Years later, Vardit Feldman still struggles with the photo. It's of her daughter, with a pained look, as she shows her school work to an audience of parents that didn't include her mother.
Her daughter was then about seven years old, and the children had to make a book cover, taking materials and sewing them into the cover. The children then presented the stories to parents, but the event took place during the school day and Ms. Vardit's boss wouldn't give her a few hours off to attend.
"I was furious! It would be the first and last time I did not attend a school function. Every child had their picture taken with the book cover they designed. When I received the picture, I cried for a week or more after my daughter went to bed. Instead of a smile – she tried to smile – but it was a very sad grimace. One could see the little child was so very hurt and perhaps even humiliated as I think every parent was there except me," Ms. Feldman recalled after Globe and Mail readers were invited to share their stories as working parents, in the vein of a book the computing data company EMC published with tales from their employees.
"That picture haunted me for years. The guilt I felt was indescribable. I think I tore up the photo years later, I just could not bear to look at it."
When elaborating on the incident in an interview, Ms. Feldman's voice kept catching with grief at the memory. She's not sure her daughter, now grown up and working, even remembers the incident. But her mom does: "If I could have given myself up to the Children's Aid as a disgusting parent, I would have. If you could stick a knife in me it wouldn't be deep enough. I will never ever forget that picture and never ever forgive myself."
She was a single parent, and afraid of losing her job if she disobeyed her boss. She regrets not ignoring that fear and going anyway. "If the boss says no, give him the finger," she says. "I would have lost my job, but I would have been with my child."
But she also knows realistically that doing that would have likely put their finances in jeopardy, and also potentially hurt her child. It was an unfortunate situation to be in. She might have shrugged it off, if not for the photo. "It taught me you give birth to a child and you are responsible for the child's happiness," she says.
Difficult moments balancing responsibilities to children and work, however, come even when you are the boss. "I started a business at the same time I became a single mom of three young girls," writes April Stewart, who was in property management at the time and now runs a paralegal firm in Barrie, Landlord Legal, which acts for landlords.
"Child care emergencies were my way of life, and I truly don't know how I got through my kids' younger years, while at the same time getting a fledgling business off the ground, and working a second job to make ends meet. My version of Hell was a little girl with a fever and raw throat two hours before I was due in court. Or being sick myself on a court day. I just made it work, and never missed a day in court, by some miracle!"
Sometimes she would turn to her mother, who lives in York Region, for assistance, requiring them to meet halfway for the handoff of the sick child. Other times, working from home, she could care for them, and now that she has her own office she has created a small sick room. "I don't have someone else to rely on. I have to go to work. If I don't, someone else loses out because I am not there to represent them and I lose money. I am responsible to my client," she said in an interview.
The kids at times tagged along as she showed homes to potential tenants. But she never took them with her to court in downtown Toronto, as she fought a case. "I don't want to expose my children to the underworld," she says. "I evict people. I don't want them to know I have kids. I also don't think it would look professional."
These days, with support staff at the office and the sick room, she is better poised to handle emergencies. But she remembers some desperate times when she was a solo entrepreneur.
Deborah Yedlin, a business columnist for the Calgary Herald and a former Globe and Mail columnist, remembers what turned to be a joyful incident a few years ago, when her 10-year-old son Daniel was home with the flu and Suncor and Petro-Canada announced their merger, requiring her to attend a sudden press conference. Her son was generally quiet, so she decided to take him along. He seemed transfixed by the whole event, but at one point told his mother that he wanted to ask a question. "Not now!" she whispered.
But at the end of the press conference, she went up to Suncor CEO Rick George with her son, who asked a question about what the deal meant for the people employed at both companies. The CEO kneeled so he could be at her son's level, and answered the question. "He was so gracious," she recalls. "It might have been an emergency for me, but it turned into a learning experience for my then 10 year old, which he will never forget."
Indeed, he now has a sign on his door, declaring himself Daniel Industries. "He's a budding industrialist. He's interested in profits," she says, although given that his mother is a business columnist and his father vice-chairman of FirstEnergy Corp., perhaps more than the press conference was involved.
Maria Montgomery, who lives in Victoria, tries to cover child care by working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday while her husband works 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. on varying days, with a nanny handling the children between the two shifts. But one day when the nanny was ill, her husband called in to work to explain he would be late and the boss complained that the situation didn't fit into the family leave policy because nobody from the family was actually ill.
"An employee can't abandon a child in such circumstances. It would be illegal – a criminal act," she says. But the reality is that some organizations – like her husband's – haven't recognized the modern reality that an illness for a babysitter or nanny is indeed a family emergency.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter