Sure, Krista Reasoner knew life would change when her son, Noah, was born. She had watched family and friends and co-workers have kids, and they had always seemed to adjust — eventually.

But in the two years since Noah's birth, life for the 31-year-old global marketing manager for Seattle-based GE Healthcare has just gotten harder, not easier. “It's really been an ongoing struggle to balance my work and my life properly,” she says. “My husband and I have had to make some major decisions based on where we work and what we do and where we want to go, professionally and personally.”

Reasoner and other meetings industry executives are far from alone in their struggle to stay sane while balancing work and family. According to Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory organization on women's issues, the average working mother reports only 54 minutes of personal time a day. While personal time has been decreasing, work hours have been increasing, with the average dual-income couple reporting a combined 91 hours of work a week. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that working mothers are caught between trying to build or maintain a career and to do right by their families (let alone spend a little time with their spouses or by themselves).

In the meetings industry, where women dominate (76 percent of Meeting Professionals International's members are women) and travel and long hours are part of the job, the challenges are even tougher. No one knows that more than pharmaceutical meetings industry expert Christine Duffy. “It's a constant juggle,” says Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co. and a mother of two, “and everything needs to be prioritized. Sometimes it's more difficult for women, who are so involved in details, to let go and realize we can't control everything.”

Day-Care Dilemmas

Take day care. The first year, Reasoners' son was in a day-care center that was midway between Krista's office in downtown Seattle and her home, which was about an hour outside of the city. “It seemed to make sense at the time,” she says, “but we discovered that we were actually creating more stress in our lives. We needed to leave work by a certain time to be able to pick him up, so our work days were shortened, and it felt like everything was always out of balance.” With a position that entails planning four to eight meetings a year, from small customer advisory board meetings to larger conferences, it wasn't always easy for her to cut the day short.

About a year ago, the couple decided to move their son to a day-care center in Reasoner's office building. “It gives me more time with him while we're in the car and more time at my job,” she says. But that change meant a huge trade-off — it costs almost twice as much as her previous day care.

The Reasoners recently made another major financial decision and decided to move closer to Seattle. “We were spending two to two and a half hours traveling back and forth,” she says. “Now it's about 15 minutes each way.”

In between all the changes, Reasoner was promoted when IDX Systems was purchased by GE Healthcare and went through a reorganization in January 2006. “At least now, as a manager, I have a little more flexibility to work at home if my child is ill, for example,” she says. “And I make my own decisions about which travel is necessary and which isn't.” But she still travels an average of once a month, and one of her meetings requires her to be away from home for 10 days.

“If I didn't plan meetings as part of my job, I suppose it would make life easier on my husband and family,” she says. “Nathan travels much more than I do, so he has to factor in my travel schedule with his own, which can be very challenging, especially when our commitments overlap.”

Through Noah, Krista and Nathan have learned that there are countless situations that they cannot influence or prepare for. “I don't think people without children can really understand that there are some things you just can't control. When you have a baby, it might take three hours to get out of the house in the morning — he might throw up or have a tantrum, and you just have to deal with those things. But I can control how I make up the work and make sure everything gets done.”

Lopsided Workload

A big part of the picture is how much partners are willing to share in the everyday work of running the household and caring for the children. While most of the planners we spoke with said their husbands actively share parenting duties, many admitted that when it comes to managing the household, their husbands help with things, rather than fully share the workload. “The balance is 80/20,” says one planner who didn't want her name attached to that observation. “Outside is his responsibility, and inside is mine. But outside is once a week, and inside is, well, all the time.”

Reasoner says Nathan is “fabulous with sharing child care,” but agrees that “things are a little lopsided at home. He does most of the cooking, but I find that I do more of the cleaning and general taking care of the household.”

That's not unusual — but most women believe that things are getting better. “On the positive side, if you compare it to 20 years ago, I think men are much more willing to take care of children and help run the household,” says Duffy, whose own husband has been a stay-at-home dad for several years now.

