There seems to be a lot of discussion about balancing (optimizing? streamlining?) careers on this site. Rebecca has a post up, Mike weighed in from the nontraditional guy perspective, and Janet has her usual shiny two cents. Scicurious and DrugMonkey weighed in too. DM has a whole freakin' carnivale! I'm sure I'm missing people but I can only hyperlink so much without going nuts.
I'm going to weigh in about my personal experiences, since I too have a nontraditional career path in the academic world. Currently, I'm living with my wife and her kids. I moved here to be with them, which meant giving up on a research career which was on life support anyway (my postdoc did NOT go well, but that's another story for another day). My subsequent career path hasn't been as varied as Mike's, but as I had more free time on my hands when I moved in with my new family, I pretty much stepped into the "traditional" wifely supporting role. My spouse, you see, is a tenure-track academic who is in the final phase of the tenure process. So when I initially moved in I had no job, therefore I cooked and cleaned, did the yardwork, took the kids to school and their programs, and did all the normal supporting work. It went fine and I derived great satisfaction from it, but when it came time for me to find a job I felt pretty inadequate. We agreed that there would be a transition to equal house responsibilities as I tried to rebuild a career. Boy was that ever wrong.
I'm not the primary breadwinner, which I will admit is hard to accept since I was raised in a single-income "traditional" household; my ingrained perception is that the man has to at least pull his weight. I recognize, however, that things don't exactly work that way and am not threatened by my spouse being the sole income or the primary income (although I am extremely jealous since she has the job I want. But in a good way).
But work has been hard to come by due to my geographical constraints in a low population density area. I am currently working the adjunct circuit, that nether world between having an actual academic job and "you want fries with that?**" Salary is highly variable depending on what classes, if any, are available. Previously, I'd also worked as a research assistant while adjuncting and maintained a good, stable income and benefits, but that grant ran out so now I'm only teaching, and that is very inconsistent from one semester to the next.
I have a decent gig teaching Brain and Behavior on a regular basis at the local state U. This earns about 8 grand gross per semester (no benefits), and during the normal school year I can usually count on that as a base salary. It barely pays the bills. On top of that I've been able to add other biology courses at the local community college, about $900-1000 per semester hour. Community colleges are a great way to build a teaching resume but you put in more work for much less money. But, it sounds functional, right? Not always, damn you natural variability.
For instance, this summer I had to team teach one course with a graduate TA. So I got half my normal base "salary". That's it. Considering that during the summer we have to pay out the wazoo for kids' programs, this is not a good time to be barely employed. I could be a stay-at-home dad with them, but we also have projects around the house that need serious attention (such as tearing down and rebuilding the garage, which was sided in Masonite and is now water-logged and literally falling apart) but have to be done by us, since we can't afford a contractor. I can't really watch the kids effectively and do that at the same time (not to mention it's dangerous for the kids to be around that much construction), and also babysit the grad TA. Blah. I have found wonderful monetary conservation endeavors, however, such as making my own laundry soap.
This fall, however, is the exact opposite. I have Brain/Behavior, Human Bio, A&P, and now a last-minute offer for Research Methods. I could potentially be teaching 4 courses (one of which is a double section too) at 3 separate schools. But because I'm an adjunct, I'm pretty much second shift. All my classes but one are after 3 pm. 2 nights a week I will get home at 10 pm and have to teach again at 8:15 am, an hour away from where I live. 3 nights a week I don't even get to tuck my kids in bed, or see them off to school the next day. So now I'm in complete role reversal; half of the week I won't even be around to see my family or do chores; I have primary breadwinner commitments that don't translate into financial or career successes in the sense that my station is not advanced. Technically, yes, I'll be making bank for a few months. But there are no new salary benchmarks, no benefits, hours don't improve, no job security, no titles or privileges other than I get to log new courses on my CV and hope that the next time a teaching position opens, I'll have the magical right combination of experience for it. Every semester, I'm back at square one, or potentially back solely in the spousal supporting role.
So what I have discovered out of all this is that I can be happy as a career-minded man in the supporting role of a career-minded woman, with a family. It isn't easy, because I'm at a natural job-hunt disadvantage. But I've definitely learned that the threats don't come from her, they come from myself and my upbringing and it is my responsibility, as a dude, to fucking deal with it. I don't begrudge her because I have no reason to (my parents were open-minded enough to teach me that women can do all the shit men do, even though their situation was the straight-up Ozzie and Harriett model), and every reason to rejoice in being a part of her successes. Plus, I usually have the freedom to make most of the kids' events and be a stable part of their lives, but that is a whole different set of rewards for a different post.
Where does balance come in, then, for work and life? Balance is being the calm eye in the center of the storm as it rains destruction around you and everyone you love. That, too, is for another post.
**nothing against "you want fries with that", but since I spent so much time in pursuit of another career path I'd prefer to avoid that one unless I'm out of options.