Tipping the Scales – Practical Tips for Finding Work/Life ‘Balance’ as a Mother and a Lawyer
We are delighted to welcome Janelle O’Connor to the Dear LiL blog as she unpacks practical tips for “finding her groove” and cultivating happiness within her busy practice and role as a mother.
I am an active mother of three young children and a lawyer with a very busy practice. I love being a mother and I love being a lawyer – each of my roles offer me respite from and energy for the other. I am not sure if I have “work/life balance” – in fact, I am pretty sure I am always tipping the scale one way or the other – but I am happy! I have always thought that “work/life balance” is a poor metaphor anyway. It suggests that you need to think in terms of compromises – or that work and family are always in competition – which is not helpful and just fuels guilt.
Our frames of reference are often based upon those who have gone before us. I was lucky to have an early mentor who juggled her role as a mother and as a lawyer with grace (and joy), so I always knew that it was possible. This is partly why it is so important to have happy and healthy female leaders in our law firms that other women can identify with. It is also why I was excited to be asked by Life in Law to provide insight on how I keep my head above water while managing young children and a busy practice.
These are five practical tips that have helped me find my groove.
Take Control of Your Schedule
The traditional 8am-6pm lawyer schedule doesn’t work for my family. Instead, I usually drop my children off at school and work 9am-4pm and 8pm to late. I also work at home two days a week. I have learned that being at home for the homework/activities/dinner/bath routine most nights helps everything at home run smoother and makes me feel more grounded.
I am not suggesting that you adopt my schedule, only that you think ‘outside the box’ and find one that works for you. A lawyer friend of mine doesn’t work on Wednesdays, but she does work on Sundays. This lets her get caught up on family obligations mid-week at home, and on work obligations on Sundays (in a quiet office), all while solving a childcare dilemma for her family.
Play around with your schedule and find something that works for you. When it stops working, shake it up again. And if it is just not working, consider your alternatives – like working part-time or requesting a leave – before you consider quitting. In the past, I worked part-time. There are many paths to success. Maybe your career will be a ladder, but maybe it will be more of a jungle gym (like mine).
Schedule Time for Yourself
For me, self-care is not about elaborate spa days – it is about eating well and trying to get enough sleep, but also doing things that make me happy and keep me healthy, both mentally and physically. For me, that has meant playing squash on Tuesdays and skiing on Saturdays. These activities are a scheduled part of my weekly routine because they make me happy – like, really happy. I think it is vitally important to make time to do things that you enjoy. I know that it can feel impossible to fit this time in, but you can find an hour or two each week. If you can’t, move on to the next point…
Use Your Time Efficiently
I can’t stress the importance of this enough! Do not buy into ‘the culture of overwork’, but use your time efficiently. My day is highly structured and focused. I struggled with this in the early part of my career, but now I try to make every hour count. During my core workday, there is no online shopping, no Instagram, no calls to Mum (sorry, Mum). I find my work meaningful and engaging, which clearly helps with implementing this tip too.
Productivity is just as (if not more) important than the number of hours worked. Studies show that long hours don’t raise productivity. Long hours have been associated with decreases in performance and increases in sick-leave. Yet, while I don’t think that long hours are necessary, I am not sure any semblance of ‘balance’ is possible without a commitment to productivity during your core working hours.
Get Help (or Say “Yes” to Less)
At home, we have lots of help with the tactical things to make time for the important things. I have embraced the proverb, “It takes a village”. My stress has reduced significantly over the years as I have become more and more comfortable with others lending a hand. Be creative about what you can outsource. We have a plethora of teenage babysitters. Our groceries are delivered to the house. We use a meal prep service. We also have help with the household cleaning and many other everyday chores that take up so much time.
If hiring help doesn’t fit into your budget, take whatever shortcuts you can and say ‘yes’ to less. Ask friends or family to help with childcare, use a home delivery service, get one of those robot vacuums, don’t put your children in so many activities, and so on.
Try Not to do Both Roles at the Same Time
When I am at work, it feels like exactly where I am supposed to be. And when I am with the children, it also feels like exactly where I am supposed to be. If I try to work when the children are around, everyone ends up frustrated. Trying to be a consummate juggler is exhausting (remember the early months of COVID when the kids were home from school!?), so try to keep these spheres separate when you can. I caution against using communications technology to be in two places at once. When I am with my children, I really try to be present. But this also works the other way around, because when I am working, I really want to focus only on my work. I feel strongly that mixing these spheres of our lives on a regular basis leads to stress (and mistakes).
Of course, having this separation is not always possible. Kids get sick. Life happens. Sometimes days – or weeks – feel wild and out of control. But now I recognize that it is just a phase. I can have a sense of humour about it (most – not all – of the time), knowing that it will pass, and that I will find my groove again.
Of course, truly succeeding with this juggling act requires support from your family and from your law firm’s management. I have been blessed with both.
About the Author
Janelle O’Connor is a class action and civil sexual assault lawyer at Murphy Battista LLP in Vancouver, BC. You can find out more about her here.