By ilise feitshans • May 01, 2016•Ms. JD, Conference, Writers in Residence, Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest, Politics and Government, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life, •Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination, Features, Myths & Truths, First Women, Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
The questions of worklife balance are one facet of professional life among MsJD members that are universal--- important no matter in which nation one finds work or which part of one's family needs and deserves full attention at some moment in time.
For those of us living life on the cutting edge of law and technology and governance, well sometimes at the cutting edge, one simply gets cut and bleeds.
Social values have changed; it is now possible to view mothering and paid work as inextricable tasks, benefiting children as well as parents and thus supporting a healthier society. But the lesson learned that moms can work for pay while nonetheless performing a myriad of maternal tasks that remain unpaid is new! The tuition for that lesson came at a very high price.
As we approach again the internationally accepted holiday of Mother's Day, I reflect upon that one lesson from my career in international lawyering.
Those of us international civil servants who served without family living with us joked that we had the perfect work life balance: 100% of our time attention and energy went to the job or travel for work, and zero percent for family. One hundred percent divided by two is. fifty. So our worklife balance was fifty fifty. But the balance was not any more easily struck for those brave women who brought along their children and their family to the official post away from their homeland.
My former boss is a fascinating woman. She graduated outstanding medical schools and decided to tread among us mortals because of the glass ceiling: her native country had very limited views of women’s rights to dress, speak publicly or hold public office. As a gynecology student who ranked first in her class in her home university she attended lectures in a separate room from men. She then traveled to the USA to graduate from Harvard School of Public Health and then to serve on a fellowship as a medical residency at Johns Hopkins University. Before the job where I encountered her, my former boss had spearheaded a campaign against maternal mortality (women dying during pregnancy and childbirth) for an international governmental agency near her home country. She later moved over to the job at where i met her, with full diplomatic rank, where she held the fourth highest post in that agency. She was the first woman to assume command of our unit.
My former boss was the first person to awaken in me the understanding that maternal mortality is a real problem despite modern medicine and that no country is immune to this problem. Women die during pregnancy and childbirth in every nation and any nation's record on the list of maternal deaths published by the World Health Organization has surprisingly more deaths that one might expect. She cared about these issues as if they mattered in her personal life, and perhaps they did.
Her credentials were sterling and she was lovely to behold.
Her clothes were beautiful, top designers graced her small frame and one knew it was tailored for her instantly upon seeing her. Once when her laptop was stolen from her baggage while traveling back to our headquarters, she assembled our staff to strategize how to recover the laptop, exploring a range of possibilities from calling high ranking government officials who might launch a personal investigation to the more practical approach of calling the toll free travel insurance phone number for American Express. And while deliberating the recovery strategy, she mused, “It is so very odd you know – they stole my laptop and left right beside it the box with my mother's jewelry”. And a jealous staffer with neither the responsibility nor the training that my boss possessed quickly shot back the reply, “But that is because your jewelry is so fabulous no one would believe it was real and worth stealing”.
My former boss was the first woman to do many brave and wonderful things. For these reasons, I used to say that she was going to break the glass ceiling for women not by poking it from below as so many of us had tried to do, but by borrowing her father's helicopter and throwing bricks at the glass ceiling from above. Indeed her grandfather had been the Minister of Foreign Affairs in her home country and she learned lessons of diplomacy at his knees so to speak, yet women were not allowed to hold public office.
And she was the first to bring her daughter to our office, not for a day or two of showing off, but on those quiet afternoons when her fulltime live-in baby sitter needed a break and school had ended. Her daughter often sat in my office with crayons and paper, drawing and asking intelligent questions. I will never know if I had this honor because I am a mom, unlike the vast majority of the women in the office who had in their generation chosen career over motherhood but for whom having both had been denied. Or, perhaps as the new employee and an American I was considered less exotic for the official geographic hiring quota and, therefore, expendable. What I do know is that my former boss's daughter was very often with me because there were no extended family for my boss nearby. My former boss's husband worked in yet another country.
