Dahlia Lithwick

Balancing Work and Family

An acquaintance stopped me one afternoon last week, as I was picking my three-year-old son, Coby, from camp. “Great piece in the Post last Sunday,” he enthused. “I thought you did a really smart job on that one.” Almost as an afterthought, he added: “Imagine what your career would look like if you didn’t have small kids!” I must have looked stricken because he added, “I just mean, you know, you spend so many hours with them. If you were a sixty year old man . . . with nothing to do all day but write . . . .you’d have so much more time . . . .” He trailed off. Perhaps because my jaw had slipped off its hinges as he spoke. I packed Coby into his car seat. He’s Clark Kent this month, so he wears his great-grandfather’s brown wool fedora, sunglasses and a tie his dad’s fashioned out of electrical tape, to camp each day. A wool fedora. It’s 100 degrees. I started the car, cranked the Cookie Monster mix, and tried to decide if the comment about my not-quite-there-yet career had offended me. Not really, I decided. I’d made my peace three years ago with the notion that my sons’ toddler years are likely to be my professional “B-plus” years. “Keep your head down and coast,” I advise my friends going back to their law firms or to teaching law school. “Don’t screw up, and you’ll live to get famous when they’re seven.” Nobody ever told me this: If you plan to be the kind of mom who never misses a dinner with your kids, and who shaves half days off her workweek to take them to the park or the kids’ museum, you just can’t be spectacular at your job anymore. Nobody warned me: Maybe it’s enough to just be employed. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Before I had my boys, I had a stock line prepared when I was invited to speak to female law students about women and the law: “Plan for this,” I’d say. “Don’t bump along like you’re a man and then act like you’ve been blindsided by motherhood. If you intend to have babies later, you need to plan your whole career around it: Figure out if you’re going to want to stay home or work or go half time. Find a spouse who fills in either the financial gaps, or the childcare gaps. Find a firm that will work with you to accommodate your career.” But I have learned this one thing from Coby and his one-year-old brother: No matter how well you plan it; no matter how comfortable you think you are with your decision, you aren’t really ready for what happens when your small new roommates show up. Because as much as you think you can sort out some perfect “balance” between your work life and your children; as hard as you plan, and as elaborately as you ration out your hours, there is no balance to be had. Balancing suggests that when you are working there are no children and when there are children, there is no work. Neither state of being is truly achievable. I have taken my babies to conferences and squeezed in speeches between sessions in the hotel pool. I usually take my Blackberry to the park with Coby, so I can approve edits while I push him on the swing. I once did a CNN interview with a Cheerio in my hair. (It was a small Cheerio. And I have a good deal of hair.) I once read somewhere that the notion of “balancing” work and family is a misnomer. Two enterprises that require 100% of your attention can never be in balance. The real goal is to “integrate” them. But while that can work if you plan to start a daycare in your basement, it’s hard to pull off if you work in the law. I suppose, if I were to be completely honest then, the way I have chosen to “integrate” my work and my babies is by doing work that could always be better. Stories that could have stood another draft are sometimes filed as they are, so I can climb into the bathtub with baby Sopher. Conferences and dinner parties that would offer up contacts and opportunities are foregone for the chance to sit on the big stuffed bear and watch Superman for the 240th time. And aggregated across weeks and years, that is, of course, all time that could have gone to a spectacular career. I am not suggesting that women are doomed to be overlooked and overshadowed in these early years. My choices aren’t for everyone and — in candor – most days I still feel like I’ve left a kidney in one world and a leg in the other. But I want to suggest that the fundamental lie at the heart of these so-called “Mommy Wars” is the myth that women must chose one of two extreme paths and then justify it to the world. More pernicious still, we’re supposed to run around setting our sisters’ hair on fire if they deign to make choices that differ from our own. That just isn’t my reality, nor is it the reality for most of the women I know. Working moms feel torn about leaving their babies and stay-at-home moms long for interesting work. And that big fat bulge on the bell curve is the vast majority of women – who work part time, or from home (as I do) – spending their days making the thousand small compromises and bargains that represent the life of a young mother. There is no perfect choice. There is no click of satisfaction in knowing that you have achieved some mystical “balance.” There is a tsunami wave of guilt doing battle with a tsunami wave of pressure, and the best thing we can do for one another is acknowledge that it’s hard. That doesn’t mean you won’t make partner, or that I won’t write better stories someday. It simply means that neither Caitlan Flanagan’s silly paeans to the joys of housekeeping nor Linda Hirshman’s icy order to get back to our cubicles and limit ourselves to a single child, speak to any of the women I know. It is hard, particularly as lawyers, to accept B-pluses as mothers or as workers. We are capable of A’s. We expect them. We earned them. But until someone figures out a way to make one woman hold down two full-time jobs; we’re going to be overwhelmed and frustrated and torn. For awhile. And then – as I keep reminding myself – our babies gallop off to kindergarten and the prospect of focusing on a single task for more than two consecutive hours stops being a fantasy. I’m glad someone pointed out to me that my career would be doing a lot better if the biggest pull on my workday was a two-hour power lunch with my editor. It reminds me that I must be doing something else that’s really right: My three-year-old has opted to be Clark Kent, after all. He finds Superman to be grossly overrated. Dahlia Lithwick Senior Editor Slate.com

