Dear Dr. Graham:

Yesterday it happened again — for the fourth time since school started last fall. At 4:30 a.m. one of our kids got sick. By 5 a.m. my husband and I were in a debate about whose day was most important. Each of us were making the case for “why I can’t stay home all day” — or even long enough to figure out how to manage the latest sick-child situation.

I don’t like to fight about anything, including whose job is more important. Both of our jobs are important! But we don’t feel like we have another option. I “won” this time, because I was presenting to some out-of-town investors. But it didn’t feel much like a win. Although I got to make the presentation, I was so stressed out that I didn’t feel confident about my performance.

I don’t want to go through all of 2019 this way. I feel like I’m always waiting for something bad to happen – like the dominoes are just about to fall. I need some strategies to keep this from happening again.

The VP Mom

Dear VP,

It may help you and your husband to know that you’re not the only couple working through this problem. My husband is an anesthesiologist who specializes in cardiac cases. If there’s a patient on his schedule, it’s really hard for me to compete with his commitment to keeping someone alive during surgery, regardless of what is on my work schedule! 

So, we have found strategies to deal with those days, and I’ve worked with many other leaders who have successfully tacked these dual-profession challenges, too. Here are two suggestions:

1. Establish a list of priorities/guidelines BEFORE a calendar-hijacking event occurs. This list will differ for each couple, but you might decide that any time it’s possible for both spouses to work for half a day, this will be the first-choice option. Or perhaps you’ll determine that the spouse who has no remaining sick days will always be the one who goes to work. At our house, if one of us has a critical commitment that absolutely can’t be covered/completed by someone else, that person goes to work. You might even stipulate that if your sick child really prefers Daddy when she’s sick, and Daddy can stay home, that he will do so.

These examples probably touch on topics you and your spouse or partner have talked (or argued) about before, but the key to this suggestion is making decisions and creating the list BEFORE you need it. Not only is it best to not make decisions during a moment of stress, but your spousal relationship is less likely to be strained if those early-morning conversations follow your agreed-upon list of priorities/guidelines. 

2. Establish your Plan B. Your Plan B is for when you’ve worked through the priorities or guidelines from suggestion #1 and find that neither of you can accommodate a schedule change. Your Plan B should be so well-developed that you can implement it immediately. Your Plan B is much like setting aside money in an emergency fund for when an appliance or car breaks down. At some point you know something bad will happen, so you fund a plan to deal with it.

For some fortunate families, Plan B is a local family member or friend who agrees to be on-call for sick days. For example, I have one client who is a single mother. She and one of her good friends serve as backup for each other. For others, Plan B is a paid caregiver kept on a type of “retainer” basis. This could be an agreement with an individual or a care.com membership. While paying for contingent help might sound extravagant, it could be less costly than the price you’re paying now in strained relationships and stressed presentations. And although it takes time to check references, there are also apps like Wyndy and/or Facebook babysitting groups that provide ratings-based resources that many find helpful.

It may also help you to know that even those who don’t have young children struggle with this issue. I’ve had clients with furry four-legged “children” who need Plan B’s, along with clients with elderly loved ones who must develop priorities/guidelines lists and contingency plans.

As you stated, no one can be their best at work when they’re distracted by needs at home. Rather than waiting until the next whose-job-is-most-important dawn debate, establish your checklist and whatever Plan B makes sense for you. No one can anticipate every contingency. But we’re all more likely to be our best at home and at work if we’re no longer waiting for the dominoes to fall.  

If you are ready to Lead at a Higher Level, consider joining my Facebook group to interact with other like-minded leaders. If you know someone in a similar scenario as “The VP Mom” that could find my suggestions helpful, forward this email to your colleague (Thank you!). You may also submit questions for me to address in future newsletters here.