A while back, I read a great piece by Christine Riordin in the HBR on what she says we inaccurately call work-life balance. Apparently, researchers have found that when we are on the job believing that we don’t have enough family or personal time, that itself drains and distracts us.
Some folks, including tech executives with really demanding jobs seem to have it all and do it all. As a young practicing lawyer, who happened also to be a female in a male dominated profession, I gave up trying to have it all because I could not come up with the right formula.
After many years of earnest effort, I ended up going on the ambivalence-creating “mommy track.” I do not intend to make this about male v. female in my profession, but realistically there is a big difference on the demands we experience and the support we need and receive. I tell the young women I mentor in the law that they need to ask for support and guidance when they are feeling overwhelmed or drained. I have suggested they join law firms that have an open commitment to work life issues.
When I jumped on the mommy track, I had worked many years as a full-time litigator while my children were toddlers and young kids. The guys I worked with were great lawyers and good people, but most of them had no experience in dealing with what my female colleagues and I were struggling with — how to be as good as we were at our professions without sacrificing our family lives. There was a lot wrong with this picture.
At the time, most everything else (besides my excellent performance at work) in my life was in shreds, including me. I had begun my litigation career on a stellar track, was harmed in an elevator accident during my first pregnancy that put my baby at serious risk and me on bed rest for over two months. I left full time practice for a couple of years (after my managing partner refused to allow me to return part time) and came back to the law as a mom with a laser focus on my kids and their well-being. I later understood that I suffered from a severe depression that was not treated or recognized by me, my family or my physicians.
Years later, a doctor asked “did anyone ever ask how you were doing emotionally after all of this?” No one had. The situation could have been managed by better health care, including hormonal balance after having two kids back to back and a high risk pregnancy. At the time, I looked around at my colleagues and they seemed to be doing just fine. I wondered why I could not seem to manage everything as well as they did.
Within a decade of this observation, one of my litigator colleagues who seemed to have it all had taken her own life. She said it was “stress” that was making her behave erratically. Regardless of the cause, she left four children without a mom for most of their lives. She left the rest of us in grief and sorrow for the loss of a young mother who also happened to be a really fine and dedicated lawyer.
In contrast to this tragedy, there were other colleagues who managed their law firm careers quite well. Maybe they had more support at home or maybe they had the resources and smarts to delegate non-work demands to other competent people.
Hopping on mommy track, I lowered my expectations about the professional I thought I would be and what my law partners in my early career told me I was going to become. My kids needed more than I could give them as a full-time litigator. I tried to “lean in” but the stars were not aligned for me to pull off the perfect scenario and it was a different time in our culture.
Although relieved in some sense, I felt defeated and have, at times, missed what I left behind as a practicing litigator and potential “super mom.” After years of managing my life pretty badly, exhausted and apparently depressed, I moved out of litigation to a completely different type of job related to the law. I thought I was letting down my early mentors, renown judges who supported me and senior law partners who saw my future on the top of the letterhead.
I got balance by shifting around the things in my life that mattered. In the end, the shifting around led first to a very tough transition and finally to greater balance. Ultimately, I realigned my personal life with my work life. I had ten great years in a major corporation doing things I enjoyed, with people I respected.
My own experience aligns with the research that indicates effectiveness is the thing we should focus on, not balance. Becoming effective in all our life roles helps us become better at each one. And integration of our work with our lives can help us in both. Regardless of what we call this integration, balance or effectiveness, I am hopeful that technology itself and new ways of working will allow for closer alignment between work and family life and the recognition that both can thrive together.