Over a lunch of gazpacho and ceviche at a Manhattan eatery, a senior lawyer at a Fortune 500 company blithely makes that confession. A mother of two who's married to a fund manager, she says she never seriously considered giving up her full-time job. "Are you kidding?" she says. "It would drive me crazy."
For all the talk about women facing work/life balance dilemmas, there's a sector of mom-lawyers who are giddy (maybe just relieved) that they have demanding jobs--and who don't feel guilty about it. They are not necessarily in love with their jobs or superambitious; they just prefer working to schlepping their kids to dance lessons, lacrosse camps, and doctor visits on a regular basis. Though they might not voice it in public, they question the sanity of former colleagues who are now full-time moms.
Call them the silent minority--the moms who'd rather work. Lately, though, they are starting to come out in the open--and they are getting ammunition.
Raising children has become a bit of a drag, if not a modern form of slavery, according to some recent articles. In "All Joy and No Fun" in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior cites numerous studies that show how parenting can make people miserable: "Most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns."
Raising kids has always been hard work, but those moms with professional credentials might be making the job even harder. Says Senior about the raised expectations of former high-achievers:
So how does all this play out in real life? Middlebury College sociology professor Margaret Nelson argues in The Washington Post that professional women are putting the squeeze on themselves; they see their life choices in stark terms: "They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce." Writes Nelson about the rationale of those who opt out:
When people wait to have children, they're also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They've spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there's a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they're applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they're surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea.
The workplace is still not particularly flexible or family-friendly, they say, and parenting has become more intensive and more demanding than ever. But these women may find themselves trying to justify their decision – and approaching child-rearing as a full-time, totally consuming job provides such a justification. At this point, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating: Professional women bring considerable skills to raising children, and because they do it so conscientiously, they may set trends for other parents.
The ante for being a mother these days has been raised so high, suggests Nelson, that some women feel they have little choice but to quit their jobs. If the choice is between "being a good lawyer" or "being a good mom," the right thing to do is to kill the career, right?
Those might be false choices to begin, but some people--especially the perfectionists among us--might not agree.
Maybe that's why a third of the women from Harvard Law School's class of '93 (see Harvard Law Women Opt Out) have dropped out of the workforce entirely to raise families. Have they become, or are they aspiring to be, uber-moms? You know, the ones who seem to keep a cot in the school gym--the ones who run the annual auction, the PTA, the community service programs with the kind of intensity that they used to put into managing a complex case or deal. I see these moms every day, and I know I'm out of their league, which is why I stay clear of the parents' lounge.
"If you've given up your Harvard Law degree, you better make it worth it and not fail at [parenting]," Nelson told me on the phone. "There's a lot of peer pressure about parenting. . . it's gotten out of control."
Ironically, studies show that parents--especially moms--are actually spending more time with their kids, though the popular perception is that they're not. "Since 1965, the amount of time mothers spend on all child-care activities has risen, even though the majority of mothers are now in the labor force; the increase has been particularly sharp among highly educated mothers," writes Nelson.
So maybe my friend who says she'd rather put in a full day at work than funnel all her energies to her kids is the one with the more sensible, balanced approach. Maybe her attitude is a lot healthier--for both her kids and herself.
But dare we tell the former lawyers turned stay-at-home moms that they don't have to devote their life to their kids to raise them properly? Not me.
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com. Photo: Fotolia.com
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.