Susan Smith Blakely

Maternity Leave For Women Lawyers is No Vacation

 

 

Maternity leave is a precious and necessary time for bonding with a newborn. It also is a woman’s contribution to a more evolved and stable society. 

But it ain’t no vacation. It ain’t no boondoggle. Let’s get that straight.

There are many inequities for women lawyers — still. You know it. Yes, things have improved since I was climbing the ladder to partnership so many years ago, but progress has been slow. The profession is still riddled with both conscious and unconscious bias, sexual harassment is still practiced as if without impunity, and women lawyers bear the burden of proof of competence in a way that their male counterparts do not. 

Solutions are not easy. Males have controlled the profession since the beginning, and old notions and habits die hard. Although there is evidence of unconscious bias training and diversity efforts throughout the profession, talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things. And hiring a higher percentage of women associates does not help if they are not able to advance. Retention continues to be a huge problem. 

The challenges facing women lawyers, especially those with family and childcare responsibilities, continue to loom large as impediments to career advancement, and the solutions are complicated. It is hard to be in two places at one time — hard to be home at night caring for family and also wining and dining clients — and the responsibility for family care and stability, even with the increased participation of mates, likely will continue to reside largely with women. 

The nurturing gene is not going to disappear, and we don’t want it to. We are proud of who we are and our ability to reproduce and nurture. It brings us joy —- but so does practicing our profession. And that is the rub.

Although maternity leave seems so fundamental, it took a long time before enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gave rise to most law firm paid maternity and parental leave programs. As fundamental as it may now seem, in my experience the need for maternity leave is not universally accepted behind all closed doors.

There is still a lot of resentment attached to what is too often regarded as a three-month vacation by mostly male lawyers who have no experience with caring for newborns. You know them — the ones who are jealous of the time young women lawyers are allowed away from the pressures of the office for as much as three months. The “burdened ones,” who resent the work that falls to them in the wake of maternity leave departures by their female colleagues. And especially the single males, who have no experience with newborns and cannot relate to the experience at all.

I had a crash course in maternity leave recently when I spent time with a new mommy/lawyer. It had a profound effect on me, and I have been thinking about it ever since. Specifically, I have been thinking about the need for a more realistic view of maternity leave.

So here is what I hope you tell all your male colleagues, who may need a refresher course on maternity leave. And your senior female colleagues, who may also be resentful of programs that were not available to them in the day. That is an even greater problem … but I digress. 

Most new mothers want to do everything right, and they spend months prior to the birth of their babies reading and studying and preparing. Mommy/lawyers, who research for a living, are certainly no exception. In fact, many mommy/lawyers are “Type A” personalities, which makes getting it right compelling in the most perfectionist of ways. 

These mommy/lawyers devote their days and their sleepless nights to trial and error. Babies need nourishment every 2 to 3 hours for as much as an hour at a time, and the baby nursing, bathing, sterilization of EVERYTHING which comes in contact with baby, especially during COVID-19, the mounds of laundry that even a tiny baby can produce, and a possible quick shower for mommy take up what is left of the day. The new mom eats anything that others will prepare for her. And she falls into bed praying for a few moments of quiet that now passes for personal time. 

The night is especially taxing. The schedule is the same as in the day, but it is done during dark and lonely hours that used to be for sleeping. Now those hours are for nursing, burping, rocking, changing diapers, and coaxing the precious bundle of joy back to sleep. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it does not. Soon the sun rises, and it begins all over again.

Caring for a newborn also does not include much interaction with adults. Even when the baby daddy comes home at night, he also is sleep deprived and is not much of a conversationalist. He is likely to be more interested in a cold beer and vegging out in front of the TV. And you can’t blame him because he does not completely understand the drill, and he also knows that the beer he drinks will not give the baby gas!

Don’t get me wrong. Babies are a blessing — a wonderful blessing. But caring for a newborn is hard. And just when it becomes a little less stressful and exhausting, maternity leave is over and it is time to return to lawyer work —- work that was demanding even before baby and is now in competition with baby time. 

It has been a long time since I cared for newborns, and memories fade with age. So here’s the question that has been haunting me since my recent experience with maternity leave:  If I did not remember the demanding schedule and sleep deprivation as vividly as I should have from my experience 35-plus years ago, how are many male colleagues in law offices supposed to relate to maternity leave as anything more than a boondoggle? 

By reading this blog for starters. Feel free to share it liberally. I hope that it dispels the notion that new mommy/lawyers are gaming the system for some fun-filled R & R. I hope that the gravity of it hits home. 

And don’t stop with your young and inexperienced male colleagues. Many senior male lawyers in management positions need this information, too. Although they are typically older and more likely to be fathers themselves, they probably were not there for the lonely and protracted days of exhaustion that the responsibility for a new life entails. And many of their baby’s mothers did not experience self-doubt and conflict as the clock ticked away and they came closer and closer to returning to demanding legal jobs. Truth be known, most of those new mothers did not have jobs to return to. 

And while you are speaking truth to power, all of you mommy/lawyers need to remember this. Although it is SO hard to balance profession with family, it also is the best combination ever. THE VERY BEST. I look back with pure joy at having the privilege of profession and motherhood. 

And so will you.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want:  A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016” for her work on behalf of women in the law. 

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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