Setting boundaries doesn't always come naturally to Mary Pat Cornett, CMP, managing director of meetings, conventions, and travel for the Alexandria, Va.; based American Diabetes Association. When she first went back to work as a meetings director for another association when her first child was 4 months old, she was very aware of how she might be perceived as a parent. “I gave 120 percent — if anything, I gave too much to work because I didn't want anyone to have the perception that I wasn't completely dedicated.” Still, she says she had to learn pretty early on to speak up for her needs. “I would be sitting in a meeting and it would be getting later and later, and I knew I'd need to leave to pick up my children. The later it got, the more nervous and unfocused I'd get,” she says. “I learned I had to speak up right at the beginning and say, for example, that I needed to leave at 4:30. I used to feel a little guilty on both sides — at work and at home — but I am trying very hard to let go of that. If not, it will drive me crazy.”

Her two children are now 12 and 16, and she's a single parent. Along the way, she's learned that careful planning at home, as well as at work, can make all the difference. “For our activities at home, I use the same skills that I do in meeting planning,” she laughs. “The invention of the Palm Pilot was amazing. For the first time, I could put all my notes in one place.”

But she often feels as if she has put in a full day before she even gets to work. “There are all the things you need to do in the morning to get the kids out the door, and then there are the surprises, like discovering that one of the kids is sick and can't go to school.” As a director, Cornett says, “There's no way to slack on the job. I get paid to run a department and to get things done. But sometimes you just have to be out of the office if your kid is sick. So I started bringing work home and often work on weekends or before the kids wake up.”

On the plus side, she's worked for associations that offer a certain amount of flexibility in the workday. “I work about 50 hours a week, but sometimes the exact times can shift. I have a fair amount of leeway if I need to come in late or leave early.” And she's equally willing to give that kind of support to others. “The more I can support people who have dual roles, the more I find they're committed to their job,” she says. Overall, she thinks the “world has gotten more friendly to working parents than [it was] when my children were younger.”

But that doesn't necessarily make balance any easier. “The workload is the main thing,” she says. “We're all busy, busy, busy, and it feels like we're working 24 hours a day.”

More, More, More

Cornett is not alone in her quest to figure out how to do it all. According to Catalyst, a 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 work week of 91 hours. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that working mothers are squarely caught in the middle between trying to build a career and do right by their families — and themselves.

While most agree that the workplace has become much more family-friendly, employees are often expected to give 110 percent. Families are also busier than ever, with children participating in group activities at unprecedented rates and a seemingly endless supply of new articles and books on what parents must do if they don't want to raise a generation of dismal failures.

In an industry in which women dominate (76 percent of Meeting Professionals International members are women), the idea of balancing work and personal life becomes critical. “We still have a long way to go to support women, but in this industry, as in many others, we're seeing employers investing money and being creative in finding ways to help women who get to a certain level and decide to have families,” says Christine Duffy. And she knows firsthand what she's talking about, given her roles as president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co., St. Louis, chairwoman of MPI in 2005, and mother of two. “It's a constant juggle,” she says, “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.”

Despite an easier acceptance of working mothers, “As I look back on my career and at working mothers trying to juggle it all today, if anything, it looks like it's harder now,” says Nancy Holder, who at 76 can take stock of a career that has spanned more than 50 years, including the position as the first woman executive at what was then RJR Tobacco (eventually Reynolds America) in the 1970s when her own children were 11 and 15. “It just seems like I see younger people burning out in their efforts to do everything.”

Holder, who traveled more than 200 days a year heading up the meetings department, recognizes that the perception of working women on the whole has changed for the better. “Today I don't think anyone perceives a working mother as anyone but a professional who's doing her job,” she says. “I don't know how I broke through the glass ceiling, except that I never really knew there was one. But when I was first promoted, there was absolutely some jealousy, and it was more from the other women than the men.”

One thing that hasn't changed is the guilt of working mothers. “I was harder on myself than anyone else,” says Holder. “If I had to miss a school play or something, I'd beat myself up.”

Life's Changes

While we can't control everything, many women today are taking an active role in shaping the workplace to allow them to focus on both career and family. Although Cheryl Russell's children are now grown, she made a decision when they were younger that she would work in the Maryland suburb where she lived rather than travel into Washington, D.C., where there were more associations and more opportunities. “Even knowing that I probably could have been paid more if I worked in D.C., it was always important to me to be close to home and to not have a major commute,” says Russell, a CAE who is director of convention and meetings for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Md.

