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The Balancing Act: Mothers balancing work/study and family life.

Updated on December 28, 2010


Becoming a mum for me has bought with it many joys, but it has also bought with it many challenges. One of those challenges has to be the balancing act that is achieving the right balance between family and work/study life. Through a recent University assignment I sought to find out how some mothers balanced the family and work/study life. The research was small scale and by no means was the results conclusive. Here, I have piled together some of most important themes to come from the research.



An Overview: Changes in family life

The challenges of integrating work and family life are part of everyday reality

for the majority of Australian working families. While the challenges may

vary depending on income, occupation, or stage in life, but these challenges do cut

across all socioeconomic levels and are felt directly by both women and men. As families

contribute more hours to the paid labour force, just to keep the bills and mortgage paid problems have intensified, bringing more challenges to families lives, more and more parents are having to struggle balancing work and family. In the past men’s role in the family was to be the bread winner while the woman’s role was to care for the children. However in this day and age things have changed, not only are men responsible for being the bread winner but they are also often expected to provide assistance with childrearing often changing nappies and helping out with household chores, while many women are entering the workforce after childbirth equally sharing the role of the breadwinner. The need for balancing has never been greater than it is today. There has been a considerable amount of research done on parents balancing work/family life; there is also a lot of work being done on making work places more family oriented.

According to recent research studies, Australia and indeed other economically developed nations are lagging behind in policy and institutional adjustments regarding families and work. While the roles of families and work have changed, public and private policy and governing policies regarding employment have severely lagged behind remaining in the past. Reflecting the image of a male breadwinner and a wife the homemaker, jobs are still designed as if workers have no family responsibilities. The culture and organization of paid work, domestic care work, and community organizations remain based upon the breadwinner-homemaker model. The new global world that we live in requires the availability of 24/7 services which creates a problem for families while policy and practice do not accommodate for this.

Today’s families are more varied in structure and makeup than ever before. There have been significant increases in the number of women entering the workforce and re-entering the workforce after childbirth. Many more children are living in dual-earner households than ever before. Far fewer families fit the old fashioned breadwinner, homemaker model. There is also an increase in the number of single-parent families. There are also other changes to the family structure; these include an increase in dispersed and mixed families- with “parents and stepparents in separate homes- and more same-sex and communal households” (Bailyn, Drago and Kochan, 2001 p. 11). Siblings are more scattered, living in separate geographic areas from each other and parents, while these elderly parents are put in the care business either living in nursing homes, hostels, retirement villages etc.

Because of these changes definitions of families and personal responsibility are broadened. They have broadened over the years and will continue to in the future as will family roles and responsibilities as children grow and parents age. The boundaries placed today should not be assumed for the future and people should be allowed more options for how they shape their families and meet their responsibilities for now and in the future. The aim of policy should be to allow people to make genuine adjustments to families over time including roles and responsibilities. “Policy should ensure comparable changes in the employment domain that make family and work roles complementary and economically viable” (Bailyn, Drago and Kochan, 2001 p. 13).

Results of the research:

I sought to find out through the research how some mothers balanced and juggled family, work or study life. With one partner in fulltime employment and the other partner who in these cases were the mothers that stayed home to raise their children, whilst either working, studying or both on a part-time basis. There were three interviews, and indeed I can say these mothers have been juggling and balancing their lives. 

By no means is this small research conclusive with its findings; however the following are just some themes that have risen out of the findings. All these themes contributed towards the main aim of the research, how mothers balance the work/study family life. It is my aim to elaborate on the themes in relation to other research and theories. The themes I will cover are: mothers that want to work or study to gain self fulfillment and reduce depression. Second theme; mothers wanting to be there for their families whilst working or studying. The third theme, the need for flexible work arrangements that suit mothers. It is also important to mention that all these themes do relate to each other.

