Javascript is disabled. Please enable Javascript to log in.
Published: 2013-10-16

Work-Life Balance and the Working Parent Struggle



There has been much discussion in the news about work-life balance, from Anne-Marie Slaughter's article Why Women Still Can't Have it All, to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In" and many more. While much of the dialogue has focused on how the issue affects women, it is a challenge that can affect all working parents.

Not all of us can be the super-achievers like Slaughter or Sandberg, whose recent writings depicted their high-level successes and challenges as working parents. In Slaughter's piece, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, she discusses her challenges as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department. She theorizes that although she thinks women may be able to have it all, it is not possible given the way America's economy and society are currently structured, particularly when most jobs are on someone else's schedule with no flexibility, like the high-level government position she held.

In her book, "Lean In," Sandberg laments that women often face internal barriers to achieving success, and she poses the query "What Would You Do if You Weren’t Afraid?" She encourages women to "lean in" and not leave before your leave, that is, remain engaged and volunteer for projects, and not think about leaving work before you are faced with a life event that may require time off away from work.

Both works make interesting and valid points, including the call that more women take on leadership positions in government and in corporations, and the recognition of a patriarchal system that remains unequal for women in many ways, not least of which is the persistent disparity in compensation. Both offer lessons and leadership advice that can apply to men and women alike.

Slaughter and Sandberg readily admit that their pieces apply to professionals, and that the vast majority of women face far greater struggles to find jobs, function as a single parent, and/or simply make ends meet.

Many of the professionals to whom these theories are directed, however, find themselves somewhere in the middle of the socioeconomic ladder. As such, some of the ideas presented by Slaughter and Sandberg on work-life balance do not seem to address the challenges facing them. The fact that both women are in the upper echelon of their fields with substantial resources to assist them, left many feeling that these two perspectives just did not provide answers that could apply to their reality.

Of course, these issues are incredibly complex, and no doubt, there is no single answer to achieving a work-life balance. But what is the working parent struggle like for so many of us professionals who are somewhere in the middle? And what can the average professional think about when it comes to finding balance?

1. Challenging Assumptions

As Stephen Marche pointed out so aptly in his article Home Economics: The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Equality, for many people the conflict is not so much about men versus women or mothers versus fathers; instead, it is about family versus money. With respect, I would also add time and sanity to that equation. These people are "leaning in," engaged in their work and taking on additional work responsibilities, but are also simply trying to survive the daily grind that includes commuting, worrying about childcare and schedules, and making sure they have enough time at the end of the day with their families.

As a result, many working parents' priorities are more focused on having flexibility in their jobs. In the New York Times article, Coveting Not a Corner Office, But Time at Home, Catherine Rampell describes the growing trend of women who are finding ways to get their career to accommodate their family life, and not the other way around. The subject of the article describes how she found a better balance by asking her employer to work from home once a week.

These perspectives should not be seen to discount the substantial barriers faced by women and the accomplishments achieved by women to break through glass ceilings. However, the reality is that many professionals today want to have a balanced life, with a meaningful but perhaps not entirely all-consuming career. Many of these professionals have partners who share in the workload, and the challenge is less about getting to a position that involves 12-14 hour work days and 2 hour commute-times, but instead finding time for both home life and career.

According to a recent survey conducted by LinkedIn and Cross-Tab, five to ten years ago, 39% of women defined success as finding the balance between work and personal life, whereas today, that number has increased to 63%, reports the Business Insider.

The Pew Research Center study released a study entitled "Modern Parenthood" in March 2013 that Mr. Marche also cites. According to the study, when it comes to work-life conflict, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with "no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers."

As many families rely on two full-time working partners, the juggling of schedules and ever-growing costs associated with this arrangement, is increasingly becoming a family issue.

2. Changing Expectations and the Structural Framework

Employers, including law firms, are beginning to recognize that the current framework is not retaining valuable talent. As noted in our previous article, NAWL Reports Troubling Statistics on the Progress of Women Attorneys, women are leaving the law firm in disproportionately high numbers. While not discounting the undercurrent of bias still present in the legal profession and the unequal pay structure for women equity partners found by the NAWL Report, another conclusion to be drawn is that current structure simply is not working for them.

Slaughter's article cites the book "Law and Reorder" by Deborah Epstein Henry, which describes a legal profession "'where the billable hour no longer works'; where attorneys, judges, recruiters, and academics all agree that this system of compensation has perverted the industry, leading to brutal work hours, massive inefficiency, and highly inflated costs." Thus, not only are some professionals dissatisfied with the current system, but in fact, it may not make economic sense either.

"The answer--already being deployed in different corners of the industry--is a combination of alternative fee structures, virtual firms, women-owned firms, and the outsourcing of discrete legal jobs to other jurisdictions. Women, and Generation X and Y lawyers more generally, are pushing for these changes on the supply side; clients determined to reduce legal fees and increase flexible service are pulling on the demand side. Slowly, change is happening", says Slaughter.

In San Francisco, the Healthy Mothers Workplace Coalition recently recognized businesses, including two traditional law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and Morrison & Foerster LLP, and one alternative law group, VLP Law Group LLP, for their commitment to parental leave, work-family balance and lactation accommodations.

Gibson Dunn, in particular, offers all attorneys flex-time, parental leaves and reason-blind leaves of absence, as well as parenting groups, reports the S.F. Chronicle.

Not all firms or businesses will provide these choices (Yahoo's ban on telecommuting comes to mind). However, as the N.Y. Times article noted, many of the woman's colleagues never thought to ask their employer if they could arrange some type of flexible schedule, as she had. Challenging the status quo starts with asking the question.

3. Finding Your Own Solutions

There are many stories of women and men who are finding what works for them. For some, aspiring to be partner and putting in the long hours to attain that position is a viable, indeed, desirable option.

For many others, there are alternatives to be found that do not involve molding yourself to fit in someone else's framework, whether that is in the form of an alternative law group, starting your own firm, working 80% or some form of part-time hours, or telecommuting a certain number of days per week.

Work-life balance is an elusive concept, to be sure. It holds different meanings for different people, and indeed will mean different things to each individual at different phases of their life. There is no one single solution.

It may or may not be possible to "have it all," but because so many before us have blazed new trails, there are options to be had and new solutions to be created. Challenging the status quo is the first step.