Work/family conflicts can arise early in a journalism career

One of this year’s graduates wrote to me recently with a pressing question:

“I know I JUST started working at [a major television network], but I have a question for you. … How did you know when to put your family first, before your job?

“…The reason I am asking is because when I was hired, my boss said I would be working Monday through Friday. But now, judging by the schedule, it seems she may not be giving me the weekends off, and, instead, will be giving me weekdays off.

“I am nervous because I am newly married, and with a schedule like that, I will never see my husband. Do I say something? I really would like at least one weekend day off so I can spend time with him, at least one day.

“But I feel like, since I am new, it is wrong to ask for that. Keep in mind, I am a freelancer still. I am not salaried yet. I get paid per day. Then I get worried that if I say something and ask for a weekend day as one of my off days, I am jeopardizing the potential for me to become a salaried employee.

“What is more important, my job, or personal time with my husband? Do you have any words of wisdom?”

She picked a good person to ask. Balancing work and family has been a core issue for me throughout my professional life. As a young, married graduate student, I decided to study business and economic journalism because business reporters generally worked day shifts Monday to Friday, not nights or weekends. As a young reporter at Newsday, pregnant with my first child, I proposed and tested the newsroom’s first official part-time work schedule and fought for five years to improve its terms. Though I left Newsday when my third child was born in 1993, I consider the terms of that year’s union contract, which created a Family Work Schedule that gave employees pro-rated vacation and sick pay along with health and disability insurance, my legacy. For the next dozen years, Newsday reporters and editors could work part-time without jeopardizing their benefits or taking a pay cut, and many did.

As a journalism professor, I encourage my students, men and women alike, to talk to me about work-life balance. Although the pending birth or adoption of a baby often drives people to consider these issues for the first time, other concerns may bring them up, as in the case of my alumna at the television network. Caring for disabled or elderly relatives can also force employees to make difficult choices. And, of course, these quandaries confront people in every industry, not just in journalism.

There’s never a simple answer to these questions. The pressures workers face include love and fear and ambition and loyalty and courage — all very, very powerful forces.

As to my alum’s plaintive query – “What is more important, my job, or personal time with my husband?” — my answer weighed in on the career side.

“Because you’re new and your bosses don’t know you, because you’re young, because you just graduated, because this is your first paid, professional position, because you’re a freelancer — these are the reasons you should strike a balance that weighs heavily in favor of the job,” I wrote. “But you are newly married, and that counts for something.”

I warned her to be careful about specifying “newlywedhood” (to coin a word) as the reason she needs a weekend day off every so often, especially if her boss isn’t married. Unmarried people (regardless of sexual orientation) can be justifiably annoyed when married people assume that the fact of their being married gives them rights other people don’t have.

I suggested, instead, that she ask for a weekend day off every three or four weeks for personal reasons. If pressed, she could say that it’s a relationship matter, which everyone can relate to, and THEN say it’s because she’s newly married. Tact helps.

Asking for a weekend day off every three or four weeks rather than every week shows that she, and by extension her husband, is willing to sacrifice to get the job done, to get the news on the air and to build her career. For this young couple, the next few years are the time to sacrifice. She has to show that she’s willing to pay her dues. Everyone in the business has. That’s one of the ways young people are judged by veterans.

If her boss insists that she work a full weekend shift, I suggested she agree but ask to revisit the schedule in two or three months.

Balancing work and relationships is rarely easy, and everyone has to find his or her own boundaries. A wise boss once told me, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” In an era when family itself is being redefined, more employees than ever will be seeking creative ways to bend the workplace to meet the needs of their personal lives.

This post originally appeared here.

    • Aisha A.
    • July 19th, 2011

    Great blog post and advice! I am not considering a family life just yet, but I always wondered about this.

  1. Great post! I am not married and have no kids. I find it hard balancing my work schedule with my workout schedule and my sleep schedule. I am not getting the necessary amount of sleep every weekday and it is something I am working on improving. I have three hours of commuting everyday. By the time I get home after working out it is around 10:00 pm. I have to rush and get everything ready for the next day. One thing I do know now is that I am sacrificing these next few years so that I won’t have to do this when I do have a family. I guess it all depends on the person and their priorities in life.

  2. Great post. I’m not in this situation yet….but as always it’s hard to prioritize work/school commitments with family and other relationships. I also feel that as women, we are under even more pressure to choose between the two.

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