For 54-year-old Cris Canning, CMP, who entered this industry as a single mom 20 years ago planning primarily local corporate events such as company picnics, it was another story altogether: Her children were her right hand. “They were small at the time and thought it was great fun at first to go with me on my weekend rounds to check on client events. I just asked them to blend in and never call me mommy in front of the client. The novelty wore off after a few summers,” she jokes. The benefit, she says, is that she didn't have to travel.

As her kids got older, she even put them to work on events. “My daughter could tap a keg by age 15,” she says. She is now 31 and a lawyer. “My son can honestly say (and does) that at 28, he has 20 years of industry experience.”

She never considered leaving the meetings industry, even when things got tough. Instead, Canning started Hospitality Ink, a public relations and marketing communications consultancy specializing in the hospitality industry, based in San Diego. She is also an online teacher of entertainment and event marketing for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is writing a book on marketing meetings and events.

Blurred Boundaries

Whether working for themselves like Canning or going into an office each day like Reasoner, most women agree they have trouble drawing the line between their work and family lives.

“Corporations do things like give you laptops with the underlying thought being that you can work anytime or anyplace,” says Reasoner. “I take my laptop home with me every night. You never know what the next day will bring — if your child will be sick or if something will come up. But I try not to work nights or weekends unless I'm in one of my crunch times. You have to set some boundaries, or you'll just be working all the time.”

She also doesn't work after 6 p.m. “unless it's absolutely imperative.” To help with that, she says she rarely takes lunch. Still, she and her husband have an agreement that “if we really have to work at home, we do. Right before an event, it's not unusual for me to work at home in the evening or in the early morning.”

For those who work at home, one of the hardest things is staying away from the work piling up on their desks. “Sometimes I get lost in my work, and my husband will come in and remind me that enough is enough,” Kim Hester says. In her position as director of sales-meetings and incentives, for La Jolla, Calif.-based Travel Dynamics Group Inc., which handles a number of pharmaceutical and biotech clients, Hester manages 50 meetings and incentives a year and is on the road about a quarter of the time. She typically works three days in the office and two days from home. When she is home, knowing that the afternoon is her slump time, Hester often takes a break to spend some time with the kids — a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son — when they come home from school.

The trade-offs? “I decided a long time ago that I wanted it all — the family and the career,” Hester says. “So what did I give up? Sleep. “I'm a night owl, so I often work till 3 or 4 in the morning,” she continues. “I can send my e-mails then and talk to Europe and Asia live for international programs.”

A recurring theme with working mothers is the acceptance that something just has to give. For many, the first thing they let go of is keeping a perfectly maintained home. For others it's sleep or a social life. “It's always a push and a pull,” concludes Reasoner. “It's not always 50/50. Sometimes it's 70 percent work and 30 percent family; then it flips around and might be 30 percent work and 70 percent family. It won't always be perfect, and every day is different.”

But like her peers, she wouldn't trade her position. “I'm doing something every day that I love to do,” she says. “I like building an event from the beginning to the end; I like the ability to be creative, to wear different hats and to have something different to do each day. And I have a husband and family who support my aspirations — even if it's a little more challenging for the family.”

Focus on Flexibility

Options are opening up for working mothers as companies offer choices such as flexible hours, job sharing, telecommuting, and part-time work, and as they adopt sick-leave policies to recognize parents' needs.

For example, Abbott Labs has a formal policy that allows employees to take sick days to care for an ill child. For employees with older children, the company holds a Summer Camp Fair and a “'tweens” program called “Summer of Service.”

Site selection firm HelmsBriscoe has an online Moms Group, “where we can discuss how to make a home office effective or how to balance our work and families or different career strategies,” says Tara Bass, regional manager at HelmsBriscoe, based in Omaha, Neb. “The company has seen a need for all of us to connect.”

Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co., and mother of two, emphasizes that such benefits aren't just a matter of accommodation. “The more flexibility companies can provide, the more we can retain the talent that we're trying to draw to the meetings industry. It's not just in this industry that companies are investing money and getting creative trying to keep women who get to a certain level and are torn between balancing their family life and careers. But it's even more demanding in fields such as ours with demands for travel.”