Cover Story

Six years ago, Kristin Addison-Brown, PhD, was in the middle of her neuropsychology fellowship when her son, Isaac, was born. From the beginning, he challenged her sleep and her sanity. Due to serious gastrointestinal distress, he screamed constantly and had frequent bouts of projectile vomiting. For nine months, Addison-Brown visited physicians who insisted it was "just colic" and prescribed her antidepressants. And that wasn't all. Adding to her stress, a close friend committed suicide and a tornado struck her neighborhood.

During that time, the words of a graduate school professor echoed in her mind. "He said a really good recipe for an anxiety disorder was a situation that is neither predictable nor controllable," she says. "We had both of those."

It took a while to adjust to these curveballs, but today, her family is on a much better course. Isaac, now 6, is healthy and happy after receiving the proper diagnoses (celiac disease and eosinophilic esophagitis) and eating a controlled diet. Addison-Brown has successfully transitioned from a job at a medical center to her own private neuropsychology practice in Jonesboro, Arkansas. And she and her husband are learning to balance child care, work life and couple time, intentionally exercising, cooking and reading together—not to mention tending a small orchard and raising their own chickens.

"I'm good now, but it was a really long process," says Addison-Brown, who credits active coping skills and support from friends, family and her faith community with helping her get back on track.

The transition from graduate school to career and family isn't always this dramatic. Still, for most psychology students and early career psychologists, it is a major adjustment. Besides the added responsibilities, these obligations come with more psychological and role-related gender issues. For instance, women in heterosexual relationships still shoulder a greater share of household duties and feel more family-related stress than men, though that is starting to change, according to a 50-year international meta-analysis by University of Oxford sociologists Evrim Altintas, PhD, and Oriel Sullivan, PhD (Demographic Research, Vol. 35, Article 16, 2016).

What's more, these issues are happening within a changing cultural landscape: Millennials of both genders are more interested in the quality of their work life, including family-work balance, than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers—they're even willing to take a significant pay cut for it, finds a 2016 survey by Fidelity Investments.

How can students and early career professionals handle this new life phase with more grace and less stress? Here is some advice from the research and early career navigators who have been there:

1. Map out your work
For grad students and early career psychologists with children, the importance of good academic or career planning cannot be overestimated, says Michelle B. Moore, PsyD, assistant professor at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. When she recently took the job of internship training director, she knew she'd need to do extra planning to accommodate her expanded responsibilities and family time with her husband and two young boys. So, she chatted with the former training director about when training responsibilities were heaviest and when they were lightest, then "mentally made myself a spreadsheet of what the year will look like," she says.

That type of forethought is essential if you're in academia, are seeking tenure and have a family or plan to start one, adds Bryn Harris, PhD, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver. Such planning should include educating yourself about your employer's leave policies, creating a career plan that accommodates work and family, even trying to plan pregnancies around your teaching or research schedule. This legwork is especially important for women: Studies show that women with children are much more likely to drop off the tenure track than male colleagues, according to research by University of California, Berkeley professor Mary Ann Mason, PhD, and colleagues.

2. Plan at home, too
Specifically mapping out the ingredients of family life can waylay potential conflicts and promote more harmony at home, says Lyndsay N. Jenkins, PhD, who starts a faculty position at Florida State University this fall after five years at Eastern Illinois University. Discussing work schedules—who can do what, when and how—greatly facilitates work-family balance, she says. That may be especially important for heterosexual couples: University of Illinois assistant professor Brian G. Ogolsky, PhD, and colleagues found that when women do more household chores than men—particularly when they believe the work should be divided equally—they are less happy in their marriages than women married to men who share duties equally (Sex Roles, Vol. 70, Nos. 7/8, 2014).

In Jenkins's case, she and her husband decided to divide child care and family activities in ways that matched their schedules and energies, with Jenkins taking the morning shift—getting the kids up and dressed and off to school—and her husband managing after school by picking up the kids, helping them with homework and getting dinner started.

"Just knowing I didn't have to think about the afternoon details has been really helpful," she says.

As simple as it sounds, meal planning can also facilitate family flow, Jenkins adds. She spends a few hours each Sunday preparing meals for the week, so healthy meals are already made or can be quickly assembled. "That's been a real game changer in the last year or so," she says.

