Quarantine Diary Day 88: Law Mom

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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.

Quarantine Diary Day 46

I commuted over an hour a day for the first nine years of my career. For the last half of that, I was in transit over two hours a day. For many years, my route to work included a long walk, a train, and a water taxi. When I changed jobs a few years ago and moved into an office a few miles north of downtown and closer to my home in the suburbs, I thought the trip would get better. Instead, I had to take two trains each away, and almost every day included multiple 20+ minute waits on the platform. I defended my commute to people balked at how much time I spent getting to and from work. Sitting on the train with a book, walking on the riverwalk with a podcast, cruising down the Chicago river with music in my ears, that was my me time, the only time in my long days that I wasn’t busy with work, or childcare, or chores. Still, more often than not I arrived at work already exhausted, and by the time I made it home for the night, I was done. It’s no wonder that I spent so many of those train rides home, especially after I got sober, thirsty and resentful, envious of the men in suits drinking Daisy Cutter from a can with another in a paper bag. I wondered if it was the beer or the suits or the fact that they weren’t going home to a second shift that made them able to cope with a life that was grinding me into the ground. 

Last summer, my employer allowed me to rent an office in my town. After that, I walked to work, about twenty minutes each way. It was still a commute, but it didn’t feel that way, except on the coldest days, and the rainy ones. I marveled at the pleasure of watching the seasons unfold in my own community, up close. More than the walking, I embraced the gift of time. Moving my office gave me 1.5 hours back on my clock every day. Before I got that time, I assumed I would use it to work. I’m an attorney; there are always more hours to bill. I thought I might spend the rest of it with my daughter. I’m a working mom; there is always more to do at home. So for the first few weeks, I rushed off to work early on days that I had client calls and walked my daughter to school on days that I didn’t. I raced home for family dinners. As the weeks wore on, and I adjusted to not having a train to catch, I started to wonder why I was rushing. I also started to wonder if I wasn’t still entitled to a little me time that didn’t consist solely of listening to podcasts while hauling my ass to and from my job. I decided to reclaim the time that I’d been so eager to return to my family and my job. I let my morning runs go longer, up to seven, eight, and nine miles from five or six. I let my husband get our daughter ready for school while I played the guitar before work. I did daily tarot pulls.   

When I realized that I’d be working from home last month, I knew it would be a challenge. Our home is small, with no dedicated home office, and I’d be sharing the space with my husband and newly homeschooled daughter. But I was excited about the prospect of another gift of time. My forty-minute walk commute was going down to zero! Imagine all the quality family time, all the productive work hours! Imagine all the writing! I could barely contain myself.

Of course, you know what happened next. The first few weeks of self-isolation were more about surviving than thriving. I stopped waking up at 5:00 a.m. to work out because what was the point. I stopped making my kid get dressed for the same reason. I woke up late, walked downstairs, and arrived at the futon that is now my office already exhausted. I spent the day trying to maintain a veneer of business as usual with my coworkers and clients and by the time I made it upstairs for the night, I was done. I powered through dinner and bedtime and then collapsed on the couch to eat ice cream and watch comfort TV.   

It was my therapist who suggested that I bring back the commute, on the theory that our pre-pandemic routines can offer much-needed stability in a time of crisis. So I started walking, first around the park, and then around the block, and then around the neighborhood. Sometimes I call a family member on the phone. Sometimes I listen to a podcast. Sometimes I do nothing but walk. After years of wishing my commute away, I’m finding that most days I cannot walk enough. Walking outside, when I can’t go anywhere else, is a pleasure. I like watching the trees bud and the flowers bloom. I like peering into my neighbors’ yards and waving at people walking their dogs. The thing that drained me is now giving me life.    

At the beginning, I invited my daughter with me every time I left the house. She needs to get outside as much as I do, and I like her company. In fact, our walks our glorious. We collect sticks and rocks. We photograph flowers. We race as fast as we can. At least once every walk, my daughter peels ahead of me or drops back, lost in thought or in the wonder of it all. When she remembers I exist, she sprints back to me shouting, “I love you mama!” 

