The Identity Game: Lawyer . . . Mother
By Alana Bassin
It has taken me a while to blog because I was trying to find an interesting article and I find that so many articles are re-run on themes related to women: women attrition in the work force, the world needs more women leaders etc. Sadly, I have not been any more original . . . I have blogged about these exact topics. And then an article from The Daily Beast came across my desk entitled "Don't Call Me a Mom: Why It's Time for Women to Drop That Identity" by writer Amy Reiter where she essentially writes that once she became a mother, much of her identity in how she was perceived by others became the fact that she was a mom and no longer a writer. Separate and apart from the fact that this article created an extensive amount of discussion – women who agreed that this was a problem and women who were offended by the same - this article caught my eye.
I can personally say that I have always wrestled with the need to maintain my own identity. For example, I have struggled with the concept of marriage. First, I didn't relish the idea of being identified as someone's wife. Second, I didn't want it to be perceived by my firm that my income was a secondary or supplemental income in the family . . . the one that didn't matter. There has been a history in our country of paying men more for the same job because they were perceived as the provider of the family. I look back now and I was probably off the mark on these issues. The term wife doesn't bother me and I don't think it would have mattered to my firm whether I was or wasn't married. Yet, what is most interesting is that while I spent time worrying about the impact of marriage on my identity, I failed to realize that it was the addition of children that significantly redefined who I was to the outside world.
I would normally not have thought twice about this issue but I was recently told that a staff member in my firm referred to me as "doing the 'mom thing.'" Me? Doing the "mom thing"? Setting aside the fact that there is a negative connotation to that term (that is a separate blog), I was dumbfounded that someone defined me that way. I was the one who was working from my blackberry in the delivery room. I was the one who never told a client she was pregnant if there was a way to avoid it. I was the one who worked through every maternity leave – I took a deposition eight days after a c-section when my last child was born. I DON'T DRIVE A MINIVAN DESPITE HOW MUCH MORE CONVENIENT IT WOULD BE BECAUSE I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DRIVE DOWNTOWN WITH AN IDENTITY SEPARATE FROM MY KIDS. The point is, just as Reiter suggests in the article, regardless of how many angles and dimensions we see ourselves, others see us as a mother. To be clear, I do not hide from being a mother. I love my kids (well, most of the time). I brought my six-month old to an out-of-town trial years ago. My office is plastered with pictures of my kids. And I have four kids to get out of the house in the morning . . . it is fair to say I get in later than most others and get my fair share of ridicule for the same. But to be perceived by anyone as a mom in my law firm before a best-in-class trial lawyer . . . it was a little surprising. I realize that this was a staff member who said this and one has to ask if the lawyers in my firm see me as that and I would say that they actually probably do see me and treat me as an equal or a lawyer first . . . but somewhere hidden in their subconscious, I think they probably also view me as a mom. And my guess is, they probably don't think that about all of the men who have kids.
So, I guess the question is, does it matter? I actually don't feel that it has overtly impacted the growth of my career. Although I have undoubtedly made adjustments in my life with four kids (gone are the days working at the office until 3 am – now it is at home), I can't think of many examples where I ever felt like I didn't get work or business development opportunities because I was a mother. Frankly, I probably got some opportunities because I was a mother. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the days of connecting with clients based solely on sporting events and golf games are limited. I recently spent an hour talking about lice with a handful of other women lawyers at a conference (almost all in-house counsel). We shared a common hatred that no one understands unless they have spent hours cleaning their house and picking nits through their child's hair. One woman – almost a complete stranger – sensed my paranoia and even offered to check my own hair. I won't tell you whether I let her do it. Probably not a lot of men, even fathers, could have related in the same way. So again, does it matter that I am perceived as both a lawyer and mom when I am both. I still think it sort of does. Like Reiter says in the article, "I have made sure not to rely on my role as their mother as my primary identity. Just as they are people in their own rights, . . . , I consider myself a person separate and apart from them: a woman with a career . . . ." I do not mean to suggest that being a mother (or father) is a dirty word by any means, but it is interesting, if not significant, that men are typically defined at work just by the job they do, but a woman, once a mother, will be defined as both. Is there anything we can do about it other than take down on all of the pictures in our offices and never mention them again. Probably not. My guess is that for the next generation, as men take on a greater role at home, this issue could dissipate somewhat similar to the breadwinner issue. But in the short term, as I write this article in my office at 8 PM, three hours after all of the dads on my floor went home, for better or for worse, I am going to come to work tomorrow and be defined by both my career and my motherhood.