Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Deena R. Sturm to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Growing up, I was raised to believe that I could succeed in any career I set my mind to. Having been raised by a stay-at-home mother, I was never told how I was supposed to balance raising a family while managing a high-powered career, but that didn’t dissuade me from trying. Like many of the “smart” kids of my generation, I was on the pre-med track in college. I wisely ruled out medical school after one too many near-fainting spells while volunteering in a local hospital. With medical school off the table, law seemed like the next most prestigious career, so off to law school I went.
It’s 2005. I’m a 25-year-old newly minted law school grad. I have a plum six-figure job at a prestigious law firm in downtown Manhattan, and I’m on top of the world. I carefully choose my “opening day” outfit: black dress pants, sharply ironed button-down shirt, and classic pumps. Flawless. I walk into my new office at 1 Broadway full of hope and ambition. I feel unstoppable. I smile for my photo ID card. “Click!” goes the camera. Captured — a moment in time.
Fast forward to 2006. I am a second-year associate, and I am pregnant with my first child. I do not reveal my pregnancy until it becomes impossible to hide. The firm is overwhelmingly male, but it is not unfriendly to women. And yet, somehow I intuit that my pregnancy will not be welcome news.
My firstborn, my beautiful son, enters the world in 2007. I am overwhelmed with love and forever changed. I take the fully allotted four-month maternity leave. The Human Resources manager calls me and asks when I will be returning to work. I cringe. It’s too soon. I need more time. But my time is up. Tick-tock.
For the first time in months, I put on my “work uniform” and head out the door in the dark while my son still sleeps. I fight the George Washington Bridge traffic from my town in New Jersey. While I sit unmoving on the West Side Highway, eking my way down to lower Manhattan, I daydream of my son. And I miss him. My heart aches. An hour and a half later I enter the doors of 1 Broadway and swipe my ID card, the shining face on that card no longer seeming like my own. Somehow I survive the day. I drive the long hour-and-a-half commute home. When I arrive home, it is dark and my son sleeps again. I have missed all of his waking hours. My heart breaks.
Continuing to work like I used to would mean I would barely see my son. But this is 2008. Surely the law firm could accommodate a part time or remote work arrangement. Maybe they could — but they won’t. “Sorry, that’s against our policy,” says the HR manager. “You need to come back to work full time or resign.” I give my notice. It’s not a difficult decision.
It’s 2018. I’m a 38-year-old mother of three. I am living in Boca Raton, Florida, and my youngest child is in kindergarten. I attend her classroom Mother’s Day celebration. She hands me a pink, sparkly card entitled “All About My Mom.” One question reads, “What is your Mommy’s job?” My daughter scribbles in her shaky kindergarten scrawl, “My mommy does errands and goes to the gym.” Mic drop. Wait — what? I have a law degree. I have been an online law professor for the past decade, but suddenly I am itching to get back into practice.
I take — and ace — the Florida Bar Exam the next time it is offered. Despite my gap in practice experience, I manage to land another plum six-figure job at one of the top law firms in the country. I know that this is a second chance that most people don’t get. I intend to make the most of it. I can do this!
But soon, too soon, the cracks start to form in the exterior of my shiny new career. The hour-plus commute, each way. The nannies who quit, one after another. The lack of time, of any free time, for myself. The kids who get sick, who get sad, who still need me so much. I am the default parent, and I have to be. My husband is an Emergency Room physician. He cannot leave the ER to pick up a sick child. He cannot stop CPR to answer a call from a child’s teacher. So it has to be me. As it has always been.
I look around at the women attorneys at the firm. How are they managing? Some do not have children. Some have grown children. Some have “stay at home” husbands or spouses with flexible jobs. Some have close family nearby who help them pick up the slack. I have none of these. The deck is stacked against me.
My load gets too heavy for me to bear. I try to speak to my supervisors about cutting back hours, about part-time work, about remote work. The partners don’t like it. They want me there every day. Going “part time” would mean loss of benefits, loss of the majority of my salary. Without overtly saying “no,” they have declined my request. So once again, I give my notice.
In my experience, law firms are not set up to accommodate “alternative arrangements.” Maybe firms are more accommodating to those who have achieved seniority before having kids. Maybe these alternate arrangements are offered in theory, but they are disfavored and frowned upon. Even now. Even in some of the country’s “Best Law Firms for Women.” Is this still where we are? Haven’t we come farther than this? Well, no, I guess we haven’t. Not yet. Maybe by the time my daughters are career age, things will be different. Here’s hoping.
Deena Sturm is a Law Professor at St. Francis School of Law where she teaches a variety of courses, including intellectual property, legal writing and research and contracts. She has taught at various online law schools for over a decade, and has also intermittently practiced intellectual property law at several national and international law firms. When she’s not teaching law or volunteering in her community, Deena can be found running, reading, following fashion trends or putting many miles on her car as her children’s chauffeur. She currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida, with her doctor husband and three children, and can be reached via LinkedIn.