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Three busy moms share strategies for healthy balance between work, family

Attorney Carol Heckman once clerked for a federal justice and worked as magistrate judge. These days, when she isn’t practicing government investigations, arbitration and federal Indian law, she helps her life partner run an equestrian business.

Brigid Maloney was an assistant county attorney and served as general counsel for UBMD – a large group medical practice – before taking a job last year as co-leader of the health team at a downtown Buffalo legal firm.

Sarah Brennan has become team leader of the Blockchain Technology, Cryptocurrency and Digital Assets practice since joining the same firm six years ago, after working on mergers and acquisitions in New York City.

All three lawyers with Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman also are moms who know what it’s like to storm into Wegmans to buy cookies on the way to school snack day, race to pick up kids from day care and after-school programs, and field important phone calls while their kids squabble, scream and vie for attention in the background.

“Years ago, those things weren’t something you wanted to share because it took away from your professional status,” said Heckman, who during part of her 40-year legal career raised two sons, now in their mid-30s. “I’m so happy we’re talking about this now because lawyers have personal lives and they have other interests. They balance a lot of different things.”

Heckman, Maloney and Brennan said their employer helps them strike the right balance by offering flexible hours and the ability to work from home when needed, as well as designing an open office that encourages co-workers to work as a team, display family photos, and spend part of their time talking about interests and demands outside the office.

Not all get such a boost. Work-life balance for moms – and dads and other guardians – often can be daunting, according to a recent report in Family Living Today. A study published in the magazine ranks the U.S. at number 30 out of 38 countries when it comes to such balance. Among the reasons:

  • One of three American adults works weekends and holidays.
  • 11.4 percent of U.S. workers spend more than 50 hours a week on the job, compared to 0.5 percent in the Netherlands, which topped the list.
  • Americans devote an average of 11.4 hours per day to personal time and leisure care, compared to 15.4 hours a day in Holland. That average includes weekends – and sleep.

The three Buffalo lawyers took a break on a recent morning to talk about how they’ve aimed to balance demanding careers and a robust family life.

Carol Heckman, an attorney and former judge, appreciates the balance her law firm helps provide her to run a business, Fox Run Equestrian, with her partner, Steve Nelson, on Porterville Road in East Aurora. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Choose a partner wisely

All three found partners willing to communicate openly about needs, values and desires. “The biggest fight in my house is who gets to work,” Brennan said. She and her husband, Michael, a software engineer who often travels, have a daughter, Lilia, 4, a son, Connor, 2, and another son, Cameron, due in about two months. The couple does their best to share the work-life load, and give each other space to vent, make mistakes, and keep trying.

Little things help underline the good fortune that comes with having a partner willing to share the load – because not every family does. “When I was driving through town the other morning, I went past a couple of bus stops and it wasn’t the moms with the kids, it was the dads,” said Maloney, a married mom who lives in East Aurora.

Scheduling matters

Maloney and her husband, Bob, have four kids: Chris, 18; Ryan, 16; Will, 12; and Kate, 9. Bob Maloney works in technical marketing for Canon USA and travels often. The dynamic makes scheduling paramount. “The kids are all over the place,” Bridget Maloney said. “We have a three-dimensional scheduling grid.” Mom and dad also do lots of backup planning because their own schedules are full, and often change. “If I know that I’m not going to get out of here by 5:30 in time to get somebody who has to be someplace on time … either another parent can grab the kid on the way, or sometimes my dad or my sister can.” The Maloneys return the favor when possible.

Set expectations

When Heckman’s kids were still in the house, she skipped work-related evening activities. She also let her sons wear what they wanted to school. “I’m not gonna hassle you if you love your clothes,” she told them. “Just don’t get a tattoo and don’t smoke.”

“For our family,” Maloney said, “we want to raise kids that are healthy, kind, open-minded and academically conscientious. Everything has to feed into that, or we don’t worry about it at all. What I didn’t say is we’re going to raise straight-A students or classical musicians, or future CEOs. But the funny thing is they are straight-A students. That stuff follows if you’re staying true to your principles. It simplifies everything. And then you don’t really care if a kid has to wait for 20 minutes on the curb because you’re late, because it doesn’t hurt any of the important things in life.”

Sarah Brennan, a lawyer with several business interests, wants her children to experience different pursuits in their young lives. If they don't like them, they can try something else. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Be realistic

Brennan’s daughter ate organic food after she was born. Mom made her baby food. A demanding job, investments in income properties and joint financial side projects with her husband meant takeout is now more often part of their daily routine.

