September-October 2008

How do you balance work and home?

Sunshine Stanek

Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Lubbock County

For my first murder trial I had a new suit, new pantyhose, new shoes, a great haircut, and I got to the office two hours early to work on my opening statement.

For my most recent murder trial, I wore the only clean suit in my closet (after finding baby spit-up running down the back of the first suit I put on), dug around in my closet for some new hose, worked on my opening statement in the shower and during the drive to work, wore my slippers into the courthouse while carrying my heels in my bag (so as not to drop the baby on the way in to daycare), fixed my hair in my office (I couldn’t find my hair spray in the diaper bag but knew I had some in my desk drawer), downed two cups of coffee and a can of Diet Rock Star, and got to work just in time to get a Diet Coke and head to court for voir dire.

Sound familiar?

I have just recently returned to work from maternity leave (which I cut short because I didn’t want to completely miss a capital case I had worked on for two years). Now, having a 5-year-old daughter and 5-month-old son, I have been reflecting on work-home balance. Is there is a distinction between the two? Can there be a healthy balance? For those of us who work in a district or county attorney’s office, sometimes it is hard to distinguish where work ends and home life begins. Being a working parent is hard, but being a working parent immersed in a world of evil is a different scenario. We are in daily contact with the worst people humankind has to offer. So, how do you leave this world and go home to a 5-year-old who wants to know how your day was and a teething baby who just wants to be held and show you his new bubble-blowing trick?

First, you be honest with yourself. Are you spending enough time with your family? Are you leaving work at work? Are you spending enough time on yourself to maintain your personal integrity and beliefs? To make sure you can answer those questions with “yes” most of the time, here’s what I do:  The minute I walk in the door at home, I take my work clothes off and put on my “play clothes.” This is very important to my daughter because it signifies that the work day is over and we are at home for the rest of the evening. If my shoes are left on for more than a minute after we walk in the door, she is physically taking them off for me. The two or three hours before bedtime are reserved entirely for my children. My daughter and I cook dinner together every night while the baby sits and watches us. We discuss only her day, not mine, unless she asks about it. We sing along to a blaring Hannah Montana CD while in the bathtub, read library books, and end the day by saying our prayers. I always end mine the same way: “Lord, please keep my children happy, healthy, and safe.” I do not check email or work on trials until both kids are in bed, and I often end the day with a glass of wine as I do my own personal “research,” pouring over US, People, Cosmo, and the occasional Parent magazines.

Second, you must be honest with your children. I tell my daughter that adults who break the rules have to go to jail. And when they are old enough to ask about the death penalty and the more violent cases that I work on, I will be honest with them about what we are working on and why. Recently a burglar broke into the Meals on Wheels building where she and I often volunteer. This caused her great concern and she asked me everyday when I got home from work if we had caught the bad guys and what we were going to do to them. She could not believe that someone would rob a place where the whole goal is to help people. It just blew her little 5-year-old mind, and honestly, it should blow our adult minds as well. Sometimes it takes her comments to put everything back in perspective for me. Her little eyes asking me what will happen to those criminals reminds me that there have to be consequences for evil actions. I spend my days away from her and my son to make our community a better place to live and our neighborhood a safer place to play. Her elementary perspective makes me realize that the time spent away from my family makes all of our worlds a better place. It makes it all of the stress worth it.

And then there are the days when I cannot for the life of me get to the courthouse without throw-up on my suit jacket and in desperation I turn to my friends in the office for help, advice, or even a spare blazer. Is there anyone else who has these days? I recently asked fellow prosecutors and investigators for their advice on balancing difficult jobs with their regular lives and parenthood, and I got a wide range of responses that all amount to the same thing: Work and life outside of the office are difficult to separate, but making time for the little things adds up to great benefits for both yourself and your family.

And when all else fails, keep a Shout wipe in your desk drawer.

