Work Life Balance: Interviews with Three Young Fathers in the Legal Profession
Dads and tots, a strange combination perhaps, but it can work according to the three super dads I have interviewed. Read on to find out how these super dads manage to balance their busy working professional lives with fatherhood.
Jonathan Muk, 33, father of a baby girl, LVM Law Chambers LLC
Key highlights in your life with the new baby … On a not insignificant number of days, my daughter will look at me and cue for me to carry her rather than my wife. Perhaps it’s because I clown around with her quite often just to try and make her laugh – which always fills me with joy.
Any struggles with the new baby? No one is ever a perfect parent and I pray that I have done my best to be a loving parent and a dependable colleague in what has been a challenging journey. The stress actually began from supporting my wife through her pregnancy, which at times can get frustrating – I remember cooking what I thought were nourishing Chinese meals for my wife, hoping that the vomiting would lessen. I was wrong. When my daughter came along, it was a struggle to take time to be physically and mentally present for my wife and child. This required understanding colleagues and bosses. I remain grateful to Mr Lok Vi Ming SC and Mr Joseph Lee for being very understanding during the time my wife was pregnant and when my child was born and accommodating my needs as a new parent by giving me time to figure out how to cope with both family and professional commitments.
Making time for the family …Work forms a big part of my identity. I accept that the legal profession means long hours, stresses from court or arbitration deadlines, and stresses from managing (sometimes unreasonable) clients. But when my daughter came along, it took me awhile to accept the fact that I am no longer going to be able to work the hours I used to or the way I used to and that she must be my priority when push comes to shove. It is my sincere hope that in my generation, the Court, colleagues, and clients will agree that being a good parent is way more important than being a good professional. What helps me maintain perspective is knowing that my family will most likely be the ones attending my funeral and not my client.
How has the arrival of the new baby changed your life? It has been tiring and fulfilling. There is no romanticising the trying experience of taking care of a newborn and I will be honest – there were times, especially in the first month, when I felt that having a child was a big mistake. These feelings were most acutely felt in the difficult times during which I doubted whether I was fit to be a parent, because I felt that I was letting my child down by thinking about unfinished work in the office and not knowing what she wanted when she was crying. If you do experience any such feelings, please know that it’s normal. But do reach out and talk to others to take care of yourself mentally because a mentally healthy parent means a child well taken care of.
What tips do you have for first time dads? Please ask for help and have a community of friends you can count on to give you good advice and tips in your parenting journey. It is still a long journey ahead for me personally and I hope that by sharing some of my thoughts we as a profession can begin to actualize how we can, as a profession, support each other personally and professionally even if we sometimes act against each other in court. We call each other “learned friends”. It is my hope that this means more than just an antiquated term of art that has lost its substantive meaning.
Lim Ming Yi, 42, father of two, I.N.C. Law LLC
Key highlights in your life with the new baby … This is our family’s second baby. Our kids are four years apart. Thus, the key highlights are certainly to observe the unique yet similar traits of this second child to our first, and to see them interact and bond with love. We became evenly matched numbers-wise, with the new baby. There are some interactions and enjoyable experiences that only siblings can partake in, and poor Lucas finally has an age-appropriate playmate who he already loves more than the parents. We are happy and excited to see how the siblings will grow and learn to love and respect each other.
Any struggles with the new baby? Both suffered jaundice when they were newborns. But the new baby’s jaundice was worse, requiring 24 hour hospitalization under blue light to minimise harm, which Lucas did not have to go through. That was quite sad and I imagine traumatic for baby, as he could not be with us during that time (but the next round we rented the home UV blanket).
Both children also had tongue tie. Going by Lucas’ experience, we had the new baby checked and treated for tongue tie earlier so he fed much better. Baby was smaller as he came out a bit earlier but he has since caught up in height percentile with his brother now that he is almost a year old.
Our biggest struggle with this baby is adjustment to the rest of the family, especially Lucas. There is an advantage in that Lucas is old enough to be independent but at the same time, Lucas’ mental and emotional needs are vastly different from the baby’s, and it was a very steep and difficult learning curve to figure out how to balance Lucas’ needs and baby’s needs without much compromise. We minded issues like baby jealousy and taught them to respect and accept each other and to share. We had to assure Lucas that he would not feel alienated or be less loved with baby’s arrival.
Making time for the family … With two children of different ages, their needs and schedules are different. If the children are of very similar age, they can go to the same activities usually. With four years’ difference, this is not so. Also in this Covid-era, we have minimised social interactions for the baby as a precaution. We try to spend family time together, and have Lucas help with the feeds so that the family bonding time is there. For the adults, we have to be very disciplined with our time, and to constantly check and align each other’s schedules so that personal and family needs can be met. Everyone must learn to be more flexible, even the children. Time discipline is crucially important, so that family and work needs can be met, and balanced as much as possible. Trust with family and with colleagues is crucial to ensuring that relationships and work demands remain smooth.
How has the arrival of the new baby changed your life? Every time we become a parent, a lot of things change. Our life priorities get adjusted. We undergo tremendous physical, mental and emotional adjustments to our personal lives, and the expectations of those in society around us. We have to consider which parts of our own upbringing we want to follow and what different directions we want to take.
