The Irreconcilable Dreams Of A Working Mother

“You’re a LAWYER?” a new friend asks me, her eyes wide.

“I am,” I admit.

I am both pleased and embarrassed by her reaction. She is clearly impressed. Lawyers are smart. Lawyers work hard. I earned those badges through two decades of schooling and I let these new assumptions soak in.

“I had no idea!” she goes on, giving me a gentle shove on the arm.

She is also clearly confused. If you’re a lawyer, why do you hang around the kids’ school as much as you do? she must be wondering. Why are you at every mundane event? Regular dismissal? I shrug, but don’t respond, even though the answer is on the tip of my tongue. She’s not familiar with that part of me because I’m on a leave of absence trying to figure out what is best for me and my family.

During exchanges like this one, I feel both Pride and Shame, the working mother’s constant companions. They have been with me since I achieved my two lifelong dreams of becoming a lawyer and becoming a mother.

I was five years old when my grandmother first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t hesitate in exercising the newest word in my vocabulary: a lawyer. As a kindergartner I knew that lawyers read, wrote and argued all day long. I was instantly sold on the job. Those were my favorite things in the whole wide world! For decades that followed, words were my tools and I worked them endlessly.

But even before I could read, write and argue, I loved playing Mommy. I was mother to my doll, Linda, my stuffed cat, Amy, and Red Bear, my beloved teddy. My younger brother was born before I turned two and my nurturing routine got upgraded to actual human status. I never had any feelings of jealousy over the baby. I loved to love.

Somehow when I combined the two—mother and lawyer—everything changed. I found my heated arguments no longer involved the political systems of South Africa with a fellow Poly Sci major, or the fairness of the eggshell skull rule with another JD candidate. Now the most tempestuous debates exist only in my mind, as the two parts of my identity duel to the death.

I am a mother.

I am an Executive Director in-house at a global financial services company.

I am primary caregiver.

I am a provider.

I have Purpose at home.

I have Power at the office.

I have passion for life.

Responsibility is life.

I don’t know how to reconcile these parts of myself, and I feel very alone in this struggle despite the fact that many working mothers have recently stepped forward to reveal their inside operations. They openly lament missing spring concerts for important deal closings. They admit to store-bought cakes because there are not enough hours in a day to bake. When someone asks these women, “how do you do it?” with a pleading look on their face, they typically give a response about day-to-day management and the necessity of a partner willing to divvy up the work. I get it. Every bit of it. But I also want to talk about the burdens we don’t share.

I want to know how to choose between apologies:

I’m sorry I don’t have money saved for us to go on a spring vacation this year.

I’m sorry I couldn’t volunteer for that field trip.

Or unpack the kind of example I’m setting for my daughter:

Mothers belong at home with their children (except I don’t believe this). 

Mothers thrive in male-dominated fields (except I don’t believe this).

I wonder how I can ever do what’s best for me so long as I remain conflicted:

I belong at home with my children; my desire to nurture is greater than ever. 

I belong in a productive industry; my ambition is stronger than ever.

My life as a working mother is riddled with emotional stalemates.

When I’m disheartened, I try to focus on the tangible daily successes. Most days I’m on time for work and school pick-up. Most days I pack a healthy lunch for me and the kids. I stockpile the gold-star moments to build my hill of motivation, but all those nuggets combined don’t reach the level where the real battles are fought. Most days I don’t know where I belong, even when I show up exactly where I’m supposed to be and when.

In this way, I am reminded of the words of Tina Fey: “I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible — oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”

And I do. I keep going and keep going, pushing past the contradictions but never syncretizing the irreconcilable dreams of this working mother.

Carinn Jade is a conflicted lawyer, mother and writer. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, Brain, Child, Mommyish and DailyWorth, as well as several anthologies. She’s not conflicted about her love of yoga, donuts, tea, and a great contemporary novel.

This post first appeared on Motherwell Magazine.

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They’re Not All Gems, But Sometimes They Are

I write a lot.  Empirically it’s true.  For the past few weeks, I have been writing 1000 words a day for Mommyish (Monday through Friday — and if you’ve missed any, check out the WTTM Facebook page, I post them all there).  I also write a fictional story (1200 words) a month for my beloved writing group.  I scribble my crazy thoughts down in my journal almost every day. I am slowly working back to my novel in my mind (I will get there soon, I just know it!).  And yes, I am still a full-time lawyer (more on that soon I hope).  But the point is, I write a lot.  It keeps me sane.

