Why can’t we have it all?
Well, the laws of physics could be a problem, since we can’t be in two places at the same time. When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, and your client is standing in court in front of the judge, and there’s some other place you would rather be, whether at your beloved child’s soccer game or having a little “me time” because aren’t you entitled to take care of your mental health, Lara Bazelon explains why this can be a problem.
I am a lawyer, a law professor and a writer. I am also a divorced mother of two young children. I’m often asked some version of: “How do you excel at work and be the best mother you can be?”
Every working mother gets this question, which presupposes that a “work-life balance” is achievable. It’s not. The term traps women in an endless cycle of shame and self-recrimination.
Like many women, I often prioritize my job. I do this because, as the head of a single-parent household, I’m the sole breadwinner. My ex-husband, who has joint custody, is an amazing father and my life would be impossible without him. Neither of us pays the other support.
My choice is more than a financial imperative. I prioritize my work because I’m ambitious and because I believe it’s important. If I didn’t write and teach and litigate, a part of me would feel empty.
This is a stunning admission. First, that she can’t “do it all,” because “work-life balance” is a lie people tell themselves to justify their priorities so they can pretend they’re very professional while walking away whenever it suits them. Second, that Lara has made a choice, not because she doesn’t love her children, but because she chose the life of criminal defense lawyer and there’s no way to do it without making it your priority.
I have missed meetings to take my kids to the park or a museum, and picked them up early to go to karate class. Recently, I turned down an offer to teach an extra class for a significant amount of money because I didn’t want to lose that time with them.
But there is always another client to defend, story to write or struggling student who just can’t wait. Here are things I have missed: my daughter’s seventh birthday, my son’s 10th birthday party, two family vacations, three Halloweens, every school camping trip. I have never chaperoned, coached or organized a school event.
Whether you would make the same choice is irrelevant. You be you. Lara will make her own choices because she’s not you. Her point, however, is that there is no choice where one can be a criminal defense lawyer and not make brutal sacrifices. That’s the nature of this duty we’ve undertaken.
There was a debate here a while back where some lawyers argued that they would never put their clients ahead of their family. There were some distinctions to be noted, that these were appellate lawyers, for whom “emergencies” are more likely to be machete-like paper cuts than a 2 a.m. call that their client is in surgery to remove a cop’s bullet. And their toughest legal choices are whether to use the oxford comma and contractions.
For Lara Bazelon, her choice was to spend time with her kids or save her client’s life.
My son was one of the last children to speak. He stood up and, in a clear voice, said: “I appreciate my parents for being lawyers because they get people out of jail. This really helps me reflect, do the right thing and have positive role models.”
This isn’t a job for everyone for many reasons, not the least of which is because of the sacrifices demanded of us. Many young lawyers don’t want to hear this message; they’re told they can have it all, that there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing your client for your family. After all, your daughter will never have another third-grade recital, right? Is it wrong to miss it?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.