I often fantasize about killing myself. While standing on the subway platform, I imagine hurling my body in front of an oncoming train. Or throwing myself out the window of my home, my head slamming into the pavement. Or going to the garage, turning on the car, and falling asleep forever.
When I’m not daydreaming of my own demise, I find myself wishing death upon my mom. Ideally in her sleep, or in a car accident, or of a heart attack, or even due to a fast-acting cancer.
Before I continue, let me ease your mind a bit. I’m clearly in an unhappy place, but I fantasize about suicide the same way that I fantasize about winning the lottery or Madonna earning another No. 1 hit. Deep down, I know that none of these three things is actually going to happen.
What will happen is that my mom will die, because she is already dying. Sadly, not in any of the ways I want for her.
My mom has Alzheimer’s, with dementia rapidly stealing her memories, robbing her vision, and hijacking her ability to perform basic activities of daily living. It’s been over three years since I first took her to the neurologist after she’d started exhibiting minor memory lapses. At the time, the doctor speculated that perhaps it was all a result of minor depression and that she might improve with greater social interaction and enjoyable activities.
But I knew. I knew that hope would not be a treatment for something that was way more serious. Yet my heart refused to agree with my mind. I wanted to believe something different than what I knew. I tried to convince myself that once my mom would read more, see friends more, take this supplement, that vitamin, and try harder to adopt a more positive mindset, she’d get better.
But again, I knew. When a neuropsychologist delivered an official diagnosis the day before Thanksgiving in 2019, my reaction was no reaction. Frankly, I would’ve thought the doctor was incompetent had he said anything other than Alzheimer’s.
My mom’s loss of ability and dignity since then has been scary and dramatic. A young woman who was once brave enough to journey from her native Soviet Union to the United States — with no money, no English, no contacts — today struggles to find her way to the bathroom in her own home. Then once she enters it, she cries in confusion because she doesn’t know what to do or how to do it.
A person who for much of her life worked as a chemist performing all sorts of complicated analyses now cannot compute 6 + 3.
My mom used to love cooking for huge dinner parties and laughing with friends and relatives. These days, she opens the refrigerator and has no clue what she’s looking at. She’s also forgotten many friends, who have likewise forgotten about her.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to have my mom come to me in tears explaining that she just realized she can no longer read — when the reality is that that is probably the third time in a month that she “just realized” this. The constant re-traumatization is haunting to witness.
Yet perhaps worst of all is not what she no longer knows but what she still does know. My mom remains entirely aware of her decay. She sobs daily about “how stupid I am,” “how worthless I’ve become,” “how I can’t do anything anymore,” “how there’s nothing of me left to love,” “how I’m not the same person I used to be.”
I reply by asking, “Well, what are three words you’d use to describe yourself?”
She usually can’t come up with three, partly because of her diminished vocabulary (seeing the brawl going on in her head to pull from the air the right word, in Russian or English, is heartbreaking). Still, my mom always cites one main self-descriptor — loving.
“I think I’m loving,” she says.
“Well, you’ve always been loving, and you still are,” I tell her. “So that means you are still the same person.”
Even as I babble such saccharine sh-t — as true as it is — I know my mom isn’t buying it. And why should she? She may not fully understand what’s happening to her, but she understands that it’s happening. She knows nothing about how Alzheimer’s will continue to suck the life from her till there’s none left, but she knows her life sucks now.
Her face contorted into an ugly cry as tears stream down her face, she holds my hand and pleads, “Help me. Please. Can you help me? Can you find someone to help me? What’s become of me? What’s become of me?”
I reply with a hug and a kiss, the most and the least I can do.
The new reality is there are no longer good days for her — only bad, really bad, and how-is-this-really-happening-because-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening bad.
Not just for her, but for me. Which brings me to paid family leave (PFL).
I’m Leaving TLNT
I know, that was perhaps an odd transition, but hey, this is still TLNT, an HR publication. It’s also a site that I have loved editing for almost two years.
In fact, many years ago, I told a bunch of people how being the editor of TLNT seemed like a dream job. Fast forward to today and between this role and editing TLNT’s sister site, ERE.net (covering all things talent acquisition), I’m at my professional peak. And my personal low.
When life outside of work is a nightmare, doing a job — let alone enjoying it — suddenly becomes an impossible dream.
That’s why today is my last as editor of TLNT, for now. While I will continue as ERE’s editor, I have decided to take PFL because doing my full job, caregiving for my mom, and finding slivers of time to have a life outside of all of that has become untenable. The attempt to manage all those responsibilities has resulted in a clear inability to manage any of them.
