Dear every panel I have been to in law school,
Oh hi it’s me here, the twenty-five year old childless law student trying to find her way in the legal world. I want you to know that my uterus is stressed out. You see I thought I had enough to worry about in law school: classes, applying for jobs, living the dream…y’know the usual.
Turns out, it’s not. Y’know why? I also have to worry about the husband I don’t yet have and my unborn children. Which believe me is stressful not just because I worry about whether or not they too will have curly hair that develops into a bob-a-la-mushroom cut in the rain, but also because why am I worrying about that now?
Why is it that every time I am around a young professional female lawyer, successful in her own right our conversation turns to a discussion of work-life balance. Like wait a second, can’t I get the work part of the balance before I start worrying about the life part?
Here’s the thing, I get that being a mom and being a lawyer is hard. To my colleagues who are currently living that situation, I admire you. But I also admire you because of your intellect, your success in your field and your ability to connect with students. Maybe one day five years from now (okay let’s not put timelines on it, my ovaries just twisted up again) or ten years from now or never, I will come to you, heart in hand, asking for advice. Today however, I want this antiquated discussion to end. Unless we are going to haul all the men in for a panel discussion on “being a good husband and a successful lawyer” or “being a dad on Bay Street.” I don’t want to play.
This isn’t a sound off against work/life balance – but if we are going to talk about it let’s talk about the vicarious victim trauma you may experience or the mental health and addiction issues you can face as women in the law and the resources you can access. Depression and addiction plague our field, so let’s talk about that.
Of course, the conversation about work-life balance is inextricably tied to the broader question of whether women can or cannot have it all. This discussion reached epic proportions after Anne Marie Slaughter Princeton Professor, former policy director for the State department, mother and wife authored her now infamous piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” I remember reading her piece and being particularly struck by this observation:
I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)
I have felt this feeling before, this feeling of superiority because my commitment to the feminist cause was or has been more authentic. In reality, that just makes me an asshole and it advances nobody’s interest except my own. The truth is, as women, we are hard on one another. As feminist we are hard on one another and unfortunately these conversations about whether women can or can’t have it all only exasperates this point. As Professor Slaughter states,
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” [..] but not the way the economy and society are currently structured.
I don’t even know what it means to have it all. If having it all is the earmark of success won’t it be different for everybody? For me, having it all might be a nice 10 speed bike, a killer wardrobe, a great and engaging job and a partner who does not cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Is that my colleagues’ version of having it all, probably not. #toomanyleaffans
Obviously, we have some structural issues to confront – so why don’t we talk about that? Why when a panel discussion is held do we skip the hard and go to the easy? Why do we continue to make it hard for young professional women and their peers at home or in other jobs to feel as though they are not doing enough? I think as female lawyers, we have a responsibility to support each other. At the very least we have a responsibility to not undermine one another. Maybe this all sounds a little too Kumbayah – disagree with me and that’s fine. Let’s talk about it.
While I agree with much of what Professor Slaughter has to say my question is, why is the conversation framed in the negative? Maybe, the point is that it’s not easy to be a mom, a professional a friend and a feminist.
This is a difficult and complicated issue but for now if we are going to have female leaders come in, let’s not ask them about their work – life balance because we shouldn’t assume that their version of balance is the same as ours. I was recently talking to my friend, colleague, law student and social worker extraordinaire. After making one large generalization after another, she quietly reminded me to ‘check my assumptions.’ Somehow, in this discussion about work life balance we have managed to allow our assumptions (mine included) to be treated as fact.
So this year and from now on when a female panellist comes to talk to us let’s ask them the same questions we ask of all the great legal minds we bring in here: teach me your expertise and strategies. If they want to talk about their family life – great – however, let’s not define their narrative for them. The onus is on us as students, as women, and dare as I say – as feminist – as much as it is on the panel. Does this sound preachy? Maybe it is, but consider it a humble request not just for me, but for my future children (if I have any), who will be grateful for the drop in my cortisol levels.