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.