3 Comments

CarolynElefant

I loved this essay and blogged about it at MyShingle.com over <A HREF = “http://www.myshingle.com/my_shingle/2007/03/does_worklife_b.html”>here</A>.  I constantly struggle with feeling that I’m doing a subpar job both at work and with my kids.  But I guess the alternative is to flunk one subject or the other and that’s not ideal either.
Also, not to burst your bubble, but even when the kids gallop off to kindergarden, you’re not off the hook.  Granted, it gets easier, but you’ll still want to be around when they come home from school and you’ll realize that a day that ends at 4:15 doesn’t enable you to get as much done as one that ends at 8 or 9.
Carolyn Elefant
Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant, Washington DC
http://www.carolynelefant.com
My Shingle.com - Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

NikiB

I enjoyed this as well, as I enjoy all of your work.  Great job and great points! Niki Black Of Counsel, Fiandach & Fiandach
Publisher of Sui Generis blog (http://nylawblog.typepad.com)

lawyergirl

this is only half the story. Employers may be starting to appreciate moms but when we stay at home we are not paid. Therefore I have yet to meet a woman who has a FULL PENSION the essential work of childrearing is difficult, often thankless and without economic reward. Without the toil that Moms do for free, however, we as a society become less human and posterity becomes more robotic. There problem is not that these tasks are non-essential. On the contrary, these tasks are fundamental to human identity itself. But why must these tasks remain unpaid and unreflected in pension system that provides income in old age for hard work well done? Here is an easy example: First Lady Michelle Obama graduated Harvard Law School and is legendary for recruiting the man who became her husband and the First Black President of the United States to her law firm. She worked hard on all the Senate and Presidential campaigns and plenty of people voted for him because they really like her. But when her husband became President, she became, by her own description, “Mom In Chief”. Sure the First Lady has security guards and a nice place to live, so long as she stays married to the President. But what about her pension? She may not maxout on her pension program because of the very vital and important Mothering and wifestyle that is her official work. And the significance of this disparaity is not erased by claiming that she had inherited family wealth Because I have yet to meet a maxed out pension woman personally despite my wide range of friends ... some at a very high level ... and because i know so many men who will have most or all of their pension rights and because in Europe it is illegal upon divorce to request a future ex-spouse to divest their rights in the other spouse’s pensions. Perhaps there is an unspoken but very powerful form of embedded sexisim in our economic policies. It is potent because it can unjustly punish women for raising their own children. Women are accused of becoming liberated and leaving the kitchen but actually it is that men leave the house. And we all buy fast food these days, even the ladies of very religious traditional families! Therefore, the gaping hole in the cultural matrix of our society is the freedom with which men leave stable permanent relationships and women are told to move on, quit whining get on with your life and forget your ex-spouse who is such a @%%X&%/. Well even if all that is true, who is going to FIX the economic damage that they have done? Such expenses are not recognized in most custody battles so they have no economic value under law. Lest you fear this is merely some long tirade I shall stop writing here by saying merely this PENSION EQUITY IS THE LAST BATTLE FOR WOMENS RIGHTS Pension equity remedial legislation can repair the damage, simply by examining the earnings record of each spouse and if there is a disparity of more than twenty or thirty percent in the availability of pension funds, the new legislation could correct it by compelling the higher-pensioned-spouse to reimburse the lower-pensioned-spouse, thus restoring economic equity for the years spent out of the pension system while childrearing and doing those caretaking chores that Moms do for free.  Otherwise the economic disparity between men and women will make th wage and hour gap look pale by comparison. Our society could build a dam against the next wave of the feminization of poverty by legislating these economic rights!  I know how to draft the law, All we need is a constituency to support it.
 

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