By Kristine Cherek • April 04, 2016•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Other Career Issues, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
By now you have probably seen this image pop up in your social media feed. Maybe it gave you the bit of inspiration you needed to make it through a difficult day. Maybe it empowered you on a grander scale. Maybe you stopped for a moment to appreciate the ingenuity of the creator. Maybe you viewed it as a commentary on the traditional constraints imposed upon women in the professional world and in society. Maybe, for you, it was all of the above.
For me, this image succinctly symbolizes what I know to be true: there are superhero women who walk among us every day.
A few months ago I introduced you to several women who I consider to be everyday superheroes . They are accomplished, professional women with leading careers in the law. They are also spouses, mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. They do what it takes on a daily basis to balance their respective careers, marriages, families, social lives, and altruistic interests. Theirs are but a few of the stories I could have shared. There are so many other true tales of real life superheroes just waiting to be told.
If you are looking for advice on how, or whether, women can balance a successful career, family, and personal life, this is not the source. Instead, I choose to share with you a few more stories of the women of my (40-something) generation. These are not recitations on how to achieve success in one’s career. These are not tales of monumental professional accomplishment. These are true accounts of things (big and small) that actually happened in the lives of my friends and me. I promised anonymity to the women whose stories I share. Therefore the names (other than mine) have been changed. But the facts are all-too-real. Please read on, laugh with us, laugh at us, and realize that even the superheroes among us struggle sometimes.
First I would like to introduce you to my friend who I will call Amy. Earlier in our careers, Amy and I watched as many of our female colleagues left “big firm life” after having a child (which, of course, is a serious issue that is still occurring within the nation’s largest law firms – but that is a topic for another day). Amy was not willing to give up on her career aspirations or her dream of having a family. She decided to take on the challenge of having a baby, then another, while maintaining a full-time position at a major law firm. At this point in the story I must warn you. What you are about to read is not for the faint of heart. Read on if you dare. After a typical maternity leave, Amy returned to work while still breast-feeding her new baby. Necessarily, then, there were times at which Amy needed to utilize the modern wonder of the breast pump. For the male readers and those who are unfamiliar, please use your imagination. The milk needs to get from inside the body to outside the body and into a bottle. There is a mechanism, called a breast pump, that one uses to accomplish this task.
Now back to our story. At the time, Amy’s firm did not have a dedicated room for nursing moms. There was no lactation suite, lounge with a locking door, or other place for anyone in need of privacy or rest. To complicate matters Amy’s firm did not allow locking doors on individual offices. Thus Amy was initially forced to “pump” (yes, this is a verb in the parenting vernacular) while sitting idly in a bathroom stall. This, of course, is unacceptable in modern times. But it was not that unusual a decade ago. Some law firms and business environments still lack a dedicated space for nursing moms or others in need of privacy.
Amy finally convinced the firm that she needed a lock on her office door. The firm obliged. She would now be able to pump, when needed, from the privacy of her office. This, of course, would also allow her to get her work done and bill hours while pumping. Let the multi-tasking begin, she thought. Amy was ready to declare victory for all nursing moms. That is, until a few glitches arose. The first glitch occurred while Amy was on a conference call with a client. When Amy needed to pump she momentarily put the call on mute, locked her office door, and set up the pump. The call continued uneventfully for awhile. This is going great, she thought. Then, when Amy was speaking (and the mute button was unengaged), the client commented, “There’s that strange noise again.” Amy replied that she didn’t hear anything. “It sounds like a swooshing noise,” the client said. That’s right. Amy’s client could hear the pump doing its job. She couldn’t turn the pump off, she figured, or the client would know the noise was coming from her end. So Amy finished the call, turned off the pump, and vowed to only use it when she was not on the phone with a client. Problem solved.
The second glitch can be summed up in two words: window washers. When one works on the 30th floor of a high-rise office building with no other high-rises in close proximity, one feels a sense of privacy despite the floor-to-ceiling windows. That is, until one comes face-to-glass-to-face with the window washers. Unfortunately for Amy, that year the window washers found the most inopportune time to reach the 30th floor. Amy was sitting at her desk, working and pumping. That is when she heard the noise outside her window. She looked up and saw the window washers staring back at her. She furiously scrambled to find something to cover herself up with. The window washers furiously scrambled to move to the next office. Who EVER would have thought about the window washers?
To me, Amy is a superhero for so many reasons. She fought for what she needed. She found a way to achieve a very successful legal career and have a family. She did not sacrifice one dream for the other, even when the path became very difficult. And she can (and does) laugh at her experiences. Often.
