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Stop Bothering Mom

Vivia Chen

May 5, 2011

What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?" “What do you weigh?” "When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner, do you have to pretend to be lesbians?" No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?"

                                                             Tina Fey

Fotolia_19445215_XS Shock alert: I'm not big on Mother's Day. In fact, I won't be the least disappointed if my kids forget the whole thing this Sunday. I've always found the celebration forced, patronising, and just plain hokey. I know that view won't endear me to a lot of moms, their families, FTD, or Hallmark. Almost certainly, it puts me out of running for any kind of Mother of the Year award. But that's the way I feel.

Despite my antipathy towards that special day, I have an idea for the perfect Mother's Day gift: Let's stop marveling at how working mothers--especially those who have demanding careers--keep all those balls up in the air.

But before I go further, let me confess that I'm as guilty as the next person in asking that noxious question: "But how do you do it all?" I typically stammer that query when I'm interviewing some accomplished female lawyer who reveals she has children. And if it turns out that she has more than two kids, my curiosity gets really piqued--and I want lurid details about her nannies, the size of her home, and where she orders her groceries. I know it's sexist to ask those questions of women, but I can't seem to stop myself.

There are several unconscious subtexts to that question--and none of them is really very nice. One is, "You must have nonstop help and probably never see your kids . . . and they will grow up to be criminals." Another is: "When are you going to collapse and have a nervous breakdown?" The most flattering interpretation is this: "You must be a freak of nature to do it all."

I--and everybody else--should really stop obsessing about how working moms manage family and work. We should just be satisfied that they do--however well or badly. I also wonder if we should do away with the phrase "work/life balance," because it seems impossibly difficult, suggesting something so tenuously held together that it's bound to break. Should we come up with another term? How about "an ever-shifting lopsidedness"?

Readers, do you think it's rude to ask working moms how they manage to keep it all together? What, in your opinion, is the rudest question you can ask a working woman?


Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

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I also agree with Melissa. Mentoring other professionals would not only help them but would be rewarding to the mentor. Juggling work and home is difficult but not impossible.

While it does not have to do with being a mom one I get a lot: Is your husband also a lawyer? Why does that matter? Do men who are attorneys get asked if their wives are also attorneys? I'll bet they don't! The assumptions in this question to me seem very similar to those underlying the question:"How do you manage it all?" My two cents...

I can 100% relate to working moms, I'm married to one (we both work full time) and I'm the child of one. It can be tough, but it also can be done. I'm in the process of a few different ventures that will allow either my wife or I to work from home - also tough, but can be done.

There have been two occasions when my blood pressure went on overdrive when asked this question.

The first was when, as a young mother of a 2-year-old in 1986, I was interviewing for a junior associate position with a law firm in Dallas. The partner interviewing me asked, "How can you do this job and still be a mother." I looked at him calmly and said that my son also had a father. I didn't get that job, but I was called back for an interview for a different position a month later. While meeting some junior associates, I took the opportunity to ask about firm culture and told them I was concerned because of the partner's question. I did get the job this time around and I later learned that the partner was spoofed at a firm retreat to make a point that his behavior was unacceptable.

The second was when I was seconded to a Middle Eastern office of my firm and served as the resident manager. While out to dinner with lawyers from a competitor firm, a young Australian woman lawyer made a big fuss about how I could do my high profile job and be a mother. I thought my husband was going to jump down her throat because, clearly, the implication was that, since I was so successful professionally, I must have been a bad mother.

In short, I think context defines whether the question is offensive or not. When posed in an intimate setting, the question can facilitate genuine sharing and avoid the defensiveness that emerges as hidden judgment.

Sounds like Tina Fey has problems at home.

The most offensive question might be:

Why does your job take priority over your family?

Sometimes it depend on who the question comes from. If it comes from a young woman or another working mom (or even a working dad w/ new babies), I am always will to give advice. Question is more objectionable when it comes from a well-known sexist male in the law firm that is trying to appear sensitive. My favorite experience when I had my now 11 year old and returning to work is when a male partner said how do you do it and "don't you feel guilty for only being a 70% mom." I merely replied that times have changed and where your kids might have had a 100% mom, they had a 20% dad and my husband is so great he is also at 70% dad, so our child gets 140% of parenting -- much better than his 120%. He left me alone after that (well, sort of and the stories I can tell about that . . . but those answers are for a different question!)

I only find it offensive when it comes up during an interview or as part of a evaluation, because it raises an implicit bias against working moms in the wokplace by labeling certain moms as "star" jugglers.

The only reason this question is offensive is because no one ever asks it of a daddy.

Otherwise, lighten up!

I think the only people that obsess about how working mom's can do it all is other working moms. The rest of us have other things to worry about: deadlines, trial dates, getting laid off, student loan bills, relationships, etc.

When people ask the question, "How do you juggle it all" it is because they are struggling and truly want to know or they are passing judgment. Trust is, whether you are a stay at home Mom or a career Mom, we all feel less than adequate sometimes. I am a career Mom who often marvels at how stay at home Moms do not lose their minds while some stay at home Moms look at me like how could you leave your child to play in a day care all day. Truth is, all of us Moms are pretty amazing and I do not need a day out of the year to realize that. I agree that Mother's Day is hokey, along with Valentine’s Day as well :-)

I agree with Melissa. I am not offended by this, and I admire anyone, moms or dads, who juggle with relative ease. We can all learn from them if we ask nicely and express our respect.

The problem with the "how do you juggle" question isn't on the face of the question. It's the unspoken question, which is: How can you manage to be successful at your job without neglecting your primary responsibility, i.e., your husband and kids?

If a new parent wants advice on managing family responsibilities, why not simply ask -- hey, do you have live in help, or a part-time nanny, or do you take the kids to daycare? Ask specific questions. Don't just "marvel" at someone who has it all.

Instead of being offended by the question, why not take it as an opportunity to mentor other professionals who are looking for ways to make thier juggle eaiser? I'll never understand how this question can be offensive, especially when it is coming from a new parent or a new professional trying to plan for the future.

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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: VChen@alm.com

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