Working Parents Look for Line Between Home and Job

Journalist, and working mother, Lisa Belkin talks about how to balance the responsibilities of job and family. Belkin is a columnist at The New York Times. She speaks with John Ydstie about when family should take precedence over work.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

On Wednesdays, our business news takes a look at the workplace.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Today, a perennial problem: when to put your foot down, say no to the boss, and choose life over work. That's one of the many questions Lisa Belkin explores in her column. She writes for the New York Times and started her last column from a hospital room, waiting for her son to emerge from surgery.

She joins us now from her home in New York. Welcome.

Ms. LISA BELKIN (Writer, New York Times): Thank you. Good to be here.

YDSTIE: That's pretty hardcore, writing a column while you're waiting for your son to come out of surgery.

Ms. BELKIN: Well, actually, the point was I was trying to write a column while my son was coming out of surgery, and I didn't really get past the first line. That is just not a place to work. That's one of the no-brainers.

But, the decision process - the I can do it just this once, or maybe this is an exception, really is something we do hundreds and hundreds of times a day, sometimes, without even realizing. And then we look back at the aggregate and say, oh, how did I get here?

YDSTIE: How do you make that decision, though? How do you draw the line?

Ms. BELKIN: That one was, do I write this column now? Do I not turn it in at all and just tell them I can't do it, which I've never done in six years and couldn't bring myself to do then. So my compromise was to call and say it's going to be late. And in this case, that worked.

Then my next choice was, all right, in 48 hours, I'm supposed to leave town overnight and give a speech. Well, what does the equation look like there? Is it okay 48 hours after surgery? Is it okay 72 hours after surgery? If the child were five, would that be different than if the child's 15? And then you sort of play around with these variables in your head and come up with some sum total at the end that vaguely resembles an answer.

YDSTIE: Now I understand that you and your husband have agreed on a few ground rules, though.

Ms. BELKIN: Yes, we don't both leave town at the same time. There just should be a parent here. That feels right to me. And we try not to be gone for work-related evening events two nights in a row, because then you've sort of abandoned the ship.

YDSTIE: Now, I can imagine, though, even having those hard and fast rules doesn't always make it easier. I mean, I'm sure you and your husband might compete for a particular day when both of you think you have something very important to do overnight.

Ms. BELKIN: Yeah, well we have the calendar, and it's kind of like who gets first dibs. If you write it down on the calendar, it's yours. But I am regularly saying to him, well, it's not on the calendar. If you don't write it on the calendar, you can't go.

YDSTIE: Has there ever been a time when you feel you made the wrong choice?

Ms. BELKIN: Yes. And it involved another broken bone. My same son - who seems to have mishaps - fell in the playground when he was younger, and I was in the middle of a meeting. And I didn't come straight home. And then, my babysitter had taken him to the doctor and had told her that he was fine. And by the next day, it was pretty apparent that he had a severely broken leg. He was in a wheelchair for eight weeks. And basically, mom has never, ever forgotten that one.

And I know from my mail that I'm not the only one walking around with a chunk of guilt from one incident like that that then colors everything else you do.

YDSTIE: Lisa Belkin writes a column for the New York Times, and joined us from her home in New York. Thanks very much.

Ms. BELKIN: Thank you.

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