Like legions of professional women, Anne Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” touched a cord with me. It articulated the dilemma presumptively faced by all women who make the decision to simultaneously tackle both a career and motherhood; can I successfully raise a family and pursue a career when both of these positions are arguably full-time? Up until the time of motherhood, our individual identities have been defined by our career accomplishments. In the legal profession and (perhaps more so in the private law firm setting), these accomplishments are highlighted by our progression from associate to partner to managing partner, etc. If women fail to attain these milestones, fail to do so within a defined time frame, or voluntarily decide to assume a less demanding role, has it proven the point that women can’t have it all?
My own story illustrates my struggle to find an answer to this question. My husband and I welcomed our first born while I was in my seventh year of private practice and my husband was working a day job as an accountant while attending night law school classes. After a three-month maternity leave, we were struggling with a colicky baby who would not stop crying between the hours of approximately 4:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., so we were still sleeping in shifts. Never having envisioned someone else raising our children, we enrolled our child in the “best” childcare St. Louis had to offer.
By this point, my husband was a first-year associate with one of the larger law firms in St. Louis, and I was heading into the pivotal years for making partner. We spent a year trading frantic 4:00 p.m. phone calls negotiating who would be the one to pick up our child from daycare. We even, in our infinite wisdom, crafted a compromise that whoever dropped off the baby at childcare did not have pull double-duty by also doing pick-up. After a year of this schedule, we were both exhausted.
Our solution, I would negotiate a flexible schedule with my employer, which, luckily, accommodated me. However, flexibility came with a price; I no longer was on the partnership track. The reaction from those around me ran the gamut. Professional women, especially the older ones, admonished me for failing to pursue the possibilities for which the previous generations of women had fought. My peers advised that I needed to do a better job of scheduling and delegating household chores, i.e., hire a nanny or after-hours babysitter. While most of the both solicited and unsolicited advice was sound, it was not right for my family or me.
After a year, the law firm changed its policy to provide that attorneys on a flexible work schedule could opt to remain on the partnership track. I interpreted this move as only positive; another avenue by which to still have it all. I readily chose to have myself put back on track for partnership. At first, I was thrilled by the opportunity provided. Nevertheless, my husband and I were not enjoying any time when we were both simultaneously not working. Instead, we were a tag-team; constantly trading-off the duties of child-rearing.
After two years and the birth of our second child, I resolved that practicing the law and motherhood are mutually exclusive. With the whole dilemma behind me, I could stay home and raise my children, secure with my decision. After six months, though, I was miserable. Six months later, I was teaching as an adjunct professor at a local law school. Alas, the solution. One problem, teaching others how to practice law only highlighted for me why I originally chose it as a profession. A profession that espouses equality, truth and justice, ushers reform, seeks to right most wrongs, and advocates for the common cause. I missed it—all of it.
As luck would have it, the firm I practiced with in St. Louis had opened an office in Chicago, where my husband and I had since moved. By this time, my children were both in school full-time, providing me time to re-enter the work force. I approached my former firm about giving me another shot at the flexible schedule. I had learned from my past experiences as to what worked for my family and me and am lucky enough to work with people who not only respect this decision but celebrate it with me by giving others the same opportunity.
For me, professional success is not as it has been defined in the past (by men mostly) as a constant climb. Rather, I choose to modernize it. It is a product of all of my roles; professional and as a mother; each a priority at different times in my life. My path may not work for others, and I respect that decision. Nevertheless, it works for me. To quote the famous British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, “I do not wish [women] to have power over men, but over ourselves.” ■
Valerie Lipic is Of-Counsel with the law firm Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C. in its Chicago office. She practices in many areas of general civil and commercial litigation, including business to business financial disputes, products liability, class actions and personal injury.