Justice Sonia Sotomayor is not a fan of the “having it all” concept. As she wrote in her recent (and excellent) memoir, My Beloved World (affiliate link), “having it all, career and family, with no sacrifice to either… is the myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient.”

Even though their panel had the phrase “Having It All” in the title, the participants in an interesting discussion on work/life balance at last week’s big NALP conference would probably agree. One theme that ran through the discussion was that sacrifices, on the work front or home front or both, are inevitable — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Still, the panel’s emphasis on the need for working parents to rid themselves of guilt didn’t stop some people from shedding a few tears during the discussion….

The panel, entitled “Having It All: Balancing Work and Family/Parenting and Working 24/7,” featured the following speakers:

  • Michele Ward, Attorney Resources & Recruitment Manager, Winston & Strawn LLP, Moderator
  • Mike Gotham, Director of Attorney Recruiting and Retention, Perkins Coie LLP
  • Stacey M. Kielbasa, Director of Professional Development, Attorney Recruitment, and Diversity, Chapman and Cutler LLP
  • Malini Nangia, Director of Career Services, UCLA School of Law

The panelists emphasized at the outset that they don’t have all the answers to the complex questions presented. Instead, they just wanted to share their experiences and a few ideas that have worked for them — and, of course, hear from the audience about these issues as well.

What challenges do working parents face today? Mike Gotham offered himself as an example. He has a demanding work and travel schedule; he does not want to become the secondary parent, i.e., “Daddy #2″; and his husband has certain “rules” that must be followed. The rules include such things as requiring Gotham to be home by 6 p.m., in time for dinner, and prohibiting intrusion on Saturday mornings, which are “sacred.”

The rules are designed to preserve family time, but they require a lot from Gotham on the work front. He gets into the office by 6:30 a.m. each day; if he wants to exercise, he does so at 5 a.m. Ouch. And when he’s at work, he’s “laser-focused,” not wasting time with co-workers. The rules make sense — they effectively tie Gotham to the mast, a la Odysseus — but they don’t make for an easy, carefree life.

Malini Nangia identified her biggest challenge as feeling “present,” being in the moment, which is tough to do because she’s constantly shifting between different realms. Like Gotham, she too has drawn boundaries. Her colleagues know that she will be unavailable during certain periods — such as the early evening, when she’s taking care of her daughter — but available again later.

Stacey Kielbasa described her challenge in blunt terms: “to own the fact that I like my job, and I don’t want to be a full-time mom, and as a result I’m going to be worse at some things than other people.” Her words reminded me of Justice Sotomayor’s call for us to discard the “having it all” concept and make our peace with imperfection at work or at home.

What surprises have the panelists encountered since becoming parents? Gotham said that becoming a parent is like becoming a member of a club. Trading stories and advice about being a parent can be great for bonding with colleagues (and superiors). But he also made a point that I could appreciate as an unmarried person with no kids: you need to be careful not to exclude people who don’t have children from the discussion. It’s all too easy for them to get left out when parents start trading tales about nap time or nannies.

The panelists had lots of advice for fellow working parents. Here are some tips, in no particular order:

  • Get a good calendaring program and give your work team access to it so they will know when you are unavailable.
  • If you travel, check out apps like Facetime or Skype, which can help you stay in touch with your family.
  • Still on the technology front, if you’re an iPhone user, take advantage of the note- and list-making functions. You can prepare and update lists on the fly — think to do lists, grocery lists — and message them to others (like your spouse, if he or she is making the grocery trip that you usually cover).
  • You’d be amazed at what you can learn from YouTube. Kielbasa, who adopted her youngest daughter from Ethiopia, learned African hair braiding through online videos.
  • Consider blogging as a way of keeping relatives and friends up to date on your child (instead of sending mass emails or flooding Facebook with kiddie pics).
  • If you need party favors or gifts and want to go the handmade route, but don’t have time to make them yourself, you can buy such items on Etsy.
  • When getting to have a child, whether a biological child or an adoptive child, think ahead about vacation. Try to save as much vacation time in advance if you can.
  • And think ahead and plan ahead about insurance benefits, child care, and navigating your workplace after returning from giving birth. (For example, does your family have a mothers’ lounge or lactation room?)
  • Accept that you can no longer be the “go to” person for everything at the office. Figure out the areas that are essential to your professional identity or “brand,” and let go of the rest.

As noted, these are just suggestions, not definitive answers. Every working parent has to figure out what works best for him or her. This often boils down to a process of trial and error. But it’s helpful to trade notes and find out what has worked for others.

So what about the crying? One panelist got choked up when confessing that they missed their child’s second birthday due to a business trip. An audience member had a hard time finishing a question because she was overwhelmed by emotion when discussing her struggles as a single parent.

And you know what? That’s okay. These issues aren’t easy. Let’s just do the best that we can — and look out for each other, because overcoming challenges is so much easier when you’re not alone.

*Group hug.* :-)

Earlier: Does Your Law School Need A Panic Button?
NALP13: Entry Level Associates Need Not Apply
Five Defenses Used By Law Schools for Poor Graduate Employment Outcomes
Homegrown or Not: Law Student Recruiting v. Lateral Hiring


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