Lately, though, it’s getting harder to get my daughter to leave the house. As much fun as she has when she’s out there, she is getting tired of walking. She is tired of our neighborhood, tired of me. She misses other kids, and playing on the playground. Feeling obligated to make the most of this time, I keep pushing her to join me, and the walks are turning into a battleground. I think, if it were up to me, I would be walking four or five times a day, but I can’t, because I am a working parent and my time belongs to my family and my job. I start to get bitter. 

Just in time, I remember that the gift of this season is the gift of time. This weekend, we finished dinner, and I asked my daughter to pick up her toys. The family room was a disaster and she was starting to fuss. Outside, it was a gorgeous spring evening. The sun was setting, and the neighborhood was all gold. I thought about how much I’d rather be out there than in here. I thought about how there was no reason to rush through the evening, from dinner to chores to bathtime to bed. I walked upstairs, told my husband I was going for a walk. “Supervise the clean-up,” I said. “I’ll be back in fifteen for dessert.” I came back in twenty minutes to a clean house and ice cream sundae ingredients lined up on the counter. 

I am entitled to time to myself. I am entitled to do something enjoyable without turning it into an opportunity for my child. I am entitled to a life that doesn’t feel like a grind, that doesn’t turn me into dust. If I want to go for a walk, I can go for a walk. I don’t have to have a reason. It doesn’t have to be a commute. 

Devil’s Haircut

I cut off a foot of hair today. This is not without precedent. I can’t maintain a hairstyle for the life of me. I go months or years between cuts until I am so sick of my hair that I chop it all off. This is my first time going pixie short, though. Though there is really nothing pixie-ish about how I look now. The cut is decidedly androgynous. I’m fairly certain my husband hates it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that was kind of the point. When I booked the appointment last week, I was planning on a chin-length layered bob. When I mentioned that I planned to cut my hair short, my husband reacted negatively, worried I would cut it “too short.” It annoyed me he even had an opinion. To be fair, he does ask me about my preferences about his hair, clothes, etc., and I mostly don’t have strong ones, but when I say I like something, he does try to do that thing, even when it is not exactly advisable from a fashion standpoint. I’m thinking of the year we were super into Sons of Anarchy and I kept telling him to grow his hair out long like Jax. And he did it! I know he knew it was a questionable look because he kept asking, “Are you sure?” and I kept saying, “Yes, yes,” even though a clean cut style is for sure more flattering on him. Preferences aside, I would never dream of criticizing a style he likes even if it doesn’t match my aesthetics, so, like I said, it irked me when he did. It didn’t help that his knee jerk reaction against short hair aligns with sexist societal beauty standards. Fuck that. Not fuck him, just fuck that. The beauty standards. So when I got in the chair I asked the stylist to take it all off, and she did, and I love it. I couldn’t quite picture how my face would look with short hair and it turns out it looks like…my face…but more in YOUR face, if that makes sense. Do I look better with short hair? I don’t know. Probably not. I like that I look less feminine, though. I think I look like my friend M, who is a badass (an overused label that I myself use sparingly…M is one of my few friends who deserves it). I like the way my neck looks, like a swan, and my jaw, all defined. I don’t miss the knotted curls on the back of my head or the ragged ends or the frizz around my crown. I am all about the unbrushed flower child look in the summer and feeling like a witch in the fall but now that the cold has set in leaving the house in the morning with a wet mop hanging around my shoulders is unappealing, as is trying to stuff an oversized top knot into a winter beanie. This evening I ran into a male acquaintance at the church and he did a double take and then freaked out, in a good way, when he realized it was me. He took in my all black, my work boots, and my new short hair. “You look like every girl I had a crush on in middle school.” I liked hearing that. So clearly I’m not exactly trying to escape the male gaze. I’m not flouting all the beauty standards. Just the ones that don’t suit me at this particular moment, which is nothing admirable. I still want to look sexy. And I do. Except now I look like the women that I think look good.