Work Life Balance

A Mother’s Plight: Three Kids, Three Degrees, And No Job

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Last night I attended an event titled “An Evening Celebration of Parenting” in New York City to benefit The Parenting Journey (a division of The Family Center). At dinner, I was seated next to a friendly mother of three who started chatting politely with me over salad and wine. When I told her that I wrote for a parenting website specifically for women, she started sharing with me her own experiences with motherhood — something that happens quite often since I’ve assumed this post. She made a reference to her “working days” and I asked her what she did prior to being a mother. She looked up from under her blonde bangs and said that she had been a lawyer for many years but that she quit when her professional life became intolerable.

“In terms of balance?” I assumed.

“No,” she winced with the acidity of the wine. “In terms of the quality of work.”

I already knew prior to meeting this mother that some career tracks are very clear about their distaste for motherhood. Law firms, I have read, are one of the worst in which time-sensitive work is openly given to women who don’t have kids. Lilly Garcia, a lawyer and a mother who just joined a new D.C. law practice, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “I know mothers at law firms who felt they were relegated to doing less interesting and less time-sensitive work because of the choices they’d made.”

This mother of three that I met recounted her experiences as the dinner courses arrived, telling me that although she was able to negotiate a part-time work schedule at a firm in New York City, in actuality the firm had her working very little. Because she was unable to clock in as many hours away from home as her other employees, she essentially found herself in an odd place of professional limbo: not making any money but still technically on the payroll for the few hours that she did put in. Her law firm wouldn’t let her go because of the kind of message that it would send to the other female employees, but she was nevertheless repeatedly passed up for dynamic, interesting work simply because she was a mother.

She never mentioned her husband, the man who sat at her left, but something indicated to me that he didn’t suffer any professional setbacks after becoming a father.

This mommy of three told me that she was raised by a stay-at-home mom herself, a woman who advocated that her bright daughter go out and get those degrees before starting a family. She did just that and attended a university in the Midwest before going on to law school. But after her first daughter was born, well into her law career, she found herself living a life that neither she nor her mother had intended for her.

When the family was relocated to Chicago for her husband’s job, Mommy of Three was told flat out by law firms that she would not be hired because of her “circumstances” — making her part-time limbo job in New York City seem like a great opportunity. When the family ended up moving back to New York City some years later, she said that didn’t even bother trying to get back into law. Thumbing through the event brochure, she said that despite her education and resume she had somehow become unemployable.

She was a full-time mother now supported by her husband, and she told me that she loved being with her children. But a career, passions, interests outside the home, and a self that was not defined strictly by familial responsibilities had also been something that she wanted for herself.

I read statistics that reflect stories like this all the time, but hearing one account narrated to me late on Thursday night at an event that is intended to celebrate parenting made for a contemplative train ride home. Working mothers are an ever-expanding demographic, yet the anti-family policies that they face — simply for having children — continues to go ignored. Mommy of Three’s is just one of many.