At that moment when we hold the baby, we realise we are forever responsible for this young life and this is an irreversible change. We hope to impart good values upon our children, and let them grow up the way they want to be, while remaining good people. They will have their personality quirks, some of which resemble their parents and some of which will be all their own.
Even with previous experience, babies have unique needs and past exposure is not enough to eliminate difficulties the second time around.
What tips do you have for first time dads? Both times I became a father, I found that being systematic, efficient and maintaining discipline and compartmentalization is crucially important. Having a baby is much more than having a new major file land on your desk. This “client” is unpredictable, undefinable, gives no notice, changes mind at will, won’t pay your bills at all but worst of all, cannot be dismissed and is for life.
Children only grow up once. It was easier to identify milestones with the second baby as we knew better what to expect, but if we miss the milestones because of work or poor time discipline, that is an opportunity forever lost. Whether as a new parent or an impending new parent, start to think and discuss with your partner how things would change when the baby arrives, and it is not (only) about the physical changes in lifestyle/sleep cycles. Some (many) personal experiences will have to give way to the new family experience.
When we become a parent, this is in addition to us remaining as professionals towards our clients; we also remain colleagues and as friends, and we have to juggle and balance more and more demands. Good thing that’s one of the many core skills we need to learn in our profession!
Tan Shen Kiat, 36, father of a toddler, Kith & Kin Law Corporation
Key highlights in your life with the new baby … My new baby (now a toddler of 20 months) will trot into my bedroom every morning asking for a hug and a kiss before my wife whisks him off to play group. It is quite awesome to have someone so in love with you. Sometimes, I tell my wife to learn from my baby!
With the baby, I learnt to treat every day as a new adventure, and even the most mundane and ordinary things that he learnt to do can become something lovely. In our technologically connected world, the baby has inspired me to reject the perverse opportunity to work frantically all the time. Seeing him with his many firsts and witnessing how he sparks untold joy with both sides of our family members, have taught me that embracing the ordinary in our lives can lead to profound experiences.
Any struggles with the new baby? The maternal bond between the child and mother is real. Through dedication, a father can definitely establish a bond, but there are times when the toddler simply prefers my wife, and while that is sweet for her, it does add up when she is also juggling a demanding career. This is not an excuse for the father to slack, but a reminder to all fathers to provide all emotional and spiritual support to enable the wife’s maternal instinct as much as possible.
Making time for the family … My wife and I don’t have a domestic helper, and we don’t live with our parents, so we rely on play group on weekdays. The downside to this arrangement is that the baby falls sick more frequently. Each time he is sick, his symptoms last a week or more! It is very tough juggling baby care and work. My wife and I end up taking turns to be “off work” to care for the baby, and we also call on our parents to step in to help (“many helping hands” approach). Collectively, we get by. But we also collectively burn through a lot of leave days! I’m thankful for understanding colleagues (who are either parents or caregivers) too who help to cover while I’m indisposed at work.
Recently in April, I decided to make a radical move of taking every Monday off so that I can spend it in any way I want with my toddler. Playgrounds, parks, cafes and other attractions are infinitely more pleasant and less crowded on weekdays (Mondays especially).
How has the arrival of the new baby changed your life? It would be the inability to be as free and flexible with my schedule as I was before. You need to plan around your baby’s schedule, and you do have to sacrifice some social activities (e.g. hanging out late at night with friends) because of baby’s bedtime. When you do go out with your baby, you are also not as (logistically) free as before, because you need to pack and bring along a whole bagful of baby supplies.
Being a father has also made me rethink the idea of retirement. In my father’s generation, the idea of retirement is to put off any form of pleasure and endure a 30 to 40 year career. Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4-Hour Workweek suggests alternating periods of work with periods of fun and periods of holiday, and living the “retired life now” by freeing up both time and location and thus increasing the multiplier effect of one’s money. My baby needs my time and attention relatively more than money – and this perspective of family shapes how I work.
What tips do you have for first time dads? “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.” – Attributed to Barbara Bush
I would advise expecting parents to discuss and come to some level of mutual understanding on how they will balance career, family, upkeeping the (physical) household and self-care after the baby is born. Couples should identify what is most important to them during this season in life (raising young kids), and recognise that they will have to make trade-offs within the constraints of their time, energy and money. They should go easy on themselves and not beat themselves up for not ticking all the boxes (e.g. successful career, closely bonded family, immaculate house, fit and fab body). They shouldn’t be shy to ask for help, because they WILL need help. Lastly, they should remember to carve out time to take care of themselves, so that they can better care for each other and their loved ones.
In my case, planning to start a family also precipitated my move to start my own law firm so that I could reduce the micro-stressors in my life and practice in a way that allows me, and by extension my clients and my family, to thrive. I would like my boy to grow up to be a person who loves Jesus and is well-adjusted – confident in what he knows, humble in recognising what he does not know, and curious to keep on learning. I would like him to be someone with empathy for others, with a great capacity to love and bless those around him. I would like him to have a heart of service – to be generous with his time and talents, and not be narrowly self-serving in his outlook.
Also, do everything to make your wife happy and you will be fine.