A Mom, a Sick Boy, and a Search for Work-Life Balance
April 2019

Caroline Stampfel
Program Director
The Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs


“Mommy, I don’t feel good.”

Those five words strike fear into the heart of every mother. My sons, ages 6 and 4, have uttered those words so many times it’s hard to remember when Adam and I didn’t have children to say them. I feel my older son’s forehead; it’s so hot I nearly jerk my hand back. So many thoughts and emotions strike in quick succession: worry that he’s sick (again); concern for how high this fever might be; scouring my brain to detect other symptoms; wondering if his brother has it, too; making plans to call the doctor and school – and, because this is a weekday morning and I’m fully dressed for the office, now comes that sinking feeling so common among working parents, a feeling stirred by the silent question: “Whose work is more important today?”

A mental review of my calendar makes clear I cannot miss work. I have a job with a lot of responsibility: I lead a team of 20-plus maternal and child health (MCH) professionals, and today is, typically, scheduled to the hilt. My husband, on the other hand, is a police sergeant. How do I ask him, after he was up all night protecting and serving, to step right into caring for a sick child all day when he really needs to sleep so he can get up and do it all over again the next night? For six years this struggle has been part of our routine. I’m always looking for ways to maintain (or restore) our work-life balance.

So when I saw a session called “Talk the Talk and Drive the Drive: Creating an MCH Workforce that Helps Women Thrive” on the AMCHP 2019 Annual Conference schedule, I knew I had to be there.

Not surprisingly, so did a lot of other women. The room was full of women expectantly hoping to hear more about how to make the MCH workforce better for working women. The panel featured speakers from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS), and the company Zappos, all of whom talked about family-friendly policies. They covered the concepts of work-life balance, including a fascinating exercise to define what that means for each of us. For me, the definition includes flexible work hours, working remotely, taking a real vacation, and exercising during the workday. Who knew that someone else would say that working a little every day on vacation was part of her definition of balance?

Many of us found the policies and activities of Zappos absolutely captivating. But so many of the practices – like a dog-friendly workplace and doing away with supervision in favor of self-empowerment model called Holacracy – might be out of reach for public health agencies. Each time the Zappos speaker shared an element of its unique workplace culture, there were practically visible emotional ripples through the room: disbelief, excitement, awe, envy, and even frustration. How can we in public health chase this dream that this corporation makes real?

The MCH workforce faces particular challenges in achieving work-life balance. It is a majority female workforce, many of whom are parents or caregivers of others. They work in an arena they are passionate about but where the workplace structure does not often support the flexibility needed for true work-life balance, due to the constraints of governmental public health jobs. The audience in the room was energized by thinking about the possibilities for greater flexibility within these constraints by fully promoting and supporting the use of benefits that already exist, and using strategies conveyed by the speakers to support work-life balance from an organizational, managerial, and individual level. (See the strategies in the box below; see the slides and handouts from the session by searching here for “Talk the”.)

I worked for AMCHP before I had children, and I returned to work after each child for a lot of reasons: I’m an achiever, work is part of my identity, and I’m passionate about that work. As I reflect on the time I spend away from my children, I realize how important it is for my boys to see me working and contributing to the world in this way. Working, for me, is an act of feminism.

Still, I worry. I worry if I am spending enough time with the boys when it counts. I worry that my daycare providers don’t provide the same love and support that I can. Worst of all, I worry that people will think I’m a bad mom.

I’m fortunate to work for an organization that supports working parents. We have great vacation and sick policies, flexible and telework scheduling, and six weeks of paid parental leave for birth/arrival of a child.  But achieving work-life balance takes work from all parts of the workplace: organizational policy, leadership, and individual.

In a recent post on LinkedIn, Lauren Stienstra from the National Governor’s Association illustrated the role of leaders and staff: She shared a picture of herself lecturing to a George Mason University class wearing her son in a baby carrier. She noted that when we talk about work-life balance, we naturally think of competing interests on each side of a scale. She notes, “If you’ve studied physics, you know that if you move things towards the middle of the scale, things balance more quickly, and there’s less necessary leverage.”

The lesson is that supportive workplace policies and leadership teams that fully model them help each of us move toward the middle of the scale, requiring less and less individual effort to make the scales balance. I knew, on that fever-filled morning, that I had to call out sick to care for my son. People depend on me in my work and in my family life; prioritizing one over the other on any given day is part of maintaining balance.

I’m looking forward to more wisdom about supporting women in the workplace through the LinkedIn group started by the session organizers (Work-Life Balance: Talk the Talk and Drive the Drive). We can all use a little help in figuring out how to create a workforce where women thrive.

Strategies to Support Work-life Balance

Organizational: flexible time/telework agreements; cross-training staff; be sensitive to conversations and language that blame caregivers and others trying to achieve work-life balance.

Managerial: build a culture of trust by learning the needs of your employees and acting on them; listen to your employees and ask what they need; recognize that time is not efficiency and that face time does not equal productivity

Individual: decide what makes a full life for you; think 168 hours, not 24 hours (hours in a week vs. hours in a day); rethink weekends; do your most important work first; invest in people; be strategically seen; chuck meetings you don’t need to facilitate or attend.