3. Use your training
When Addison-Brown was searching for solutions to her son's health challenges, she learned to deploy the "active coping" techniques she learned about in her grad school training.

Dr. Addison-Brown says her own struggles to find equanimity help her work better with her clients."My coping strategy was to research the heck out of Isaac's symptoms, and that gave me a bit more control and predictability," she says. By the time she found an expert who understood what was going on, she was armed with information that aided their communication.

In Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, private practitioner Jesse Matthews, PsyD, employs the cognitive-behavioral techniques he uses with clients to reframe his self-employment as an opportunity for a flexible, autonomous lifestyle versus a stressful grind. 

"Instead of thinking about how much money I'm not making, I try to think about how fortunate I am to be able to take time off when I need to," he says. That refurbished view helps him appreciate his ability to take vacations and attend his sons' school, concert and sporting events with less anxiety.

Other psychologists practice mindfulness to foster greater connection and peace, both at work and home—a strategy shown to confer benefits in both arenas.

A study by Kendra Campbell, PhD, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and colleagues shows that parents who intentionally practice mindfulness are more attuned and responsive to their children's needs because they experience less inner stress overall (Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2017). Meanwhile, a meta-analysis by Pepperdine University assistant professor Darren J. Good, PhD, and colleagues in the Journal of Management (Vol. 42, No. 1, 2015), found that including a mindfulness orientation as part of corporate culture improved employees' focus, stress­management abilities and teamwork.

Amanda Rios, PsyD, co-owner of a Chicago-based group practice, says she combats the guilt that can arise when juggling work and family by trying to be present in both settings. That means fully attending to clients' concerns in the office, and actively engaging with her 2-year-old daughter at home.

"Even if we spend five minutes singing together or having a dance party—if I'm really in it, she'll feel that," she says. "Those are the kinds of things she'll remember: the time we did this hilarious thing together."

4. Be a better communicator
Even with psychology training, good partner communication doesn't happen magically. It requires, among other ingredients, trial, error and compromise, says Matthews. Early in his marriage, he says, "my wife and I probably conferred with each other less and made a lot more unilateral decisions." As scheduling and personal conflicts arose, they learned to work better as a team, something he now emphasizes in his work with adults and couples who face similar issues.

"We found that being direct about our preferences and ideas is key," whether that involves parenting, schooling and careers, or family interactions and social lives, he says.

Partner communication includes communicating practical needs, says Rios, who notes that many of her heterosexual female clients still don't ask their husbands for help with aspects of child care and running the household. Reasons include worry that they'll create conflict by asking for help, as well as latent perceptions that men are "under-functioners" when it comes to organizing family life, Rios says.

These dynamics can be mitigated by educating women on how to express caring and respect for what their partners bring to the table, says Rios, who does precisely such work in her practice. When women give this kind of feedback, "it's much easier for partners to feel they're in it together—that they have mutual expectations for sharing the family workload and that they are there to support one other," she says.

Family-balance communication extends to children, too, Rios adds. She makes a point of chatting with her young daughter about her work and why she does it. "She knows I have a job and that I have to go there," Rios says. "And that's something I want to instill in her—that it's important to do work that you love, and to be dedicated to it."

5. Know your boundaries
Clint Eastwood's fictional alter ego Dirty Harry is famous for growling "A man's gotta know his limitations." That goes for women, too. Many students and early career psychologists need to learn the art of letting go of activities that are bogging down work or family.

When Moore had her second son, she decided to stop seeing patients late in the evening and to forgo chairing a volunteer committee. "I've always been someone who goes above and beyond job expectations," she says. "Now I probably still go above, but I don't put as much pressure on myself to take on as much."

Likewise, it's important to address subtle psychological tendencies that can get in the way of saying no, such as wanting to please others and saving face, Jenkins adds. At one point, she chose to regularly leave work at 4 p.m. so she could get home by 5 p.m.—early enough to enjoy her kids before bed.

But she felt guilty when she saw other people still at work. "I wanted people to view me as, ‘Oh, she's always working; look how productive she is.' And that still bothers me a little," she says. "But overall, I think I'm much happier when I can be home and know that I can get a couple of hours with the kids every night."

