Helping Working Parents Take Stock of Competing Pressures and Priorities

By Dinorah Meyer

Actively pursuing a career while raising children, especially in our 24/7 working world, often means taking on a juggling act of responsibilities, priorities, and identities. Engaging fully in both arenas can be logistically and emotionally challenging. In 2012, I worked with a series of clients either hoping to have a child within the coming year or already parenting young children. They were each deeply invested in their careers as well as in being devoted parents, and worried about how pregnancy and parenthood might negatively affect their job prospects and long-term career options. They were also concerned about how their work lives would impede their ability to parent in an ideal way.



Research, presentations and personal experience as a mother led to the development of a conceptual framework for exploring working parents’ competing priorities, influences, and pressures (see pdf link below). Career counselors can utilize the Work-Life Priority Exploration Model to help individuals gain awareness of how they divide their time and examine the values and factors at play in their decisions. The model is intended to help clients make positive changes and claim a renewed sense of ownership over their lives.

Work Life Priority Exploration Model

The Work-Life Priority Exploration Model has two main parts and several sets of corresponding questions counselors can ask clients to help them recognize and discuss problem areas. A central “donut” contains the Quadrants of Potential Fulfillment, four areas of life where a person tends to invest time and energy:

  • Professional – paid work/career

  • Family – immediate and extended family

  • Personal – hobbies, projects, self-care

  • Community/Spiritual – volunteer, religious, or spiritual activities.


Sample questions to get an initial picture of a client’s division of time include: How active are you in each of these quadrants, and in what ways? How active would you like to be in each of them, and how?


The second part of the model is made up of five Levels of Influence/Pressure in Decision-Making that may impact how a person spends time and effort. A counselor may explore all five or choose a subset to focus on, depending on the client’s needs. Here is an overview of the levels, moving outward from the individual to the larger culture or society:


Level 1: Internal Desires, Pressures, and Sense of Identity. This level encompasses motivation or drive that doesn’t feel influenced by outside factors – an inner sense of purpose.

Sample questions: What did you imagine your life would be like at this point? How is your life similar to and different from what you hoped/expected?


Level 2: Family Influences and Expectations (adapted from R.C. Chope, Family Matters: The Influence of the Family in Career Decision Making, 2006). This level has two facets: hopes and wishes conveyed explicitly or implicitly by parents and extended family (“family of origin”), and those that emerge from one’s spouse/partner, in-laws, and children (“current/created family”).

Sample questions related to “family of origin”: What kinds of expectations did your family of origin have for you regarding career, family, and other endeavors? How supportive has your family been of your goals and priorities?

Sample questions related to “current/created family”: What is the current division of labor in your household? What are your spouse/partner’s (or extended family’s) expectations or wishes for how you spend your time? How does your child feel about the quantity and quality of time they spend with you?


Level 3: Peer Influences and Judgment. Individuals may find themselves comparing their career and family involvement and accomplishments with how they see others functioning, and can be sensitive to the attitudes they perceive among contemporaries.

Sample questions: What attitudes do you perceive among peers (friends, neighbors, coworkers) about where your priorities should be with respect to the Quadrants of Potential Fulfillment? How much do your peers’ opinions influence your decisions?


Level 4: Employer Expectations, Policies, and Work Culture. Some workplace policies are a matter of law (e.g., FMLA), while other aspects of office culture can be established and enforced by an organization’s leadership.

Sample questions: How family-friendly is your workplace as reflected in policies around flex time, telecommuting, etc.? What attitudes have you perceived from supervisors or management about work and family priorities?


Level 5: Larger Social/Cultural Pressures and Assumptions. Mainstream U.S. culture places a high value on professional advancement; however, there is no widely accepted alternative paradigm that gives family concerns equal (or greater) weight. Family members often feel they need to make a choice between being a full-fledged careerist or stay-at-home parent (with mothers more readily “allowed” the latter option than fathers).

Sample questions: What assumptions do you believe mainstream U.S. society makes about what women and men can hope to achieve at work? What do you think the media (news, TV, film, radio) promotes as ideal behavior for men and women with respect to work and family roles?


Along with asking questions to raise clients’ awareness of how they spend time and what factors may be influencing their choices, counselors can elicit from them specific changes they would like to make. They can then coach individuals in making adjustments in their lives, whether by cultivating self-acceptance, communicating better with others or making structural shifts (e.g., changing employers). The Work-Life Priority Exploration Model can be useful in helping overburdened working parents seek greater equilibrium and satisfaction in all spheres of their lives.




Meyer, D. (2014, June). Helping working mothers address career and family dilemmas and identity conflicts: A new model. Paper presented at the National Career Development Association Conference, Long Beach, California.


Meyer, D., & Chope, R. (2013, July). Work and family identities, conflicts, and spillover. Paper presented at the National Career Development Association Conference, Boston, Massachusetts.


Slaughter, A. M. (2012). Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/



Dinorah MeyeDinorah Meyer, MS, NCC is a career counselor with 18 years’ experience in the field.  She has been counseling adults in diverse phases of life and professional development since 1999 in private practice at the Career & Personal Development Institute in San Francisco, students and alumni at UC Berkeley’s Career Center since 2004, and spouses and partners of UC Berkeley postdocs and visiting scholars since May 2014. She has a Master of Science in Counseling from San Francisco State University. Dinorah can be reached at dinorah@berkeley.edu.

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Jim Peacock   on Thursday 10/02/2014 at 09:30 AM

This is a timely article for me as I am putting together a conference presentation on 'finding meaning in work' and this work-life balance issue is so much a part of the discussion.

I like how the 5 levels really breaks down what you can explore with clients.

Thanks Dinorah.

Andrea St Jean   on Thursday 10/02/2014 at 10:26 AM

Hi Dinorah -
This was a wonderful and intelligent article. Thanks for sharing your wisdom - and your model. And the Atlantic article was fabulous. Thanks for being a team player.
Andrea St Jean

Mary Ann Looby   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 01:58 PM

Dinorah - You bring up very important issues in career development today. Everyone has challenges managing the constant stream of information in the workplace, often making boundaries "fuzzy". Having a family is a huge balancing act, you've created a great model to analyze and understand the pressures and challenges working parents face. Thanks for your insightful article!

Dinorah Meyer   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 03:09 PM

Thank you each for your positive feedback -- I appreciate it and am glad you find the article and model relevant and useful!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.