Young couples or single parents juggling work responsibilities and child-rearing needs face an enormous challenge. And when those parents are high-level techies dealing with 10- to 12-hour days, the challenge only gets greater, as clocking out early too frequently could cost them their jobs.

In a recent column, I explored the serious obstacles female technologists and IT leaders face today in building careers in technology. This week’s column tackles an equally serious issue: balancing work and family.

Dealing with the angst
It’s no secret that managing work and family priorities is stressful, especially if you want to do both well. How can you make priority decisions when each has its own importance level? And how do you cope with the guilt of leaving children with a nanny or in a daycare program?

Simply, can it be done? The answer is yes, according to Amy Zuckerman, coauthor of Tech Trending: A Visionary Guide to Controlling Your Technology Future. Zuckerman, and coauthor Lawrence Alter, president of Minneapolis-based career management firm The Arthur Group, believe balance can be achieved but only with some serious modifications in attitude and lifestyle.

Zuckerman knows firsthand about the angst of working while raising a small child. Divorced when her daughter was just nine months old, Zuckerman remained a single parent until her daughter turned five. Like most parents thrust into the role, she was unprepared for single parenting and the overwhelming responsibility.

“Frankly, I was scared because I had to reshape my entire life, which meant planning, sacrifice, and prioritizing my obligations,” she explained, adding that she was surprised to find bosses willing to make concessions for working parents.

But there are and will be bumps all along the way. One high-ranking female IT manager at a Fortune 1000 Chicago communications company (who requested anonymity) was on a fast-track career when she decided to stay home to care for her children.

“Senior management tolerated my maternity leaves,” she recalled. “But the fact that I was a single parent was meaningless. When I asked for concessions, such as leaving early one day a week or working from home one afternoon a week, they said there was no way I could do my job and not be in the office all the time.”

She interpreted management’s message as “If you don’t play by the corporate rules, you’ll never get the director’s promotion you’re counting on or the vice president’s job after it.” In short, her career would be permanently stalled.

A tough challenge for couples as well
It’s equally hard for married working couples to find a middle ground between work and family. The hurdle is determining whose job is essentially more important and whose career can withstand some slowdown, as one parent usually assumes the bulk of the child-rearing responsibility.

No matter how good a couple’s intentions may be, one parent, usually the mother, takes on the role of primary caretaker. Yet it doesn’t have to be a career death knell, Zuckerman pointed out.

“That doesn’t mean stopping your career,” she said, “but it does mean making sacrifices. No matter how competent you think you are, no parent can build a career and raise a child and do each one well.”

The first priority has to be the child and family life, according to Alter and Zuckerman. They offer the following suggestions to help manage both work and child-rearing duties.

  • Work out a plan of responsibilities for each parent focusing on each person’s respective areas of strength.
  • If married, both spouses should be willing to assume the home obligations of the other partner when he or she is working.
  • Explore the possibility of working opposite shifts that would then allow one parent to be available at any given time.
  • Investigate working from home if it’s an option your employer would consider. (This sounds good, but lately it’s in the fantasy realm. Since the economy nose-dived, most bosses have nixed telecommuting.)

I’d be lying if I said there is a panacean solution for managing careers and family. It’s especially hard, not to mention nerve-wracking, at the onset and for the next decade or so. It can be a test of your sanity—as you likely can count on outright chaos leaving for work every day.

But, in time, the balance does come into play, as you find workable scenarios for juggling it all. Things may not always go perfectly, but a balance between career and family can be achieved if you work hard at it.

How have you solved the work-and-family juggling act?

Do you have any tips or suggestions for fellow members? Send them in or start a discussion below.