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.
Recently, 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this prism, a woman’s “decision” to delay childbearing until a non-optimal age seems more like “acquiescence” to an outdated workplace structure that doesn't suit the needs of working mothers or fathers.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.