The commute was also an issue for Laura Wilkin, CMP, director of marketing and events for the Sacramento-based California Independent Petroleum Association. “I was laid off from a corporate position and worked outside the meetings industry for about a year,” she says, “but I was miserable. When the opportunity came up here, I jumped on it, but I had some concerns about a longer commute than I was used to. I mentioned it during the interview, and the idea of a family-friendly workplace came up. My boss said that if I needed to leave at 4:30 instead of 5 in order to pick up my son on time, that was fine — I just needed to get the job done.” Not only did Wilkin take the job, but she plans to stay. “That kind of response has made me tremendously loyal to this association,” she says. “I could make more elsewhere, but I couldn't have this environment and this flexibility.”

That's especially true in comparison to her former position as a meeting planner for a large corporation. “I think that there was a lot less flexibility in the corporate world — there were certain rules and standards that applied to everyone.”

Ann Easterling, CAE, found flexibility in her workplace, but only after she asked for it. She was working for the Texas Society for Professional Engineers in Austin when her daughter was in first grade, and, “We discovered that the after-school teacher had stopped being as attentive as we would have liked her to be,” says Easterling. “So I went to TSPE and asked if I could telecommute from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and they agreed. I went into work early — at 7:30 — so that I could take time to pick the kids up from school, give them a snack, talk for a bit, and then finish up my work from home. It was before the days of the Internet, so I was still carrying disks and zip drives with me, but it was doable. I also had my schedule published so that everyone knew when I was in the office.”

Easterling says it worked out so well with TSPE that such an arrangement became part of her “employment criteria.” She says, “I would state it right up front in the interview, and if it wasn't OK, I would say thanks and bye.” Two years ago, she took it a step further and started her own business in Austin as an independent consultant specializing in management to small associations. “It was an economic risk, but because the children were older by then [18 and 15 years old], I felt comfortable taking that risk. I wish I'd had the courage to do it earlier, but it never occurred to us in the late '80s and early '90s — we put our children in day care and I went to work. That's just what people did.”

Drawing Boundaries

Whether working from home or commuting to the office, a key to balance is knowing that sometimes something just has to give. For many planners, the first thing to go is the ideal of a perfectly maintained home. “I learned when my kids were little that my aim at home was to be comfortable, but House Beautiful was going to have to knock on someone else's door,” says one planner. Wilkin notes that one of the ways she stays sane is to let her house be less than perfect: “I don't vacuum twice a week, I don't cook gourmet meals, we get takeout more often than I'd like, and the boys don't always get to bed exactly when they should. But that's all OK — it's all part of the trade-offs.”

Sometimes it can be harder to do that in the office, though — the work has to get done. “A to-do list is like the laundry,” says Christine Galvin. “Even when you think it's all done, you're still wearing clothes, and so there's still more to do.” And she notes that “e-mail is a blessing and a curse. It can keep you connected 24 hours a day if you let it.”

In her role as director of the Ottawa County, Ohio, United Way, Galvin has found a way to set boundaries both for herself and those with whom she works. “We have a lot of meetings with the volunteers and I have an agreement with them that those meetings will be during the workday; I think that night meetings infringe on family life. My volunteers work for corporations, and while it's OK to have events at night, meetings need to happen during the day so that people aren't pulled away from their families. We're an organization that is supposed to be dedicated to putting families first, so that's really important to us.”

Those who work at home may have more flexibility, but the boundaries can be hard to enforce. “I have to put in approximately eight hours a day, and it's sometimes hard because I have two people at home who want me to go places with them and do things with them,” says Denise McGinn, CAE, president, Association Guidance, an association management company based in East Lansing, Mich., referring to her 8-year-old daughter, who was home during the summer, and her husband, who retired at the beginning of July. “I need to stay committed to shutting the door so I can do what I need to.” McGinn has found that especially difficult as she and her husband adjust to his recent retirement. “He'll burst into the office, all excited about something, or want to spend more time on the golf course with me,” she says.

