Now that Tess is starting kindergarten this fall, something completely insane but also necessary is about to happen in our house. I am returning to work. Outside the home. As a lawyer.
Jumping back into the workforce, I find myself thinking of the work-life balance. Being present for your kids, and doing the job that pays your bills. Doing both and having it all. I'm wondering: is it possible?
In the old days, I had no balance. It was a work-work balance. I was not an involved dad. I usually arrived home after Tess had gone to bed, and when Dana was about to go down. I'd have a few minutes with him, but that was it. And in the morning, I mostly left before either child was up. I never went to Dana's daycare, and I never knew his teachers there. It was terrible.
Back then I was a litigator, the kind of lawyer who handles disputes in the court system. My job involved a ton of reading and also writing. I used to spend hours staring at a computer screen, drafting contracts and briefs. My train ride at the time just before I quit was two hours. One way. So four hours, door-to-door, every day. Into and out of New York City, every every every day. I did work on the train a lot, which added more computer time, beyond what I was spending in the office.
After doing this for a while, I discovered that my eyes didn't work anymore. I'd find myself with cloudy vision while driving. I couldn't focus on the screen sometimes. I went to see my eye doctor. He asked about my work, and I told him. He said, "You have to give yourself a break from the screen, my friend." I said, "Do you mean I'm in the wrong job, and need to change my life?" He said, "Whoa whoa whoa, I'm not saying that. That's something you have to decide. I'm just saying you can't stare at a screen constantly, without breaks, and expect your eyes to function. But I can't tell you what to do, job-wise."
Driving home from that appointment, I realized that I wanted my eye doctor to order me to quit my job. And then I started thinking--if that's what I want, then why don't I just do that?
I started scheming with my wife. She was finishing up a grueling training period at Yale-New Haven Hospital, one that had started many years earlier and had her working a ton of weekends and overnights. We were both working too much. When we'd met, we had been avid runners. Our first date was a seventeen-miler, a training run she was doing to get ready for a marathon, and I tagged along, essentially because she dared me to. But once we had our kids and were deep in these careers of ours, our running shoes began collecting dust, at the bottom of our closets. We weren't exercising at all. We didn't have enough quality time with our kids. We didn't see much of our friends. It sucked. We weren't happy.
I was particularly disappointed in how my workload had turned out, because I'd purposely not gone to the big law firms in New York. I didn't want to work that hard. I'd chosen life. Or so I thought.
I also found that I was fighting all the time with people around me. Mostly about money. Fighting the company that ran the parking lot near the train station, for example, because they were trying to cheat me out of a few hundred bucks. I was turning into an asshole. Mostly to avoid getting screwed by other assholes. It certainly wasn't the image I wanted to portray to my kids.
We began to plot our escape from the rat race.
I should take a break here to tell you about my sister in law Mary. She married my wife's only brother, DJ. Mary is relentless. Very goal-oriented. Very. Focused. I love her. She's great.
Welp, Mary decided around this time that she wanted us to move to Maine. She and DJ were getting out of Boston, leaving a rat race of their own, choosing life and picking Maine. The lifestyle there was more their speed. People were super active. They had careers and worked hard at them, but they also went kayaking on their lunch break, and ran 10Ks along the coast on summer weekends. They surfed and went out for beers with their friends and skiied a shitload every winter and embraced the cold in every way once the first snowflakes started falling. In their kitchen, on their fridge, DJ and Mary had an ad ripped out from a magazine. I think it was for a parka or some kind of winter outwear. And it said: "Boys don't make passes at girls with cold asses." And the picture was of this laughing group of people, sledding or skiing or hoisting frosty mugs of drink in a happy circle. It was pretty much an ad for work-life balance, as far as I was concerned. I remember standing in their kitchen and staring at that picture.
Before long, Mary started emailing me houses on Realtor.com, houses in Maine.
Mary's persistence paid off. Eventually I suggested to my wife that we move here. My wife grew up here. It had to be my idea to make this move.
I got out of work somehow and sneaked up to Portland for a couple of days, took the Maine bar, and passed. Kate finished her training and accepted a gastroenterologist job at a hospital in Lewiston, the town where Bates College is.
We zoomed up 95 one weekend--the only two days we spent house-hunting--and picked out the house we live in now. We closed April 1st.
I gave notice at my firm less than three weeks later. They were shocked. Puzzled. They told me I'd regret it, and get bored up here. But they were super cool and wished me well. When I left, I heard they had to get two people to replace me at the firm. Which was nice to hear.
We moved here to Maine in June 2010. Dana was just shy of turning four. Tess was seven months old. We knew she was delayed, but had no inkling of how profound her delays were, that she wouldn't walk for years, that she might never talk. Her hips were already out of alignment, and would come to require two times through with a body cast, but we didn't know that. I assumed that I'd get a job after we moved here. That was the plan. But the more we learned about Tess's needs, the more we realized that I couldn't work. Taking care of her was, and is, a full-time job.
So I never went back to work. Five years now. Longer than college. Longer than law school was. I'm happy. Involved with the kids, to say the least.
I can't imagine jumping back into the workforce. I can't conceive of a job without it being all-encompassing, all-consuming. Mostly because my last job was so ludicrously busy.
I'm freaking out about the idea of not being at home for Tess. She's so vulnerable, you know? She's got to have a one-to-one person with her at all times, and even with that, she's tough to handle. I'm never gonna be ready to send her off to kindergarten. But I have to keep reminding myself: these days she's not really here. Most of the day, she'll be gone. At school, in capable hands.
And my wife is pretty amazing in terms of the balance, I gotta say. As examples go, I'm all set here. She works four-and-a-half days. She walks in the door from work, and there's no logging on or checking her hospital email. When she's home, she's home. The only exception is when she's on call, which forces her to pop a pager on her belt, take a bunch of patient calls, mostly with questions about colonoscopy prep and the ghastly prep drink that cleans you out. Once in a while, she has to go back in, to take care of someone who's bleeding internally or otherwise in rough shape. But she gets home and man, she engages. She picks up the kids and is fully present. I realize that this is super hard to achieve, that level of balance.
So here I go. I feel like I'm in the right place for me and for my family now. I'm hopeful about this new chapter. I see that the stories are true about Maine, what Mary told me back in the day, when we were thinking of moving. People work here, and they work hard. But they leave. They get home for dinner. My wife's here every night. Here in Maine people are active. They carve out time to work out, to swim and bike and run. The cold asses ad, about embracing winter? That turns out to be delightfully true. As for us, we're back to running, in full force. My wife and I ran the Philadelphia Marathon together last fall.
It's hard to believe I'm going back to work. But I'm excited. Wish me luck.
Oh--and if you're in Maine, and know of a non-litigation legal job, let me know.
You may have heard a modified version of this story as part of my podcast recently. Click here to listen to the latest podcast episode!