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Moms Who Won't Quit

Vivia Chen

July 27, 2010

Career Mom

 "I go to the office to get away from my children."

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:

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.

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:
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 [email protected].

Photo: Fotolia.com


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Really Andrew? Never, ever, ever attend a child's school play? What if your mom's colleagues had told her that so she never made it to any of yours?

What I don't get is that we've forgotten that having children is THE essential determinant in having a continued work force and is therefore a crucial economic contribution.

Why is this so undervalued? Makes no sense when you think about it.

I know that as a woman worker without kids, I've taken plenty of time off to attend law seminars, conferences, and interviews all to advance my own "private" career.

Why should parents feel ashamed to occasionally make their future high-achiever feel like a valued and functional human being?

And are you really back-up child care doing your job during office hours? Have you ever seen these kids?

Fact is humans do have children and have to go to work. And that's a necessary part of the cycle of a healthy economy.

Don't resent women for having children, do you really hold it against your mom for taking time out to give birth and care for you?

I think the healthiest approach is to be honest with yourself about what you want for yourself and your kids. Then make that choice and don't worry about trends, or other peoples' opinions. The only person who knows what's right for you is you.

I have thought for a while that the rift between stay-at-home and working mothers is a problem in our society. The point is, it is a personal choice, and we should rejoice in the fact that, IF we have the financial means to chose, we are empowered to chose. There are strong pros and cons to both choices. If both working and stay-at-home moms could make the best of what they have, and try to enjoy their lives instead of constantly justifying and criticizing, we would all be a lot better off and so would our children. Remember, we are all women and all mothers, we should support each other.

If at least one parent or both don't want to be burdened to "schlep" around kids, why have them?? That's an option you know. My husband & I are both attorneys have chosen to use our law degrees in professions where we both have flexibility and both share responsibility for our two boys (now 15 & 17) but neither of us have "high-powered" legal careers. If we had wanted that, we would have chosen not to have kids.

I would rather stay home but NOT if I have to entertain my kids or taxi them around town all day. People (moms, dads, childless) need to serve their own creative selves and not be slaves to other people, whether it is kids, bosses, colleagues, etc. Balance among all of these competing demands is the key, and I think our society is so caught up with the accumulation of stuff that we tolerate these outrageous demands on us. (I just returned from vacation and am determined to turn over a new leaf. It'll take at least a day before that urge is beaten out of me.)

My bad. Apologies to Vivia Chen for my above comment of 7.29.

We do not take down published comments. Mr. Johanson posted his last comment on a related post. (See comments under "Harvard Law Women Opt Out.")

Nice, Vivia. Take down my comments, but leave up an advertisement because its a company that empowers women.

You're a heck of a journalist. Its too bad TASS is no longer under operation - the Soviets would have hired you in an instant.

I personally would rather stay at home with my child then work! I work because I have to not because I want to.

One might also consider that these women who opt out may not be doing so just because they are over-acheiving Moms. They may be doing so out of real necessity. I agree with Ms. Rapacki that our society places little value on the efforts of working Moms. But, one must also consider that we women are faced with trying to have our own career but also being part of the sandwich generation; being squeezed by the needs of elderly parents and children. In addition, there is an alarming rate of children on the autism spectrum. These children require much more care and attention. Working full time with my son who suffers with Sensory Processing Disorder is not an option. He simply could not tolerate before and after school care. He barely manages to get himself together for school each day. Whether it be a father or mother, someone's job must be very flexible in order to properly care for many children. It is a difficult situation. Corporate Amercia simply is not set up to appreciate the needs of families. Any time spent caring for families is considered to be a sign of weakness.

Consider re-reading this article with "dad" substituted for "mom." Are you surprised by any of the statements? Probably not. The real question is who is responsible to take care of children in our society and who pays the price? Those who adhere to gender role stereotypes believe only the mother bears responsiblity. Isn't it time we ask why men and male leaders (generally 72% in any sector) both refuse to be stay-at-home dads and/or subsidize or support child care options? Why isn't what's good for the gander, good for the goose? Without some substantial protection for wage loss that comes both from gender bias and absence from the workforce during prime money making years, stay at home mothers put their long term financial health at grave risk. (The US has the highest population of older women in poverty.) At Polish Your Star, we help our female clients find lifestyle balance, expand their leadership reach and power and market themselves with more confidence. We assume that her career, leadership and financial goals are as important as his. .

Just as long as they never, ever, ever treat their colleagues as back-up child care - "you go to court while I go to my child's school play or a meeting at her school" it's fine with me. But they must take their share of the awkward hours and the travel as if they had no children. The people without children have private lives too.

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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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