On the flip side, sometimes she finds it's hard to stop working with her office at home. “It's easy to find myself working from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. after my daughter is in bed,” she says. Still, she says it's easier now than when she was raising her two sons, who are now 21 and 24. “In those days, I worked full-time-plus in an office,” she says, “and I was lucky that most of my bosses back then understood that if you have children, there were sometimes things you had to do. I could leave for two hours if I needed to, but I still needed to make up the time, so I'd end up working in the evenings or on the weekends. And it was a lot harder then since we didn't have computers.”

And if you can't pull the time from your work life and you can't take it from your children, just where does it come from? According to Wilkin, there's little place left to squeeze that time from right now. “I used to take voice lessons and was part of a competitive chorus. But after I had kids, the priorities changed. There just aren't enough hours in the day to do everything. Right now, I need to focus on my family and my work — there will be plenty of time to sing later in my life.”

Similarly, for Chris Canning, CMP, a San Diego — based meetings consultant, the “biggest thing that suffered was my social life. I put my kids first and then my career. I was always trying to advance personally and professionally, but socially … well, that always had to come last.”

The Right Support

At some point, every working mother needs the help of others along the way, be it a husband or partner, parents, neighbors, paid help, or even the kids themselves. “When I first started working at home, my parents would come help,” says Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, chief strategist for Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, a meeting management consulting and training firm in Charlotte, N.C. “Sometimes [they'd] bring friends to do things like stuff envelopes. My husband and kids would do what they could — my daughter was weaned on customer support. It was actually a wonderful way for the family to be together.” Most of all, though, Wallsh says her support came from her husband: “He supported me, encouraged me, figured out how long I could work without bringing in money — he was a true partner.”

A single mother, Canning also put her kids to work. “When they were little, they'd go to events with me and they thought it was fun. Eventually they wanted to be paid. I was working for a woman who had kids too, so we came up with the idea that the kids could pick up trash for money.”

And McGinn thinks her daughter is getting invaluable experience by being exposed to the industry. “She helps put out thank-you gifts or pack up the office or put up signs,” she says. “But she also gets to meet CEOs and talk with entertainers and watch sound checks — it's all a great experience for her, whether she goes into this industry or not.” And now that her husband is retired, she has another set of hands to help out. “He's free labor if I need it — he's been doing a lot of phone calls for me and some financial work and can help with running errands, and putting up signs.” Even before his retirement, he went in early and was out by 2:30, says McGinn, “so I could schedule meetings for between 2:30 and 5, knowing that he'd be here and I didn't need to find someone to take care of my daughter. Everything's based around putting her first but not losing sight of the clients that need to be served.”

Bringing Home the Bacon

Despite a recent Forbes online article that being married to a “career girl” can result in everything from a dirty house to poor health for the husband to infidelity, more than one-third of married American women are not only working but are bringing home more money than their husbands. Another study this summer claimed that women, even those “with feminist views,” want their husbands to make more than they do. But are these assertions true?

“At the height of my career, I was making more money than my husband,” says 61-year-old Bonnie Wallsh, CMP, chief strategist, Bonnie Wallsh Associates LLC, Charlotte, N.C. “He had no problem with it — he didn't have that kind of ego — and I had no problem with it. Never once in our 36 years of marriage did we argue about money, though we did, of course, argue about other things!”

Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Washington, D.C., has also been the major breadwinner throughout her almost 10-year marriage, a role that became more important when her husband was out of work for 13 months. “I never used to talk about it,” she admits, “but in the past year, the more I discuss it with other women, the more I hear from other women who are the key breadwinners.” She says that being the primary breadwinner had not been a source of tension: “I like working and I've always made more, while it's never been the main focus of his life, and we've both always been happy to have the advantages that my money brings.” But she does note that there was a little more tension when she was the only one bringing in money. “It doesn't bother me, but I didn't expect it,” the 59-year-old Eisenstodt says. “For those of us who are boomers, we grew up with a culture that had an expectation that men would make more than women.”

Denise McGinn, CAE, president, Association Guidance, East Lansing, Mich., and her husband are still adjusting to a recent shift in their financial roles after her husband's retirement this summer. “He has a pension and he received a buyout, so it wasn't a huge change immediately,” she says, “but he's now making less than he used to and for the first time I'm bringing in more money than him. It's been a little hard for him to adjust to, but he's getting used to it.”

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