Jana K. McCown, Assistant District Attorney in Williamson County

I have two girls and a boy, ages 14, 11, and 7. I’ve been prosecuting since long before they were born, but having children definitely changes your perspective. In order to cope with the bad things I hear about at work, I do two basic things. First, I try not to read any articles in the paper about children outside my county who are injured or sexually abused. There are enough cases in my jurisdiction to deal with, so I compartmentalize.

Second, and more helpful, my family attends church regularly. You have to find places with people who are generally trying to live right and raise their children to be happy, healthy, and godly kids. By reminding myself that good people are out there, it helps me deal with the lack of trust that our profession generates. I’m still more careful than most, I expect, but I recognize that I cannot predict when or where something bad might happen because it could be any place at any time. As my kids grow up, I also explain (in small, age-appropriate doses) why I parent the way I do.

Michael L. Ecker, District Attorney’s Investigator in Potter County

When it’s time to go home, go home. Don’t take office work with you. Have dinner at home—TV off, seated at the table, and taking your time to eat and chat. You should be wearing comfortable clothing. If it’s nice outside, play with the kids for a while. Of course, if the weather is bad, engage in some non-stimulating activities with the family. I say non-stimulating because it helps us wind down emotionally so we are more able to put the workday behind us and less likely to think about the workday ahead.

Eat out only once or twice a week (you will save money). A couple of times a week, walk the mall. But for your health’s sake, set a deadline to be back home by 8 p.m. That gives you time to bathe the kids, get them to bed, and have some quiet time for yourself.

We are too active. We pass that on to our children, then they suffer the same stress we do. Kids need down time just like we do. For some reason we think we must serve on a committee, play intramural sports, go to the gym (we don’t have to look like Hollywood actors), coach little league, and do all of those things in addition to work. We are too committed and overwhelmed, and we are burning the candle at both ends.

The Book of Psalms (chapter 46, verse 10) says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Take time for meditation and prayer. Read the Psalms before going to bed. You will be surprised at how quickly your stress level and blood pressure drop.

Go to bed earlier. Americans don’t get enough sleep. We need nine to 10 hours per night. Remember: Office jobs are more stressful than digging ditches. Stop digging your own early grave.

Audrey Louis, Assistant District Attorney in Atascosa County

My boys are my release. The minute I walk in the door, they demand immediate immersion into their world of trucks, books, swings, tee-ball, and the occasional tantrum. This is invaluable. It is a reminder that work is work and play is play.

Kim Witman, Criminal District Attorney’s Investigator in Lubbock County

Due to the nature of our jobs, it’s hard sometimes to remember what the world looks like through the eyes of a child. Watching my 8-year-old daughter, Taryn, this summer, I have been reminded that riding bikes, playing with friends, and flagging down the ice cream man take highest priority on her “to do” list.

Last March, I had the opportunity to assist our office in a capital murder trial with a change of venue. During voir dire and the trial, I frequently had to leave Taryn with relatives when I went to Amarillo. It was difficult for both of us, but I tried to explain to her how important this case was. I absolutely love my job as an investigator and can say that I am one of those people who can’t believe I get paid for what I do. What I did not particularly like is that Taryn overheard me talking about this case at times, and I had to find a way to explain the death penalty to her. I also told her I thought it would be best if she didn’t go to school and tell her second-grade class about it. However, it’s inevitable that children of prosecutors and law enforcement officers probably know more about the sinister acts that occur in this world than children whose parents have “normal” jobs.

Earlier this summer, Taryn and I went to church camp in Floydada. We were able to spend uninterrupted time together, which made her feel important. My focus was solely on her, not on a trial she heard about on the nightly news. There was no cell phone reception, no computers, no televisions, no meetings to attend, and no deadlines to meet. This short break from my work routine refreshed and rejuvenated me. We all know how stressful investigations and trials can be. Taking time off to do fun things with my family is one of the best cures I have found. I always come back to work with a fresh outlook, a better attitude, and renewed energy.

