I looked naively at the partner and mother of two teenagers at the time I asked that question. It was 2002 and I was a summer associate at a big law firm. “Well,” she said, “sometimes I felt like I wasn’t giving my all to either my career or parenting. Like I had a ‘B’ grade in both instead of an ‘A’ in one.”
That exchange came back to me two years later, as I sat in the aisle seat of a lecture room on a hot June day, half-listening to a bar review course about real property, taking small bites of pretzels as I scribbled notes. I had secured that aisle seat so that I could run to the bathroom if I had to. I found out I was pregnant the morning after I graduated law school. Two weeks later, my doctor had told me I would be taking the bar exam with two stowaways.
The twin pregnancy seized me entirely from the moment I learned of it. It was as if my body, as an incipient mother and lawyer, was warning me of how hard it would be to be a full-fledged mother and lawyer. Failure of a test was never conceivable to me before, but now, as I struggled to stay awake in the afternoons to study, failing this particular test, with these particular stowaways, seemed possible.
I am not sure when the decision was made that I would work and my husband would stay with the kids. It just happened. In her essay, “I Opted Out,” Lauren Apfel says that she was “already home, where a baby then joined me.” I felt the reverse; I had only been working three months at the law firm when the babies made their sudden and tumultuous debut, but somehow I was already at work, already the breadwinner, and the babies were an interruption.
I became a licensed lawyer and mother almost at the same time: I found out I passed the bar exam the morning my water broke, many weeks before it should have. I was in a hospital bed in a room overlooking Central Park, hooked up to various monitors and tubes in an attempt to keep the babies inside. They came anyway, unable to breathe or suck on their own, about 18 hours later.
I know I had it much easier than most working moms because I rarely had to worry about child care or cooking dinner; my husband did all that on his own. But I did have to worry about supporting the family. My choice to “lean in” was only part choice, as is commonly the case – I could earn more than my husband (he had been a local news writer and had recently gotten a master’s degree in teaching), child care would have eaten up most of his salary, and he wanted to stay home, with no outside help. So there was logic too.
There was some choice involved, though. I did not ease into motherhood right away, probably in part because of the rocky beginning the twins had, but once they were toddlers, the pull home got stronger.
Lauren says she turned her doctoral thesis into a book to give herself a project that was not related to her kids and also subconsciously to keep the “pilot light” on in her career. I reduced my hours and salary from the breakneck pace endemic to big law firms to give the kids some more motherly attention, but also to keep my own “pilot light” on as a mother. There were times I felt, as I rushed home to give them kisses before they went to sleep, grabbing cases from the printer to read later as I ran down the office hallway, that I did not even know what the bedtime routine was, let alone be able to do it. I relished, and I still do, the rare occasions when I can pick the twins up from school in jeans, my third child in tow now, and sit with them at a local cafe in the afternoon. I know that my days as the mother of young children are numbered.
I wanted a little of Lauren’s stay-at-home mothering life while keeping my working life, and she wanted a little of my working life while keeping her stay-at-home life.
I am not sure how to grade myself as a lawyer and mother during the years I was at the firm, or now in my current full-time job as an editor, a job I took last year that is more flexible but still demanding. I am proud of what I have done. The partner who gave herself a ‘B’ is an accomplished and respected lawyer (I saw her skills firsthand for years and learned from them) and has a close relationship with her sons, both of whom are successful young men now. Isn’t that good enough?
Journalist Elsa Walsh recently wrote, “For a woman to say she is searching for a ‘good enough’ life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.” It is very tempting to criticize ourselves, and judge others. But when we take the expectations down a notch, and understand the trade-offs we have all made, we can give ourselves a much-needed break. “Making compromises,” Walsh said, “is a healthy approach to living.”
As the parent who is earning all the income, and one who enjoys her career, there are mothering experiences I have missed out on, and more I will miss in the future. To ensure I get enough of those experiences for the sake of myself and my children, I may have bent the traditional career arc a bit. Lauren says that the biggest gap of our generation is between those women who think they can have it all and those who don’t. I may have started out as someone who thought I could have it all, but I have ended up, like many other working parents, embracing the value of compromise.
Read the companion piece to this article, I “Opted Out”.
Lauren Apfel and Rebecca Hughes Parker graduated from high school together in 1995. They both went on to Ivy League colleges and then to graduate school, got married and had their first children at 27. Lauren “opted out,” though she is now trying to “opt back in.” Rebecca “leaned in,” though she “leaned out” a little, too. Between them they have seven children, including two sets of twins. Neither of them “has it all.” Both think that is “good enough.”