Care and Feeding

My Job’s Demands on Me Have Crossed a Line

Am I really a terrible person for refusing to do this?

A teacher holds the letter S in her hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by dragana991/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Ocean Ng/ Unsplash.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I recently went back to work after maternity leave with my second baby. I work in a school as a speech therapist. Lately, I just feel like everyone is expected to see more students, more paperwork, more duties, more tasks, all with no more time. I love working with the students. But I also love being with my kids. I feel like the majority of people I work with stay late or even take work home. And with how much my caseload is increasing, it’s a challenge to get all of my work done during the workday. But my afternoons and evenings with my kids are important to me. I can’t help but feel this makes me a lesser employee and therapist. I give it my all when I’m at work. I work through lunch, rarely take breaks, I feel guilty if I talk to my coworkers about anything other than work. Am I a terrible person if I’d rather see my kids than work (unpaid) overtime?

Aside from my kids and family, I have hobbies I enjoy and are fulfilling. The little time I have after the kids go to bed, I enjoy spending it on my hobbies. For the most part, I like my job. Should I have just picked something else if I don’t have it in me to work constantly? Or just accept that I’ll just be a mediocre employee if I want time with my kids and my husband? I know everyone is short-staffed and we are too, but how is it okay to ask or expect people to sacrifice time with families or even down time? Am I weak for needing time with my family and by myself?

—Not a Workaholic

Dear Not a Workaholic,

You are definitely not weak. You may not know this, but currently 65 percent of employees are looking for a new job right now. The pandemic has changed everything, and there are millions of people just like you who are questioning what to do with their lives.

I’ll tell you a quick personal story that may help with this. Many years ago, I was a childless man working in a 9-to-5 job for a large company, and one of the middle managers there was guy we’ll call “Marty.” Marty was the kind of guy who showed up to work at 7:00 a.m. and often didn’t go home until past 10:00 p.m.—and I knew that because I had to drive past my office on the way to the gym when I wanted a late-night workout, and I’d see his car in the parking lot and his light on in his office. Marty was married and had young children at home, but he often bragged about how dedicated he was to his job and how he was the model employee because he worked so hard. Making a long story short, Marty died from a heart attack. After some tears from my colleagues, his office was cleaned out and his job was posted by the end of the week. Years of working for a company were forgotten in a few days. More tragically, his young kids didn’t even get to truly know their dad because he put his job before them. Everyone lost in that scenario—except for the company who viewed Marty as easily replaced.

My point here is that time is the most valuable asset we have, because it’s the only thing we can’t get back once it’s gone. You don’t want to be saddled with a boatload of regret for passing up time with your family. So with that said, you really have two choices:

Option 1 is to draw a line in the sand by saying, “I’ll bust my tail when I’m at the office, but I refuse to take any work home going forward so I can spend time with my family.” The thing that Marty never realized is the work would still be there if he left at 5:00pm or 11:00pm, so why kill yourself (as he literally did) to work unpaid overtime? In his case, it was a tragic example of working harder, not smarter.

Option 2 is to find another job that values work-life balance as much as you do. Trust me when I say there are more companies/schools out there than you think who believe in this. Employers are doing whatever it takes to retain talent nowadays—especially in light of the statistic I posted earlier.

Don’t be like Marty. And never apologize for choosing yourself and your family first.


More Advice From Slate

Our children are 12 and 14, both girls. When they ask questions about money, we’ve always said that we make “about the same” or that perhaps Mom makes “a bit more, but money isn’t everything.” But the reality is that my husband has a fun, engaging, and low-paying job as a busy local musician—work he loves—while I have a stressful, demanding, and much (much) better-paying job in corporate management, which is tolerable on a good day and allows us to live a nice life but isn’t “fun” in any way no matter how we spin it. We don’t want to say or do anything that would imply that one path or the other is intrinsically more valuable, but I do want to ensure they will be able to stand confidently on their own two feet financially. And I don’t want to damage my marriage. But as the kids get older and start to think about college and their futures, they look at our jobs that pay “about the same” and it’s no surprise that being a local musician or doing something similar is more appealing as a career path: It apparently means you are constantly complimented, get to drive a nice car, have lots of free time, live in a big house, vacation around the world, and have fun when you’re at work. I am concerned we are setting them up for a really harsh wake-up call.