My work is suffering. My mom is suffering. I am suffering. So obviously, I should take PFL for my physical, mental, and emotional health.
That’s a lie. It actually wasn’t obvious. But I feel like I have to say it was — because what kind of progressive HR (OK, maybe HR-adjacent) professional would I be if I didn’t parrot the usual lines about prioritizing mental wellbeing and putting oneself and one’s family first?
The truth is that I considered taking PFL for a few months before finally broaching the subject with my boss. As I was debating whether to go on leave, part of me felt like a fraud. Here I was, constantly talking about how health and caring for your loved ones are more important than work, but then I’d behave as if editing some article on recruitment process outsourcing trumps all of that.
I knew I needed to go out on leave, but I kept delaying it. Why?
Why did I — why do countless workers like me — hesitate when it comes to taking legally protected time away from a job? Why do so many ultimately choose not to go out on leave at all?
These are some of the most important questions pertaining to PFL. Laws and company policies are important and necessary, but their existence alone is not enough for people to take advantage of them. So, before I reveal reasons for my own initial hesitation and hypocrisy, let me first explain what New York State PFL looks like in my case.
The Usual U.S. Lag
In 2016, New York enacted the country’s strongest PFL policy, which allows eligible employees to receive job-protected, paid time off to bond with a newly born, adopted, or fostered child; assist loved ones when a spouse, domestic partner, child, or parent is deployed abroad on active military service; or, like in my case, care for a family member with a serious health condition. The statute also provides continued health insurance and protection from discrimination or retaliation.
In a nutshell, I’m eligible to take up to 60 days (in day increments) to care for my mom. Though I’m able to take them consecutively, I’ve chosen to take my days on an intermittent basis so that most weeks, I’ll be working three days and taking PFL the remaining two.
An employer’s insurance carrier pays for a worker’s PFL time, which is capped at 67% of the New York State average weekly wage of $1,450.17. This comes to a max of $971.61 per week. All of this is funded through tiny payroll deductions. You can learn more about New York’s PFL here.
New York is not alone in offering such a program. (But the United States is alone among wealthy nations when it comes to having a nationwide PFL policy, while FMLA merely guarantees unpaid leave to workers at employers with more than 50 employees). Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted PFL initiatives. You can view the current status of PFL laws nationwide here.
It’s worth noting that New York’s PFL “has imposed minimal costs on employers,” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Findings also revealed that there was no negative impact on worker performance and productivity.
Why I Avoided Taking Paid Family Leave
It should come as no surprise that candidates and employees appreciate the ability to take PFL. At least, they say they do.
People claim they want this benefit, but the reality, again, is that many eligible workers don’t use it. It’s akin to saying that you prefer to live in a city with lots of art museums, but then you rarely visit them. In other words, it’s not the benefit that people appreciate. It’s knowing that it’s there.
And it is there for many workers. But policy does not equal uptake. While there’s no reliable data on percent of eligible workers who choose not to leverage an existing policy, through various conversations I’ve had with people, it’s clear that many people decide not to partake in a PFL program because…
“I need the money.” Some people simply can’t survive the financial hit. The irony is that much of the impetus for PFL is to help low-wage earners — the very same individuals who often cannot afford a salary reduction.
Thankfully, money wasn’t a factor for me when considering PFL, but I feel for workers for whom every cent matters. For many years, my mom was one of those workers. If she saw a penny on the ground, she’s pick it up in delight. In fact, it is because she was frugal and a saver that I now find myself with a privileged luxury to deprioritize compensation at moments like this.
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To that end, I’ve never told anyone this, but when I see a penny on the street, I want to pick it up — not because I need it but because I feel like I’m dishonoring my mom if I don’t grab it. Often, though, I leave the penny on the ground because I’m too embarrassed to pocket it. Only to feel inner shame immediately afterward for betraying my mom with my decision.
“I’m more comfortable hiring a caregiver.” This is a legitimate choice and somewhat on the other extreme of the previous reason — because unless Medicaid’s paying, caregiving options are expensive, especially in the New York metro area.
Plus, not everyone is cut out for caregiving. That includes me. It’s extremely tough for me to manage my mood, practice patience, and not throw temper tantrums, nevermind perform some of the more intimate acts of caregiving. As many caregivers will tell you, the hardest part of the experience is not managing a loved one’s behaviors but managing your own.
