations. School psychologist Todd Savage, PhD, says that the decision to send his son, now 8 years old, to day care when the child was an infant took a tremendous amount of soul searching early on. Savage and his longtime partner, Bill, joined the ranks of parenthood via surrogacy, and decided Savage would quit his job to be a stay-at-home parent once their child was born.

    "But about six months into the pregnancy, I started having all these waves of anxiety about being a full-time parent and how it would affect my identity," says Savage, a professor of school psychology at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. "These pangs turned into panic after our son was born, and I knew there was no way I could abandon my emerging career without losing myself in the process. It hit me hard because I'd always prided myself on not always being traditional, but this situation made me realize how traditional I really am."

    In the end, however, he says day care turned out to be the best thing for his family — and his career.

    "As two men raising a child, my partner and I have no choice other than to find ways to try out and adopt various gender roles at home and at work," Savage says. "I cannot think of anything more potentially rewarding and exciting."

  • Adopt a non-cancellation policy. Molly Clark, PhD, director of health psychology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and mother of a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old, says she considers family activities as important as any client appointment or department meeting — and puts them on her calendar as such. She also frequently schedules what she calls "respite days," which she reserves for spending time with her kids or getting in some much-needed "me time," she says. Continuous communication with her partner and the use of a joint calendaring system also help everyone in her family keep track of what's going on each week and help ensure she has child-care coverage when she has to attend a late meeting or weekend conference.

  • • Take life in phases. When Aaron Harris, PhD, starts to feel overwhelmed by his responsibilities as both a father of six and a clinical health psychologist at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wichita, Kan., he sits down with his wife and reviews his priorities, weeding out activities that might be cluttering his ability to serve both roles well. Ponce agrees, noting that once she became a mother of two, she began to re-prioritize her work activities, stepping down from boards and committees that she felt were no longer professionally rewarding or crucial to her career at the moment.

    While many view the first several years in academia as a key window to building a successful career, it's also important to remember that, especially if your children are very young, you still have a long time to establish yourself professionally.

    "You don't need to get everything done in the first five to 10 years," Honaker says. "You have a lot of time to accomplish your goals, and that may get easier as children get older and move out of the home."

  • Rely on your support system. Working moms and dads also need to keep in mind that they're not alone when it comes to taking care of the kids. Communication with your partner is key, says Clark, who sits down with her husband weekly to figure out how to manage upcoming household activities and child-rearing. Damour and her husband, who works as a teacher, trade off child-care duties while the other spouse is working. If you and your partner are both working full time or if you're a single parent, it's important to devote time to researching child-care options and to talk with friends and family to find out what capacity they may have to help you out in a pinch.

    "Having quality child care is strongly linked to good outcomes for children, and it also helps parents enjoy working more," Honaker says.

  • Cut yourself some slack. Remind yourself often that you don't have to be an amazing parent and an ideal professional every day, says Honaker. Some days you will ace the work presentation, but feed your kid Cheetos for a snack. Other days you'll teach your child to tie his shoes, but turn in a grant proposal with a typo in the first paragraph.

    "Some days you just need to be good enough," says Honaker.
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.