Managing with Care: How to Make Your Career Work with Family Challenges

Note from the editor: One of my first posts on this blog 4 years ago (!!) was about flexibility and how much I appreciated the flexibility that Intel offered to me. Then I read this post from Jennifer and realized how flexibility isn’t just a benefit or nice-to-have for some people, but it’s necessary for them to manage their lives and careers. Jennifer, a working single mother of two, including a special needs child,  is one of those people. She is an instructional designer within Intel’s Information Technology organization who creates learning materials to help Intel employees use technology to do their jobs and has been with Intel for twenty years. Jennifer shares her story with tips on how to manage work/life needs and find what works best for you. 

A recent family portrait of Jennifer's family. The rose represents her husband, Kenny, who passed away 4 years ago (4 months after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer).

A recent family portrait of Jennifer’s family. The rose represents her husband, Kenny, who passed away 4 years ago (4 months after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer).

Every working parent knows the intensity of balancing work with family. Add a special needs child, chronically ill family member, elder care or other family challenge into the mix and you can move from “intense” to “insane” faster than you can say “Division of Developmental Disabilities” or “Cancer Treatment Centers of America”!

For most of my time at Intel I’ve been mom to a daughter with autism and severe seizure disorder (epilepsy), and I’ve seen my husband through end of life from cancer, all while trying to keep things normal for my typically developing son. Somehow, I’ve remained successful at my job despite the personal turmoil, reduced work hours, and constant distractions. How have I done it? I owe much of my success to the support from my management and team. In addition to that, let me share how I’ve approached my situation and how I worked to build the needed support.

Define your goals and how you can contribute

The foundation for everything is to know what is important to you and what types of job situations will make you successful. Within a year of Bethany’s autism diagnosis, I had changed my career direction. I moved from a fast-paced, “stretch” job back into a role that was more within my comfort zone. Due to the nature of Bethany’s care needs, I can be called away at any time, perhaps for a few hours, perhaps for days or even weeks, and so my job role needs to be able to accommodate that with minimal impact to the business.

I defined the type of job assignments where I could contribute and excel. The criteria have not changed in more than a dozen years, although my projects have been varied and challenging. I need assignments that:

  • Allow me to control or negotiate schedule
  • Are not routinely fast-turnaround or customer-responsive
  • Are appropriate for my grade level but can be covered by someone else if needed

Partner with your manager

Once I knew how I could best contribute to my organization, I enlisted the help of my manager and I continue to do so on a regular basis. Together we identify projects that will benefit the team but won’t provide exposure to unexpected absences. Without my manager’s understanding and support, I would quickly fail—and so would my project.

Like most everyone at Intel, I get new managers on a regular basis. To help with that, I created a few slides that help us get acquainted. I describe my skill set and unique value-add to the team and then explain the types of projects that are the best fit, with examples of good/not-so-good projects from real experience.

My manager and I also agree on a work schedule that meets both business and personal needs, giving me the flexibility to attend therapy, medical, school and legal appointments as needed, as well as to provide direct care for my daughter when she is particularly unwell or a caregiver cancels a shift. I have an ongoing family leave of absence that gives me job protection for the intermittent absences. I am away from work frequently but I also work in the evenings and I am responsive in off-business hours.

Manage expectations

This is basic business common sense, but given my flexible schedule, I find it helpful to be explicit about what I will deliver and when to meet my commitments. If I can’t make it to an 8 a.m. meeting, I let the meeting chair know when I will join and then I am there at that time, consistently. While my words are important, my actions are critical to give me credibility. I give frequent status updates to ensure deliverables are on track. When I join a new project team, I let the project manager and other key stakeholders know my personal situation, so they know what to expect. We can discuss concerns and work them out proactively. I don’t belabor my special circumstances and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. But I do want my team to be aware so we can work well together.

At times I have had to hold a difficult grounding conversation, because I would be interrupted by phone calls or texts from the school regarding seizures. These are priority messages that cannot wait, but they interrupt meetings and distract the team. It can be awkward for the team because they don’t want to appear insensitive yet we need to stay focused. To level set, I tell them that while serious, the situation is manageable. If I am at the meeting, then things are under control and I can be there; if they are not manageable, I will leave. Nothing further needs to be addressed. This frank conversation seems to reassure everyone and lets us do what Intel hired us to do: our work.

Be transparent but maintain your privacy

Each person’s need for privacy is different. I tend to be an open person and appreciate my coworkers’ interest or curiosity; I welcome the chance to share hard-won knowledge, or to offer support if someone has a similar circumstance. I clearly mark my personal out of office appointments on my calendar and my permissions are set so that anyone can see subject as well as free/busy. If there is an appointment I wish to keep truly private, I use the privacy feature in Outlook to shield the subject. I also liberally use my Lync status note, particularly if something unusual comes up. This is a great tool, for example, if I’m held up at the doctor’s, I can update the status note from my smartphone using Lync Mobile.

Avoid the comparison trap

If I have a career dream, it would be to arrive at work at 8 a.m., take an hour lunch where I could read a book or walk with a friend, and leave at 5 p.m. But I haven’t been able to have a day even remotely like that since 1999 and likely never will be. I’ve made difficult choices in my career and sadly let some opportunities pass me by. I see former peers move into positions or along paths that I may have pursued. It’s hard not to compare or wonder how things could have been different.

When I feel stymied or frustrated I just remind myself how, working my managers and colleagues, I have maximized what I can do. Each day I know I have contributed my best and kept my side of my contract with Intel. In return, Intel has offered me tremendous flexibility that has allowed me to be a successful working parent of a special needs child for more than a decade. Really, what is there that could possibly compare to that?

Thanks for letting me share my story. What’s your story, and what strategies have worked for you?

4 Responses to Managing with Care: How to Make Your Career Work with Family Challenges

  1. Diane Drude Hartfield says:

    So proud of my daughter and family, and forever grateful to Intel. This is the universe operating at its best.
    With love, MoM/Grandma Diane

  2. Angela Field says:

    Great article!! I appreciate you sharing your experience and the flexibility of Intel for their employees!! I struggle to achieve balance because I want to get it all done now so I jump in with both feet!! As a single mother, I must find balance and a company with the philosophy of family first!!

  3. Jennifer,

    Thank you for sharing this (Jennifer and Sejal). It’s very inspiring to see that you’ve been through some rough times and how you’re handling it and sharing things like this to help others too. I’m sure I’ll probably have rougher times ahead than I’ve had so far, and thinking of stories like yours will help during those time