Couple Takes Leap For Balance
by Marla A. Joseph
© 2004 Philadelphia Bar Association.
© 2004 Philadelphia Bar Association. Reprinted with
Yet another blizzard swirled outside, and it seemed like winter would never end. Schools and courts were closed, my deposition was canceled, and television news anchor Monica Malpass was telling viewers to avoid the roads unless they were "essential workers."
In my prior life, i.e., before my son, Alec, was born, I would have enjoyed this day off, like unexpected flowers from my husband. My son had been sick most of the month, however, and his daycare looked more like an infirmary than a childcare setting. As a result, I had missed a great deal of work and was at my wits’ end.
As a new mother and managing attorney of my firm’s workers’ compensation department, my schedule was unyielding, and this day off would only create a greater deficit in my time budget. I had been trying to pack ten hours of work into an eight-hour workday so I could spend quality time with my son in the evenings. On the surface, I was a "super working mom," but on the inside, I was falling apart.
To exacerbate this problem, my husband, David, a criminal defense attorney, was working 12-hour days and his demanding schedule
So on this cold winter day, we decided to use the opportunity to brainstorm about how to make changes that would result in a more satisfying balance between our work and family lives. In the past, I had always assumed that, as the mother, it was my obligation to change my work situation. I guess this was a throwback to the environment in which I was raised, where my father was the breadwinner and my mother handled the majority of the domestic and childcare duties. When I considered many of my mentors and friends, it seemed that the majority of women with children had chosen to reduce their schedules, and several had retired from the practice of law, finding the demands incompatible with the responsibilities of motherhood. I was determined, however, not to choose the same path.
Initially, when my son was born, I had actually taken on greater challenges. I became chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD) when Alec was three months old, and I was subsequently promoted to a more time-consuming position within my law firm. Although I had managed to juggle these roles, I began to realize I was losing a great deal of myself in the process. As chair of the YLD, I decided to tackle the work-life balance issue, organizing seminars on childcare options and retention of young lawyers in law firms. I also realized that, in order to balance work, parenthood and life successfully, families need support at home and at the office.
David and I tried to look at our situation objectively. We realized that, although we were happy with our son’s development at daycare, this childcare option was still incompatible with the inflexible demands of our jobs as litigation and criminal defense attorneys, and we could not afford a full-time nanny. We also knew I had a more flexible schedule and a boss who respected the quality of my work and family demands.
At that point, the solution became clear: David needed to leave his law firm and start his own practice. While we acknowledged the risks and demands of hanging one’s own shingle, we also understood the flexibility this would likely afford us.
As a criminal defense attorney, my husband requires little overhead. Although he has hearings almost every morning, his afternoon appointments are flexible. Therefore, if he developed his own firm, he could choose an office location convenient to our home and our son’s daycare. He would, we believed, be able to pick up Alec earlier in the afternoon, thus allowing me to better manage my time at the office. Most importantly, we would be able to spend more quality time together as a family. So, on this cold, snowy afternoon, we developed this general framework.
Change can be scary, but quite often the only way to increase your happiness is to hold your breath and jump into uncharted territory with confidence that the risk is worth taking. David left his old job, and we began our new journey. The next several months were challenging, with many sleepless nights. We worried about how we would manage without the security of two paychecks that came in like clockwork every two weeks. We still had three mouths to feed, hefty school loans, a mortgage payment and other debts. But we felt that the even greater risk would be to continue as is.
Growing up, I had always dreaded change. On my first day of school, in my pressed dress and pigtails, my mother had to drag me to the bus stop kicking and screaming because I was petrified of leaving the security of my three-block radius of friends. When I went from a high school class of 201 to the overwhelming student population at Penn State, I felt like a tadpole that was dropped into the sea. And here, with a young son, we were making an even bigger change.
But amazingly, as time went on, and David began developing his practice, I experienced an overwhelming sense of relief. As my husband searched for office space and developed a business plan, while simultaneously preparing for a major jury trial, his confidence continued to grow. We learned to live with the inevitable yin and yang of weeks where the business is slow and little money is coming in. We also learned to adapt to the weeks when David is insanely busy and has no one to assist him. My husband is fulfilling his dream of developing his own practice and spending significantly more quality time with his family. As an added bonus, he has relieved me of much of the stress I was facing.
So, when people ask me how I manage to balance work, life and family, I respond that this is a loaded question. As lawyers, we spend so much time in school, yet nothing prepares us for the choices we must make when we begin a family. There is no "right" choice. But I can tell you that if your career is a priority, then you must choose a flexible employer, a quality childcare provider and a supportive partner who is willing to take risks and share in the most fulfilling job of all: parenting.
Marla A. Joseph, a member of the Editorial Board of The Philadelphia Lawyer, is managing attorney in the workers’ compensation department of Sacks, Weston, Smolinsky, Albert & Luber. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.