Experiences with the Fabled Work/Life Balance

I promise to resume my South Africa posts. Right now though, I want to write about something that is weighing on me a little bit more. In anticipating having children, I could never have predicted the profound effect they would have on my career. This is for a number of reasons, but the primary reason is that I changed career tacks a while back to move into law librarianship and academia in some part because I thought it would give me considerably more flexibility with my anticipated future family than my law practice which demanded an unpredictable court schedule. I made that career compromise early. However, when I moved into this career path, I didn’t just lose the ambition or competitiveness that earmarked my entire academic and professional identity. I became a law librarian because I thought I would be a good one, intended to take the work seriously, and hoped to rise to the top of my profession. It wasn’t just that I “loved books”, as starts every application for library school. Rather, I care deeply about preserving our legal heritage, researching the law, and teaching the next generation of lawyers.

Up until this past year, my career in law librarianship has more or less gone according to plan. Yes, part of that is luck, but also, I think that I worked hard to be good at what I do. I worked my way up and ended up at a university that I love above all others. But this year, things have gotten hard as I have realized that now that I have children, things are not as easy as they once were. Yes, even in the non-cutthroat world of academic law libraries, as it turns out, having children changes how people treat you at work.

I sensed this early on, even during my pregnancy. I committed to only taking eight weeks of maternity leave even before I had my c-section. I felt so lucky to not go into early labor because if I would have and my kids would have needed NICU time, as common for many twins, I honestly didn’t know how I would handle my work situation. First off, concerning the practical need for pay, as state employees in North Carolina, we have no paid maternity leave. We are only entitled to 12 unpaid weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act, and that leave runs concurrently with any accumulated paid vacation or medical leave that we use. I could only use accumulated paid medical leave during the time of my “recovery” from my C-section, so only for six weeks. Secondly, we had two active searches for librarians that I would be supervising going on, so I knew I would need to be involved in that. Thirdly, I just got a sense that for me, taking a longer period of leave would signal that I was less committed to my job, and I didn’t want to send that message. Unspoken and implied messages coming from a variety of people indicated to me that I would have to show my commitment. So truthfully, even though I took eight weeks where I didn’t come into the law school, only two of those weeks did I not actually work at all. The other weeks, during any spare moments when I successfully got the twins to nap at the same time during the day, I was working, not sleeping.

Because I have liked my current job, I haven’t actively been looking for another one, but I did see one opportunity for a position that I thought would be another good step up for me this past year. I applied, and got the interview. However, as it turns out, asking for pumping breaks because you are still nursing your children, while talking to staff about your belief in the virtue of a flexible work environment for the needs of all employees (regardless of family status) doesn’t sit well with some administrators. So yes, it was the first library job that I interviewed for, but I didn’t get. I was okay with it, as I thought, that’s okay, I can go back to my old job confident in the knowledge that I will have opportunities for career growth there.

Only now, it is clear that isn’t the case here. I feel like an idiot for being duped into thinking that I could show my commitment and be given those opportunities here. I feel stupid for thinking that doing things like hardly taking any maternity leave would make any difference; because it is quite clear to me now, that it is impossible for me to ever be able to do enough. There will always be something more that I need to prove, and I cannot. I can only pay our nanny to work a certain number of hours during the week, and also even more than that, I respect that she is a person too that has family obligations she needs to attend to. So now, when I cannot stay for a late afternoon/evening meeting, then it is another strike against me, even though I am here between 7:00 and 7:30 every morning.

I recognize how privileged I am to be in my position. I had my kids later than most, allowing me the opportunity to gain more work experience and advance in my career. My job in academia is more flexible than what most people have, in spite of all of the pressures I feel about my time, I don’t have a clock-in, clock-out paid by the hour job. But I also have a husband who must travel for his career (we moved here for mine), and frequently that travel comes at the last minute, so I have to be the one at home. Not only that, I really like my boys (in addition to loving them as their Mom), and I want to be home with them for meaningful periods of the day too. I want to have structured periods of my daily schedule where it is all about them and nothing else.

The American economy is not set up for this. I am not the first person to recognize this. Our economy is still entirely based around the notion of the stay-at-home Mom and the working Dad. It is why we have no meaningful paid maternity leave in this country as compared with just about every other country in the world. It is also why being a mother is one of the single highest indicators of poverty (particularly for single mothers).

