I have been thinking about starting a blog for a long time. My excuse was always that I just couldn't fit it into my life. Between long hours at work at a law firm, taking care of my son, and trying to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, there just wasn't any room for creative endeavors. And then, when I had my second son and was on maternity leave, there was the obvious excuse of no time for anything other than nursing my infant, trying to quell the jealousy of my two year old, and trying to get at least 4 hours of sleep per night. Now, both of my kids are sleeping through the night, I am managing to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night with the aid of sleeping pills (a topic for a longer post), and the long hours at a law firm are no more. After leaving my job and becoming a stay a home mom, my excuses are officially over.
A bit of background first. I am your typical overachieving, risk averse law graduate that has followed the path nicely laid out for me by law school career services. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I spent my first summer interning for a federal district judge. The second summer I spent being wined and dined at Skadden Arps in Manhattan, making far too much money and consuming way too much alcohol. After graduation, I embarked on the consummate two month around the world "bar trip" with my fiance (also a Penn Law graduate), in which I spent a large portion of said money from the prior summer at Skadden. The trip was immediately followed by a mad rush to find an apartment in Manhattan, and start work as a first year associate at Skadden a week later, the last possible start date. And so began my life as a lawyer at "biglaw," where, back in 2005 at least, associates felt entitled to ridiculously high salaries and bonuses, and gamed the system as best they could to bill only the minimum amount of hours. I went through the motions, and true to my nature, billed as much as I could and got great feedback from even the most discerning of partners. My future at Skadden, a firm that was described in a Vault publication as a "honeymoon canceller," looked bright. But passion for my job, and my life generally? Completely lacking.
It wasn't always the case. As a college student at Penn State University, I liked to seek out interesting opportunities and think outside the box. After a semester in London where I interned for a member of the House of Commons, I took a keen interest in politics, and became a White House intern. I started writing an opinion column for our school newspaper. Instead of following the grain and going straight to law school, I got a masters degree in Social Policy from the London School of Economics. After that, I decided to stay and live in London for another year, working at a public policy research consultancy. I traveled extensively. I met interesting people from all over the world. I kept a journal. And I applied to law school, fully planning on getting my degree and returning to Europe, where I would save the world.
But love changes things. In law school, I met my now husband, who is from New York and had no intentions of moving to another country. I followed his lead and participated in on campus recruiting, where firms from all over the United States came to recruit the best and brightest for a summer of extravagance, which inevitably turned into a life of servitude once the real career began. It was a different era for the legal market, and offers were plentiful. I received numerous offers and took the most "prestigious" one. And in the process, my former passions: travel, writing, politics; fell to the wayside.
Skadden proved to be the pressure cooker that everyone promised it would be. The days of long lunches and firm happy hours were over. After a year, I had a quarter life crisis, so to speak. I had just gotten married. I wanted kids. I wanted a bigger apartment. I wanted freedom from crushing hours, intimidating partners, and work stress that had brought me dangerously close to becoming a chain smoker and an alcoholic. I told my husband that I had to get out - that this just wasn't me. It didn't take long for my husband, who had watched me spiraling downwards for months, to agree. We both interviewed and accepted jobs in DC, where we knew hardly anyone, but had hope for a bit more normalcy.
And we did get more normalcy, at least I did (my husband's hours at his firm will surely be a topic for another post). I took a job at Dickstein Shapiro - still a large firm by any standards, but with a reputation for family friendly policies and more of a work/life balance. My hours, while probably still considered long to people with "normal" jobs, were much more reasonable than at Skadden. And, perhaps the major shocker, people were nice! The partners for the most part were friendly, understanding, and kept somewhat normal hours themselves. The associates also did not seem miserable, and volunteered for assignments, which was in stark contrast to the work avoidance strategy that permeated junior associates at Skadden. I am painting a pretty picture here, but of course, a law firm is still a law firm with billable hour expectations and office politics. But as far as law firms went, I felt I had found a pretty nice one. I was, overall, happy with my job, and life was good again. We bought a house. We got a dog. And after being settled for a year, I got pregnant.
