The Unpredictable Nature of Caregiving
by Open Work
How can we give more people the flexibility to do what they need to do, even when it’s unpredictable?
by Patti Giglio
It was just before 9 a.m. when my father-in-law called from Italy, where he was traveling with his wife of 56 years. When I heard his distraught voice I knew it was bad news. I handed the phone to my husband so he could hear whatever it was directly from his dad. In the meantime, I went into my home office for a scheduled client conference call. I was — as you might imagine — distracted.
Ever the multi-tasker I pulled up my frequent flyer account, confirmed that I had enough miles to cover a trip to Italy and back, and learned that there were seats available on the five p.m. flight to Rome. When my client call was over, my husband told me what little he knew. His mother had suffered some kind of heart incident (no one was using the words heart attack) and was undergoing emergency angioplasty.
“I can be in Florence by noon tomorrow on frequent flyer miles,” I said. I didn’t really know what was happening, but I knew that my in-laws — while quite capable—were going to need help.
Within the hour, my husband had spoken with his two brothers and they all agreed their parents would indeed need some TLC. If nothing more, it would be smart to have someone else to listen to and ask questions of the Italian doctors. We all decided that I should be the one to go. My husband struggles with jetlag when traveling abroad, but I can hit the road running. With a home-based public relations consultancy in the D.C. area, I have the flexibility to skedaddle. And the rest of the family is another 3,000 miles away, in California. So, I tossed three pairs of pants and a couple sweatshirts into a bag and emailed our clients while my husband booked a one-way ticket on that five p.m. flight to Rome. He also booked me on the fast train from Rome to Florence. The unpredictable nature of caregiving had just gotten real.
I built my professional life around the personal desire to also be a present parent. I also knew intellectually that caregiving would one day be directed at older relatives. Essentially, what I needed last month was the same kind of flexibility I was seeking when my children were young and I started my public relations consultancy — the flexibility to attend to family life when the need arises.
I had worked in the rigid structure of a newsroom that didn’t offer much flexibility. While I liked my work, personally I just couldn’t deal with the angst when a child got sick and needed my care, or when I simply wanted to attend the kindergarten Halloween party but had to work. So, I started my own business. This was, at the time, becoming an increasingly common phenomenon among women looking for something different, as Kathleen Christensen of The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was beginning to discover in early research on working families. The hours were often long but while my children were growing, I enjoyed the ability to control when, where and how I worked — something that was practically unheard of in the early 1990s. Some of my friends were experimenting with what we now call compressed workweeks and job sharing, but we hadn’t even coined the phrase workplace flexibility yet and the rigid workplace structure didn’t match with my desire to be a present parent and caregiver.
Some years later, my husband, Ken, left his own newsroom job to help me with my growing business. He loved his job, but a big draw for him was the ability to also have a flexible schedule. He, too, could be a present parent. He could coach the youth sports teams, help out at home, walk the dog and keep up with our children, now young adults, all while we both earned a living. Ken and I handle all of our clients as a team, so if I’m on a plane — or at a kindergarten play (these days, a college football game or a trip to check in on our aging parents is more likely) — I have no qualms telling our clients I will be offline for a few hours or days but that they’ll be in good hands if anything comes up. This is exactly what I did as I headed to the airport for my surprise transatlantic flight.
During the flight I looked up the words patient and daughter-in-law in the little English/Italian dictionary my husband handed me on the way out the door. I had no idea what the situation would be when I arrived or how long I would be gone.
As it ended up, I spent 12 days in Italy helping my mother-in-law recover from what we now know was a blood clot and indeed a heart attack. I visited her in the hospital and wrote down questions we had for the doctors. I emailed our extended family regular updates on her condition. I did laundry and managed an endless stream of requests from the travel insurance company. I bought her warmer clothes and took her to the beauty salon for a shampoo. But, perhaps most importantly, I made sure my father-in-law had someone to eat meals with, a partner to discuss her progress with, and a sounding board to identify next steps along the way. There is no doubt in my mind that getting her home would have been infinitely harder for both of them without my help, and I am grateful for the professional flexibility that allows me to also be a caregiver.
I am also very cognizant of the fact that what Ken and I have built isn’t possible for every family. But I do know that more and more companies have realized that if they don’t allow employees to find ways to tend to their family lives, they won’t hang on to their best people. Twenty years ago, it seemed to me that the only choice I had was to leave the workplace altogether and strike out on my own. Today, while we still have much work to do, there is a growing realization at many companies that in order to be good employees, people need to have the flexibility to address whatever life throws our way.
Ours is a small, family-owned business. We have developed a culture of trust, responsibility, flexibility and accountability — with each other and with our clients. This culture allows me, or Ken, to up and go when we need or want to, be it for a family emergency, a school play, a round of golf or a game of tennis. When people ask how we have built such a successful small business with longstanding, enduring clients, my answer is always the same: “I do what I say I am going to do, when I say I am going to do it. And my clients know it.” When a deadline is looming or a client is in crisis, I do what needs to be done, period. When I tell them I have other commitments, they also know that’s real. Trust, responsibility, flexibility and accountability — it’s a two-way street.
This time, I needed the flexibility, and when I walked out the door with an open-ended return date, I knew my clients and the business were in good hands. I had demonstrated many times over the years the skills and capacity to work from the road while juggling the joys and demands of family life. I have a small, dependable team whom the clients trust. I knew I would be able to check in a couple of times a day to handle high-priority matters personally.
I also truly believe that we provide better service because we have the ability to see to our family life. Study after study shows that employees who overwork, lose sleep, and miss family obligations end up burning out or quitting, resulting in a decline in overall productivity. Those who find a way to make work fit with their lives show opposite results.
My mother-in-law is back in California and recovering well. I am back to my fast-paced work life. As I reflect back I can’t help but think of just how unpredictable the nature of caregiving can be and I find myself wondering: How can we give more people the flexibility to do what they need to do, even when it’s unpredictable?
In truth, I have many friends and colleagues with sustainable, flexible jobs — but I don’t have many who talk about it. A lot of people feel that if they openly admit that they leave work at 4:30 to pick up their kids, or that they took two weeks off for a family obligation, that others will see them as less serious and less committed to work. In fact, the opposite is true. People who find a way to tend to their personal lives are often the committed, productive workers that companies today vitally need to succeed.
So, what’s your flex story? If you have found a way to successfully make your job fit with your life, we want to hear about it. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.