For those of us living life on the cutting edge of law and technology and governance, I tell you--- sometimes at the cutting edge one simply gets cut and bleeds
Wet Saturday is what I recall most clearly about that time in my worklife. It was one of those strangely cold wet days, when the damp and chill conspire not to freeze but to mingle together inside the marrow of one's bones. It was one very wet Saturday, one of those days when one wishes to stay in bed doing nothing with covers over the head and perhaps a partner to keep one warm, but one dares not go outdoors. And my former boss called me in the early morning, asking me to go to her house to work on one of the reports that had to be completed before her next official travel, because she was too sick with bronchitis to go outside. The full time sleep-in baby sitter was off for the weekend, a rest well deserved. We started working and there was my former boss's eight year old daughter, in her pjamas and bathrobe as is appropriate for a weekend morning--- sleepy, rubbing her eyes, wanting mom's undivided attention and very bored. Too bored to let us concentrate, and the wise mom decided we could not do any work, we must all go to the movies instead. An American Disney movie at a high Genevoise price because it was new and therefore important to see.
Liberation! Out of the house and into the car amid driving rain! There was mom in the rain driving although sick with bronchitis not a common cold, (because NOTHING was ordinary or common in the life of my former boss...) when any normal person would have been home in bed! A long line awaited us filled with hundreds of other tired and sneezing moms with babes and Disney toys in arms, who had each emerged from a labyrinth of underground parking. But her daughter was not the least bit happy that we went to a movie instead of whatever she really wanted to do, and she made it known in the same forceful manner that served her mom so famously well at work. Ceaselessly on line and during the movie, the little girl complained to her mom, “ I dont like this country when are we leaving it I want to be in my house (in another country) and I really really REALLY don't like chocolate”
And by these pronouncements, her mom was reduced from being the fourth highest staffer at diplomatic rank in an international government agency to a befuddled and undervalued ordinary mom who muttered to me, “here I am giving her everything the best in the world and she can only complain she doesn t like chocolate”
And then it happened, my boss announced to me in the middle of family worklife imbalance that she had to be away in Bahrain for Halloween. And Turkey too!
To my delight, the plethora of princess and pirate costumes by Disney in duty free airports worldwide made Halloween abroad as normal as it would be in the USA... and i fit one of the princess costumes so I could easily escort my former boss's daughter and her friends trick or treating. The baby sitter, who promised that hot food would be waiting for us afterwards, protested that she could not perform the task of trick or treating, claiming that she knew nothing about Halloween because they were too poor to have had it in her country. But the situation was even more confusing: Mom was going to give a speech in Istanbul on the night of Halloween, and had to give a speech in Bahrain in the very next morning.
So imagine the poor tired mom who left one hotel around midnight or one am to catch a plane to arrive in a different nation and appear lovely, designer clad and clean and fresh and wide awake with fabulous jewelry less than eight hours later to give a speech to hundreds of people at a conference where they had paid money to travel just to hear her! Not to mention that she had accomplished the rare feat of acquiring two hotel bills in different countries on the same night, because when she arrived she needed a few precious minutes of sleep in a bed. You can’t buy sleep.
And so, the travel agenda imposed by the new technologies for transportation placed her in a dilemma that was ahead of its time: juggling her daughter's celebration with friends on the one hand, while giving speeches in not one but two completely different nations on the other. And both those nations were different than any of the ones where her daughter or her husband or her parents were awaiting the call confirming her safe travels. Stressful and tiring in a manner that few people could understand; cut on the cutting edge. The world would be a better place if she had been encouraged, not overburdened, in her role as both: director in international governance and fulltime Mom.
INSIDERS VIEW DR ILISE L FEITSHANS JD AND SCM AND DIR. AND MS JD SUPERWOMAN 2016 AT THE SCULPTURE GARDEN INSIDE THE PALAIS DES NATIONS OF THE UNITED NATIONS GENEVA SWITZERLAND