The Courage to Confront the Work-Life Imbalance
By Regina Pepe Martorana – August 28, 2012
Several years ago a dear friend of mine, Donna, told me: “We have done a real disservice to your generation by telling our daughters that you can have it all, that you can be a great mother and a successful career woman. We have set for you impossibly high standards.” Before I had my son, I did not truly understand what she meant. Generations of women before me seemed to have proven Donna wrong. In fact, Donna herself seemed to have proven this statement wrong. An environmental scientist and a professor who went to law school as a second career, Donna is a courageous working mother and a glass ceiling shatter-er. She has done amazing things in her personal life and career, all while raising a beautiful, well-rounded daughter. In response, I nodded, smiled, and politely agreed—but did not understand why I could not be a great mother and a successful attorney. Through the years, the question stayed with me: Why can’t I have it all? Can we stay in such a demanding profession and still be there for our children?
As I worked my way up the associate ranks in my law firm, I looked to more senior female associates and partners for guidance. I asked my mentors, and my mentors’ mentors, the age-old question “How did you do it?” I searched high and low for guidance, attended seminars geared toward female attorneys, and spoke to as many women as I could for advice. I thought to myself: These women must have the answer. They have made it to the upper echelon of their chosen practice areas, some even while staying in private practice, and all while raising children. They must know the secret. How did they do it?
“Hire a lot of help” is what one of my mentors, a thriving insurance partner who raised five children told me time and again. Several clients and friends decided to go in-house when they had children, so that they did not have to worry about billable hours or demanding clients and ultimately had more flexibility in creating their schedules. A successful trusts and estates partner and mentor, whose husband was a stay-at-home dad, advised that perhaps I was asking the wrong question. “Isn’t the question ‘how do you do it, rather than how did you do it?’” she asked. But I am a lawyer, and lawyers are trained to find not just any answer but the answer. And so I searched and researched and searched some more to find the answer to the question that I thought mattered most to me: How can I be a great mother and still be successful in private practice?
As a seventh-year associate, I found out that I was pregnant. Even though my husband and I were ecstatic about the news, panic ensued in the months that followed. My firm has a 10-year partnership track, and I was entering the “zone.” I had worked so hard to get there, and now I was going to be a mother. How am I going to do this? I sought advice from the most amazing woman I know, my own mother, who effortlessly raised four children, worked full-time as a teacher in East New York (an hour-long commute each way) and still managed to cook dinner every night. She did all of this after she had taken us to our soccer games, hockey practices, and ballet classes, and only after helping us finish our homework, study for exams, and complete our science fair projects. I am exhausted just writing about it. “Don’t worry. You will figure it out. You know, honey, you will find what works for you. You just do it,” my mother said.
And then I had Lucas. While I was on maternity leave, it became abundantly clear to me that I had never known the depths of love or happiness that I did when I was holding my son. It is truly the most amazing feeling I have ever known in my life. It was during that time that it also became abundantly clear to me that I would never feel truly fulfilled unless I returned to my firm. I had worked so hard to become a successful attorney, and I still had so much to accomplish.
We set out to find a nanny for Lucas. After a grueling search (the details of which could serve as the basis for a separate article), we found our nanny. I went back to work full-time. The only word I can think of to describe the months that followed, especially before Lucas began sleeping through the night, is “torture.” After working 10, 12, or 14 hours in a day filled with conference calls, mediations, discovery battles, and client dinners, I was coming home to dirty diapers, all-night crying, feedings, fevers, and teething. The thing about babies is that they are always going through a phase. And for some reason, the side effects of every phase are inconsolable crying and interrupted sleep—their sleep and, of course, yours. I spent my nights awake rocking Lucas and days hard at work trying to succeed in private practice where time, commitment, client relationships, and business development are all essential. Not to mention all of the family obligations, paying bills, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, and the general responsibility that goes along with one’s existence as a functioning member of society. In retrospect, “torture” might be an understatement.
I cannot count the number of times over the past year that I considered quitting work altogether, or at the very least cutting my hours to part-time. I felt this way despite the fact that I work at a family-friendly law firm with a collegial atmosphere and partners who are wonderful and understanding people and parents. I also have a fantastic nanny and, most importantly, an amazing and supportive husband who is a very busy “big firm” lawyer, yet still pitches in with Lucas and the housework far more than the ever-complained-about Neanderthal husband. At times, it still seemed impossible to advance in private practice and raise Lucas.
But several months ago, in my sleep-deprived haze, a moment of clarity made Donna’s words come back to me—we have set for you impossibly high standards. It was then that I experienced a true revelation. I had found the answer, my answer to the question. It is not that you cannot be a great mother and successful attorney—and wife and daughter and friend (and the list goes on and on). The answer is that we simply cannot have it all. Not because we are working mothers in a high-pressure, demanding profession, but because no one has it all. It is because we are human beings. Like all human beings, we have to make sacrifices, and we have to make choices. Once I accepted that I could not have it all, I stopped trying to do it all. With this revelation came liberation.
Over the past year, I have been learning about what is often referred to as the work-life balance. Or what I refer to as the work-life imbalance. Although it is unbalanced, I am finding my middle ground. As I look back at all of the advice I received from my mentors and friends, each one of them was absolutely right. You need a lot of help, and you learn what works for you. The question is not how did you do it. The question is how do you do it. At home, my nanny is my right arm. I simply could not function if I did not know for certain that Lucas was in safe, loving hands. I learn a lot from her about what Lucas is doing. There are days when I leave the house before he gets up and get home after he is already asleep. My nanny emails me pictures of Lucas throughout the day and keeps a calendar of his day. These two relatively simple things are probably the most important to me, because I feel as if I am there with him and involved in his day-to-day activities. I have a wonderful husband who is there with Lucas when he can be (or when I need him to be) and is very supportive in my life and my career.
At work, I have managed to stay on track at my firm, with my caseload, and with my clients. It is certainly not perfect, and I am constantly making choices and sacrifices. I do what I can, and I make every moment at work and at home count. My husband and I spend as much time with Lucas as we can on the weekends and try to do little else. During the week, I am holed up in my office and miss out on some networking events due to the there-are-only-24-hours-in-a-day time restraints. However, I am more focused, efficient, and productive when I am at work, or at a networking event, because my time is so valuable. I am involved in fewer bar associations and committees, but I am dedicated to the few I can give my time to. When I am at home, I am more focused on Lucas, because I cherish each moment I spend with him. Most recently, all four of his molars decided to come in at the same time, and so he screamed, and we did not sleep for two solid weeks. When Lucas was feeling better, I treated myself to a few hours at the spa. It is amazing what two hours of down time can do for a working mommy. I even relax more efficiently now.
In all my searching and researching, I figured out what I should have known all along. My mother was right. You figure it out. You find what works for you. You just do it.
Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, work-life balance, law firm, courage
Regina Pepe Martorana is an associate at Bressler, Amery and Ross P.C., in New York, N.Y.