Mothers in Law*

Angela Livingstone
JD Candidate 2019

Being a mum has always been hard, but perhaps more so in a time when everyone can openly judge from so many angles. We are regularly judged on how we birth our children, how they sleep and eat, the clothes they wear, and how we let them play. Significantly, we are judged on our participation in their lives, which feeds into perceptions about the quality of care we provide. Sensible people tell us to ignore this judgment and some days we are successful. But ignoring is easier said than done, especially since the voice we need to ignore is sometimes our own.

Why are we discussing motherhood? Because amplifying women in law includes supporting the mothers who are practicing law. Mothers practicing law pose an interesting challenge to the profession. We demand to be taken seriously as legal professionals, but increasingly, we also insist on being given time to participate in our children’s lives, to parent in a real, hands-on way. Thus far, efforts to be attentive to both have been underwhelming.

Given the lack of substantive change, it is useful to consider the challenges mothers face even in law school, and how they manage (or don’t). By being aware of the practical realities of women who have chosen to parent in this profession, we can reveal common concerns and hopefully develop strategies for change.

The following are some of the obstacles to, and benefits of, being a “law mum.”

1) We’ve had five kinds of problems before our 8:30 class and none of them are law related.

Most of us get up at an ungodly hour to get out of the door intact. Those of us with toddlers squish in some morning playtime. Those of us with bigger kids try to be attentive to the story-telling needs of our children while packing lunches, signing permission slips, and remembering to give the kids money for bake sales. Other morning obstacles include special themed school days, temper tantrums over mittens, a sudden decision to hate eggs, and of course we have to put clothes on. We will eventually fall out of the house, drop kids at daycare and school, and attempt to finish readings on the bus ride.

Many of us have worked full time before law school, so the routine is not new. However, with work, we likely turned off around 8:00pm the night before; law school, and indeed law practice, means we’ve read late into the night so we’re running on empty at the start of the day. This spices up the morning routine, especially since children can smell exhaustion.

Sometimes we won’t get to the class because there is no predicting when a tantrum will end, or when a kid will vomit on our shoes. Sometimes we’ll get half way to school, only to get a call saying the kid has a fever. If we have partners with forgiving jobs, we may be fine. If we don’t, we’re heading back home.

And sometimes we can’t manage the 8:30 class at all. Some of us are picking all of our classes based on the kids’ schedule, meaning we miss out on classes we’d love to take. Most of us can’t attend “make-up” classes because they don’t fit the pre-determined care schedule we already have in place, and changing care schedules costs money. Which we also don’t have, because the daycare costs we pay in order to go to law school can run anywhere between $7,000 to $15,000 per kid per year, depending on the age and stage of our children.

2) We feel isolated.

The ability to network is intimately tied to doing well in both law school and the general practice of law, and the networking starts early in first year. Unfortunately, networking events occur between 5:00pm and 7:00pm, or what is known in most of our homes as “dinner time.” These are precious hours when we need to connect with our kids, make dinners, get the homework and laundry done, or drive children to piano lessons. Some of us also need to be home for bedtime, to read the stories, get some evening snuggles, and try to make the house seem stable for our kids. In the end, the demands of home mean we miss out on a lot of good lectures, socials, and impromptu beverages, which can leave us feeling isolated and worried about missed career opportunities.

3) Sometimes we fear that we made the wrong choice.

Even though we’ve often had more time to mull over the decision to go into a career in law, we are likely to question the decision as school progresses. This is because finding the balance between being a good student and being a good parent is impossible. Both require a lot of time and sadly time is finite. If we work on the weekend, we miss taking our kids to the library, or for walks in the woods. If we take the kids on an adventure, we’ve lost valuable study time. The guilt is gut wrenching and ever-present.

Particularly challenging is when our kids need more time than usual. Some of our kids are teenagers who need sudden bursts of emotional support. Some of our kids are bullied and need long conversations about the grim realities of elementary school. All of this means time.

People will say supportive things like “this is good for the kids to see” and “they’ll be so proud someday.” Which is true and kind. But in the moment, when we miss another field trip or school performance, or when our kids are mad because we have to work through another Saturday, it is hard to remember that this is for a good cause. In the end, we regularly feel like we’re succeeding at nothing, which can leave us wondering why we’re doing this in the first place.

4) We are grateful that we have built in perspective.

For all of the challenges, being a mum in law school, and indeed in law practice, has one key advantage: built in perspective. We have to turn off law mode for at least part of the day in order to parent. We can’t worry about everything at school or at work because of our daily reminder that there is more to life and the reminder needs someone to play a round of Candyland.

And maybe this is where the change should start. Having established ourselves with a family already, maybe we are in the best place to demand that law firms get some perspective. The reality of our lives as people in relationships of care is an excellent example of why firms must do more than pay lip service to work life balance, or appreciating our life experience, if they want to retain us. Because in the end, we are a valuable addition to the profession. But none of us should have to battle guilt or feel as though we are failing at everything in order to parent and practice well.

*A special thanks to all of the mums in law who helped contribute their thoughts and stories to this post. You are loved and supported.

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