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.”

Take daycare. The first year, their son was in a daycare that was midway between her 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 C-suite meetings, 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 daycare 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 daycare.

The Reasoners recently made another major financial decision and decided to move closer to Seattle. “We were spending two to 2½ hours traveling back and forth,” she says. “It was just too much. 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. “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.”

Time Crunch

Reasoner and other meeting 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 husbands or by themselves).

In the meeting industry, where women dominate (76 percent of Meeting Professionals International's members are women) and travel and long hours are part of the job description, the challenges are even tougher. No one knows that more than Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Maritz Travel Co., 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.”

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 childcare,” 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 meeting industry, even when things got tough. “I always tell people that we're adrenaline junkies, because the rush you get when everything works and comes together like it should is very addictive,” she says. “Besides, this industry has great people in it.”

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.

Time for a Change

While Duffy and Reasoner knew that they wanted to keep working when they had children — and Canning had to — for other women the choice isn't always so clear-cut. Sometimes it takes a job change to make the difference between a life of balance and one of chaos.

The chance to work at home was what lured Tara Bass into her position as regional manager for site-selection firm HelmsBriscoe. Not only is she balancing two young children and a full-time job, but she has to work around a husband whose position in the Air Force requires that the family move every four years or so. “I'd previously worked in the hotel industry, so it wouldn't have been a problem to find a new job every few years. But at HelmsBriscoe, I can do it all on my own terms, and I don't have to change jobs every time we move.”

That doesn't mean that working from home with a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old is the answer to all her problems. She often finds herself working from early morning until late at night. “I do my e-mails and administrative-type work when they're both here, and then focus on phone calls and building relationships when they're not in the house,” she says. “Sometimes I have to work after they go to bed — I just work until I get the job done.” On the plus side, she says, “I don't have to go into the boss's office every time I need some time off. I am able to set my own priorities, and they change from day to day.”

We found many mothers in this industry who have given up working full-time for someone else and started their own businesses. Jeanne Eury is one. She started The Lodestar Group, a Raleigh, N.C., company that produces meetings and expositions in the military and defense/security industries, after working for an airline and a CVB, among other employers.

At the airline, Eury says she was always either in the office or flying around the country. “There was no flexibility. My children were in school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. I was miserable — the most unhappy I've ever been as a parent.” She finally left and went to work for the Washington, D.C., Convention & Visitors Association, where she says there was “more understanding.” Then she moved back home to Raleigh and started her own business with four partners “because I wanted to be the master of my own destiny — and that included being able to spend more time with my kids” — two boys, now 14 and 17.

In her present job, she manages six symposiums, each with its own expo for 125 exhibitors and between 1,200 and 2,000 attendees. She still travels a lot — about 25 times a year — including to her own company's meetings.

Eury says that no matter how big her company gets, the plan is for everyone to continue to work from home. “When you own your own company, you can make the rules.” It also means she can help other working mothers while shoring up her own company. “We've been able to build a great web of women who don't want to work full time, but want to do some work,” she says of the part-time staff they use to prepare for shows.

She has no plans to cut back, even though her children are older now. As one of the founders of the company, she says, she truly loves making the big decisions. “It's so satisfying! I love that our company is striving to establish a newer — in our opinion, better — model for military/security/defense shows. I like that we have the ability to make a difference in helping new or small companies with emerging technologies have a forum to help our military. And I enjoy bringing shows to this state and having a positive economic impact on the hospitality industry here.”

Drawing Boundaries

Whether working for themselves like Eury, or telecommuting like Bass, 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 has also made her own rule that she doesn't work after 6 p.m. “unless it's absolutely imperative I do so.” To help with that, she says she rarely takes lunch. “I'm willing to give that up because I want to get home at a decent hour.” 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 evenings or the early morning.”

For those who work at home, it's the hardest to stay away from the work that's piling up in the other room. “It helps when my husband gives me a kick if I'm working too much. Sometimes I get lost in my work, and he'll come in and remind me that enough is enough,” says Kim Hester, who typically works three days in the office and two days from home in her position as director of sales — meetings and incentives for La Jolla, Calif. — based Travel Dynamics Group Inc. Knowing that the afternoon is her slump time, Hester often takes a break then to spend some time with the kids — a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son — when they come home from school.

In her position, she manages 50 meetings and incentives a year and is on the road about a quarter of the time. She views the opportunity to see the world as the top benefit of her job. “It would be a lot easier without the travel, but a lot less fun!”

The trade-offs as far as her work arrangement? “I decided a long time ago that I wanted it all — the family and the career,” she says. “So what did I give up? Sleep.

“I'm a night owl, so I often work till three or four in the morning,” she continues. “My most productive time is between about 11 p.m., when my body really wakes up, and four in the morning. I can send my e-mails then and talk to Europe and Asia live for international programs.”

Daily Trade-Offs

A recurring theme with the women we spoke with was the acceptance that sometimes something just has to give. For many, the first thing to let go of has been 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,” said one anonymous planner. Laura Wilkin, CMP, who was formerly a corporate planner and is now director of marketing and events for the California Independent Petroleum Association, has strict guidelines for herself around housework. “I don't vacuum twice a week, I don't cook gourmet meals, we get takeout more often that I'd like, and the boys don't always get to bed exactly when they should. But that's OK.”

Wilkin plans several meetings a year, most of which are small, one-day seminars or board meetings and require only one or two nights away from home. The most challenging is the annual meeting, which takes her away from her 5- and 7-year-old boys for six nights.

For Canning, the biggest trade-off has been her social life. “I put my kids first, and then my career. I was always trying to advance personally and professionally, but having fun socially … well, that always had to come last.”

“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 for a punch-in, punch-out day job. “I'm doing something every day that I really love to do,” she says. “I like building an event from the beginning and seeing it through 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.”

Bringing Home the Bacon

Despite recent press coverage everywhere from Forbes Online to The New York Times about how being married to a “career girl” can produce everything from a dirty house to divorce, many married American women are not only working in careers but actually bringing home more bacon than their husbands.

How do those women feel about the shift in roles?

“At the height of my career, my husband was teaching and I was bringing home six figures,” says Bonnie Wallsh, 61, chief strategist for 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. He was very secure, and our relationship wasn't about who was making the money.”

Joan Eisenstodt, 59, chief strategist for Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Washington, D.C., has also been the major breadwinner throughout her almost 10-year marriage, a role that is more important now, as her husband has not worked for almost a year. “I never used to talk about it,” she admits, “but in the past year, the more I open up and discuss it with other women, the more I hear from other women who are the key breadwinners.” While she says it had not been a source of tension, she notes that there's a little more tension now that she's the only one bringing in money. “I just didn't expect it,” she says. “Those of us who are baby boomers grew up with an expectation that men would make more than women.”

It's Nice to Be Retired

Nancy Holder is happy to be retired.

At the height of her career, she traveled more than 200 days a year heading up a meeting department at RJR Tobacco (now Reynolds America) while her children were in their teens.

“My management expected a lot from me, but at Reynolds, we were like a family, and the chairman at that time knew I was married and had kids, so he took that into consideration with what I was asked to do,” says Holder. “Today, it seems like owners and management are more focused on the bottom line than on people.”

One thing that hasn't changed is the guilt from being a working mother. “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. But again, the company was really good to me — they'd let me fly back if it was something really important.”

Holder is still working today, as a consultant for Westin & Associates, the Winston-Salem, N.C. — based meeting management and special events company that she founded with her sister after her retirement. “I still have all my contacts and still come into the office,” she says. “The nice thing is that I come in when I want, and I leave when I want.”

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