For the lucky few of us who can control our own hours, Justice Ginsburg offers us a choice. And a challenge.
I’ve been shit at balancing work and motherhood ever since Levon was born. Previously, I was a stepmother with week on/week off custody, so work/life balance took no effort. Then came full-time motherhood. Even after leaving my TV writing job, I continued to (try to) develop shows while raising a baby, a teenaged stepson, and managing Levon’s early intervention therapy schedule. Like most mothers, I never felt fully present in either world, always pulled to give attention to the thing I wasn’t doing. It will get easier once he’s in school, I told myself.
Long before the pandemic, I read an interview with the late Justice Ginsburg where she reflected on balancing motherhood and law school – a passage that has been widely circulated since her passing: “When I started law school my daughter Jane was 14 months, and I attribute my success in law school largely to Jane. I went to class about 8:30 a.m., and I came home at 4:00 p.m., that was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day, and children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep. Then I was happy to go back to the books, so I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”
What a glorious arrangement, I thought. Once Levon is in school, that’s exactly how I will approach life. A perfect divide that will allow me to succeed in both realms.
And it did, for about five minutes.
Levon started TK. I started Raise. Then corona stopped it all.
Like everyone, I spent the first three weeks of quarantine drinking my way through what I was sure would be an extended vacation. They’ll go back to school after spring break, I said.
They’ll go back in April.
In January. If we’re lucky.
By the second week of Zoom school this fall, I was nearly broken. “I’m never going to work again,” I told my husband. “It’s impossible. Levon can’t read. He needs me to sit next to him the whole time. I can’t write an email without getting interrupted seven times. I can’t work during school hours.”
“So don’t,” my husband replied.
“What you mean, so don’t?! Don’t work?!”
In all transparency, I don’t have to work. We’re beyond privileged. My husband’s income more than supports us, we have food, a home, health insurance, and I wasn’t forced into Zoom school – I chose it. I could have homeschooled or hired a tutor or formed a pod, but I believe in public education and I believe supporting it through actual participation. I want to be the one who helps my child through distance learning and I want to continue to my business. The cry of mothers from across the country.
For some, the situation truly is impossible. I don’t know how parents who must work during school hours are managing remote learning. I’ve read stories of single parents leaving their first grader at home to manage it alone because there is no other choice. I’ve read accounts of mothers with multiple children in multiples grades who are, for lack of a better word, drowning. There are no good options. But for the lucky few of us who can control our own hours, Justice Ginsburg offers us a choice. And a challenge.
Last week, I stopped trying to work during school hours. From 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., I focused only on school. It wasn’t as stimulating as I’d prefer, and I’m definitely behind on emails, but I find myself far less frustrated than I was before. I’ve pushed my own work to late afternoons, nights, weekends, and the parking lots of Levon’s outdoor, Covid-safe extrcurriculars. I roll calls and write posts from the front seat of my car, I work after my husband goes to bed, and I start every email with “Apologies for the delay,” but I make a conscious effort to honor “children’s hour” and divide my day into separate parts, each which give me “respite from the other.”
Justice Ginsburg’s approach to work/life balance sets an example for those of us who control our schedule, but her legacy teaches us that achieving balance for ourselves is not enough. The majority of working parents are facing an impossible, unsustainable situation, and the rest of us must continue working towards a solution for them. We must support our schools and strive for equity for all students. We must use our privilege to carry on RBG’s legacy and make “life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.