An Ode to the Martys: A Father’s Day Reflection on RBG and Work Life Balance for Women Lawyers

      RBG, a documentary about the lif­e of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a surprise hit of the summer. If you haven’t seen it yet, the movie does not only focus on RBG’s “notorious” legal career, but also delves deeply into Ginsburg’s marriage to her husband, Marty. After seeing it twice, I’d argue that RBG is a love story and, in my opinion, a love story many women lawyers really need because it shows us a great example of how two professionally successful people made their careers and their marriage fit together.

     If you didn’t know, Marty was also a lawyer and an esteemed one at that. But one of Marty’s biggest contributions to the legal profession and, perhaps to history, was that he helped Ruth become what she now is. In the 1950’s, Marty supported Ruth as she attended law school as one of only a handful of women in a class of hundreds, searched for work as a lawyer, and later made a few phone calls to get her an interview with Bill Clinton when a Supreme Court seat opened up. Marty and Ruth had children but he didn’t expect her to stay home.  Rather, he cooked the dinners himself and didn’t stand in the way when Ruth worked late.

     This marriage started in the 1950’s and still it is one that many women today might envy. It was a true partnership and showed what miracles can be accomplished when a couple really works together, including defeating cancer and getting a woman no one (at first) would hire on the Supreme Court. When I saw RBG, it hit me how important men are to the lives and destinies of us women lawyers. Whether you are married to a man or not, the odds are that your father may have played a huge role in setting the expectations that you will carry into your own adult life. I’ve experienced this in my own life and that’s why seeing RBG made me really grateful for my husband and my dad.

     My husband and I both work full-time, and now have a pretty even split in terms of household duties. We both care for our girls and we divide up other chores to suit our interests (i.e. we each tend to pick the tasks we hate the least).  I’m satisfied with and, frankly proud of, the balance we have achieved. I’d be lying if I told you that this was always the case. In fact, I have to admit that, although my husband valued my career on a philosophical level from the very beginning, we did not equally share household duties from the start.

     My husband is many things, but a great chef is not one of them, so I do the cooking. At first, however, I did most other things too, including the laundry and most of the cleaning. You see, my husband’s mother was a literal “supermom” who worked as a high-level corporate executive and still did nearly everything for her children. She was remarkable in so many ways, but her relentless work ethic meant that her son had an underdeveloped one where it came to household chores. When we had our first child, this only got worse because, while I grew up babysitting my numerous little cousins, my husband was inexperienced with babies. He was afraid he would break our daughter (he didn’t) and at first had no idea how to change a diaper.

     So, how did we get from point A to point B? First, we had to because both of our jobs have gotten busier and I have had an increase in community and leadership activities that meant my husband had to pick up the slack. In other words, as Tiffany Dufu suggests, I “dropped the ball” because I had to and just stopped doing everything. Second, I learned to communicate my wishes for parity (or close to it) with respect to household duties and I kept doing so until I got the balance I wanted. This was actually harder than you’d expect since women are socialized not to ask for things and specifically not to “nag” their husbands. Like a lot of lessons we learn from socialization, this one was bunk and just led to frustration. Once I finally learned to ask for help, my husband told me he preferred it because then he knew exactly what I wanted and it was easier to make me happy.

     But the question still remains: how did I know what balance I wanted? How did I know what balance was possible when it seemed like neither of us had much time to spare? This is where my dad comes in. The “balance” I wanted was not just an abstraction for me. It was something I’d seen growing up. My parents are both lawyers and they both had busy jobs, but my dad never acted as if the chores at home were my mom’s jobs. Instead, he cooked, did laundry, cleaned, and helped care for my sister and I. Now, my dad comes from a conservative family and he tends to be conservative himself. I’ve never heard him say the word “feminist,” let alone use it to refer to himself. But he grew up on a farm where work was plenty and had to be shared or it wouldn’t get done. From this very practical standpoint, my dad learned to do what feminists and working women want at home: he saw that there was work to be done and he counted himself as one of the people who could do it.

     Because I saw this growing up, it was not my expectation that I, as the woman, do all the chores at home. It was not my expectation that I put household duties above my career. It was not my expectation that I be solely or even primarily responsible for my children. Rather, it was my expectation that I would have a husband who helped with chores, who was equally responsible for our children, and who supported my career as much I supported his. Because of these expectations, I noticed when I didn’t initially have the balance I needed and I worked with my husband to find it. Without my dad’s example and the cooperation and support from my husband, my career, my mental health, and my family’s stability would stand on far less sustainable footing.

     We may not all be as notorious as RBG, but if we have a Marty or two in our lives there are many miracles we women lawyers can achieve, including managing a meaningful career and a satisfying home life. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads ­­­­­­out there and especially to all the Martys­­­. You are really important.

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