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Why I Talk About My Kids in Class

I’m delighted that our new Ms. JD chapter at UC Hastings will be co-hosting Ms. JD's Seventh Annual Conference on Women in Law, with its emphasis on creating communities of support for law students and young lawyers. One of the recurring themes of such gatherings is supporting efforts to combine a meaningful career with family responsibilities (my colleague Joan Williams, who will deliver welcoming remarks at the conference, uses this term to refer to caregiver responsibilities that both men and women may have for young children, aging parents, or other loved ones). As Joan and others have so persuasively argued, the myth of the "ideal worker" has pernicious effects for both men and women, and is ultimately detrimental to employers as well.

Employees may perpetuate the cult of the ideal worker by internalizing the message that we should conceal or downplay our multiple roles and obligations. Over the years, I’ve done my best to be transparent about my caregiving responsibilities with my employers, my colleagues, and my students. If those of us in positions of privilege with relative job security aren’t forthright about what it means to juggle personal and professional responsibilities, the idea of employee-as-automaton will continue to shape policies and expectations.

Many still find the juxtaposition of work and family identities jarring. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, illustrated by a picture of a woman with a baby in a briefcase, prompted a cascade of reactions on social media and became The Atlantic’s most-read article ever. Two books that I’ve found particularly illuminating on this topic are Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and Mary Blair-Loy’s Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives, as well as Rebecca Traister’s terrific recent article on parental leave policies in The New Republic. Like Overwhelmed, much of M. Blazoned’s Huffington Post piece on being the “default parent”  hit very close to home.

So, what does all of this mean concretely? It means that the first question my daughter asks when she wakes up is who will drive her to kindergarten that day, and who will pick her up; it means that I can answer that question because I’ve spent an hour on Sunday night figuring out where each of our three kids needs to be, and where I need to be, during the coming week, and who will get everyone there and back; and it means that my kids are allowed to eat mac 'n cheese (with apologies to Michelle Obama) on the occasional nights that their dad and I manage to escape for a few minutes of adult conversation (which, more often than not, involves coordinating our respective work travel). It means that, when I was a practicing attorney, I pumped milk during breaks at depositions, and that I’ve brought my children to, and breastfed during, academic conferences. It means that there are items on my “to do” list that have been there for months (okay, years), and that I’ve become an expert at triage.

It also means that I am helping three active, curious, independent-minded little people become creative problem-solvers and negotiate a world that already includes an array of friends and caregivers, but who know they are and always will be my and their dad’s first priority; that I have a flourishing network of colleagues across the globe with whom I can exchange ideas and insights about my core areas of professional interest; that I marvel at how tall my son has grown and admire how devoted he is to his friends and teammates; that I can watch my toddler’s eyes light up as she chases her siblings around the living room, and cherish the feeling of her small hand curled around my finger as she drifts off to sleep; and that I can help teach a new generation of lawyers how to think critically and write persuasively about cutting-edge issues in international law and transnational litigation.

And it means that, whenever I need to come up with a hypothetical on the spot for my evidence class, I have a trove of kids’ antics to draw on.

Chimène Keitner is a Professor of Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. You can find her on Twitter @KeitnerLaw.

1 Comments

ClaireJames

I love your descriptions of pumping during breaks at depositions. Balancing motherhood and a career is quite humorous at times, isn’t it?

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