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Young, Ambitious, and Pregnant

The Careerist

July 21, 2013

Today's guest blogger is an associate at an Am Law 100 law firm. Writing anonymously, she's responding to a recent Careerist post, "Is it Too Late for You to Get Pregnant?", about postponing motherhood.

Mom with two kids © Serhiy Kobyakov - Fotolia.comRecently, Vivia Chen suggested that women might achieve greater success in their careers by starting families later in life. She writes: “Having kids by your mid-twenties almost strikes me as a teenage pregnancy.” 

I was 25 and a first-year associate when I became pregnant with baby number one, and I encountered a lot of that attitude. Now, with three children under 7, I’m still an associate at an Am Law 100 firm.

I believe it is disingenuous to sell purposely-delayed child bearing as empowering. It shows how little has changed in the workforce and how family-unfriendly the work structure remains.

The delayed-motherhood trend assumes that climbing the career ladder is incompatible with having young children. Because of the way most law firms are organized, it might seem rational for men and women to delay childbearing until they are at the top of the heap at work. After all, no one wants to Skype bedtime stories from the office.

But two problems arise from women’s adaptive preference for later childbearing.

The first is a collective problem. The modern law firm structure was created in the Mad Men era of “traditional families,” when hard-charging male attorneys had stay-at-home-wives to take care of virtually all aspects of child rearing, allowing the husbands to put work first. Fifty years later, that model prevails, but American families look very different. Men want to be involved fathers, and women practice law. When women wait to have children until they make partner, for example, they are reinforcing a paradigm that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take a somewhat slower ascent up the ladder while being an involved parent. When everyone devotes their twenties and early thirties to nothing but the billable hour, managers do not have to adopt more flexible work arrangements or even conceive of a more gradual path of professional advancement. From this prism, a woman’s “decision” to delay childbearing until a non-optimal age seems more like “acquiescence” to an outdated workplace structure that doesn't suit the needs of working mothers or fathers.

The second problem, of course, is individual. Modern medicine indeed has changed the fertility landscape for older mothers. Nonetheless, there will still be some women who are unable to create a family in the way that they hoped due to their age. I know some attorneys who waited until after they made partner before trying to start a family, and for some of them, their preferred avenues in creating a family were impossible. And from what I’ve seen from partners who are moms, the struggle for work-life balance doesn’t disappear with the new title, which brings its own set of responsibilities.

As an involved mom of three young children, my professional development has slowed compared to my child-free peers. By necessity, I have forged a somewhat nontraditional path through Big Law. For instance, I have requested flexibility in my schedule when I have needed it.

While various professional milestones have been delayed for me, I do not believe that they are gone forever. I’m still hanging on, producing good work, and still hope to one day, someday, make partner. It’s not on the immediate horizon for me, and I accept that; but it’s also not foreclosed.

I don’t have all of the answers, and I most certainly don’t “have it all.” And I still don’t know exactly where my career will lead. But I do know that if more associates—men and women—have young families, the elusive work/life balance, by necessity, would start to creep into firm culture. Perhaps, then, women with demanding careers would not feel as much pressure to delay motherhood as they do now.

Comments

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Thanks for this I've been looking for pregnancy management in Utah and ways to take care of things. This has really helped.

This post emphasizes two points that are very important. 1) We need more institutional support for parents. The notion that one parent is managing the home and kids is antiquated and the workplace should reflect that. 2) Individually, some may want to delay childbearing as long as possible, but that decision is not completely in our control.

I think professional women should be fully informed about all of their options. Most women do not have their GYN evaluate their fertility until they are trying to conceive. Instead, they should have it evaluated early so that any potential issues can be addressed in advance.

Being fully informed in your mid-20's to early 30's can help avoid a lot of issues down stream.

Thank you for this article. My women peers look at me with pity when I talk about my daughter, who I had at 25. I don't feel hindered at all in my professional development because I have a young family in my twenties. I completely agree that the new standard with professional women starting their families in their thirties does the opposite of empowerment in the workplace. Hopefully more people like us will continue to speak up and change the social stigmas on young working mothers.

I really appreciate this article! I really do think you articulated something that is often missing from the conversation when you state that women perpetuate and capitulate to the Mad Men/outdated workplace model. Also, I am heartened by your decision to have children in your 20s and to continue working at a high level. I hope to do the same in the next few years and it is good to hear that at least a few people do not think it is crazy.

These issues are not unique to biglaw. I left law firm life and worked in law publishing so I could have decent hours and a family. By 1993, when I had three kids, ages 2, 4 and 6, the publisher was in cost-cutting mode. Over the course of the next year, I saw support staff withheld from me, I was loaded with extra work, and I stayed late on many nights, trying just to keep up. Meanwhile, given the obstacles in my path, my performance suffered from time to time. I did an informal, covert survey of other attorney-editors, and found that they all had plenty of support and didn't feel over-worked. Guess what: I was one of the most senior attorney-editors (being I was paid more than many others) and I was the only woman attorney with children. And guess who got fired. I will always believe that I was set up to fail because they could hire someone for far less than I was paid, and they could hire someone without children, someone who would have no problem working late. The whole world needs to change.

I had my first child the week I graduated from law school (in the mid-80s). I chose a different path working for government at first and later for corporations which offered more normal working hours. It all worked out fine and I didn't miss spending time with my kids anymore than any other working parent.

I had my children in my mid-thirties, not because of intentional planning, but because that is when I got married and had the opportunity to have children. I was at BigLaw as an associate and have now been in-house for 5 years. Being a working mom is hard no matter when and where you do it.

Great post. I have not had the benefit of a flexible work schedule at my smaller law firm. While I did make partner several years ago, I have been "mommy-tracked" since then, and have not been given the opportunities despite my experience and expertise. Despite the negative repercussions at work (*I am the only female lawyer with children*), I would not have done it any other way. My children have made me a much better person.

Excellent post, very well said!

Biglaw mom of three kids here too. It's doable, and the firm tries really, really hard, with the long maternity leave, and the reduced hours. I regularly have partners who ask me, "it's late, dont you have to be home." There are tradeoffs, of course, and I'm not the associate who can go to Hong Kong for a deposition on two days' notice, but you know what? a lot of associates are not that either. i do quality work, have to say no sometimes, but on balance it's fine. the real issue is whether I _want_ to keep doing it. i'm in a practice that's very in-demand in-house, and with the money being pretty similar to biglaw and honestly never having to work weekends, i'm compelled.
I will second Vivia's "teen mom in biglaw" comment. i had my first at 27 and felt like a teen mom for sure.

The flexible work schedule model should be adopted by all companies not just Big Law. This way the fathers and mothers can have the flexibility to be there for their family and work at the same time. The idea that it is okay for fathers to be only at work and mothers to stay at home deprives our families from having a complete environment necessary for proper growth for our children. This way even a single father to have the flexibility to spend time with his children and so can a single mother. Working people should have the flexibility to work from home or different hours to accommodate their family's needs.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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