Women in business: The caregiver's challenge

Holding down a demanding career while also caring for a parent or child can be overwhelming. Meet two women doing their best to make it work

Anna Lilly gets her son ready to go out | Chung Chow

When Anna Lilly received the diagnosis that her three-year-old son had autism spectrum disorder, she was devastated. “At the time, I didn’t really know much about autism,” says Lilly, senior vice-president and partner with public relations and communications firm FleishmanHillard Canada. “When your child has serious difficulties in life, you are forced to confront reality in ways that others aren’t.”

Lilly and her husband immediately sought the help of occupational and behavioural therapists. The first year was a whirlwind of appointments to find the right treatments for their son. “We had to spend a lot of time meeting with professionals,” she says. “I had to take days and half days off and one or both of us stepped up when needed to support our son.”

Holding down a demanding career while caring for a child with a disability can be stressful and challenging. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, the majority of the eight million unpaid Canadian caregivers are women like Lilly in their early to mid-40s – most of them in their peak earning years. Many are faced with the challenge of managing work and home commitments, while also caring for themselves both personally and professionally.

Lilly discovered ways to balance competing demands on her time and energy without compromising her career. “When you introduce major family changes in the mix, you must reorient your focus both at home and work,” she says.

To make family and work lives work together, many women must sacrifice career opportunities –  maybe even their entire career – to care for a loved one. Lilly says she’s fortunate to have the type of job that allows her to be flexible. “I can come in a little later and leave earlier or work from home,” she says. “I have great weeks where things go fairly smoothly and unpredictable weeks that are challenging, but I’ve learned to accept those weeks.”

Her best strategy is to seek help – whether that’s asking her employer for more flexible work hours or asking family and friends for support. “When my son was first diagnosed three years ago, I was very reluctant to look for sources of help.… I had this mindset that I could figure it out on my own, that I could do this,” Lilly says. “I soon realized I couldn’t.”

Women helping parents ■ Many young, single, career-driven women enjoy a relatively carefree life. For Melissa Polak, a 29-year-old senior manager at consulting firm EY, that has never been the case. “My father had a stroke while I was still in high school,” Polak recalls. “In addition, my mother has had mobility and health issues for a long time.”

Growing up with an Asian father, it was assumed Polak would take her parents in. “In Asian culture, typically the son looks after the father, but my brother is estranged from my father,” she says. “Dad’s retirement plan was living with his children.”

Originally, Polak lived in Ottawa, close to her parents, making it easier to assist in their care. However, three years ago she accepted a promotion to Vancouver. “I rely much more on other people now for the day-to-day issues, but I fly to Ottawa several times a year.”

She has long made peace with her decision to move to Vancouver. “I’ve come to terms at how all of this has played out. By taking this promotion, I’m more successful and more financially able to support my parents,” Polak says. “The toughest balance for me has been about self-preservation, while not derailing my career.”

Over the years, she has found herself flying to Ottawa on a moment’s notice. “When my father was on a waiting list for a long-term care facility, there was a short turnaround to complete a move, or the room would be offered to the next person,” she says, “so I went to Ottawa for the weekend to help him move.”

While managing two ill parents from across the country, she has been doing her best to juggle their needs with her career. “Thankfully, the company provides a program which allows me to take a temporary leave, enabling me to work flexibly over the summer and step away from the office to attend to family,” says Polak, who was able to resume her career after taking eight weeks off. “My co-workers have also been incredibly supportive.”

Caregiving ground rules ■ Both women agree that caregiving requires laying some ground rules, both at home and at work. While most pregnant women plan for how they’ll juggle work and motherhood and have the benefit of a multi-month leave, few caregivers are able to prepare for when situations arise with their loved ones.

“I wish I had all the answers to the challenge,” Polak says. “I’ve had to adjust at work and try to be more flexible to help take care of some administrative things for my aging father, which is increasingly complex as his health deteriorates and because he still lives in Ontario.”

Today’s reality is that both burdens continue to fall primarily on women’s shoulders. “Being a primary caregiver to any loved one, young or old, absolutely and without question affects your career,” adds Polak.

Lilly says women shouldn’t try to do it on their own, especially when family and friends are often able and willing to help out in both big and small ways. “The more you can work on acceptance ... and take assistance from family, friends, colleagues and others in your network, the more you can make your new normal work both at home and work,” Lilly says.