Braden was born on September 5, 2008. My days of billing gave way to a surprisingly enjoyable home life during my 18 week (paid!) maternity leave. I started cooking for my husband. I joined a mom's group and hosted playdates. I took daily walks. And I completely fell in love with my son. I treasured each moment and dreaded returning to work and leaving him at home with a nanny.
But, lucky for me, I would only have to leave him home for 3 days a week. Dickstein offered returning mothers the opportunity to work at a reduced schedule. I opted for a 60% schedule, meaning I worked 60% of the required billable hours (over 3 days), and got 60% of my pay. If I worked above the requisite hours, I would be compensated for it. Pretty good if you asked me. A three day a week, six figure job. We got a part time nanny and life went on.
But as the months went by, my stress level got higher and higher. Notwithstanding that Dickstein was a "nice" firm, work did not stop just because I wasn't in the office. I found myself juggling conference calls with diaper changes, and responding to emails on my blackberry during nursing sessions. Checking out on my days off was not an option. This was no one's fault per se, but I didn't help the situation. Always wanting to please, I never complained or objected when I was given an assignment that I knew would require me to work on my days off, or on weekends. And, by doing so, I in essence trained those I worked for to take advantage of me and give me the same assignments as my fellow, full time, associates. I was my own worst enemy. I couldn't turn it off. It just wasn't my nature. And ultimately, I became part time only in title and salary.
While work was impeding on my time with my son, I was getting more and more uncomfortable with our part time nanny. While she wasn't the type to talk on her cell phone all day or step out for a cigarette, I did catch her a few times watching Oprah with my son sitting on the sidelines in the pack and play, entertaining himself. Not the end of the world, but not something I expected her to do at $18 an hour. She did not feel comfortable driving with him, so the park and playdates were out. She was older (in her 60s), and wasn't an on the ground, tumble around with you type of caregiver. I worried about Braden getting enough activity and socialization. At the end of the day, she wasn't me. And looking back, I am not sure there is anyone who would have made me fully comfortable, because no one would have taken care of him, or loved him, the way I did.
After a particular horrific weekend, where my husband and I were literally fighting over who had to watch Braden, because we both had so much work to do, we decided that this could not go on any longer. My workload and the childcare situation had caused me to get to my breaking point. I would leave my job.
I went into work a few weeks later ready to give my rehearsed resignation speech. To my surprise, I was offered an alternative - a six month leave of absence, at which point Braden would start a 2 year old preschool program (and the childcare problem would be solved). I was to return to work in September of 2010, and in the meantime, I could work on an hourly, contract basis from home, whenever I wished. I did, and at a little over $100 an hour, the extra money was great.
Ah, the best laid plans. A mere two weeks after the start of my leave of absence.... the morning sickness began. I hate saying that we were surprised by a pregnancy, because obviously, we weren't actively preventing it. But my first pregnancy had taken a while to achieve, and caused a lot of anxiety in the process. This time around, I wanted to give myself time to get pregnant, so I didn't feel stressed and rushed. Of course, it happened the second month.
The baby was due October 19, 2010 - six weeks after I was due to return to work. In May, I broke the news to my partner mentor at Dickstein, whom I did the majority of my work for. He feigned happiness at the news of my pregnancy, but come on, I know what he was thinking. I was thinking it myself. Dickstein had generously granted me a leave of absence, I had promised to come back in September, and now we were looking at March for me to permanently return to work. That would be almost a year out. I did feel bad, almost embarrassed, but what was I going to do? Inside I was thrilled at my pregnancy, and that excitement helped to soften my guilt. I suggested not returning until March, and taking an unpaid maternity leave. Dickstein countered back with what I considered to be an unexpected, and pretty phenomenal proposition - I could come back in September, on a part time basis, for six weeks, or until the baby was born. Then they would pay my 18 weeks maternity leave, and I could return in March. Unbelievable. I couldn't turn it down.
