When I was pregnant with my first child, a woman lawyer a generation ahead of me gave me what was intended as helpful advice: “If you’re going to work after you have a baby, you need to separate the two parts of your life. When you’re at work, you’re at work. When you’re home, you’re home.” Not yet knowing anything about actually being a working mom, I thought that sounded like a good approach.
Here’s the thing, though. You can’t check your parenting role at the office door. Kids get sick, and schools have snow days. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lawyer mom in possession of a busy schedule will be in want of a backup childcare plan, and the child will most certainly wake up with a fever. Babies in daycare get ear infections and weird rashes or projectile vomit. Toddlers bite their friends faces and stick plastic beads up their noses. School aged kids have field trips, and holiday luncheons, and Halloween parades. There are a million occasions where your mom skills are needed during the work day.
Then, there’s the conflict between the work day and the school day. According to Forbes, the modern American work day - the 9 to 5 - was established by Henry Ford in 1926, and remains the gold standard today (of course, lawyers work longer hours - on average 50 hours per week). Yet, school dismissal is typically between 2:30 and 3:30. While school-aged children have roughly 14 weeks off per year, the average vacation policy for working adults is three weeks. So who takes care of kids when school is closed but work is open?
According to historians, the 10-month school calendar originated in a more agrarian society to accommodate planting schedules. This calendar was replicated in urban communities, and the 12-week summer vacation became culturally entrenched in American society. Most communities also have a week off in the spring and 1-2 weeks off around the winter holidays. When you factor in federal holidays (when public offices are closed, but many private business remain open), that adds up to a minimum of 14 weeks. Some areas are moving toward year-round school, but there is no consistent alignment with school and work schedules.
The U.S. lacks a cohesive system for child care for working parents (which are most parents - less than 20% of American households have a stay-at-home parent). For the most part, parents are on their own to figure it out - cobbling together daycare, aftercare, nannies, sitters, and family members to help care for children. That’s just the logistical challenge - cost is a critical factor as well. Recent media coverage has focused on the lack of sustainable child care in the private sector - care givers are underpaid, and many parents who do manage to find a slot can barely afford to pay the cost.
In the legal field, many working parents are in a position to pay for child care. However, that doesn’t eliminate logistical challenges and the overwhelming stress of juggling personal and professional responsibilities - not to mention the feelings of guilt (which I talk about here), disappointment, or regret from missing out on quality parenting time, school events, and even milestones. I wrote my new book, Mom’s A Lawyer, in part in response to a study by the American Bar Association reporting on extreme levels of stress and burnout among lawyer moms. A significant percentage of women lawyers leave their jobs due to family responsibilities, and another 30% consider doing so. While accessible and affordable child care is a critical need for many American parents, it’s a bandaid more than a permanent solution.
So…what is the solution? As radical as it sounds, I believe that work needs to accommodate family. Children aren’t a logistical problem to be solved, and working parents can’t be expected to isolate their professional lives from their families. Families deserve quality time together and a parent can’t (and shouldn’t) be made to choose between earning a living and spending meaningful time parenting. I recognize that some fields will require unique solutions. Many industries are not limited to a standard work day. Employers in those industries - the health care, service, hospitality, and retail fields, for example - may need to be creative with work shifts, and families may need look for more creative scheduling solutions. However, many professional jobs, like law, should largely be able to fit into a full-length school day. It’s simply not healthy or necessary for a parent to work 10 to 12 hours a day and miss out on significant parenting time. What if parents worked and children attended school between 8am and 4pm? What if schools moved to a year-round calendar, with shorter breaks throughout the year that could sync up with parents’ vacation time, rather than a 2 1/2 month break with parents scrambling to enroll in a summer camp?
I know the legal field, and I know this is possible here. Courts and government offices are open 8am to 4pm - that’s not that far off from the school day. Unfortunately, workaholism is normalized in law, and in the private sector, working 24/7 is a badge of importance for many. Not only is this culture unhealthy across the board, but it particularly disadvantages working parents, and in particular moms (since women are overwhelmingly still the default parent). I recently spoke to a mother who, after almost 20 years in law, resigned from her position altogether. After going through a divorce that left her the single parent to a toddler, she approached her law firm leadership about some accommodations. Their suggestion? That she ask her mom to move closer to help out with her child. The lawyer walked away and moved into a completely different, more flexible and less stressful, field.
Work/life balance requires accommodation. A major hurdle to working parents is the gap between the school schedule and work schedule. One of the benefits of entrepreneurship - law firm ownership - is that you get to set your schedule and create the work/life culture for your team. Consider some of these options, for yourself and your staff:
Staggered schedules to balance the need for office coverage with employee flexibility (in my office, one of our paralegals starts her day early and leaves for school pick up, and another comes in later and stays through the end of the day)
Develop an organizational chart and work flows to optimize efficiency and delegation, so no one person (including you) is responsible for too much at one time
Utilize virtual staff - including those in other time zones - to fill in gaps for phone or email coverage throughout the business day. Your phones can be ‘open’ for a full day even if no one is in the office.
Invest in technology that allows for more flexibility - allow clients to book appointments and pay invoices online, and go paperless so staff can work remotely if needed.
What are some small changes you can make to sync up your work life and home life?