Fellow lawyers in her work world tell her that good parenting takes trial and error, support and recalculation. In fact, the firm has a Women’s Group that meets monthly to talk about personal and professional development. The firm has 101 lawyers, 31 of whom are women.

“Sometimes women fall into the kind of trap of feeling like they’ve got to do everything and be everything,” said Heckman, who raised her kids in the Parkside neighborhood and now also enjoys village life in East Aurora. “I have an aunt who taught first grade in Boston for 30 years ... and told me the best kids were the kids from big families because they were independent. I practiced that model.”

Despite family success, her kids got paper routes, fought about driving a beat-up Honda to City Honors school and paid for the car insurance. Her older son, Tyler Levin, now leads a private equity firm in San Francisco, and her younger son, Ethan Levin, is a dermatology resident in the same region.

Be flexible

Work schedules for all three lawyers prevent them from attending every school concert, sports contest and special event. They do their best to send a family representative. What does that look like for a 4-year-old? “She hasn’t learned resilience yet. She’s very dramatic,” Brennan said.

Brennan and her husband are fortunate to be able to pay people to cut their lawn and clean their house. They also look to expose their kids to new experiences. “My daughter’s quit two ballet schools so far, mid-season, and that was her decision,” she said. “I put a maraca in my son’s hand twice, and he left the room. We’re still finding our niche in terms of activities. It’s not dance. I think we’ll try soccer next, and then we’ll see where we’re at.”

Brigid Maloney watches as her son Will, 12, enjoy a zipline with his sister, Kate, 9, as Brigid's husband, Bob, watches at their home in East Aurora. Fun and fitness are important to the family. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Take time for yourself

“I exercise four times a week for an hour, no matter what,” Maloney said. “It’s on the grid. For a few years, when my kids were Sarah’s kids’ ages, I didn’t do that and I was lonely. I find my strength and happiness through physical fitness.”

Maloney and her husband also throw potluck parties six times a year to step back from the daily grind. “We invite people that we care about, friends and family that we don’t get to see in our natural trajectory. On the one hand, it scares us into cleaning our house, but it’s always relaxed. It always feels so good to hang out with people for a few hours, listen to some music, have some burgers on the grill.”

Live in the moment

Work-related phone calls often go badly in the Brennan home. When they do, they’re rearranged. “The kids are talking, I’m not listening and they feel neglected,” their mother said. “There is something to be said for being present when you’re with your family, and they’re talking to you and you’re hearing what they have to say."

You get better

Brennan sometimes sees parenting as a job, in that you improve over time. Birthday party and special event planning has reached the point of enjoyment. Her co-workers and clients – the vast majority of them with children of their own – give her the flexibility and understanding she needs. Her kids see how hard mom and dad work, and the little ones have taken on more responsibility at home, like helping prepare meals and clean their rooms.

As parents learn on the job, so do their kids, Maloney said.

“They see how we how we face stress, and how we face falling short,” she said. “Do we do it with grace, with dignity, or do we allow it to suck us into this abyss of embarrassment and despair? So yeah, even our mistakes are great.”

A Mediterranean diet can help provide the kind of nutritional balance that helps to balance work and home life. (Buffalo News file photo)

Balance your work-life world

The consequences of an overabundant work life can include fatigue, poor mental and physical health, and lost time with loved ones that you can’t get back. Here are more tips that can help. Experts stress that balance doesn’t mean perfection.

Eat right: The Mediterranean diet – which emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables and lean protein – enhances the ability to retain knowledge, stamina and well-being.

Take care of your body: Being in good shape physically increases your tolerance to stress and reduces sick days.

Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep increases stress. Avoid using personal electronic devices before bedtime, too; blue light emitted by these devices decreases your level of melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep.

Tune out: Limit the time you check your emails and spend on social media. Productivity software including and can help.

Take five: Breaks at work and home can clear your head, improve your ability to deal with stress and lead to better decision-making when you reconnect.

Divide and conquer: Make sure responsibilities at home are evenly distributed and clearly outlined. You’ll avoid confusion and problems later.

Learn to say no: Whether it’s a co-worker asking you to spearhead an extra project or your child’s teacher asking you to organize a class party, remember that it’s OK to respectfully say no. Shed that Superman/Superwoman urge. When you quit accepting tasks out of guilt or a false sense of obligation, you’ll have more time for activities that are meaningful to you.

Avoid self-medication: Refrain from drugs, alcohol or cigarettes to cope with stress; they’ll only lead to more problems.

Get help if needed: If you feel persistently overwhelmed, it may be time to seek help from a mental health professional. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness – taking care of yourself is a sign of strength.

Sources: Family Living Today, Mayo Clinic, Mental Health America


Twitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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