  Firstly, mothers that want to work or study to gain self fulfillment and reduce depression. What came as a strong theme across all three interviews were the mothers desires to gain self fulfillment through either work or study, for example respondent ones reply when she was asked would she go back to her previous job; “no, no I don’t think so. Now that I have found this job, if if I hadn’t found my work at home job I probably would think that would be the only option, one day. But now that I have found this job its perfect”. Respondent two also showed extreme desire to study and enrich her knowledge which would enhance her prospectus for employment in the future. Her response to a question regarding satisfaction; “I think generally I am doing well and coping well. I mean I’ve got a happy two year old and I am doing well with uni, getting credit average”. Respondent three also showed a keen desire to study, as she has said; “uh I don’t think I have been as committed to my studying as I would like to have. But I really want to study but it’s just”.... etc. What has also become evident is that it is extremely difficult for mothers to keep up to date with work and study while looking after a family.

       Studies have shown that mothers involved in work increase their psychological well-being and their ability to parent, a study done on Low-wage maternal employment and parenting styles by Jackson, Bentler and Franke (2008), highlight the fact that employment and income have positive effects on mothers and their children. The research also found that personal problems and high levels of stress can hamper the ability of some mothers to secure meaningful employment. They believe that long working hours are not necessarily associated with negative outcomes, as working longer hour’s means higher pay and less financial strain. In their study most of the mothers had some education beyond high school, not necessarily tertiary education, but they worked fulltime and were still relatively poor (p. 275). This research suggested that policy makers should look to invest in providing poor single mothers some form of post high school education assistance so that they can achieve this.

        Moving on, the second theme; mothers wanting to be there for their families whilst working or studying. All three mothers balanced the roles between motherhood, relationships and employee/student; however the roles did conflict with each other at times. They did balance their lives somehow making sure there is time for family, partner, work and self.  Conflicts occur when there is a role overload, where the mother, for example, is expected to meet work or study deadlines, whilst having to cope with a child that has come down with a sudden illness and their partner is away working. For example respondent one says that her roles did come into conflict: “yeah sometimes it does, especially when she gets sick or something, and needs to take a day of school and I find I need to take time off work and I find myself working on the weekend when I didn’t rooster myself to work on weekends”. Respondent two felt that there is interference in her life all the time as she also had more roles to fulfil; “you see even though I live with my parents, people would think that things are easy for me.  But um you see it hasn’t been easy there is always something else that needs to be done, cooking, cleaning, washing or sometimes Sonya wants me to play with her you know”. Respondent three felt the pressure quite often; “definitely does interfere, yeah cause when you’ve got deadlines, like assessments and stuff you have to do it”. The roles they have to attend to need to be balanced in order for their lives to function.

In a recent essay that Professor Jody Heymann wrote with co-author Alison Earle (2004), titled Work, Family and Social Class, Earle and Heymann discuss in-depth parental needs and social class. They believe that it is important to understand how parents manage their family/work responsibilities in order to improve their well-being, particularly for poor parents. They believe that many of the problems faced by parents are common to all social classes. It is also important how parents combine work and family responsibilities as parental time plays an important role in children’s “cognitive, educational, and social development, and conversely that parental absence and loss of contact are detrimental” (p. 486). Through their research they exemplify that parental care is important to children’s physical and psychological well-being, sick children have shown to have shorter recovery periods when their parents have participated in their care. In one such research, “presence of parents has been shown to reduce hospital stays by 31 percent” (Earle and Heyamann, 2004 p. 486). When there is parental involvement in the care of sick children their anxiety levels are reduced. Simply if parents are available they can play an important role in easing a child’s psychological adjustment in dealing with a chronic illness. They also discuss the need for paid leave when family emergencies occur which is extremely likely when there are children and elderly people involved. For the mothers in this particular study, becoming the primary carer for their children is the reason why they left employment. Staying at home allowed them to be there for their families, which is why they have sought flexible working conditions that allowed them quality time with families.

