At my old job, I had a reputation for being a thorough researcher, a strong writer, a careful Bluebooker, and a promising speaker. I also had a reputation for being “a mom.” I was not the only mom at my firm, or even the only parent of young children, but mom was nonetheless a larger part of my identity at work than it was for my colleagues. I bear some of the blame for this predicament. I went and got myself knocked up after only three months at the firm! Three! I hate to make a big deal out of that timeline because doing so reinforces two wildly sexist notions: (1) that a woman needs the approval of her employer to make highly personal, life-changing decisions; and (2) a woman needs to prove her worth to a company before she’s allowed to use benefits to which she is legally entitled and which, in fact, exist to benefit the company. Though I reject both of these premises, I do recognize that three months is not a lot of time. I barely gave my colleagues a chance to know anything about me before I announced my pregnancy! It’s no wonder they thought of me as mom.
After a certain point, though, surely my colleagues should take some of the blame. I mean, one senior partner expressed surprise to see me back from maternity leave when my kid was eighteen months old. Sheesh, what could I even say to that? My leave was decent by U.S. standards, but not that long. Indeed, my coworkers were always asking me about my kid. One especially demanding senior partner stopped in my office a few times a week, and I’d always sit up at attention, even though inside I might be eager or shrinking, depending on how busy I already was. Neither my worry nor my anticipation were warranted though. For the last few years I worked at the firm, 95% of his drop-ins began and ended with him asking about my daughter and then sharing an anecdote about his grandson, who was close in age. I never knew what to make to make of this. On one hand, how nice that we we able to connect about something than other than work. On the other hand, we weren’t talking about work at all. Notably, the partners I could count on for a steady stream of work rarely asked about my personal life in the office.
I thought about raising my concern that I was being pigeonholed, but didn’t because I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to change. Certainly, I didn’t want to be treated like the men. One male associate became a dad just a few weeks shy of his one-year anniversary at the firm, which is when his parental leave benefit would have kicked in. He had to come to work one week after his first daughter was born. Another male associate tried to take paternity leave when his second kid was born and the demanding senior partner with the adorable grandson leaned on him to come back to the office less than a week later and then travel out-of-state for a multi-week client audit.
I like talking about my kids at work. I appreciate not having to hide the existence of my family. I want to be seen as a multi-faceted human being. I suspect I’m far from alone. But what do we do about people who can’t hold the idea that that a woman can be a talented lawyer and a loving mom in their heads at the same time? I don’t want to go back into the mommy closet. I don’t want to pretend I don’t want to eat dinner with my family and that I’ve never been to a parent-teacher conference in my life. How do we save work/life balance for everyone?
The answer, I think, has been revealed in the pandemic. Since all of my clients and contacts and co-workers started working from home, the men won’t shut up about their kids. I exchanged emails with a lawyer I’d never met before, and at the end asked how he was doing. He said that he was counting down the days for homeschooling to end. Every conference call starts with a round robin of updates about what’s going on with everyone’s families. Even the older guys want to talk about how their college kids and grown children are faring in virus times. I call an old friend in the middle of the day and he has to go because he’s on toddler duty. I call another friend and he is driving his mom to the store. All the two-income families I know have implemented complicated schedules in which both partners trade-off childcare so they both have time to work. I’m not saying that coronavirus has been the great equalizer. Women are still bearing the brunt of homeschooling, housework, and childcare and are at risk of serious career setbacks as a result. But that problem, too, highlights the path forward.
The goal is not, as we used to think, for women to act more like men. The answer is for men to act more like women.