Most of the time, my writing is just in the ordinary course of my life.  Meaning, I spout my opinion about one thing or another, fill in all the SEO requirements, add an appropriately credited picture, hit publish and submit an invoice at the end of the month.  But sometimes I write something that makes me stop and say, “yes!  This is good stuff!”  Sometimes I look at my finished product and I think, “Wow, I really had something to say here.”  Because when I start writing, I never know how it will turn out.  Some pieces I love more than others.  Some just flow almost like an out-of-body experience.  Others I feel so strongly about, but the passion I feel doesn’t come across on the page.  Some things I care less about and just need content.  But I never really know until it’s done.  In the words of one of my favorite funny bloggers, Wendi Aarons, “they’re not all gems.”  And they’re not.

But sometimes they are. Continue reading

That Kind Of Mother

When my daughter was born and I was presented with an opportunity to go back to work, I knew there was no way I could turn it down.  I was suddenly compelled to set an example for my daughter as a successful working mother in a way I had not been while I was home with my son for two years.  I wanted to be “that kind of mother” who gives her the freedom to make her own choices, while continuing to break glass ceilings and forge work-life balance to make her path just a little bit easier (as previous generations have done for me).

I’ve since realized that “successful working mother” is a loaded goal.  I am successful at work, yes.  I am a professional, working at a reputable national law firm.  I have a salary that allows me to take home six-figures even after egregious federal, state and New York City taxes.  I have awesome family health insurance paid for by my employer — and it even includes dental.  The “successful working” part rings true.

As does the “working mother” part.  I am grateful to have a job that respects my priorities as a mother.  I have not missed a phase-in session, orientation or smallest event at my children’s school and none of the partners I work for have blinked an eye.  They trust that I have a handle on the work that needs to get done and they leave me to do just that (my associate co-workers are another story, but I’m ignoring them).

But “successful working mother” implies that I’ve got it all under control.  That, while I wish I spent more time with my kids, I have negotiated drop-offs and pick-ups around conference calls and late night loan document distribution.  But this simply isn’t the case.  Every single day is a negotiation.  If I have deals closing, Ian needs to do more at home.  If he has an important client meeting, I offer to take the kids on the morning he’s supposed to do it.  For the most part our schedule is utter chaos. Continue reading

Me And Miley: We Can’t Stop, We Won’t Stop

My metaphorical death post elicited two kinds of responses: understanding and an uncomfortable sort of sadness. Sometimes I got both at the same time.  I kind of expected that it might bum some people out, but I was pleasantly surprised by how many people could relate to one aspect or another. That’s why I share – for the hope of connecting and finding empathy, but I don’t want people to think of me as a downer.  It’s just not who I am at my core.

My writing tends to be much darker than my every day personality. I’ve always got a smile on my face, I am quick to see the good in people, and I consider myself an undying optimist. But part of what allows me to stay so positive is the (relatively) quick and thorough processing of the negative stuff.

Before I starting blogging, those thoughts stayed messy and hidden away in journal in my nightstand. Now, I make the effort to process them in a way others might relate to and tell a story of sorts about the uglier aspects of my journeys. If you know me in real life, this probably won’t jive with your vision of me. That’s ok. What you see is still mostly me — I am a very positive upbeat person who loves life and sees opportunity everywhere — but this blog has allowed me to show a little more complexity. Because that’s life.

Lest some of you are afraid the Carinn you know and love is slipping away, I want to assure you that I’m still alive and thriving. To demonstrate, I offer a list of the five BEST things about my new schedule and the new hats I wear ranging from “that’s good even though it’s terrible (aka the way I feel about the new Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop video*)” to “that’s as awesome as Ashton Kutcher’s Teen Choice award speech*.” Continue reading

Death By Full-Time Employment

I grew up Catholic and believed there were two stages of existence — life and death. Death was the end of your time in this realm. There was no reincarnation, no second chances, no in-between. The rest, I deduced, was life. Life was good. It meant more time, more opportunity, more growth. So anything short of bodily death in my book deserves a smile. Nothing can be that bad! I’m still alive, right?  Well I can’t pretend that alive and dead are the only two modes we have in this one body.

To say I’ve been having a hard time with this transition back into full-time employment is like saying The Real Housewives are neither real nor housewives (duh!).  At times I manage to get though the day.  I even have moments where I feel inspired.  But mostly I feel like I’m dying.  I won’t ever be able to explain what that means or how it feels to your exact liking, because trust me I’ve just spent the past five weeks trying to explain it to Ian.  He’s no closer to understanding my overdramatic thinking than I am getting better at explaining it.  You either get it or you don’t.

Either way, today I decided to try something new.  Today I accept death.  I’ve spent 5 weeks feeling terrified that I’m going to die, and today I’m just going to assume it’s true.  I am dead.  Now what Carinn?  Now what?

Now, I tell you how it all happened.  This is not a story about a car accident or a battle with cancer, this is just me going back to work. Where I died. A lot. Continue reading