It sucks to hear girlfriends, from a variety of professions and industries, complain that their female bosses are “the worst.” Difficult. Petty. Insecure. Competitive with, or threatened by, other female colleagues and subordinates. Building a bad workplace dynamic among women just seems so counter-intuitive. Thankfully, I’m reminded of a bad*ss boss lady from my past life as an attorney who showed me that there are good, strong, wise she-bosses out there.
Before I became a SAHM (stay-at-home mom), or let’s be honest, a CAHM (cray-at-home-mom), I worked at three mid- to large-sized law firms for almost a decade. Six of those years overlapped with motherhood. During that time, I observed the women at my firms to try and figure out how working mom attorneys “did” it (or didn’t). The profession is a challenging one and demands a ton of time, focus and energy, both on and off the clock. So balancing work with the two key aspects of my life outside of work – marriage and motherhood – was tricky to say the least. But I needed to figure it out.
Sadly, I can’t say I met a single female attorney during that time whose life I envied or aspired to, who seemed to “have it all.” For me at the time, “having it all” meant a successful law firm career, a rise to equity (profit-sharing) partnership, and a happy marriage and thriving family life. But after observing or conversing with the women in my firms, I realized that I personally might just have to choose family or career, but not both.
Why? The women at my firms who made it to the top were either divorced, married without kids, single, or forcibly absentee mothers who had to pay others to raise and chauffeur their kids. They were married to their work – some happily, some not so much.
And then there were the women who prioritized family life. They had slim, if any, chances of making partner, most certainly not equity partner. Their options were either: (1) stay an associate (lackey) attorney and hope not to be pushed out (for not investing themselves in generating business for the firm or for “topping out” salary-wise); (2) try to make non-equity (2nd tier/salaried) partner; (3) take a huge pay cut and move to a smaller firm; (4) go in-house with a client; (5) go into public service; or (6) take a big risk and start a solo practice. For me, these options were either unappealing or unavailable.
I worried that if I chose to “go for it” as a lifetime career attorney, the amount of time, energy and focus spent on my work, on advancing, networking and building business, would deplete me of the time, energy and focus also needed to build and sustain quality relationships with my husband and kids. And let’s be honest, the latter is hard to do even without a demanding career to make things harder. I’ll never forget the day a senior associate confided how it broke her heart whenever one of her girls complained, “Mom. I don’t want the nanny to pick me up from school…or take me to soccer practice…or help me with my homework. I want you to do it. Why can’t you do it?” All I knew was that I didn’t want to have to face that same complaint or question some day.
Then again, if I chose quality family life over a rising legal career while continuing to work, I’d pay in other ways. There’d be the stigma of feeling like I was “less than” my colleagues, particularly male associates, who were free to be “more driven” and “committed.” You know, “gunners.” When I’d have to leave by 5:30 sharp to grab my kids before their daycare closed, I’d feel sheepish or guilty and try to duck out of the office undetected. Years later, when I asked the firm whether I could go part-time and work four days in the office, I was told my pay would be cut not by a commensurate 20% or so, but by 35-40%. I was floored.
Still, there was one woman who came close to “having it all,” and I learned a number of invaluable life, and parenting, lessons from her. She was a real “Boss Lady,” and a good one at that. She wasn’t only an equity partner at the firm but head of our department. And she had a wonderful spouse with whom she shared a very loving, supportive relationship and with whom she was raising two sweet, privileged young children. She also happened to be gay. So Boss Lady (which I use as a term of endearment and respect here) not only had a flourishing legal career but a solid, committed relationship with her partner, and two happy, non-latchkey kids who were being raised by their own nurturing and very present mother.
Not to sound facetious, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Is that what it would take for me to have it all? To have the career, the marriage, and kids who are raised and nurtured by their own mom? I’d need to switch teams?” It struck me that, of all the many heterosexual women attorneys I’d met and worked with, none seemed to come even close to having what Boss Lady had.
As a Christian, Asian-American mom of three who had a relatively sheltered, conservative and traditional upbringing, I never expected to say that some of the earliest and most poignant and helpful lessons about motherhood, working mom life, and the evolving face of American life in general would come from a boss, a woman boss, a lesbian boss. But it was a welcome surprise. And I’m grateful to and for Boss Lady to this day.
Boss Lady was high-achieving obviously, but she was also kind and caring and fostered respectfulness in the workplace. Nothing like the pre-reformed Katharine Zaleski, a powerhouse who deliberately treated working mother colleagues unfairly and atrociously – that is, until she became a mother herself. No, Boss Lady wasn’t looking to one-up other women. She didn’t compete with or seem threatened by them. She didn’t give female colleagues or subordinates a hard time. She didn’t look down on working mom attorneys with disdain or annoyance. She helped, encouraged, and trained lawyers, male and female alike.
Boss Lady taught me something about grace and wisdom in employment relationships, too. While pregnant with my firstborn, I was concerned about leaving Boss Lady and our group in a lurch during my upcoming maternity leave. So I was quick to tell her my plans – how long my maternity leave would be, when I’d be back, assuring her I’d be available from home…. But she cut me off.
Anita, don’t think about that now. You just go and have a healthy delivery and a healthy baby. Recover and enjoy him. And wait and see how you feel. Because there are die-hard career women who become mothers and suddenly find they can’t bear the thought of going back to work and being away from their sweet babies. And then there are women who’ve dreamed their whole lives about family and kids, but once they’re home with Baby for a little while, they’re pining to come back to work. So. Take your time, figure out what you want. And then call me. I’ll be here. We’re not going anywhere. We want you back, but I know you won’t really know how you’ll feel until you actually have the baby and are home for a bit. Okay? So don’t worry. Just keep in touch.”
Boss Lady even shared a couple tips on newborn care. Head partners of practice groups don’t usually care to teach a soon-to-be first-time mom how to change a diaper so as to minimize the chance of leakage onto baby’s clothing or the changing pad. (I’m passing it forward in this quick diaper-changing tutorial in case you could use the tip too.) Boss Lady was personable enough to inquire about my family life and share about her own at times. In fact, she was so open (which was eye-opening, refreshing, and helpful) about her family life that when she voiced concern about how her young son, the lone male in the family, might be affected by the lack of a male role model in their home, I was comfortable enough with her to ask how she planned to explain their non-traditional family structure to her kids. She said she’d already explained to her grade school daughter, whose friends would sometimes ask why she had two moms and no dad,
Everyone’s family is different. Some kids have a mom and a dad. Some just have a mom. Some just have a dad. Some don’t have a mom or a dad but they have a grandma and grandpa. Some have two dads and no mom. And some have two moms and no dad, like us. Everyone’s family is different. And that’s o.k.”
Sometimes our horizons are broadened when we least expect it. When it happens to me, I just hope to be able to discern and reflect with wisdom and gratitude. So. If I had not met and worked with Boss Lady, who knows? I might’ve lost faith in women’s ability to achieve, and handle, success with grace. My life might’ve been so sheltered that I wouldn’t have witnessed how loving and committed a gay couple can be, both as monogamous partners and as parents. I might not have learned how to teach my kids to be sensitive to and respect differences, as well as I try. And let’s not forget, I might’ve touched way more sh*t while changing diapers over those nine long years. That last one alone. Am I right?!