I always wondered, and now I know. I always wondered when my daughter was young, would it really matter that I was there for the 4th grade school play or the Room Parent Meeting or the Spring School Concert or [insert life event here]? Whatever it was, I always knew one thing for sure. I always knew that it most certainly mattered to [insert work supervisor name here] that I was missing his meeting to be there.
Don’t we all wonder if any of the many choices we are forced to make as we carefully balance, juggle and navigate our “work” and “life” really matter? I have tried to be very thoughtful about each choice and never look back, but I always wished I could see into the future to know for sure. Would the benefit to my daughter be greater than the cost to my career? I wanted to know that it all would be worth it. It’s been over two decades. I always wondered, and now I know.
A bit about me. The week our daughter was born, we learned that my husband had a deadly form of cancer. We did everything we could to beat it, but all of the love, support and expert medical care we received could not save him. In the end, I found myself a widowed single mom of a 13-month old daughter and the Law Director of the City of Cleveland. I made a decision and a promise. I decided that I would be there for our daughter always—two parents in one. I promised that the time I spent away from her would mean something. I hoped someday she would be proud of me. Mostly, I wanted her world to be both big and small, and for her to believe that she could impact it in ways that mattered.
Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I didn’t. I was far from perfect, but I chose my daughter whenever I could. I had to accept that some conflicts were beyond my ability to reconcile. At the top of this list—the workday is longer than the school day. I had to work full-time to support us so my daughter went to “after school play” a few days a week when she was in primary school. Most of her friends went home with their moms at 3 p.m. She had a great time, but longed to go home with me right after school. Who could blame her, but it wasn’t going to happen for us back then.
For the others, I chose my daughter and dealt with the repercussions. At the top of this list - we always went to her doctor’s visits, planned and unplanned, together. I’ll never forget one particular time when I got the dreaded call from the school nurse in the middle of the afternoon to come pick up my daughter. She had a high fever and needed to see the doctor. I was the CEO of a large non-profit corporation with a full schedule of important meetings ahead of me that day. I turned to my top team, told them I had to leave and that I had confidence in them, and asked them to carry on without me. One senior member blurted out, “Can’t anyone else take her to the doctor? We need you here!” I shot back, “Of course, someone else can take her to the doctor. This is not about finding her a ride. She’s sick, she’s scared and she needs her mom. You all will be fine.”
Life went on full of school activities, play rehearsals, speech and debate tournaments, Irish dance competitions, dances, parties, travel and joy. I made it work with a lot of support from family and friends. My daughter grew up, graduated from high school and left for college. She will graduate soon and start life as a young professional in a new city. Our time together is far less now, but just as precious to us. I’m still working full-time, and still juggling, balancing and navigating ”work” and “life” when she is home.
So fast-forward to a few weeks ago. My daughter decided at the last minute to come home for three days over her Spring Break. She had a few commitments and lots of school work to do while home, so we agreed to spend her last full day home just doing fun stuff together. I got a call the day before asking if I would come to just one meeting at 1 p.m. on that day – I could even participate by phone if I preferred. It was an important meeting for a top-priority project on a tight timeframe that we all had been working so hard to move forward. I knew it would mean a lot to everyone involved if I participated in the meeting. I also knew that, even participating by phone, would change the entire day with my daughter.
We’ve all been there. You’ve planned time off with your daughter. A really important work meeting is scheduled during your time off. You and your daughter have big plans for your day together. Your work team really needs you at the meeting. What do you do?
Here’s what I did. I politely but firmly told them that I would not be available to participate in the meeting. More importantly, I told them why. I assured them that I would contact the people we were meeting with to explain (which I did) and follow up after the meeting about next steps (which I also did), but that was the best I could do. Everyone accepted my decision and moved on. I spent a wonderful day with my daughter, comfortable that I had done the right thing and trying not to think about what might happen the next day at work. So far, any one of us could be telling this story, right?
Now here is where it got interesting. After over 20 years of doing this, I didn’t think I could be surprised. But I was!
As I scanned my work email late that night to see what would be waiting for me after my daughter left the next day, I saw an email from Paul Clark, Regional President of PNC Bank. Paul had led the meeting I missed that day. The subject line of his email read, “Great Decision.” Here’s what he wrote:
Sharon, I was SO happy that you spent the day with your daughter! GREAT decision and I’m sure not without some level of anxiety. GREAT decision.
You’re the role model to so many young women at PNC and I know they appreciate a decision like the one you made!
My son, David, is coming home for spring break and I’m taking a day’s lesson from you and going to spend some quality day time with him!
If I were you, I’d do it tomorrow as well!
Wow! It meant so much to me. After all these years and as confident as I have become with my decisions, it still meant so much to me. But this time, I shared it with my daughter. I wanted her to know as she is getting ready to launch her own career that there are people out there that value people who make decisions like me. That led to another surprise.
A few weeks later, I was texting with my daughter. She is thinking a lot about the types of places she wants to work and teams she wants to be a part of as she actively searches for her first job after graduation. Unexpectedly, she sent me this text:
Also just told my roommates about how you didn’t take that meeting while I was home and how big an impact it had on the PNC guy. So important to see and so inspirational to me!
I always wondered when my daughter was young, would the benefit to my daughter be greater than the cost to my career? I wanted to know that it all would be worth it. It’s been over two decades. I always wondered, and now I know. It was – and still is!
Postscript: why share this story?
As parents, we are all too familiar with the stories about when it all falls apart – when it is harder than it should be, when the people that could easily help us out don’t, when “work” and “life” come crashing down around us. These struggles are real and important to share. At the same time, it is incredible to me that we are still having the same conversations about “work” and “life” that we had over twenty years ago when my daughter was born. This must change – not just the rules of the game, but the game itself.
After I received my daughter’s text, I shared it with Paul. His face lit up, and in his usual humble way, he responded, “It’s not just me. It’s our culture at PNC.” That kind of work culture is a game changer. So is leadership like Paul’s. Storytelling also can be a powerful catalyst for change. We need to tell more stories about the times when it all came together - when the people around us got it, when they didn’t ask us to make impossible choices, when they valued us enough to create with us new ways to do good work while we live good lives. That’s why I decided to share this story. I hope you will share yours.