On October 20, 2010, Casey was born. He was perfect. I never thought I could love anyone as much as Braden, but the first minute I laid eyes on Casey, I knew I was wrong. I was overjoyed. Until day 3 hit. Then postpartum depression came in like a tsunami. I never experienced any kind depression with Braden, and in fact, I had never experienced true depression before. I know that now. I couldn't sleep a wink for two days and almost went crazy. In fact, I remember that first week like a dream, almost like an out of body experience. I wasn't myself. I couldn't feel anything - love, sadness, nothing. Only anxiety. I had panic attacks on and off throughout the day every day. Thank God for my wonderful husband, who was so understanding and helpful, but must have been so scared that his wife was going crazy. After a week and a visit to a psychiatrist, I got on meds. Slowly but surely things got better, though I am still on zoloft and sleeping pills now, 5 months out. Once I came back to life again, about 1 month postpartum, I was finally able to enjoy Casey and be the mommy I normally was to Braden. It was an experience that I would not wish on anyone.
I'm not going to lie. Even before Casey was born I considered not going back to work after maternity leave. But I had no idea how I would feel. I had gotten used to being home with Braden during my leave of absence, and though it was exhausting and boring at times, I really enjoyed it. But with two, I figured that would be much, much harder. Maybe I would welcome the opportunity to get out of the house 3 days a week. I had a good gig at Dickstein, and was well liked. I had potential there. And the money, lets not underestimate the money. Who makes six figures for a part time job? It was insane. Losing my salary would be a big deal for our family. We could do it, but life would certainly change. And lest I forget, I do have a law degree. I really should use it.
I don't know exactly why or when, but at some point during those 18 weeks, I came to a certainty that I would not return to the firm. Part of it was the fact that my postpartum episode had made me realize how fragile I was. Could I handle the stress of big firm life again, with two children at home? And the childcare - could I trust a stranger again with both of my kids? There is no clear answer to these questions, and ostensibly, the answer could be yes. But, one night I stared at Casey's sleeping face and knew the answer was no. The fact is, I am greedy. Dickstein had been so wonderful to me - continually granting me flexibility and making me offers that I couldn't refuse. And no doubt, they would have worked with me in terms of balancing childcare and work, had I returned. But it wasn't enough. I wanted these kids all to myself, all the time. I didn't want someone else to hang out with them all day, albeit just 3 days a week. I didn't want conference calls and emails to interfere with my time with them when I was home. I just felt such a pull to be with them. And I listened to that, above all reason - despite the fact that doing so would mean giving up my career, at least temporarily, and a salary the likes of which I may never see again.
The partners I worked for took the news okay. I half considered proposing that I continue to do hourly work on the side from home, but after all they had done for me, I felt I couldn't ask for more. I went in and cleaned out the office I had barely been in for a year. And I had lunch with my partner mentor, where he told me point blank, "You would have made partner here." I'm not sure why he told me that, or if he was just blowing smoke... But it didn't make me feel good. The ambition in me was telling me to take it all back, to stay, to go for it. But the mother in me shouted louder.
So here I am. Eight years of higher education. Hell, I am still paying off my loans, which are over $1000 a month. But I am officially a stay at home mom.
I think the loss in status is what has hit me the hardest so far. I never realized that I took such pride in being able to say that I was an attorney at a big firm. I still dread the day when I go to a work event with my husband and someone asks me what I do. I guess I am just not completely comfortable with the whole concept yet. But what really hit home was something that Braden said to me last week. We were talking about daddy and what daddy does and how daddy goes to work everyday as a lawyer. And then he literally said to me: "Mommy does laundry." I sat there for a moment, shocked that this could very well be how my son viewed me. "It's true, Mommy does do the laundry," I said holding back tears. "But I do have a law degree."
Hence the title of my blog. Despite my desire to be at home with my kids, I am not yet ready to let go of my ambition, and in a sense, my former identity. And perhaps that is the purpose of this blog for me. An assignment to complete each week. A purpose, other than to be a mom. A sense that I am still adding something.
In the meantime, check out these adorable boys below. How could they not be worth it?