6. Let good enough be enough
In a related vein, it may be necessary to eschew perfectionism, at least temporarily, says fourth-year University of Massachusetts Boston graduate student Darren Freeman-Coppadge. When he and his husband decided to adopt a baby boy in March 2016, the couple wasn't prepared for the baby's health problems, which included stomach distress, eczema and asthma. After seeing eight specialists and experiencing serious marital strain, Freeman-Coppadge knew something had to give: "I had to let go of the idea that things were going to be perfect and great," he says. "I had to let myself be a good-enough parent, a good-enough husband, a good-enough psychologist."

While relinquishing the urge to do everything at his highest level hasn't been easy, it helps to keep in mind that the current chaos won't last forever, Freeman-Coppadge adds.

"The way I cope with [the stress of juggling school, marriage and child-rearing] is to recognize that everything is temporary," he says. In fact, the couple's son is already doing better healthwise and is growing in ways that are rewarding and fun, and Freeman-Coppadge and his husband are experiencing less stress as a result.

7. Take care of yourself
It can be hard to fit exercise and other forms of self-care into your routine when you're responsible for two large, competing worlds. But self-care can foster good work-life balance, Jenkins says. When she didn't take time for exercise and healthy eating, for instance, her energy was low and she wasn't as productive.

Dr. Amanda Rios finds balance by remembering to be fully present whenever she has time for leisure with her husband, Aaron, and daughter, Olivia.Her experience is backed by plenty of research: One large-scale employee survey by Brigham Young University professor Ray M. Merrill, PhD, and colleagues, for instance, found that employees who reported healthy eating habits were 25 percent more likely to have high job performance ratings than peers who reported unhealthy eating habits, while those who reported regular exercise were 15 percent more likely to have high ratings than peers who were overweight or obese (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol. 55, No. 1, 2013).

Now Jenkins goes to bed earlier, gets up at 5 a.m., exercises and showers before her daughters wake up. "That's been really helpful." 

Moore, meanwhile, takes a minute to breathe and center herself after parking her car and before heading into her office. "When I'm able to do that, I don't get as overwhelmed by the small things," she says.

8. Ask for and offer help
The adage "It takes a village to raise a child" applies to psychologists and their families as much as anyone. During her difficult years with her son Isaac's health, Addison-Brown says she relied on members of her faith community who pitched in.

"They would come in and take care of a screaming, vomiting baby, so we could get a break. And someone invited us to their home for Christmas," she says. "Those little pieces of kindness and support were so important."

You can also be proactive—and creative—about getting the help you need, Rios notes.

Dr. Lyndsay N. Jenkins and her husband, Jackson, divvy up child care to maintain balance. Lyndsay gets their three children— Reghan, Reese and Raelyn—off to school while Jackson picks them up each day and starts dinner.For example, she and her husband exchange babysitting duties with a nearby couple who has a child—an arrangement they made when they realized they were paying too much for babysitting. When their friends want to go out in the evening, Rios or her husband babysit their friends' son at his home so they can put him to bed; the other stays at home with their daughter. In turn, when they want to go out, their friends do the same for them. If it's during the daytime, the kids may come to one house or the other, which gives them a chance to play together. And if a family celebration or important outing is taking place while their friends' son is in their care, he comes, too. 

"We're almost like second parents to him—there's always a place for him," says Rios.

9. Pay it forward
Finally, good balance means thanking those who have helped you find it, Moore believes. "I talk a lot with my trainees about taking a moment to reflect" on the richness of psychology training and how they can use that gift to help others. 

"I very much appreciate the people who have mentored me and who continue to mentor me," she says. "It feels rewarding to give back to others in the same way."

Meanwhile, Addison-Brown shares with others what she's learned from her son's diagnosis and, with her husband, volunteers for a local food pantry and two disaster-relief organizations.

Her own road to finding better balance has enhanced her clinical abilities as well, Addison-Brown adds. In particular, it has given her more patience with anxious clients who seek answers to their concerns.

"I've learned how to just listen to their story, knowing how important it is to let them be the expert on what is going on," she says. "And I can take it from there. Together, we can work to figure out what we need to do to help them the best." 

Additional reading

Do Babies Matter? Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower
Mason, M.A., Wolfinger, N.H., & Goulden, M., 2013

For Female Scientists, There's No Good Time to Have Children
N.H. Wolfinger, The Atlantic, July 29, 2013

Self-care resources from the APA Practice Organization and search for "self-care"