Tips For Fighting The Lawyer-Mom Blues

Marlene Pontrelli
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It can be tough to raise children and practice law. Either you thrive at one and neglect the other, or you feel as if you are inadequate at both. When I first started practicing law (in the ’80s), the women mentors at my firm tried to tell me it was possible to succeed at both. We were the “I am woman” age and felt that we could balance life, work, kids, and marriage and be the best at everything. Despite all the positive encouragement, their eyes told me something completely different – something more like “who are we kidding? But why burst her bubble, she’ll find out soon enough on her own.”

When my first child came along, it seemed almost impossible. How could one little thing turn my whole world upside down? How do you get up for 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. feedings and then still be in court at 9 a.m. ready to go? When do you have time to finish that brief, read that new case, and what, I also have to try and fit in mandatory CLE? (Not to spoil the ending, but I did get better once I had four little tots running around).

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What was worse though was the fact that I loved being a mom and spending time with my little one who each day was growing up before my eyes. I wanted to be there for his first steps, and his first word, and when I missed his first laugh and had to hear it over the telephone, I broke down in a puddle of tears. But I also loved the law. It was intellectually challenging, personally gratifying, and I felt I was contributing to something much greater than my individual needs. How could I possibly learn to balance the two?

We were the “I am woman” age and felt that we could balance life, work, kids, and marriage and be the best at everything. Despite all the positive encouragement, their eyes told me something completely different …

While balancing the law with parenthood is not a problem exclusively limited to moms, in many cases the caring and raising of children falls disproportionally upon women. A recent article in the August 2018 issue of the ABA Journal provided results from a survey of 1300 participants and found that 54% of women said they were responsible for arranging child care, as opposed to 1 percent of men, and 34 percent said they leave work for children’s needs versus 5 percent of the men surveyed.

So, how do we promote success among women lawyers to not only encourage women to stay in the practice, but also to fight the guilty feelings of not being super-mom? An informal survey among some of the women lawyers in my firm helped produce the following list of 10 tips to fight the lawyer-mom blues. Not all of them are applicable to all situations. Everyone has to find the right balance that works for her. However, a common theme emerged. Having the support of your family, friends, and colleagues can make the difference between feeling stressed, guilty and inadequate, to meeting the challenges of being both a lawyer and a mom.

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1. Allow yourself to lose control.

Being a lawyer almost by definition means we are perfectionists, super organized and like to control the outcome of every situation. This is where motherhood and law collide. One of my partners gave the following advice, “Everything does not have to be perfect. It is ok if the house cleaning gets neglected because you want to spend a Saturday afternoon playing with the kids.”

2. Utilize your internal workplace support system.

I am fortunate enough to be at a firm that recognizes the need to support parents and attempts to help them balance the dual roles of practicing law and parenthood. That includes recognizing the need for alternative work arrangements such as reduced work schedules and opportunities to telecommute. In addition, having a strong women’s network where we meet once a month to discuss the challenges that exist provides an internal support system.

3. Develop your external support system.

Family that lives close by can be a lifesaver for those unexpected calls. However, for those who do not family close by, having a plan B set up every day helps reduce stress and provides for some certainty. This may include friends who can stay home with a sick child, or bring the forgotten backpack to school with today’s homework. Some find it better to have daily help even when the children start school. While it may seem an unnecessary expense, the moms who continued to have available care said the added cost more than made up for the reduced stress when emergencies arose.

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4. Learn to expect the unexpected.

Everyone has those days that are so carefully thought out and planned and then the unexpected occurs. Our first response is generally, “I don’t have time for this today!” We have a code word in our family for days like this. We started calling it an “adventure”. A day full of everything going wrong, is just a day of new adventures. Somedays you just have to give in to the unexpected.

5. You don’t have to separate your work from your children.

While there certainly is a philosophy of keeping the two separate, many parents find it easier to incorporate children into your work life, or perhaps it is incorporating your work into your children’s lives. When my children were young, their bedtime stories were riddled with cases that had them guessing whether the court agreed with the plaintiff or the defendant. (Which could be the reason all 4 of my children decided to go to law school.)

6. Use technology to stay in touch.

Sending text messages or using lunchtime to Skype or FaceTime helps you to stay in contact throughout the day. Many daycare centers also have apps that allow you to see what your child is doing during the day.

7. It is OK to overcommit.

Just when you think you can’t possibly chair that PTA committee, volunteer to be the soccer-mom, or help with the school carnival, that is probably when you should jump in and help out. If we commit to doing something, we seem to find the time. Being involved with your children’s school means more than just dropping them off in the morning and making sure they are picked up on time. Spending time with your children in their environments, getting to know their teachers, the staff, and even the other parents, helps to also build that village that allows you a pass when you might need it most.

8. Develop a special activity for you and your children.

Sure, there will be children activities – baseball, soccer, dance. But for the most part these are activities you take your children to and then watch then participate. Try to also establish some of your own “mommy and me” classes. One mother bought her child a small camera, and armed with her own camera, they went to scenic parts around their city and photographed different places each week. Then they would come home and print out one or two of the best ones that they could place in a scrapbook. The important thing is to make it a planned activity, just like any other scheduled activity.

9. Find a work situation that fits your needs.

Regardless of whether you are raising children in a married or single parent household, it is often hard to know both what type of law, and what type of work environment works best. For some, going solo makes it easier for them to manage the balance of work and motherhood. For others, the ability to rely on colleagues in a larger firm environment for emergencies makes more sense. And, for many, it changes over time.

10. Let go of the guilt.

Working moms and grandmothers agreed: let go of your guilt. You may not be able to change the situation at any given time. Rather, you just need to do the best you can each day, and everything else will just have to fall into place. And if it doesn’t? Don’t worry about it. There is always tomorrow to try and get it right. Marlene Pontrelli 

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