Taryn and I have made some good memories in the past, and I’m sure there are many more to come. She probably won’t remember all of the weeks I had to leave her for voir dire and the capital murder trial, but I bet she will always remember the three days I spent with her at camp. Maybe we would all be less stressed if we scheduled time with our families like we schedule appointments for work. On at least some weekends, we should focus on riding bikes, playing with friends, and flagging down the ice cream man.

Rainey Webb, Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Tarrant County

Our 3-year-old twins have to endure the curse of both parents working in the criminal justice system. My husband is on the Dallas SWAT team, and I work in the felony division of the Tarrant County DA’s office. We both feel like we have the best jobs in the world and recognize that our knowledge of the criminal side of our community is an occupational hazard that changes the way we view everything and everyone. We are constantly trying to balance being good parents with being completely paranoid every time we walk out of the house with the kids. I believe the key to finding balance in our lives is to appreciate what we have and to enjoy the time we have together. It’s a corny answer but it’s true. Life experiences have enabled me to not take things for granted. I have so many close friends who had trouble conceiving children, deal with children who are not healthy, or have other difficult issues. We have also lost friends in law enforcement who never knew when they left their house that morning it would be their last day on earth.

We both try to make the most of every day. I believe any expert will tell you that what kids want most is time, so at the end of the day when we get home, the first thing we do is take off our “daytime clothes,” put on our “comfy clothes,” and go outside and play as hard as we can. It’s not only great for the kids to get all their energy out, but it’s also great for me to unwind. It lets me stop and realize that compared to the people I have been dealing with all day, whether they are defendants or victims, my life is pretty good.

Yesterday neither one of the kids wanted to go outside. They had to watch a movie or TV. As much as I wanted to do the same, I knew they were only going to get crankier if we stayed inside. Then my son suggested we go for a swim. We all got our suits on and got in the pool long enough to get wet and then everyone got out, at which point my daughter said, “Let’s look for animals in the clouds.” My son piped up, “We can lay our towels on the ground and look up at the sky. That will be great!” Forty-five minutes later I had seen an alligator, an elephant, an airplane, a snowy mountain, the letters X and Y, and a ladybug—all through the imagination of two 3-year-olds.

Just when I was about to concede that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, the cumulative wisdom of the six years those kids have been alive reminded me that joy is in the little things.

Philip Ray, Assistant District Attorney in Potter County

A couple of years ago, I knew a prosecutor—OK, I was that prosecutor—who was burning out so fast that he’d supplement his daily Welbutrin and beta blockers with a glass or two of whiskey in the evenings. When I turned 33—two years ago this month—it was a milestone that spun through my mind every time I looked around my empty apartment. You know that guy who hasn’t unpacked even two years after he’s lived there? That was me. I had no pictures displayed and  no mention of friends or family anywhere. My personal life had taken a backseat to my career.

A coworker, Ralph Fletcher, talked me into attending a personal growth seminar, PSI Basic. (See www.psiseminars.com for more information.) I dragged my older brother, Kenneth, to whom I was barely speaking, with me. What I found in that goofy, huggy atmosphere was that I’d completely forgotten all the non-work things I’d always enjoyed. I was so wrapped up in the seriousness of my cases that I’d stopped having fun.

Here I am, two years later, with this suggestion to keep your career going: Find something outside of it that makes you smile. Whether it’s starting a regular night to play video games with friends or discovering a new art or craft, our lives even out if we diversify. What I didn’t realize two years ago was that if my entire focus was work—if all I had was my job—I would stop loving it.

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a personal growth seminar (although the one I took was the best money I’ve ever spent). Sign up for a cooking course, pick up a new sport, or learn Spanish. Find something that makes you hurry home at the end of the day. For me, it’s my fiancee, Misty Thornton, her dog Bradee, and my tennis-ball-crazy Labrador, Cassidy. Balance out your life, and your appreciation for your job will swell—instead of crushing you. ✤