Experienced help for women balancing career and family

When Michele Basen had her first child six years ago, she recalls that ''there really weren't many women I could use as mentors'' to talk through the range of challenges that arise when mothers go back to work.

She clung to co-worker Rebecca Ashery, whose oldest child was then three, and together ''we read the books,'' says Ms. Ashery, ''though there really weren't many. And we found that we could make a lot more decisions ourselves simply by talking things through.''

Talking things through could describe the workshops they started giving to ''Parents With Careers'' - middle-class mothers who were learning to juggle home and work. The workshops have now expanded to the corporate level, they say, where they've discovered that nearly all working parents face the same set of quandaries.

Culling the experiences of those attending their workshops (which often, they say, turned into support groups for working mothers), they have turned out a book ''Parents With Careers'' (Acropolis, $6.95) full of charts and sheets to guide parents through everything from phoning potential child caretakers to getting a husband to do the laundry.

''Parents with careers have a long way to go,'' Ms. Basen admitted recently in an interview she and Ms. Ashery held with the Monitor in her contemporary home near Washington, D.C., ''but there are systems built in that help the working mother nowadays. Our county has a computerized list of day-care families , for example, and they can run off addresses of those available in your area by zipcodes.''

''Things are more relaxed,'' says Ms. Ashery, who uses paper plates when entertaining and wouldn't hesitate to ask friends to bring a dish to a dinner party - ''or else you'd never see your friends.''

She also points to things that indicate the working-parent phenomenon is getting more entrenched - such as longer hours for stores (''the grocery store is crowded at 7 a.m.'') and husbands ''spending more time with the children, though I still don't think they're picking up or doing chores.''

Employers still distrust working mothers and hesitate to hire them, she says, ''but there's a lot more unofficial flexibility going on, I think - people saying that, sure, you can take your work home today to be with a sick child, or spend your lunch hour at the child's school conference.''

Even so, a career woman's first child is still ''a shock,'' as Ms. Basen puts it. ''You think you can schedule the child into your life,'' she says, ''but you discover that you have to schedule your life around the child.''

The two women - with four children and one full-time and three part-time jobs between them - are veterans of the ''superwoman era,'' as they put it, who have learned how ''not to do it all'' with grace. Together, they bring a very realistic and practical approach to balancing career and family.

Here are highlights from their system:

* Child care. With ''literally no mentors,'' says Ms. Ashery, most women don't know how to interview or hire day-care workers. ''This is probably the most important thing you do for your child,'' says Ms. Basen, so don't be afraid to ask personal questions, check references, be specific with your questions and requests, and keep monitoring the situation your child winds up in. The amount of child care available may be a little larger today than when the two women first started looking, but ''the quality is still not very good. Be sure to have a backup list when the person you hire doesn't show up the first day - we hear that all the time,'' says Ms. Ashery.

* Errands. ''Working forces you to be efficient,'' says Ms. Ashery. You should spend no more than four hours a week doing errands, stick to stores whose layout and supplies you know and can use, and forget running across town to buy a bargain (''your time is worth more than the amount of money you save, usually''). Consolidate errands by doing grocery shopping once a week and stopping by the cleaners and hardware store on the same trip, or work them into your lunch hour or while commuting to work.

* Chores. ''Parents With Careers'' lists typical chores in a chart that lets you fill in who is responsible for what and how often the chores must be done. The book also advises working parents to delegate, delegate, cut down, and eliminate. ''Just working through the chart does a lot for families,'' Ms. Basen believes, ''because they can really see what they've been doing.'' And by charting which chores individual family members like and dislike, you can negotiate the reassigning of job responsibilities.

''We're not saying it should be 50-50,'' says Ms. Ashery, who also admits that few, if any, marriages wind up being 50-50. ''But the people in the family should feel comfortable about how much responsibility they're taking on.''

* Personal time. ''You've got to schedule it to get it,'' the authors say firmly,''and you've got to get it - if you don't take a break, sooner or later everything will fall apart. This is something you do for the family.''

Their idea of personal time is not ''spending an hour looking for a new coat, unless you really like shopping,'' says Ms. Ashery. Schedule in something you really like to do, ''even if it's only 20 minutes a week soaking in the tub - that will give you something to look forward to.''

* Volunteering. ''For better or for worse, you've made the decision to work, which means that you have very limited time,'' Ms. Ashery points out. If you must do volunteer work (and feel that the rewards you get from it outweigh the time you take from your family doing it), take on short, quick jobs that you can fit into your agenda.

If the activity is for your child's school or group, they recommend ''doing something that will be visible to the child'' to get the maximum benefit - baking cookies with him for the PTA, for example, or going on the school field trip instead of making phone calls for an organization at night after he's in bed.

* Single parents. These are the people with the least amount of help and the fewest resources for hiring extra help. The answer is to ''network - join a singles group, or find another mother at work or in your neighborhood whose kids are compatible with yours, and exchange children and chores,'' advises Ms. Ashery. Some parents are reluctant to do this, thinking they may end up getting the short end of the exchange, ''but those we've known who have done it say it's a lifesaver.''

* Career choices. At different times in your career - when your children are very young, for example, or when they're going through a bad stretch - it may help to put your career ''in a holding pattern,'' says Ms. Ashery. ''You do your job and keep building your resume, but you just don't take on any extra jobs at work when you have many extra responsibilities at home.''

''This is a legitimate cop-out,'' Ms. Ashery believes, that ''won't really hurt your career in the long run. We talk about career opportunities like they're once-in-a-lifetime things, but really, they come along more often.''

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