“I don’t know how you do it.”
“How do you juggle it all?”
Any woman who is both a mother and a lawyer hears these kinds of comments ALL the time. They’re intended to be complimentary, but it’s a bit insulting and quite telling when you consider that lawyer dads never hear anything similar. The differences in what we expect from working mothers and fathers, and how we talk about them, is indicative of the vastly divergent experiences they have in the workplace, especially if the workplace is a law firm. Navigating motherhood and a law career can be a supremely frustrating experience.
The most common complaint of women who have babies is that they often find themselves put on the mommy track, getting fewer cases or less complicated work, and losing their spots on the path to making partner. Women make less than men in general and moms make less than child-free women; the more children you have, the less money you earn. This contrasts with men’s salaries increasing when they become parents.
The assumption is that women with children will not be available, interested, or capable of the focusing work, though studies show that is decidedly not the case. Women are simply being punished for having children—and women who don’t even have children yet are often sidelined simply for being of childbearing age.
Women are told they have to choose between having a strong career or having a family. In the high pressure, constantly-on-demand world of law, parents are often expected to behave as though family is a distant second to career. Child-free colleagues are annoyed when you can’t work on a deposition until midnight and your second grader doesn’t understand why you can’t make his basketball game. The result is a parent who feels like both a bad mom and a bad career woman. Sometimes it feels almost impossible to do it all, especially when the world is not exactly set up for support.
In recent years, firms have begun to better their efforts to help lawyers who become mothers continue to excel at work while balancing home lives. More firms are instituting longer, gender-neutral parental leave, and providing executive coaching for people who are balancing parenthood with their working lives. Some firms are even providing special options for working mothers, like a service that ships pumped breast milk for moms who must travel for work.
For nursing mothers, the ability to pump breast milk during the workday is a must. Without access to one’s actual baby during long hours at the firm, pumping is necessary to prevent discomfort, not to mention clogged ducts and mastitis, or any of the other medical complications that can arise. And let’s be clear: Pumping is not fun or comfortable. So the last thing anyone wants is to try to pump in a bathroom stall or a car. Even those with private offices are subject to frequent interruptions, so simply having an office with a door that closes isn’t always the best answer. Fortunately, state laws require employers to provide suitable lactation rooms, and all courthouses are required to have them for attorneys, clerks, witnesses, and anyone who might need them while at court.
There are more firms, especially women-run firms, instituting policies such as longer leave, on-site daycare, and flexible working hours. There really are people and employers who want to make it easier for women to be both mothers and lawyers. For mothers—and fathers—looking for online resources, Mindful Return, created by a lawyer, offers online courses and other tools to assist professionals with the transition back to work. Just having a supportive community can make all the difference.
Mothers can also find support and resources through advocacy groups, like MothersEsquire. MothersEsquire advocates for gender equity in the legal profession by improving promotion and retention rates of women in the law, along with championing equal pay and compensation transparency practices. Their main objective is to “disrupt the motherhood penalty” in the legal profession.
Remember: You’re Doing Your Best
Don’t beat yourself up about not being able to perform superhuman feats of lawyering and mothering 24 hours a day. This is important to know: If your career suffers after you have children, the problem most likely isn’t you, but that firm leadership has not instituted enough programs to support new parents or routinely treats women with children differently than other lawyers. It may not be possible to have it all, but it is possible to balance work with raising children when firms work to provide options and support to keep good lawyers, like onsite childcare and resisting the custom of automatically discounting women with children as appropriate for advancement. With a shift in attitude and how we view motherhood, more attorney moms will be able to thrive in the office as well as at home.