                 Lets’ move onto the final theme, the need for flexible work arrangements which are suitable for mothers. The underlying reasons that the three mothers choose to become the primary carers for their children and leave work, was because they could not create a flexible arrangement with their former employers. However this has not stopped them in trying to pursue more flexible work arrangements and one that suits their lifestyle. Respondent one in particular felt that she may now have a great flexible arrangement in place; as she says; “my daughter goes to pre-school three days a week and that’s when I get most of the hours done. On the days she’s home I may just do only a couple of hours of work...... now that I have found this job (she will not go back to her old job), if if I hadn’t found my work at home job I probably would think that would be the only option, one day. But now that I have found this job its perfect”. Respondent two and three have chosen to study further whilst they are home and caring for their children. This choice is to assist them in gaining better chances in getting a more flexible position. But the pressures put on them by their educational institutions including the amount of time spent on studying can be difficult when one is trying to manage a family too.

    In a 2001 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), research on the work/family balance from a labour market point of view, looking at other OECD work on family-friendly policies and early childhood education and care. The main policy concern addressed in this paper was to encourage a higher participation of mothers into paid employment. Some of the main findings of the research include; employment rates for women and mothers have increased in almost all OECD countries over the past 10 years. They are the highest amongst the northern countries while being low in “southern European countries, Korea, Mexico and Turkey” (OECD Employment Outlook p. 132). Childcare and other unpaid household work are still unequally shared among couples, even when mothers are in full-time employment. There is some evidence of increasing involvement from fathers; however this may be offset by the increase in the proportion of single-parent families headed by women. Many firms have introduced family-friendly policies to comply with legal requirements, however only a few have introduced an adequate range of requirements. Employers in countries with the highest legal provisions are least likely to provide such requirements. In all countries the “likelihood of a family-friendly work environment increases with the size of the firm and the skills level of the employee, and is greater in the public sector” (OECD Employment Outlook p. 133). These are fairly accurate findings on what it really is like for families balancing the work/family life.

As this study has shown there is a great need for flexibility in work arrangement, this includes time flexibility so that parents can work hours they want to, secondly the availability of paid leave when family members become sick and someone needs to care for them.  Thirdly these flexibilities need to be made available in all jobs, so that socioeconomically disadvantaged families do not suffer.




Firstly, mothers desires to work or study in order to gain self fulfillment and reduce depression. Mothers should be encouraged to work or seek to further their studies as they feel they can, policies should look at providing financial incentives for mothers who begin working after having children it should also allow mothers to seek and further their educational attainment in order to work. The second theme that mothers desire to be there for their families whilst working or studying. It is recommended that work places allow parents to be there for their families when the needs arise, study institutions should be flexible towards parent responsibilities for example a child falling sick before a major assessment is due and the institution allows for an extension. The third theme, the need for flexible work arrangements. This includes time flexibility so that parents can work hours they want to. Secondly the availability of paid leave when family members become sick and someone needs to care for them.  Thirdly these flexibilities need to be made available in all jobs, so that socioeconomically disadvantaged families do not need to suffer.



1)      Bailyn Lotte, Robert Drago and Thomas Kochan (2001). Integrating Work and Family Life: A Holistic Report. Sloan Work-Family Policy Network Advisory Board, University of Massachusetts.

2)      Earle Alison and Jody Heymann (2004), “Work, Family and Social Class” In Brim, OG, Ryff, CD and Kessler RC (eds). How Healthy are we? A National Study of Well-Being at Midlife. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 485-513.

3)      Jackson Aurora, Peter Bentler and Todd Franks ( 2008). “Low-Wage Maternal Employment and Parenting Style” Social Work Vol. 53 No. 3. Pg. 267-278.

4)      Organisation for economic co-operation and development (OECD), (2001) Balancing work and family life: helping parents into paid employment. OECD.




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    • Zafirah Akbar profile imageAUTHOR

      Zafirah Akbar 

      7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      There is a lot more to this topic and is a very interesting area to research further on.


    • Abecedarian profile image


      7 years ago from These United States, Texas

      Very interesting topic. Great work.


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