Balancing and juggling. A working mom’s life often sounds like a circus performance. The words carry with them an insidious threat. Let your guard down for a moment and the whole thing may fall apart. I’ve been back in the office for a little over two months now after the birth of my son and took a moment this morning to pause and look back on how the transition has affected my myself, my family and my work.
Lawyers at WW use the firm’s blog to comment on important legal opinions, champion the rights of consumers and others harmed by corporate injustice and shed light on important issues affecting our colleagues and clients. This is the nature of the work that I do and so these things are always on my mind. Also on my mind these days though, are any number of practical worries that a few short months ago I never considered. “How will we oppose this motion to dismiss?” now competes for my attention with “how will I get this baby to take a nap in his crib?” (Both are likely to involve some research and outsmarting a formidable opponent.) I know I’m not alone. Lawyers are moms and dads too. We’re human. Maybe there is room for a blog post about these other sorts of challenges, how we face them and how they change us, perhaps for the better.
Here are a few reflections on how working moms (and everyone) can try to make it all work.
Don’t Fool Yourself
Notice I said “try to make it all work.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is no “making it all work.” This does not exist. You know the saying “you can please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time?” I’m pretty sure that is my new mantra. I can make light of it now, but concluding that I simply could not have it all, do it all and be it all was one of the most devastating realizations I’ve ever faced. This is not an uncontroversial attitude, by the way. There are plenty of working moms who will insist (sometimes with a fervor bordering on hysteria) that you can indeed do it all and are a traitor to your gender to suggest otherwise. This is ridiculous. Doing everything and doing everything well are two very different things. It is difficult to accept the fact that there are just not enough hours in the day to do everything you would like to, to help everyone who needs your help, and to do it all in the organized, thorough and professional manner people have come to expect from you (or more likely, that you have come to expect from yourself).
And so I was angry for a while. In the end, however, I realized that I would have to be content with doing everyday things well enough while recognizing opportunities to do the very important things very well. This is really an epiphany every working person should have, not just working moms. Embracing this attitude does not mean that you cease caring about your work product or personal obligations. In fact you care more. You care enough to prioritize and cordon off time for the truly important tasks in your life and to guard against the influx of petty demands fighting for your attention.
Kissing Your Frog
I’m a person who has tried a lot of different time management strategies in my life. It’s something I think all lawyers struggle with. We are constantly bombarded with to-do lists, day planners, e-mails, Outlook reminders, time entry software, post-it notes, dry erase boards … the list goes on and on. A part of me looked forward to my maternity leave as a time when I could finally turn off all of the alerts, set up my out-of-office reply and exist for a few months without a to-do list and calendar of appointments. This is amusing to me now for a number of reasons. As any new parent can tell you, having a newborn is all about to-do lists and schedules. Instead of billable hours, you log ounces of milk ingested, bodily functions performed and hours of sleep. A newborn is an unpredictable bundle of never-ending needs. Being alone with one for any stretch of time makes you resort to bizarre prioritization and multi-tasking to simply survive. Quick, he’s sleeping and you may only have five minutes.! You have not slept, eaten or showered in days, every scrap of clothing in the house is dirty and the dog needs out. What do you do first?
In my pre-baby life I often had the luxury (or thought I did) of picking and choosing which of the tasks on my to-do list I would focus on, content in the knowledge that there would always be time for the others later. Having a baby abruptly and permanently destroyed this mode of thinking. I read an article on time-management tricks once that encouraged readers to start each day by “kissing their frog”—choosing the task they dreaded most and simply doing it, banishing it from the list forevermore. I never really understood the importance of this until I experienced the chaos of life with a baby. Now I try to start every day by doing that one important thing I’ve been putting off, fully realizing that it might never happen if I don’t.
Controlling the Balloon Hand
In my pre-baby life I also had the luxury of satisfying my desire to please others by being a perpetual “yes” person. You know who I’m talking about. In a staff meeting, the boss asks who has time for a tedious, unrewarding project and this person’s hand seems to magically levitate. It made no difference whether I was already overloaded with other work, and it rarely occurred to me that it might be someone else’s turn to shoulder such a burden. I simply couldn’t resist the urge to please others. This is not always a bad thing. I care about what others think of me because I want to be known as a trustworthy, hardworking person.
But I have learned that offering to do something that is time-consuming, of questionable importance, or that you in all honesty do not have time to do does not please anyone in the long run. You don’t gain a reputation for dependability simply by being a “yes” person. As a new mom, it is more important than ever (though it is always important) to think before you volunteer your time. It is no longer just your time you are volunteering. Is this something that will advance my case, or is it busy work that will take time away from more important tasks or from my family? In the end, you will be respected more for saying yes when it is really important and for consistently delivering on your promises. Whether you want to or not, you will now carry around an internal accounting of who has been shortchanged in your efforts to balance life and work, and will guard your time more than ever as you seek out opportunities to repay those debts.
Letting Everything Go to Hell
As a new working mom, you quickly learn that any sense of order is an illusion. Your entire life can devolve into chaos with a single sneeze. Suddenly your whole family has the flu, you are two days behind in your assignments and your house looks ravaged by a hurricane. On a day-to-day basis, the only way to keep it all together seems to be through relentless multi-tasking. You brush your teeth while feeding the baby and editing a brief. You change a diaper while responding to an e-mail (thank you Siri!) and reading a recall notice for the crib your husband just spent hours putting together. Researchers have discovered what should be obvious, however: we just don’t do things as well when we multitask. Just as we’re safer drivers when we aren’t texting, we’re often better lawyers when we aren’t answering trivial e-mails.
Here’s a secret. If you are a working mom frantically juggling tasks, the best thing you can do for yourself is to—every once in a while—just let everything go to hell. Seriously. It was very difficult for me to accept this, but I promise you, you will be able to pick everything back up again when you are done doing this one important thing that needs your full attention. And if the show must go on, cry uncle and ask for help or barter, barter, barter with your spouse to cover for you. You have to do this sometimes or you will look back and realize you no longer know how focus your attention on something worthwhile. You have become a scatter-brained mom darting from task to task and will have lost your cool forever. Remember, there is a calm, insightful person living inside you. Every once in a while you need to hit “pause” on the variety show that is your life (or “mute,” at the very least), sit her down in a chair, and let her do her magic.
You’re a Mom Now
I could write a lot more about how having a baby changes your life, but does it really? I would say it amplifies your life. It illuminates things you have conveniently ignored for years. Things about yourself, how you manage your time and how you interact with other people. The biggest thing is at once the subtlest and the most obvious. You’re a mom now. Maybe this comes naturally for some people but I’m not sure it has for me. On the surface, I have to remind myself every morning, “you have a baby, you’re someone’s mother.” But on another level, this strange new fact infuses everything I do. I am simultaneously more confident voicing my opinion and more open to hearing the opinions of others. My sense of fairness is heightened. I look up from my work more often to consider the big picture. My time is so precious that I work harder to ensure that my efforts dovetail with those of others on my team. I can’t help but believe that these changes make me a better lawyer, just as I am confident that the important work I do here at the firm makes me a better mom.