Nonetheless, at this stage, I’m able to be a good primary caregiver for my mom. When the day comes that she needs professional care, she’ll get it.
“I have familial and other commitments precluding me from caregiving.” Similar to the reason above, when people have spouses, kids, or other family members or people they are already responsible for, it’s not always feasible to add to the mix another individual who needs care.
I’m single, though. In many ways, my mom’s role has always also been that of my best friend. I’d even add that she fills the role of a romantic partner for me in many ways — except that way, obviously. I understand that may sound weird, but the best explanation I have here is: I don’t care.
“I’m too busy doing important work.” Here’s where we start to get into less personal and more work-oriented reasons. To anyone who believes this about themselves: What the [bleep] are you talking about?
Of course, I’m way too nice to say that to someone’s face, but the moral is that there’s no such thing as being too busy to do something that is valuable to you. It’s all just prioritization. And chances are, your work isn’t as important as you think.
I never considered not accessing leave because of workload or some crazy notion that the future of HR rests on an article I wrote about diversity. We also both know that the world will survive without my letters from the editor about performance management.
Moreover, while I weighed the impact that a leave would have on the company and fellow colleagues, I always knew that my mom was more important than my coworkers. I hope they’d say the same about (at least some of) their relatives.
Ultimately, I remain struck by something that my former coworker (shoutout to Rachel Causey) said to me about my caregiving role: “What you’re doing really matters.”
What a simple line. What a powerful line, at least it was for me. Particularly in HR, we talk about abstract concepts like mission, values, purpose. Rachel’s line coalesced and crystallized all of that for me — which is to say that, yes, I actually am too busy doing important work. Except the work in this case is striving to create safety and joy for my mom.
So if none of the above explains my initial reluctance to take a leave of absence, what does?
“I’m uncomfortable having this conversation with my boss.” And there it is. I dread creating discomfort at work — and, look, I know it’s important to have uncomfortable conversations in the workplace. I know all that best-practice advice because I’ve published it throughout my career, but my aim with this article is not to traffic in prescriptions. It’s to offer descriptions of the emotional labor required to balance work and caregiving and why some people hesitate to ask for what they need.
My reservations were not steeped in poor company work policies around flexibility or time management. As a fully remote workforce, we have a great deal of flexibility and room to manage our time here at ERE Media. Nor do I report to some uncaring jerk.
Rather, it was my desperation to be liked coupled with a fear of creating awkwardness and tension that had stopped me from voicing my needs.
I don’t even know what I was scared of. That my boss would be annoyed with me? OK, maybe, but that’s not an indictment of him so much as how I’d feel about any boss.
Additionally, never did I feel my job was in jeopardy (if anything, it’s protected now). Never did I think there’d be retaliation. But at the same time, we are a small staff where each of our roles is vital to the company. I knew my decision would throw a curveball at my boss. I knew he wouldn’t be pleased — because no manager in this situation would be pleased. This is not to imply that he would not care about me or support me. But my decision would complicate things, and complications create unpleasantness.
(If you’re reading this and thinking I’d make a terrible people manager, you’d be absolutely right!)
After reflecting on my discomfort, I came to a simple conclusion: The problem is not that I’m prioritizing work over my mom. It’s that I’ve been prioritizing my own uneasiness above what’s in my mom’s best interest.
Plus, with growing frustration that had me throwing a phone and breaking it, slamming my fist into a light switch and breaking that too, almost tossing my work laptop against the wall, and worst of all, getting increasingly irritable with my mom, I knew I had to take charge of my situation.
Once I realized all of this, my decision was easy and quick. I got over myself, had the conversation, and have been preparing for my leave.
Which brings me to today, my final one as TLNT editor for the time being. Starting next week, TLNT will have a new editor. Peter Crush is an award-winning U.K.-based journalist who is going to bring a fresh perspective and great stories while I’m away. I’m looking forward to the site’s continued evolution under his editorship, and I hope you are too! Welcome, Peter!
As for me, I’ll be joining you as an avid reader of this site. And like I mentioned, I’ll continue editing ERE.net, as well as helping to create ERE Digital, the premier practitioner-led event for talent acquisition professionals.
Most importantly, I’ll be dedicating more of my time to the most important person in my life. None of it will be easy. I will still get frustrated daily. I will still likely tear up or cry daily as I watch my mom forget her life, forget people around her, forget how to eat, forget how to talk, forget things about me, and forget me.
But I will not forget, or regret, taking time to be for my mom what she has always been for me — loving.