Once upon a time, lawyer-parents dropped their children off at schools and daycares in the morning, went to the office for the day to concentrate on work, then picked their kids up at the end of the day and headed home. Months now into the pandemic, those times may seem more like a fairy tale than current reality. With the radical shift in home and work routines over the past year, attorneys’ parenting and professional skills are being tested like never before. Challenged over the past months to set and hold boundaries between work and home, my individual coaching clients with children are asking for tools to help them navigate the new challenges of parenting while lawyering at home. In particular, they are asking for tips on how to be present and effective in both worlds, and how to maintain their own balance while their work-life world is upside down.
The pandemic has also pushed firms nationally to expand the kinds of well-being offerings they provide for lawyers and staff. As home spaces have transformed into work spaces, and the boundaries between the two have blurred more dramatically than ever before, firms are recognizing that they need to provide training to educate their workforce on how to cope. Firms are seeking trainings that provide practical tips and parenting tools to help attorneys and support staff quickly grow the skills needed to work well and parent well while working at home.
In this article, I share three ways that lawyer-parents (or other caregivers for children) can better manage their dual roles, and grow more resilient children and families during challenging times. As always, I use a neurobiological approach to understanding and cultivating resilience, with appreciation for my training in Polyvagal Theory1 which provides an excellent framework for understanding our—and our children’s—response to staying regulated during challenging times.
Acknowledging and Naming What Is: The first key to resilient parenting is acknowledging the challenges you are facing by naming “what is.” It may be difficult for us lawyers, who want to feel like we have it all together, to admit that we are struggling right now. Most parents I hear from have been running at full speed to keep up with the shifts in school schedules and childcare since February. Few have taken the time to pause for a moment and acknowledge how new, different, and challenging it is to parent during these times. The practice of pausing, acknowledging, and naming what is going on—even if it is a challenge and not a success—can help. Taking a moment to name “what is” helps your nervous system to catch up, integrate, and metabolize the changes in your family’s daily routine. Identifying and integrating “what is” can help you feel more present in your work and home life. When you are present, your nervous system settles down, finds a moment of calm, and allows the problem solving regions of the brain to come back online so that you can better address the challenges of the day.
Connecting with other parents to name “what is” has been helpful for numerous participants in the parenting webinars I have been conducting at firms during the pandemic. Participants have shared that they thought they were alone with their struggles. For many lawyers, it is difficult to admit that we don’t have “this working from home and parenting thing” figured out, and that we are challenged. It is helpful for parents to know that they aren’t the only ones who are getting frustrated and losing their cool when the demands of work and home occur simultaneously.
A constant pull on your attention and constant switching of roles to address the competing needs of work and home often creates anxiousness. Many lawyer-parents are expressing that they feel like they should be doing one thing while they are doing another—feeling like they are never doing the right thing, or never doing anything right. For example, one parent shared, “It seems that every time I get my child set up for an hour with school and I start to focus on work, my child interrupts, needing something. I get frustrated and feel torn. It’s impossible to keep focused on the work matter, and yet I feel resentful that I have to attend to my child’s needs when I want to concentrate. This makes me feel guilty—like I’m a bad parent and a bad lawyer.”
Another parent, having heard this comment from a colleague during the webinar shared, “It was so helpful to know that I am not the only one feeling this cycle of frustration, resentment, and guilt. Hearing what my team member shared was a ‘break-through moment.’ It encouraged me to admit that I’m not doing ok and that I need to reach out for help to better navigate my life right now.”
Naming “what is” can be simple: Make a list of your top challenges with balancing work and home right now, using one column for work challenges, and another for parenting challenges. Read your list aloud, slowly and mindfully, or share it with an understanding friend or family member. Exhale five long and slow breaths after you read or share your challenges to help your nervous system relax. Move to problem solving the challenges only once you have taken a few moments to mindfully breathe and reflect on “what is.”
Managing Our Expectations: Another key to resilient parenting is managing our expectations for ourselves during challenging times. While most lawyers are astute about helping clients manage their expectations about legal matters, we often forget to manage our expectations for ourselves. We like to do things well, and have high expectations for ourselves, both personally and professionally. When we feel like we are underperforming at work or home or both—as many parents are worrying they are these days—our nervous systems may respond by feeling anxious or like giving up. When feelings of anxiety or collapse arise, it is our nervous system’s way of communicating that we are experiencing more stress than we can handle in the moment. When that happens, we may act in ways that we later regret. For example, if we feel anxious because we are torn about where to focus our attention, we may snap at our child, or be short with a colleague or client. Or, if we feel so overwhelmed that we feel like giving up, we may procrastinate on a work task, or withdraw from our families or colleagues in an effort to cope.
To lower stress, we may need to “lower our standards” for ourselves, even if it is just for the time being. While “lowering our standards” as lawyers or as parents may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable, it’s helpful to keep things in perspective. It is likely that over the long haul you will be able to “improve your game,” and that now is an ok time to hold steady and get done what needs to get done as best as you can.
One tip that is helping parents dial back perfectionism is incorporating a catch phrase that helps them to reframe their expectations. For example, the phrase “good enough is good enough” may be a helpful thing to say to mobilize you when you feel procrastination. An attorney told me that after trying this phrase at home with her kids, it became her family’s motto, and allowed them to laugh when things didn’t go as well as planned. If your child or children are old enough, ask them to come up with phrases that your family can use as code words for “we are trying as best as we can given the circumstances, even when things go wrong.”
Savoring: A final key practice to growing resilience is taking time to savor the things that are going well in life. While there are undoubtedly many challenges to working at home while parenting, attorneys share with me that there are also many aspects that are new and wonderful. For example, parents have more time with their children because they spend less time commuting; families enjoy regular meals together and have time together during the day to play outdoors. In addition, parents are able to tune into their children’s growth and education in ways they previously missed because they were absent. Savoring these moments builds our resilience because it wires our brain for what’s going well instead of what’s going wrong. Savoring is a particularly important practice for attorneys, as we spend most of our work time focusing on what went wrong—or could go wrong—in order to mitigate loss for our clients.
For most lawyers, used to responding to urgent requests and moving quickly and agilely from one mental task to another, savoring is a helpful practice to grow our mindfulness skills. It is also a way to slow down and be present with our children’s growth, so we don’t feel like we missed their childhood because we were stuck in our heads or immersed in our to-do list while they were growing up. Savoring is an excellent practice to begin cultivating now so that it becomes a habit you can enjoy when you return to work.
Savoring is a simple practice: When something is going well, pause and enjoy it with all of your five senses. For example, when you observe your child growing in a new way, take a moment to get present with what you’re experiencing. Take in the moment fully; note what you see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste as you take in the moment. To magnify your savoring experience, you may wish to express to your child the growth you are observing, and how meaningful it is to you. For example, you may say, “I see you doing this new thing, and that makes me smile. Last week you couldn’t do this, and now you can—look how you’re learning and growing!” Later, you may want to share the moment with your spouse or co-parent or someone else who loves your child so you can savor it together.
In the coming weeks, take some time and try these things at home. You may wish to share this article with your attorney-parent colleagues or your spouse or partner so you can do them or discuss them together. A little bit at a time each day is a helpful way to rewire your—and your children’s—nervous system. Good luck and feel free to share your success!
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you would like to bring Laura to your in-person or virtual event to conduct a well-being CLE or do one-on-one resilience coaching with Laura, contact her at consciouslegalminds.com.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive functioning using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE approved by the NC State Bar for CLE), consciouslegalminds.com/register.
1. For more information on Polyvagal Theory, see the work of Dr. Stephen Porges and Deb Dana.