The baseball hats themselves were nothing special. I had bought them online in the waning days of the summer of 2019, right as the kids were returning to school. The website let me customize the lettering and images. On the canvas of crisp white, I chose the contrast of bright blue letters. I spent more than an hour getting it just right. Getting the entire phrase to fit on the front, centering the image of two stick figures. One last look—perfect. Add to cart.
No, there wasn’t anything magical about them. But they still managed to change the course of my professional career and my relationship with my then 9-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Soon after, I faced a big work challenge. The small team of lawyers I led would be hosting a global meeting, with close to 400 legal professionals descending on our hometown of Montreal. Thanks to the extraordinary work of dozens of colleagues from around the world over 10 months, we were set to welcome our guests. But I was spread thin. My job was rewarding but full. And although I was doing my best to cram in time for myself and my family, I was stacked.
Then, with a week to go, I was asked to make a punchy video that would be shown during the meeting demonstrating one of its themes: personal energy management. But I didn’t have any energy left to give to this request! So I did what all rational people do in this situation: I delayed and procrastinated.
One of my favourite things to do is take early morning walks with Olivia. With the sun rising over the horizon, we walk through the fruit trees near our home, and talk about the most important things in our lives, like school, the future and boys(!).
The week before my big meeting, Olivia and I took one of our walks on a Saturday morning. We were both wearing our new baseball hats. I was feeling overwhelmed with work, especially with the video was weighing on my shoulders. I told Olivia about it, and then I said, “Hey, do you want to help me with the video?”
Of course she did, so we stopped at a park bench, and after a few directorial instructions, she was set. With camera rolling, we talked about the value of our walks and how it boosted our mental and physical energy. In only two takes (with the first being ruined when my phone fell off the coffee cup it was propped up on), we created a fun, meaningful snapshot of the best moments of my week.
As we walked home, I felt renewed. I was excited to share the video with my colleagues, and I could tell Olivia had loved it too—being a part of my whole life, including my work life.
The best part of the meeting for me was seeing her smiling face on the huge screen at the front of the hotel conference room. We were both wearing our hats. The big blue letters on both white hats stood out clearly: “Daddy Daughter Walk.”
There was no need for me to create some complicated video to talk about energy levels. The fuel for my work project was right next to me on that walk. Bringing work closer to her had made it easier and fun. She was the star of the show and had loved it. This would not have happened if I had kept a wall between those two parts of my life.
The Failure of Balance
Thousands of lawyers across Canada are struggling as working parents. Some are building their careers at the dizzying pace of business while raising young children. Others are dealing with the joys of teenagers.
The more than half who are struggling are more likely to describe parenting as “tiring and stressful,” rather than enjoyable and rewarding. And the complexity for parents is only increasing: 46% of households now have both parents working full time, up from 31% four decades ago. The two roles collide and compete on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
At the office, working parents want to be themselves—but they don’t know how. They try to deny the existence of their home life, for fear they’ll be viewed as prioritizing family over work. They bury themselves at work until starched professionalism replaces joyful humanity. They want to get ahead, but they compare themselves to colleagues who don’t have the responsibility of children and feel a step behind. Resentment builds.
They are told to just find “work-life balance.” But to balance two things, they must first be separate. So they try to split up the two parts of their lives.
On the surface, it makes sense that while we’re at the office, we focus on work, and while we’re at home, we focus on family. Thinking of one at the “wrong” time invites feelings of guilt—to be avoided. And we can leave our work stresses at work and our home stresses at home, right?
In my view, widening the gulf between work and home doesn’t solve the problem. It is the problem.
Think back to any day last week. When you lost the thread on the dinner conversation because your mind drifted to that email you were going to send at the end of the day: “Did I press send? Maybe I’ll just check my sent items on my phone quickly.” Then you hear your daughter’s voice, “So Daddy, which project should I choose?” Now you’re not sure if you sent that email and you’re a horrible dad.
Just as it is impossible to hermetically seal off your work life at home, you are most definitely sitting in that work meeting thinking about whether it’s you or your husband taking your son to his skating lesson tonight.
The ubiquitous term “work-life balance” has been a part of our language for over 40 years, yet we don’t seem to be getting any better at it. One in three employees in some of the world’s largest economies even say sustaining a healthy work-life balance has become more difficult. The phrase creates an artificial separation between work and life, as if one is not part of the other. It sets up a competition between the two in a zero-sum game where one must lose and one must win.
While some progress in thinking has been made towards “work-life integration,” instead of “balance,” working parents continue to struggle—and worse, they may not be getting help from their employers. There is often a disconnect between how organizations and their employees view work-life balance. Two-thirds of HR professionals say their employees have a healthy work-life balance, but almost half of employees disagree.
Change the Conversation: From Balance to Advantage
Perhaps it’s time to look at this troublesome question from a different angle. Not how to best manage the difficulty and disadvantage created by the dueling priorities of working parents. Not how best to separate or integrate these two things to reduce the negative impact.
Instead, let’s ask different questions: What hidden advantages do working parents have that they are underusing? What positive aspects of their lives can they easily enhance? How can their dual roles as professionals and fathers and mothers elevate each other?
What if the energy we use separating work and family was instead spent enriching both? It can be. What if raising children was an untapped key to career success? It could be. And what if this renewed career was a doorway to a deeper connection with our children? It should be.
What if there is actually a parenting advantage? There is.
Think about the two hats you wear. What could you write on them to change the course of your life?
Jonathan Cullen, CIC.C, is Vice President, Legal Affairs & General Counsel at Pfizer Canada—and a lucky dad to two great kids. Follow him on LinkedIn.