This is the kind of post I set out to write when I started this blog, but the topic is so immense that it is impossible to do in 400-600 words. Rather than keep putting it off, or arbitrarily chopping it into two shorter pieces, I have left it as one long post on the subject of prioritizing personal or professional ambitions. I hope you will bear with me …
A recent article in the National Journal noted the now-familiar phenomenon of American women earning more degrees than men (true since 1982), but later earning less money than men with inferior qualifications, and blamed “the complexities of child-rearing.” A University of Massachusetts economist opined, “I think women try harder to get a college education precisely so that they can make the family commitments they care about and also make a decent salary.” At the end of the article, University of California, Berkeley School of Law Professor Mary Ann Mason stated: “Young women are unaware of how difficult it becomes fitting childbirth into your career plans.”
These women academics are experts on this subject, and their perspectives both make sense, but they seem to be at odds. Either young women are aggressively accumulating qualifications while they are young so they can later support their family, or they pursue professional success believing they can “have it all” but ultimately are forced to compromise either their professional or personal aspirations. As a new mom, with three degrees (a B.A., M.A., and J.D.), earning less than half what the average D.C. attorney makes, I am an ideal case study for these two theories.
Although there are now more women law firm partners and judges, the legal profession remains something of an old boys’ club (in 2011, the New York Times reported that “women still make up less than one-third of American lawyers, even though they have made up almost half of new law-school graduates for the last two decades.”). And like many professions, the legal career path is timed in a way that makes it difficult to have a family and a successful career. Only about thirty percent of partners in the top 200 law firms are women (see American Lawyer’s “Women Partner Watch” for updated statistics), perhaps because it takes an average of ten years to make partner (id.), meaning a woman would be at least 35 by then (if she went straight from college to law school and then directly onto the law firm partner track). This is similar to the dilemma faced by women in academia, where tenure isn’t granted until well into an aspiring professor’s 30s, or by doctors who must complete college, med school, internships, and residencies before they can build some flexibility into their work schedules. But whatever the profession, if a woman wants to get to the top, there is no good time to have children.
Of course, family responsibilities can also distract or burden men. However, studies have shown that having children is a career advantage for men, but a major detriment for women. Being a devoted working father connotes loyalty, stability, and maturity to employers; however, being a devoted working mother (which may seem like an oxymoron in itself) might lead an employer to question her commitment and reliability. Personally, I felt tremendous pressure to work extra hard while pregnant and after returning from maternity leave to demonstrate that I was just as capable, productive, and dedicated as my male colleagues (incidentally, all of whom are fathers).
I took my current position in large part because it offered a family-friendly atmosphere and schedule. In accepting this job (while four-months pregnant), I turned down others that would have made better use of my education, experience, and interests. The other positions I interviewed for seemed more meaningful, challenging, and exciting, with extensive opportunities for personal and professional growth. Those were my dream jobs, the ones I had been working towards for years, but with a baby on the way, I was afraid that either: 1, I would be so focused on my child that my work (and professional credibility) would suffer; or 2, I would get so wrapped up in my stimulating work that I would neglect my family. Instead, I chose an un-stressful 9-5 job. It pays the bills, but when my husband asks how my day was, I don’t usually have anything interesting to tell him.
So how did I get here? Although it has worked out that way, I did not “try harder to get a college education precisely so that [I could] make the family commitments [I] care about and also make a decent salary.” I pushed myself in school so that I could get the job(s) that would enable me to have a positive impact on the world. Nor was I “unaware of how difficult it becomes fitting childbirth into [my] career plans.” Even as a small child, I understood that my parents had made professional sacrifices so that my sister and I could be their priority. My dad knew leaving Los Angeles could crush his filmmaking ambitions, but he didn’t want to raise his kids in a big city. My mom worked the undesirable nightshift as a nurse so that she could be home both before we left and after we returned from school.
During my decade of higher education, I studied development economics, governance, and human rights law, looking for ways that I could contribute to a more just, peaceful, and healthy global society. And yet, I turned down positions that would have enabled me to do that when I took my current job defending the federal government from contractors’ lawsuits. Maybe it is naïve, but I do not believe I worked so hard in school just so I could enjoy a comfortable work-life balance as a government attorney. I refuse to accept that my dream of making the world a better place is a casualty of my desire to start a family. Maybe it’s impossible to “have it all” (Sheryl Sandberg writes that anyone who claims to is lying), but I believe I can have and achieve everything I want, just not all at once.
This chapter of my life is my time to focus on my family – to figure out who my husband and I will be as parents, to bond with our child(ren), and to build a foundation that will hopefully allow us to thrive even with less emphasis on our family down the road. The time will come – in five, ten, or even twenty years – when I will be ready to give more of myself to my work. Then I will throw myself in with gusto. Sure, it will be difficult to switch career paths, and that soul-serving job might not be anything like what I envisioned while in school. But it is out there, and I will find it, when the time is right. For now, I am grateful that I don’t need to check email after my son goes to bed, or go in to the office on weekends, or lay awake at night wondering if we should bomb Syria. I have compromised my career for my family, but I have not sacrificed it, and that is close enough to a balance for me.