Of course, superhero women are not limited to those who work in the legal profession. I could tell you about my friend who I will call Kelly. Kelly is an IT professional and single mom of three. Her life is a delicate balance of carpool schedules, a demanding boss, IT systems that scream for attention at inopportune times, teenage drama, cheerleading competitions, grandparents who save the day, and a little help from her friends. It is not unusual to find Kelly working at midnight, on a weekend, in a hotel room when all of the other “cheer moms” are enjoying drinks poolside. In addition to the usual struggles of working women everywhere, Kelly’s life is complicated not just because she is a single parent, but because she is the most single kind of parent. You see, Kelly has had the heart-wrenching experience of helping her children through their grief (not to mention her own) when their father unexpectedly passed away a few years ago. If you think your life is complicated or congested, just imagine being the working mom of three children who lost their father. To me, Kelly is the epitome of a superhero woman. While there is no humor in this story as I tell it, I will tell you that Kelly finds love, happiness, and humor in every single day. We can all learn a great lesson from this superhero.
For the final (and most humbling) story, I share with you a true tale taken from my days as a mid-level associate at a national law firm. I was working on a particularly intense transaction that had temporarily overtaken my life. I had missed my best friend’s birthday party. I had cancelled my appointment with my hair stylist AGAIN (which, I might add, is an act of small bravery for one who dyes her hair blonde). My meals came from delivery guys and vending machines. I was somewhat convinced my cat was going to petition for emancipation on the grounds that I was never home.
My life could have been summed up in a few words: work, sleep, shower, repeat.
Before we proceed I need to explain something to the younger readers. Before the ubiquity of online shopping and Amazon Prime deliveries, most things had to be purchased at an actual retail store. We had to get into a car, drive to the place that sold the thing we needed, go inside the building, find the thing, and take it to an actual person to pay for it. It may sound like The Flintstones to us now. But it was the dawn of the new millennium. And I was in need of some of those things that were only sold in stores.
For the third day in a row I was racing to leave the office in time to reach Walgreens before the doors closed. It was becoming clear I was not going to make it. AGAIN. That is when my husband called me. I instantly broke into tears. “What is wrong? And what can I do to help?” he asked. Nothing, I replied. There are certain things I needed to take care of myself. Eventually, sensing the urgency, he insisted. In my desperation, I relented. I told him I needed to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. And I needed tampons. You heard me correctly. Tampons. This is real life, people, where things are not always glamorous.
Apparently I told my husband the brand name of tampons I needed but I had failed to specify the size. (For the male readers among you, yes, these things come in a variety of sizes.) My husband did what any problem-solving person would do. He grabbed a box in each size and proceeded to the pharmacy counter. He gave the pharmacist my name. Imagine the pharmacist’s surprise at seeing my 6-foot-4-inch, 30-year-old husband in his business suit standing with a basket-full of tampon boxes. The pharmacist returned with the prescription. While time has eroded my ability to recall the exact comment, my husband later reported that the pharmacist said something along the lines of, “Wow, you’re a nice guy.” You see, the prescription I needed was of the certain female hormone-containing variety (i.e., birth control pills). That’s right, people. Sometimes we are so busy that we need our husbands to buy our tampons and our birth control pills.
We are not perfect. We, the working women who are trying mightily to juggle our careers and our families, sometimes miss a step. Sometimes we finish a client document while riding a bus across two states to the next dance competition. Sometimes we postpone a vacation – twice – before finally getting on the airplane. Then sometimes we take a call while standing in a vineyard in Napa because business has to get done. Sometimes we are late to pick up our children from soccer practice. Sometimes we have to cancel a client meeting because our family needs us more. Sometimes we quietly negotiate a deal from a hospital room while sitting beside our ailing parent. Some days we think we just cannot take it anymore. But some days are perfect.
To the women of the next generation, please learn from us. Please do not spend your adult life trying to reach an unattainable state of career domination and personal bliss. Realize that no one is perfect regardless of how perfect her life seems from the outside. Even superman has his kryptonite. No one can “have it all” unless she redefines what “all” means. You cannot be the corner office partner, the mom-of-the-year, and the perfect daughter all at once. It may be that you will not ever be any of those things, and that is okay. Know that at some point everyone will run out of clean socks. Or tampons. Even the most perfect among us feels like she might lose her mind from time to time. We are all just doing the best we can in the time we have. Learn from my dear friend Kelly. Any day you are here on Earth with your family and friends is a good day.
Know that you can never be perfect. But you can still be a superhero.
Follow me on Twitter @kristinecherek and on Instagram @kcherek.
 “Stacking Bread On The Baby” by Kristine Cherek is available at http://ms-jd.org/blog/article/stacking-bread-on-the-baby