Career vs. Family: Ways to Make It Work

UPDATED: April 24, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 24, 2011

We always speak well of the good ol’ days because, well, they were good. But even if they’d been just mildly adequate, we can probably all agree that today’s family and work dynamic is more complicated than ever. Even the language is more complicated: You’re not “busy”; you’re “overscheduled.” There are no “breadwinners.” Now we’re “dual income spouses.” Maybe “kids” are still “kids,” if 6-year-olds computer-savvy enough to hack into the Department of Defense can be classified as such.

So what happened? We became more driven—by both necessity and desire. We want the great career. We want the great kids. We want the great lifestyle. And we wanted it all the day before yesterday. The result is a society full of career-oriented married folks who fight every day to carve out some semblance of balance between work and family. We’re not very good at it. But we want to get better.

Al Roker and Deborah Roberts know all about this. He’s a co-host of NBC’s TODAY. She’s a journalist and anchor for ABC News. They also have three children, ages 8, 11 and 23. And SUCCESS managed to get them together in Roker’s Manhattan office long enough to find out how they attack the career-marriage dilemma.

“Our situation is probably no different than most working couples out there,” Roker says. “It’s a lot of work to stay connected with your kids, your spouse. Never shoot for perfection. Try for a high percentage, because it’s not always going to work.”

Roberts agrees. “We don’t have this completely under control.” An example: “Al was on the road all last week, and I had to go out of town to San Diego on Sunday when he got back in town. I got back on Monday, so that was the first time we’ve seen each other in a week. We try not to let that happen too often, but it’s challenging.”

They do have some tricks, however, to achieving some sense of balance between work and family, and after 15 years together, they speak from well-earned experience.

1. Prioritize childcare.

This should be your immediate hard-target search.

Whether a professional nanny or a responsible teen, a babysitter opens up time for any couple. And one great source for referrals is your local daycare center—between the employees or the other parents, you should be able to find someone good.

Also, don’t be afraid to bring someone extra along on trips who can help with childcare. Roker and Roberts were gearing up for a family vacation the week after this interview, and they already had a plan in the works. Roker says, “We’re taking my nephew along, and he’s kind of a nanny. …”

“Though he doesn’t know that yet,” Roberts replies.

They chuckle at this, and Roker says, “No, but he is great with our children, and we can get away and have a spa treatment or bike together and carve out a little vacation time during our vacation.”

2. Stay connected.

Whether you’re racking up big office hours or traveling for business, talk with your family as often as you can. The goal is not just to hear someone’s voice, but to actually be connected to what everyone is doing and have a direct sense of each other’s lives.

“BlackBerrys and cell phones are beautiful things,” Roberts says. “Although there are times when I have a little attitude when Al calls because the kids happen to be doing something and things are crazy. But then we try to make time to talk later that day or evening, chat with the kids and stay connected.” Roberts looks at her husband. “Wouldn’t you say?”

Roker pauses. Then: “Yes, dear! That’s the secret right there, saying ‘Yes, dear!’ ”

“That is not the secret,” Roberts replies.

3. Be opportunistic.

Find time with each other, even if it means stealing some. And it doesn’t have to be romantic, says Roberts. For example, instead of talking separately, the couple got together in Roker’s office for this interview. “It’s a chance for us to spend some time together,” she says. The secret is knowing everyone’s schedules, thinking ahead and being creative.

“Another trick we have discovered is that, every now and again, we’ll book a hotel room here in the city,” she says. “We’ll have dinner and spend the night away from home. That has just been miraculous.”

“Even though our 11-year-old is like, ‘Why would you waste good money when you already have a home here and now you get a hotel room?’ ” Roker says. “And of course I want to say, ‘To get away from you guys!’ But we don’t say that.”

4. Study advanced chemistry.

Always remember what brought you together in the first place, and play off of that. For Roker and Roberts, they’re opposites bound together by many common values and goals. “Where Deborah is softer with the kids, I may be more strict,” Roker says. “I learned from her to be a little more authoritative about work, where Deborah learned from me to be a little looser.”

“Whereas I like going to the ballet and theater sometimes,” she replies.

“And I was really excited about The A-Team movie,” he says.

“I keep telling Al not to tell anyone about being excited about The A-Team movie.”

“I have all five seasons on DVD.”

“Oh no… oh no. …”

“ ‘In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. …’ ”

“OK, please stop. We get it, we get it.”

“ ‘…They promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. They survive today as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem and no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.’

” All right, all right,” Roberts finally moans. “But seriously, we were very fortunate. There was a spark from the very beginning. Even though we can be opposites, we’re united in so many other things. We both come from very strong family backgrounds, larger families, and that family spirit is important to us. And I think there’s still chemistry there after 15 years. …”

“Yes, dear.” Then Roker laughs. “I don’t give her a hard time about the Merchant Ivory films. Thankfully she’s not into Sex and the City.”

5. Establish a new value system for sacrifice.

We all have the same 24 hours each day, and it’s impossible to fit everything in. The key is to redefine your values as a couple and a family—rather than as individuals—then be prepared to say no to things that don’t fit your priorities.

“More and more we’re starting to give up time with friends,” Roberts says. “We’re trimming down events.”

“We still do the charity events that are important to us, and we’re very fortunate to get invited to a lot of stuff,” Roker says. “But our favorite word has become ‘no.’ I’d just as soon be at home with the kids and Deborah than be out at an event.”

“We also give up sleep,” Roberts says. “Let’s face it, there are certainly times when I would much rather tuck myself in early at 9 o’clock, but I want to spend some time with Al. Or we get up early on a Saturday morning and go out for a run. That’s the sacrifice and it’s not easy. I wouldn’t say we’re perfect at it, either. But we try to be mindful all the time of things we need to do to preserve our time together as a couple and a family.”

“ ‘No’ is not hard,” Roker says. “People tend to give too much information when they say it. Just say, ‘Sorry, we just can’t make it.’ ”

6. Mix pleasure with business.

If you travel a lot for work, bring your family along every once in a while, especially if it’s a nice destination. This October, Roberts has invited Roker along for The Women’s Conference 2010 in Long Beach, Calif., hosted by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver.

“I’ve gone to this every year except for last year, when we had a family issue with one of the kids,” Roberts says. “It’s always been my little weekend getaway. I’m such an ardent fan, supporter and admirer of Maria. I love what she’s done with this conference. I come away from it every year feeling so full, excited, encouraged and intrigued. Al has never done it, so this it the first time we’re going to do it together. It’ll be interesting. So Al is sort of barging in this time, but I gave him permission.”

“Maria asked Deborah if it was OK to ask me,” Roker says.

“I had to give it some thought,” Roberts says.

7. Cut yourself some slack.

Roberts says it best: “We’re all running around trying to get everything together, trying to make it work, but sometimes things aren’t working the way they should, perfectly. So you have to forgive yourself and say, ‘We’re doing the best we can here, and sometimes it just doesn’t work or we get it wrong.’ Consequently, our Christmas card last year was really a late New Year’s card. Which is fine. People still got to hear from us, and it was nice.”

Roker smiles. “If she could just extend that forgiveness to her husband…”