Balancing act: A barrister’s life in lockdown

Pandemic highlights parents’ struggle to juggle; ‘I hope there will be lessons learned’

‘The court environment has changed dramatically in light of the safety measures which are now in place,’ says self-employed barrister Helen McCarthy. Photograph: iStock

‘The court environment has changed dramatically in light of the safety measures which are now in place,’ says self-employed barrister Helen McCarthy. Photograph: iStock

 

“Looking back, the anxiety we all felt over the course of 2020 blurred the lines entirely between our personal and professional lives,” says Helen McCarthy, a self-employed barrister living in Kilkenny. Helen and her husband both work as barristers which has certainly made life in lockdown interesting and complicated as they balance the evolving workload of the courts and caring for their two children – aged five and three years old. Helen is also pregnant on their third child.

The continual workload of the courts system has been necessary to progress the matters of court and State. As such, the presence of barristers in courts all over the country has been deemed essential throughout the pandemic. As indispensable workers providing a much-needed service, the equilibrium of family and work life has been drastically altered with its fair share of anxieties. Adding to an already stressful environment, Helen and her colleagues are navigating themselves and their clients through strict safety measures in order to protect themselves and those around them.

“The justice system has worked hard to remain accessible to the public throughout the pandemic,” Helen says. “Urgent matters such as custody, childcare, wardship and criminal law could not be simply paused until the lockdowns had passed.”

My husband and I quickly had to prioritise who was at home and who was travelling to court. Often times we were ‘passing the baton’ in the driveway

As with many areas in the frontline and essential categories, the courts system has evolved in line with Government and public health guidance. “The court environment has changed dramatically in light of the safety measures which are now in place,” says Helen.

“There are restrictions on the number of people who may be present in the court room, and the public who are required to attend court are also understandably more anxious about their surroundings. Some cases and applications are now dealt with remotely and this has helped greatly in keeping cases moving along safely. Although, what remote hearings give us, they also take a particular quality of interaction away from clients as well as reducing the opportunity to meet colleagues.”

Understanding the fears and anxieties of her clients on an ordinary day is one thing, but Helen is now acutely aware of the increasing worries which afflict those she works with during the pandemic. “It’s a time of great uncertainty and fear among the public generally,” she says. “Litigants are understandably concerned about what would happen to their cases, some of them half-way through matters that, at the best of times, entail stress.”

As Helen works in the court room, home life is also affected. All viable childcare options vanished overnight for most families as lockdown erupted last March. And yet, for our frontline workers, their physical presence has been necessary at palpable levels as the crisis diverted us away from ordinary life. This continual need to attend court and provide essential court services was a requirement from day one for Helen’s family.

“My husband and I quickly had to prioritise who was at home and who was travelling to court,” says Helen. “Often times we were ‘passing the baton’ in the driveway. We are lucky that we can both support each other and that has been the key for us in working throughout the pandemic. It has often resulted in us working through the weekend and at night, to allow us to attend court during the day, but we have managed.

“My workload is generally divided between attending court and the paperwork which flows from that, including the need to digest and reflect on a large amount of material. As with all working parents, pre-Covid reliable childcare was the only way we could manage.”

Ultimately you balance risk with the importance of continuing to provide a service to clients and providing some degree of certainty and resolution for them

As restrictions eased towards mid-summer last year, Helen was able to put some structures and supports back in place. “When the schools opened in September,” she says, “the need for childcare for essential workers was thankfully addressed. We were lucky to find a great childminder, Michelle, who is now safely in our ‘bubble’ and as the schools closed again at the beginning of this year, she has been our lifeline.”

And yet, Helen has also been continually aware of the effect both herself and her husband physically attending court has had on the family. “There have been risks attached in attending court,” she says, “but ultimately you balance those risks with the importance of continuing to provide a service to clients and providing some degree of certainty and resolution for them.”

While their children are of an age where understanding the bigger picture of the pandemic is limited, the reality of school closures, missing friends and relatives will have an effect on children as patterns and routines are in constant flux against what we are all used to.

“The children are very young and while aware of ‘the virus’, they do not understand the impact upon their lives,” says Helen. “I have always tried to keep things consistent for them so they know who is minding them, collecting them, when we will be home, etc. This has been increasingly hard over the past year with our routine constantly changing, but I have been amazed at their ability to adapt and cope.”

Helen is aware of striking that balance between work and home life, not only for their children’s benefit but also for her own. Maintaining her own care by practising yoga and meditation has been important for Helen, and she found running during the first lockdown a great way to decompress from the stress of the pandemic and balance the upheaval of work and home life.

“I have always strived to maintain a healthy balance between work and home,” says Helen, “setting clear boundaries between the two areas. Ultimately, the children’s happiness is my priority. Once I am in the door, I concentrate on being present with the children and leaving work behind. This can take some effort depending on how my day has been, but the children are the greatest antidote to a busy day.”

For Helen, and for all working parents, a clear division has been created during the pandemic which has addressed the realities of what working parents need for their careers and home lives to be supported.

“We have all shoe-horned ourselves into work practices which were designed to facilitate a family where the mother was at home full-time to care for the children,” Helen says. “Our working lives have never been altered to acknowledge that many parents are constantly juggling their responsibilities between them. The pandemic has highlighted this, and I hope that there will be some lessons to be learned.”

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