Sure, I get the Cheryl Sandberg Lean In crowd, but it is really, really hard. Even when you want to succeed and you work hard to succeed, you cannot change the perceptions of other people. You cannot change the fact that a different standard is going to be applied to you no matter how hard you try to work to prove that prejudice wrong. You cannot change the fact that you have to prove yourself every day, and that even if you passed the test thrown up at you the day before, failing the current day’s test really means you failed them all to someone else.

Sometimes I feel like being a working mother means facing the disdain of both sides that may take it to extremes: some stay-at-home Moms who think you are failing your children because you aren’t at home with them all day, and some child-free working women who feel like you are a traitor to your feminism by not forgoing having kids altogether. You cannot win with either group. You cannot give 100% of everything to both, as that is numerically impossible, so you have to go it alone and trust in yourself to figure out how to apportion your time between your different demands, and trust that whatever apportionment that you assign, it will be enough. You have to keep reminding yourself that not only is it enough, but you can do your jobs better than anyone else can. You know your children better than anyone else. You know your job better than anyone else. No one else can do it as well as you. You have to be your own cheerleader, because no one else is going to do it for you. You just have to accept the fact that to someone else, whatever you do is never going to be good enough.

Yes, this makes me a little bit jaded and more bitter, but I am tough and I can plow through it. I feel like I have dealt with considerable shit in my life with feeling rejected by other people and so I can suck it up and not let other people break me, even if it means I have already committed career suicide by my choice to have children. However, it doesn’t mean that I have to accept it for me or for anyone else.

Every day, I wake up no later than 5:00 am and get out of bed knowing that in that day, I want my efforts to be my best for my boys. It is one reason that I take work so seriously, because when I go to work I want it to be meaningful if it is going to take me away physically from them. I want to work for them because I want them to see that everyone has a part to play, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, in making the world better. But now, I see things as they are and realize that in this country when it comes to working mothers, you are expected to do it on your own. You have to motivate yourself to keep going every single day.

Yes, it sucks for me, but it sucks even worse for women who are raising children on their own, don’t have the educational privileges I did, or don’t have the economic ability to pay for good child care. Our economic, business, and social climates for working moms in this country do not benefit anyone, I contend. They do not benefit Moms, already stressed out. They do not make for happy, productive work places when people don’t feel career satisfaction because they feel slighted and mistreated. They do not benefit children to have their mothers treated this way. Our hyper-competitive, hyper-capitalist society just leaves all of us feeling alienated because we are all struggling for whatever tiny share of the pie is left over. Its a zero sum game and in this country, working mothers are the losers in the workplace.

If you haven’t read this article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, I would highly encourage you to. She is a professor at Princeton and clearly is able to articulate all of this much better than I can. For example, if I could share this part with some people in my life right now, I absolutely would:

“The discipline, organization, and sheer endurance it takes to succeed at top levels with young children at home is easily comparable to running 20 to 40 miles a week. But that’s rarely how employers see things, not only when making allowances, but when making promotions. Perhaps because people choose to have children? People also choose to run marathons.”

2 thoughts on “Experiences with the Fabled Work/Life Balance

  1. Oh the discussion we could have about this topic! I’m not sure that I’ve experienced any kind of career suicide in my firm by being a working mom. To the contrary, there are a number of moms who are partners in my firm–both equity and non–so the potential for advancement is certainly there. My struggle is that they expect me put my child 2nd to my job as they have done and I’m not willing to do that/am having a very hard time when work requires me to do that. Working and raising a family you love at the same time does suck as you so eloquently describe. Like I said, we could have quite a discussion about this subject! If only I could bring Becca over some Saturday to play with the boys so that we could sip lemonade and discuss this together with our dirty shirts and yoga pants!

    1. Yes!! You don’t know how much I wish we could discuss this too. I feel like there are so few people that I can have this conversation with and I really want to understand other people’s experiences. When you don’t have people to discuss this with, you start to wonder if you are crazy, and it is all in your head, or if you are just uniquely inept in keeping it all together and other people can. I learn so much from the experiences of others, and if nothing else, it helps me be more empathetic to the kind of hard choices that each person has to make based on their own circumstances.

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