Your Son Goes to the Hospital. You’re at Work. Now What?
I am a single father with a 13-year old son who is also running my leadership development and coaching company in California, with an average of 20 people working on projects at any one time. My son has some emotional issues and is at a boarding school in New Hampshire. So when I got this call this morning despite all my years of self-development and coaching of senior leaders, I had no idea what to do. He got angry with another kid who was inside a building teasing him through a window. Instead of thinking and withdrawing, he punched him. Young fists and glass don't match; he ended up in surgery to repair a torn artery. Thank you, Concord Hospital, for your fantastic care and compassion.
Work or Family? How to Choose?
So should I jump on a plane and go and see him? Or should I work on the proposal to Kaiser Permanente, discuss business development with my VP, or what's going on with my stellar operations, sales, marketing, and all things David Couper Consulting Inc. coordinator? I'm a bad father if I don't go, and I'm a bad businessman if I do. Of course, I am incredibly lucky that I could afford to get on a flight, to have a schedule allows stopping work for three days, and that I had a nanny up until my son went to boarding school.
But what about all those people working, especially single parents, who don't have the resources to make those kinds of choices?
One of my friends is divorced. She works on various freelance projects and never knows what her schedule is. Yesterday, her son was off from school for a "teacher development" day (I also call these days "how the heck can we find something for our kids to do day.") My friend doesn't have the luxury to change her day at the drop of a hat. Between two other families and me, we filled her son's son's day with meaningful activities and got him to his various scheduled events.
My housekeeper, a single mom of three, works three jobs. She had to take off work without pay to go to her daughter's high school to work out why her smart girl was not getting grades good enough to get into college.
So how do we balance work and family life when our society solely focuses on showing up both literally and emotionally?
Today, I only literally showed up for a call with one of my team about the presentation she is giving for Keck USC about, coincidently, "showing up." By that, I mean, I was on the videoconference literally, but emotionally I was in a hospital on the other side of the country waiting for my boy to wake up. I wanted to jump on a plane and be there for him even though I knew that I couldn't make it in time to be with him as he went into the operating room or even by the time when he came out. I have a pretty good frequent flier status with American Airlines, but that won't turn a 5-hour trip with a 3-hour time difference into a 15-minute drive. The call was good enough, but I wasn't there with her 100%.
How can we deal with this balance?
We show up when we can, but we also balance what we need to do for our lives and our families. You can miss your kid's game once in a while. But if you always miss it, that could have an impact. I have known people who don't go to a close relative's funeral because of work. Maybe that was the right decision for them because they had celebrated that person in life, but there is no second chance for that event. There is no redo or makeup on missing one of life's significant events. Spoiler alert: Often, for work, there are plenty of chances to do it again, makeup time, or stay late!
We also have to do our best to show up emotionally at work despite outside elements. Depending on the relationship with your boss and colleagues, it can help to let people know that there is stuff going on at home. You get to decide how much or how little you share. It can also be useful to be patient, compassionate, and kind to ourselves when we feel we are not on our game or performing at peak performance (or whatever the sports metaphor resonates with you.) As one of my coaches, Steve Chandler, said, "it's OK to have an average day." We think it's not. But sometimes, that's all we can do. That has to be OK.
Guilt Built In
Finally, the other area for us to look at when trying to balance work and home is guilt. I found myself feeling guilty; I wasn't with my son. I also was sure I would feel guilty if I was not working on my business. In a corporate environment, bosses and other colleagues can be great at adding to our guilt (and stress) sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally.
"Those kids of yours sure get a lot of colds this time of year." "My wife had to deal with her mother's dementia too. Luckily, she had quit work to look after the kids so she could be around for her." "It's going to be important for the team that we all go to the volunteer day this weekend. My boss expects us to be doing the right thing."
Giving up some assumptions on how we should be or act can relieve that pressure. Sometimes that assumption is based on what our parents told us, or what workers seem to say, or what we see in the media. We have to follow our path, not someone else's. Having compassion for ourselves also helps with these feelings. We are all just doing our best.
Organizations Supporting People = Good for Business
Organizations also need to realize that balancing work and home takes enormous skill and sacrifice. Anything they can do to alleviate that pressure will only help their employees be more engaged, more committed, and more productive. Childcare and petcare can help. More generous maternity and paternity leave can also help. Being compassionate and thoughtful in how employers fill their employee's time can also help a great deal. Do we need to do an offsite all weekend 100 miles from the office without spouses? Could one day work? Could it be nearby? Could spouses come for dinner and provide childcare so they could show up fully both at work and for their families?
All is Well
And my son is doing fine now. He was lucky there was no damage and permanent harm. He ended up in the pediatric ward with great doctors and nurses, watching the Pirates of the Caribbean. Sore, a little scared, and very sorry for what had happened. Life goes on until the next incident, and we continue to find the balance of being a good parent and a good worker.