Where Work/Life Balance Meets the Ebb and Flow of Relationships

This post is written jointly by me and Dr. Kim Turnage, my friend and co-author of the book, “Managing to Make a Difference”.

Justin*, a CEO of a small business, recently shared his frustration about the reduced availability of operations manager, Marian,* who had just given birth to a child. Justin routinely works long hours in a 24/7 business, and, until now, he has enjoyed partnering with someone who runs as hard and fast as he does. For nearly a decade, Marian has been that business partner for Justin, and she has performed with excellence in her role. She loves her work and is committed to maintaining her high level of performance. The recent birth of Marian’s child (for which Justin is very happy, by the way) changes not only Marian’s life, but Justin’s as well.

*These are not their real names.

Kim happened to be talking with Marian and Justin together when this topic came up. It clearly touched a nerve for both of them. Justin was half apologetic, half frustrated in his description of the situation. As Kim asked a few clarifying questions, Marian was harder to read. Initially stoic, she was smiling through tears by the time Kim finished advising them on this matter. It went something like this:

It’s important for both of you to keep in mind that what you’re experiencing now is 100% temporary. Caring for an infant is time consuming and physically demanding right now for Marian. Justin, she has been an exceptional partner to you for many years, and you need the expertise she brings to your business. She loves her work, and she needs you to work with her to accommodate her needs temporarily. Are there other people in the organization who can backfill for some of her responsibilities for a time? What other accommodations can you make temporarily?

For how long?

Well, in just a few months, she’s going to be more well-rested because this baby will be sleeping through the night and she will too. Within less than a year, she will have achieved her breastfeeding goal and won’t need to take breaks at work to pump anymore. Within 5 years, this child will be in school. Five years is only half the time the two of you have been working together so far! This is really temporary.

You can both achieve your goals if you can keep communicating and working together on how to get both of your needs met. You have a solid relationship to build from, and both of you love working together. Marian’s need for extra time will certainly ebb and flow, but much of her flexibility can return. The two of you have an excellent partnership, and surely you’re smart enough to figure out how that partnership can continue to thrive, even though Marian’s life circumstances are changing.

In any close relationship, professional or personal, major life events in one person’s life affect the other person as well. Issues of work/life balance intersect with relationship issues quite conspicuously when it comes to parenting, and this is an area where embracing the ebb and flow of relationships becomes mandatory. But too often, people focus on formal, contractual elements instead of treating this as a relationship issue.

The reality is that women often pay higher penalties than men do for parenting. Despite the advances our society has made in equity for men and women in the workplace, the U.S is one of the only countries in the industrialized world that does not have laws requiring employers to provide paid maternity leave. As much as women and men may strive to parent equally, the reality is that if any paid leave is afforded by company policies, it is generally afforded to mothers and not to fathers. Mothers are typically the ones who take a “time out” to care for newborns. (That ‘typically’ turns to ‘always’ for single mothers.) And those time outs are almost never free. Even when they are allowed by company policy, they can detract from a woman’s ability to advance in her career. And women who choose to take leave or adjust work commitments in order to accommodate childbearing and child rearing are often penalized and judged harshly – sometimes most harshly by other women who have made different choices.

Can’t you just hear the “contract” language in that section you just read? Words like equity, penalty, laws, requiring, policy. Work/life issues often raise questions about whether people are getting what they deserve. They can quickly devolve into tit for tat, quid pro quo kinds of analysis. There’s an assumption that the way things are “now” is the way they will always be, and there’s a tendency to take a black and white, all or none position. But those are fallacies that don’t serve anyone well.

Let’s go back to Justin and Marian for a moment. Let’s say Justin decides he just won’t make any compromises. So he lets Marian go and hires someone new. How long will it take before that person gets up to speed? Remember he’s been working with Marian for almost a decade. Also, how can he be sure he’ll find someone who will be as good as or better than Marian? Given that her situation is temporary and that she’s still highly committed to her job, isn’t it worth making some accommodations and waiting for her to come fully back online?

Every relationship has an ebb and flow. Work relationships are no exception. At times more is asked from one person than from the other. Honoring the relationship sometimes involves accepting an additional burden with an open heart. But any additional burden is likely to be only temporary because that’s how ‘ebb and flow’ works. And when relationships are strong, partners should make the assumption that the accommodations will be worth the cost.