Last week, I was reminded of a turning point in my early years of trying to integrate my family life with my professional life. The recent upheaval caused by the pandemic has highlighted the difficulty in creating a “work-life balance.” The optimum work life balance and how to accomplish it have been a common topic for years. The discussion has included robust debate concerning equal pay for men and women, why gender equality is good for men, improving health and wellness, affordable childcare, as well as naysayers who argue that there is no such thing as a work-life balance. The conversation often led to a discussion about the different generations that make up our workforce- like baby boomers who started the crazy notion that women could work outside the home and have a family. The Generation X latch key kids who grew up and filled their own children’s lives with multiple activities to occupy then while both parents worked and the millennials that had the audacity to ask… “Is that all there is…?” Millennials want more- more interesting jobs, preferably with companies with a conscience, and more leisure time as well. It has been argued that millennials will forgo higher income for a better lifestyle.
Watching TV and video now is a hoot. It seems everyone, from every profession imaginable, has children. Jimmy Fallon, nurses and doctors, firefighters, world renowned scientific experts, newscasters, politicians and CEO’s from around the world are telling their stories while reporting on the crisis or trying to carry on in spite of it. (Who knew Boris Johnson not only has coronavirus but is becoming a first time father at age 57?). Look closely at the images behind every great speaker, there are drawings colored by little people who are dependent- financially and emotionally- on the subject speaker. Who knew?
Which brings me back to my own story. I was at the end of my first year of law school and I had an 8-year-old and 4-year-old who had suffered through Hurricane Gloria and were waiting for me to finish a most taxing year as a “One L”. For my part, I felt a mix between exhilaration for the mere opportunity of going to law school and guilt about my kids’ sacrifice. When we finally came to the end of the year, I faced the last obstacle- a writing competition- which would determine whether I made Law Review.
At the time, I thought this was the most important gauge of my future success in the practice of law. This was the competition that would truly prove my worthiness – without Law Review- I would be nothing!
As I recall, we had five days to write a brief about an assigned topic, research, outline facts and issues, and make legal arguments with footnotes, known as “citations”, to statutes and cases. It was a grueling task and since everyone had the same assignment, you were competing against one another. For my part, I had to complete this assignment with an annoying 4-year-old at my side. “Mommy I’m hungry, Mommy I want to go to the park, read a book, take a bath” and so on. I’d take her down to my husband and with clenched teeth and an edge in my over-wrought voice: “Can’t you just help me this one time?” To be honest, he had been helping me all year long and he was a little fed up as well. By the end of the week, my brief was written and typed but I had a few hours left to do citations. It was crunch time and that kid found her way back to my room and was jumping on the bed. I lost it. I looked at her, I looked at the paper and back at her and the beautiful summer day- I threw the paper in the garbage and went to the park.
I’d like to tell you that I never looked back and went to the park as a free woman. Not true. I beat myself up emotionally for the rest of the summer. My failure to make Law Review stayed with me for a long time and in my lowest moments, served as confirmation of my unworthiness – right up to graduation- where I walked up the podium to receive my degree with the “annoying one” holding my hand and my newborn daughter (#3) in my arms.
I was reminded of this last week when an employee, a mom, called me completely overwhelmed. She told me that she wanted to work but it was just too much. I knew exactly what she was saying. Despite the passage of time, she felt the same way I felt in 1986. She was fighting the same balancing act and felt like she was about to tip over. I knew this was an important decision for her and she had the ability and the right to figure out if there was a way to balance these two responsibilities or if it was time to quit. Only she could make that decision.
As the boss who has experienced this balancing act firsthand, I know that if we want to keep experienced, capable and valuable employees, we cannot afford to ignore their needs at home as well as in the workplace. Personal life bleeds into work and work bleeds into personal life. This concept has never been so clear as it is today- just turn on the TV. Never before has the tension between work and home been so apparent to so many on such a large scale. This is a fork in the road for all of us.
Let’s face it, a lot of the people that run the world have little kids, dependent family members and personal responsibilities. We can’t deny that anymore. It is right in front of us, it has changed us. These personal responsibilities have contributed to a feeling of comradery- we are all in this together. If you are there saving my family member’s life, then the next question is: who is taking care of your family? Suddenly, it matters.
For employers who didn’t know if working from home was boon or a bust for productivity, it has now become a necessity. A recent article in Business News Daily stated that, according to one study, remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than office-based counterparts. This is baptism by fire. In addition, the crisis has made it abundantly clear that this arrangement is a two-way street. Employers have to be cognizant of employees’ other responsibilities and the employees need to be responsive to the needs of the business. This adds a new dimension to the work-life balancing act and what will happen when the crisis is over is still unknown. I personally think WFH will be more widely accepted and the rules of engagement better defined. For employers: after the memories of this world-wide pandemic start to fade, employees will forever remember how you treated them at crunch time.
For working parents, the remote solution may or may not be the answer. Some people report that working from home is hard enough; add the financial pressure to the responsibility of home schooling- some people may run, not walk, back to the workplace. I’ve heard some young people comment that “its really hard to raise kids” and express doubts about their ability to do so in the complex world in which we live. For my part, I’m happy to report that the annoying kid jumping on the bed made Law Review 20 years later. I’d say it’s worth it.
- Nancy Burner, Esq.