A New York lawyer, mom of three, and work-life balance expert shares her insights on how to be there for your kids and enjoy time with your family while holding down a full-time job.
I'm often asked, "How do you do it?" Three kids, a demanding full-time job in New York City, and a house in the suburbs (not to mention a dog, a guinea pig, and two gerbils). I find the question to be a bit irritating. I just do it. Lunches need to be packed, witnesses need to be prepped, runny noses need to be wiped, summary judgment motions need to be argued. It all gets done, somehow, because it has to.
After I had my second child, I decided to return to work at my old firm on a part-time basis. One morning on my day off, I received an urgent email from a partner that I should call him immediately. I had just dropped off my 2-year-old at nursery school and was getting ready to nurse her baby sister. I called the partner and learned that opposing counsel had just filed court papers relating to a case of mine, and although it was the Friday before President's Day weekend, the partner felt it was important to get a response on file before the end of the day. Did I refuse to do so because it was my day off? No, because you just can't do that (one key to success as a working parent is your willingness to be flexible). It ended up being a day from hell -- at one point, I was nursing the baby, typing with one finger, and answering a barrage of questions from the partner on speakerphone. Seriously, I don't exaggerate. Nursing, typing, answering difficult questions all at once. It was the ultimate multi-task.
At 12pm, it was time to pick up my other daughter from nursery school (at that moment, I so regretted not having her in the full-day program). Next challenge: how to occupy a 2-year-old while drafting a brief? Oreos to the rescue! My daughter was delighted -- never before had Mom given her a whole sleeve of Oreos and hit the "repeat play" feature on the Cinderella DVD. While Cinderella swept the halls, I nursed, researched, and typed. By 5pm the brief was filed, and I was able to shower and unload the dishwasher from the night before.
Did the partner thank me? No. When pressed on the issue a few days later, he looked at me perplexed and said, "Why did I need to thank you? I thought you would have gotten satisfaction on producing an exceptional brief on such a short turnaround time." He was right. I did take enormous pride in that brief because it was great, and even greater considering the context in which it was drafted. (By the way, my 2-year-old also didn't thank me for those Oreos.)
What did I learn from that experience? Don't waste time worrying about how it will get done. Just get it done, and don't expect to be thanked by anyone that you got it done because the expectation from your employer and your kids is that it will be done.
Here are some other tips that I've learned throughout the past decade of doing my best to integrate my work and life and avoid burnout (or at least doing a good job at faking it):
Open lines of communication, but know what to communicate.
Keep an open line of communication with your employer and the partners for whom you work about what your individual situation is -- work life vs. home life. What do you expect, and what is expected of you? At the same time, you do not need to overemphasize your status. When I was part-time, whenever I started a new case, I would let the team know that I was part-time, but I wouldn't constantly remind people of that fact. If they wanted to schedule a meeting on a Thursday, I would simply say, "Thursday is difficult; how about Wednesday or Friday?" Today, I'm full-time, but I generally leave work by 5:30pm to relieve the sitter. I don't announce to the world that I'm leaving, I just go and respond on my Blackberry as needed and log back in from home later in the evening if need be. If someone wants to schedule a meeting at 5pm, I usually suggest 4:30pm instead (again no need to say "because I have to get home to relieve my sitter" -- a conflict is a conflict). My theory has always been that you are part-time to all of your clients and all of the partners with whom you work. No one has to know that it was a parent-teacher conference that made you come into work late that day; it could have just as easily been a meeting at a client's office.
Flexibility is key.
Don't draw hard lines around things -- for example, "I don't work on Thursdays." You expect flexibility from your employer, and you need to be flexible as well. If a brief or a deposition needs to be prepared for, you will be working long hours, just like your full-time, childless counterparts do. Take advantage of the downtime, though. When I was part-time, one April and May I billed more than 200 hours each month (that's equivalent to 250-plus for full-time lawyers) because discovery was closing in three litigations. But I made sure to have a wonderful June and July -- I took time off, and I logged about 90 hours each month.
On the home front, figure out what you can do for your children's schools without overburdening yourself. I generally volunteer to coordinate things that I can do from my desk: I organize the end-of-year school picnic; I book the DJ and order pizza from my desk, and run to Costco on the Saturday before for the water, juice, and paper goods. Commit to attending one class trip or being a "mystery reader" once a year. Keep it simple, and your kids will still remember and appreciate that time in the classroom.
Have a backup support network.
Expect the unexpected and have a backup plan in place. If you are part-time, see if there's a backup child care facility that you can use and have all the paperwork filed ahead of time so if you need to schedule care on an emergency, the facility can accept your child without needing an updated medical form. Have two to three reliable babysitters in your back pocket that you can call or text from work when you are in a meeting at 5pm with no end in sight and you need someone to relieve your nanny. Be nice to your parents if they live close by so you can use them in emergencies (well, be nice to your parents regardless of where they live or whether they can help you).
When you are with your kids, BE WITH your kids.
Put the Blackberry away. Don't leave it on the kitchen counter because it's hard to resist that annoying red light. Be engaged with your kids. Ask them questions about their day. Read to them. Be with them. As working parents, we get such little time with our kids, we need to really appreciate the time that we have with them. The person who sent you the email can wait 45 minutes before he or she gets a response -- if you were with a client, instead of your kids, the email would wait. Your kids deserve as much respect and attention.
Is it hard? Yes. Are there tears and periods of time that I think it can never get done? Yes. That's when I fake it. Look like you are in control, even if you are not. Cry in the mirror before you leave for work, but walk in with your head high and know that it will get done. It always does. Just know when to ask for help (at work and at home) because no one can be a one-pony show, nor should anyone expect themselves to be.
Dyan Finguerra-DuCharme is counsel in the Intellectual Propery practice group of White & Case LLP in Manhattan. She balances her full-time legal career with her full-time motherhood duties of three girls between the ages of 4 and 10. (Proof of juggling? Dyan is the Chair of the Women in IP Subcommittee of the City Bar Association AND is the Chair of the annual welcome back and end-of-year picnics at her daughter's elementary school; get inspired!) She lives with her family in Port Washington, NY.