By Shermin Kruse
Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg
"Judge, I can't meet that deadline, my child is sick."
Your child is sick. Not a serious illness. Something routine — like an ear infection. The doctor is making you wait a few days before taking the antibiotics, to avoid building up a resistance. You are exhausted, not only because you were up half the night, but because you are overwhelmed with the emotional ordeal. No school today. So who watches the poor child? Even if you have a regular nanny, do you leave your child with her or do you stay home for the day? At work, there are responsibilities. There are deadlines to meet. Partners and clients to please. Judges and juries to convince. A career that you either need to pay the bills or love because it is important to you. You go through the scenarios in your head. If you have a partner, you speak with him or her. Can they stay? Maybe half the day? How about other reinforcements? Grandparents? Neighbors? What if there is no one else? Then you look at your little child, smiling up at you in between coughing spells. Your heart sinks.
There is no magic answer. Sometimes the only answer is the recognition and internalization that it is impossible to have an answer for every dilemma — regardless of how adept you are at capturing the work-life balance.
Having said that, this column is about dispensing advice and so advice I shall dispense.
First, regardless of the day-to-day choices you make, always remain a professional.
For example, you may decide to seek an extension on a deadline to tend to your sick child. That often requested "e" word is nowadays a routine part of the daily practice of law. Even a short delay can allow you to be home during the toughest part of your child's illness. If you do request an extension, I suggest that, unless it is absolutely necessary, you refrain from providing the specific personal reason for your request. Practicing law places a great deal of strain on one's home life. This is a reality. I believe that, if at all possible, it is best to leave our families out of our conversations with opposing counsel or the court. Simply say: "Due to unforeseen circumstances, you respectfully request an additional day or two." If you must, add that your reasons are personal. But it is better to leave out the reasons altogether. It might be an emergency hearing, a TRO or any other host of reasons why you might need a brief extension. Such courtesies are routinely granted, so be mindful to return the favor when the other side requests it.
If you are a full-time attorney in a busy firm, it is, however, very difficult, even unprofessional, to seek extensions every time your child is ill. I am not referring here to serious illnesses or major medical procedures. I am referring only to routine illnesses. Life, after all, presents a great deal of challenges. We are always having to balance our desire to tend to our personal issues with our commitment to — not just a job — but a very demanding professional career. I have seen lawyers burn up all of their goodwill with their opposing counsel, or with the court, through repeated extensions requested because of various obligations. If we do this, not only do we hurt our reputation, but having lost all benefit of the doubt, we risk no understanding from opponents or no relief from the court in case of a real emergency.
If you, your partner or family members (or some combination of all of you) cannot stay at home, be armed with several emergency child care options. Besides possible sitters that you should have pre-interviewed and used in the past, some employers also offer emergency child care. If your firm does not provide it, consider raising the issue with your diversity committees. There are also backup child care services that you can join, like Bright Horizons (brighthorizons.com). Note that most of these services require registration and some require medical and vaccination records in advance. Do not wait until the day you need it. Research the backup child care in your area. This way, even if you cannot stay home, at least you can rest in the comfortable knowledge that your child and his infectious germs have a safe and kind environment for the day.
In addition, as a mother of two toddlers and an equity partner in a large law firm, I am a great believer in the merits of sleep training. My favorite approach is the Weissbluth method, but there are a variety of ways to teach your baby to 1) sleep early and through the night, and 2) nap well and according to a predictable nap schedule during the day. Put the science behind the theories, including the benefits to the brain, aside for now, although this is the primary reason to sleep train.
Sleep training has saved me. Not only does it provide you the sleep you need to tackle the work-life balance of everyday life, but it also comes in handy when the kids are sick. Sleep-trained children are more likely to sleep through the night, even when they are sick, and thus recover more quickly. Strict nap schedules allow parents of younger children up to four hours of time to work during a regular day, even if you take the day "off." Because the naps occur at predictable times, you can even schedule conference calls.
I cannot think of a more difficult balance than a sick child and a demanding deadline. Allow yourself the possibility of failure. Remember that it is the dedication to your goals that reveal your character, not whether you make perfect choices.