Managing The Primary Dilemma: The Working Mother 

Hall’s realization that her desire to both work and be physically present for her daughter caused her to revise her plans as a working mother.

Managing the Primary Dilemma: The Working Mother  - Lioness MagazineWhen you had your first child, did you find returning to work to be a struggle? As a working mother, is it difficult to balance your parenting obligations with your working life? Do you find yourself struggling to understand how best to handle your dual roles?

When Lynn Hall of New Jersey found herself in the same position, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Hall, a marketing executive for 18 years, first faced this conflict when she returned to work after the birth of her first child. Her daughter was in daycare at Hall’s job, but when her daughter was sick, it was up to Hall to stay home with her. Hall’s husband also worked a demanding job, but with a longer commute and frequent required travel. When her daughter was sick on the day that Hall had to give an important presentation at work, she discovered that in her obligation as the primary day-to-day parent, she was facing a significant problem – the Primary Dilemma.

The Primary Dilemma refers to the conflict that the working, “primary” parent faces in trying to balance their work and parenting obligations. Hall’s realization that her desire to both work and be physically present for her daughter caused her to revise her plans as a working mother. She determined that she needed to find an employer closer to home that offered a flexible working schedule, which she eventually did.  

After having her fourth child, Hall decided to investigate the idea of the Primary Dilemma further. She wanted to survey other mothers to see what kinds of conflicts they faced when returning to the workforce, with the ultimate goal of being able to help women plan for and understand the process of returning to work as a parent.

Beginning in 2009, Hall conducted an electronic survey of working mothers. “I began with a list of people within my own connection of contacts and asked them to push it on to their next set of contacts. In total, I’ve surveyed about 300 different people right now. The survey is posted on the Primary Dilemma website and on Facebook, and I think that continuing to add to that body of information is important,” she explained.

Hall put her experience in market analytics to use and analyzed the survey results herself. She said that the largest surprise in the data was its consistency. “The consistency of the responses was particularly interesting; it ended up informing what I categorized as the Five Working-Mother Methods. The choices and constraints that [the respondents] schematically continued to reference, and the way that they identified themselves within their families or within the workplace – the consistency of the implications of the choices we’re making was surprising,” she said.

The five methods include:

  • The Workable – A primary career and/or wage earner
  • The Equalizer – Fully engaged in both work and parenting
  • The Fully Loaded – A single parent
  • Obliged – The primary physical parent who works because a second income is required
  • Parentess – The primary physical parent who elects to work

Hall compiled information about the Primary Dilemma to help women facing the conflict of work and motherhood. “The goal is to inform working women on how to be more aware of the choices they’re making, and to appreciate the fact that they’re never going to feel entirely in balance,” she said. “Balance is a very elusive goal, and we’ve all been socialized to seek it. The Primary Dilemma is trying to get women to a place of understanding their own choices and how they can optimize their personal and professional successes without some of the angst that some women go through.

“I think it resonates very strongly,” Hall said of the project’s reception. “Women feel like they hear themselves in the conversation. For some women, it creates a level of frustration, not with the content, but with the reality. There’s a lot of talk right now concerning how working mothers often forego their own ambition. Everyone can be ambitious, but there are still realities among women that working and motherhood will create a dynamic that women just have to live and make the best of. Many women wish there was an easy solution, and the Primary Dilemma doesn’t have that easy solution. What it does offer are resources – based on where you’re at in your profiling, there are different ways you should infrastructure your childcare and your work environment. The Primary Dilemma gives you lots of guidance in that way.”

Hall offers group workshops and individual coaching and consulting, all of which have been highly successful. “I often see that the Primary Dilemma gets people to better childcare solutions very quickly,” she said. “I see women making choices about how they have career conversations, and how they make career or job selection. I’ve even had people tell me that the Primary Dilemma has influenced how many children they’ve decided to have. It enables people who are earlier on in being working parents to envision the implications of the choices that they’re making.”

The Primary Dilemma study is ongoing, and Hall states that the research will continue. In the future she hopes to apply the idea of the Primary Dilemma to a topic beyond motherhood. Hall states that there are aspects of working motherhood and parenthood that she’s continuing to develop more fully in the Primary Dilemma.

Hall encourages all mothers to find a sense of contentment. “Our society encourages a sense of discontentment,” she stated. “We’re not in balance, and we haven’t achieved our career goals – we’re taught to always work toward something more. Be content with where you’re at in the moment.”

If you’re in search of that sense of balance and contentment, visit the Primary Dilemma’s website at

paigePaige Cerulli is a freelance writer, grant writer, certified equine massage therapist, and amateur equine photographer. Writing specialties include equine topics, website maintenance, blog development and maintenance, social media maintenance, grant writing, and creative writing. Previous article and photography publications include Massachusetts Horse Magazine, Above the Rail Magazine, Animal Life,,, The Stable Woman Gazette, and Dirt Road Daughters Magazine.

Originally published in May 2013 Lioness

Photo courtesy of Army Medicine [FLICKR]

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