We All Fall Down Sometimes. When I asked my work colleagues for tips on work-life balance, only two said they’d licked the problem. Their secret: Their children don’t speak to them anymore. That seems to sum up the usual law firm approach — balance your work and your life by having no life.
There are better options:
Do less, get more help. If you’re overwhelmed, this is the obvious answer. Of course, life isn’t set up to cooperate. Being a young working mother feels like climbing Mount Everest — all the way up every morning, all the way down every night. But a lot of us want exciting lives, want to build careers; others don’t want to be dependent; others flat-out need the money and don’t have a choice. If the obvious approach doesn’t work for you, take a look at the three rules I figured out while trying to balance my big, pregnant belly during my first year of law school and my first year of working as a lawyer.
Rule 1: You deserve a life. For me this was the hardest step: believing I deserve to have a life. After graduating law school, I knew I was lucky to land a job as an associate at one of our country’s premier firms, where any time off was a gift, not an entitlement. Mind you, even though I was pregnant, those work demands seemed fine, better than fine, because nothing in life really mattered beyond the work of the firm. It sounds silly, but that culture seeps into you — okay, it’s hammered into you, often by senior associates, even by partners’ secretaries — one actually pulled me out of a ladies restroom to take a call. Heck, I pulled all-nighters when I was some seven months pregnant, curling under my desk to catch an hour of sleep while waiting for word processing corrections (motion sensor lights would wake me up if I tried to sleep anywhere else). But the last straw for me was having to miss my husband’s birthday party for routine office work. When I begged the partner in charge to let me go, explaining why I needed to head out, he laughed. I stayed to finish the work, but resolved to find a job at a firm that didn’t require work 24/7 — and I did. Honestly, it didn’t even occur to me that I deserved a life. But I knew my husband deserved to have me at his side when he blew out his birthday candles.
Rule 2: Build the life you deserve. In this economic environment, I have friends who don’t have jobs, and other friends who are enduring jobs they hate. Sure, when you can, say “no” to tasks you loathe. When you can’t say no, do what you gotta do. But it’s still your life. At our firm, I’m involved with our associate development and diversity committees: I feel useful when I try to help make the firm a better place. My firm also supports bar association work, and I’ve met some of my best friends by working on the Publication Committee of the International Trademark Association (INTA) and the New York Chapter of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. I love to write, so I write in the middle of the night. I love to skate, so I get up at 5 a.m. if that means I can get on the ice. That’s not to say anyone else should skate — or do any of these things. But figure out what you love. As long as it wouldn’t hurt anyone else, try to do it at least a little, and if that’s not possible, develop a long range plan where you will. I’m learning not to feel guilty about the time I spend that doesn’t directly bring in money, learning to remind myself that it makes me a better lawyer. A friend at INTA gave me a copy of Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table, and I actually teared up on reading his workplace philosophy: Happy employees are crucial for productivity, so one of his priorities is keeping his employees happy.
Rule 3: Share. When my older daughter reported that her pre-school teacher told her she had to share any doll she brought to school, I almost rolled my eyes. As an adult, when I got my new, red Prius, did I run next door and tell the neighbors they could share it? I did not. Why should kids have to share when adults didn’t? Only later did I realize ways that sharing can benefit adults, too:
– Share positive vibes: This may not sound lawyerly, but being generally upbeat is a magnet that pulls in help and cooperation.
– Share work: Give help to colleagues when you can, and ask colleagues for help in advance when you know you’ll need it — heck, ask everyone in your life for help whenever you need it, and be ready to pay back when you can.
– Share your ears: Listen, really listen to those around you at work and at home and reflect what they say when you talk, so they know you’re listening — communication can prevent and solve a surprising number of problems.
– Share your feelings: When you can’t cover at work, tell your husband, your children, your pet fish you’ll be away for Easter/Buddha’s Birthday/your anniversary but you don’t want to miss it, say you’ll do another one as soon as you get home — and do it.
Mind you, I stayed at work past office hours to write and post this, and my husband and daughter will already have had dinner. But I feel good for writing it. And they’ll be happy to read this post while I heat up leftovers. This isn’t a lifestyle I’d recommend — but it makes me happy. And my family is fine with it. Balance.
June 4, 2012. Mommy Cool. One mother — within easy hearing of a rink full of adults and children, including her own daughter, proclaimed, “I’m not getting on the ice. All the adult skaters look ridiculous out there.” As an adult in skates who often looks ridiculous both on the ice and off, I felt a bit sheepish. But then it hit me that this whole process of getting out there, trying, falling, looking ridiculous, learning, has a name — it’s called life. And I’m glad I’m not the one telling my kids I’m too cool to be part of it.
May 29, 2012. Waving a White Flag in the Mommy Wars. To Free Women, Support Family. We hear that some mothers are deficient because we stay home, and other mothers are deficient because we work. That ain’t it. The real problem is that our country throws up structural barriers to working outside the home, then blames us — which gets us blaming each other. Click here for a great explanation by Amy Allen, a distinguished professor at Dartmouth. To share the pain, stay tuned for my memoir-in-progress, A Pencil on the Ceiling, about surviving law school while pregnant and then nursing an infant, with zero budget for childcare help.
May 22, 2012. Graduating with Baby. My daugher Freddie, the baby I had in law school, graduated cum laude from SUNY Purchase College on Friday, May 18. During the ceremony, the biggest applause wasn’t for speaker Aaron Sorkin, wonderful as he was. It was for a student who accepted her diploma while holding her two-year-old daughter’s hand. Clapping wildly along with the rest of the crowd, I thought — that was me graduating law school when Freddie was two, back in the day. And now Freddie’s graduating college, but no one knows the full story. We’re invisible, like so many other mothers and daughters who survive the impossible.
May 2, 2012. Why Can’t Moms All Get Along? As a mother who has always worked — but also craves time to bond with the ones I love — it has helped me to think not of mothering or even parenting, but of family. What is beautiful is to build a family where everyone loves to support and empower everyone else. When my kids were little, one mother criticized me for ice skating with them before school/work. She said, “It’s their turn,” telling me to get off the ice. In her view, I shouldn’t skate with my daughters. I should just sit by and watch. I kept my skates on, and said, “It’s everyone’s turn.” Today, our whole family still gets on the ice together when we can. We also all pitch in to shop, cook, and clean. It’s not an agenda. It’s just love.