I’m not crazy, M’Lynn. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the last 40 years. — Ouiser Boudreaux, ‘Steel Magnolias’
Here’s the thing about juggling. If you think too much about the mechanics of keeping the balls in the air, you are bound to drop them. Maybe you’ll get lucky and drop only one. But, more often than not, everything’s gonna wind up on the floor and getting away from you.
For the past two months, I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about the mechanics of juggling, and shit is hitting the floor.
I am certain that until the moment I actually went to work as a lawyer — sat down behind the desk, staring at my name on letterhead — I believed I could simultaneously be a spectacular mom and a kick-ass professional. Oh, sure, I had talked to or read about other moms who were “struggling” with finding a balance between work and home. But, that was them, and I am me. My whole life, I’ve always managed to land on my feet. Things work out because they just have to work out. Over the course of fourteen years, I’ve managed to balance law practice, a teaching career, parenting, volunteer work, running a house and the occasional side project.
Lately, though, I’ve been asking myself: why? I can’t be doing all this for my kids. If given a choice between me being home and available to them or constantly at work or traveling, I think they’d choose to have me home. I can’t be doing this for my husband, who has to pick up the slack when I’m away (which is a lot) and who has had to essentially put his own career on hold to accommodate mine. I can’t even be doing this for me, because I’m too damn busy getting through this stuff to actually enjoy any of it.
Sure, I’ve had some successes. I’ve scored some big wins for clients. I’ve had my work complimented by judges in open court. I’ve seen many of my former students go on to become lawyers and do well for themselves. I save all the emails from students that come years later, thanking me for what they learned in my classes. I have the best husband a girl could ever hope to have (and not just because he hasn’t killed me yet). I have two beautiful, amazing kids.
This should be enough, right? To ask for any more than this is selfish and greedy. Well, I don’t want more; I want less. I want to forget this stuff:
- The first day you drop your baby off at daycare will be the singularly worst day of your life. You will bill 1.1 hours that day.
- The day you are to take your first deposition, your son’s school will call to say he has a fever. There will be no one else who can pick him up. There’s no one else you really want to pick him up. But, you’re a second-year associate, and telling your male supervising partner (whose wife stays at home with their kids) that you need to leave makes you want to put a hot stick through your eye.
- There will be countless Saturdays that you can’t go to the park, or bowling, or to a movie, because you’re trying to catch up on billable hours. You hate yourself as you start yet another Thomas the Tank Engine video.
- You will be in a car accident and have your hand broken, make a Herculean effort to get your kids to school and yourself to work, and have a supervising partner look at your cast as you walk in the door and ask, “Where’s my brief?”
- You and your spouse will have a scheduling conflict and no one to watch your daughter, so you will hide her under your desk at work as she naps while you get in as many billable hours as possible.
- The phrase “quality of life” describes the difference between working Saturdays and Sundays or just one of them.
- You will be shocked to find sympathy for this struggle more from male lawyers than from female lawyers — especially the female lawyers who do not have children. There are women who will absolutely despise you for taking maternity leave. You, in turn, will want to strangle the women in your firm who take maternity leave and then string the firm along on a return-to-work date only to decide not to return at all.
- It’s really fucking hard to leave your kids everyday to go to work if you don’t absolutely love what you do, no matter how good you might be at it or how much money it might provide your family. You do not love being a lawyer.
- It will be cause for celebration in your house when you are actually home for dinner. If you make dinner, your family will be confused by the plates and silverware as they search for bags, boxes and sporks.
- Your daughter will be diagnosed with autism, but you will stay in your job for years because of the guilt you feel about “wasting” $100,000 on a legal education and for breaking promises you made to the firm that supported you.
- You will develop insomnia and random but real pain throughout your body. Your doctor will suggest you see a mental health professional, and you will not only ignore him, you will actively look for another doctor, because yours is clearly an idiot. (Except, you know, that he’s not.)
- You will say mean things to your husband and your children that you don’t really want to say but that fly out of your mouth because you are exhausted and bitter. The words I’m sorry are said way too often.
- You will end up in a puddle on the floor of a therapist’s office, begging her to save you from yourself.
So, here’s what I’ve realized in the past couple of months. Yes, there are women who do it – who manage career success and still make soccer games and dance recitals and band concerts. I am not one of those women, and its not just because I have a daughter with special needs (although that’s really forced me to confront this). So, on Friday, I put the balls down and took a leave of absence from my law firm. What I finally realized is that if I don’t take care of myself, I am no good to anyone else. I might be able to make up billable hours, but I can’t make up for lost time. There is no one at the finish line of life handing out medals for juggling, and I don’t want a medal anyway. I want kisses and hugs. I want to read books, play in the park, make flashcards, chaperone field trips and make dinner every night. I want to exercise more than my brain. I want to be present in my life instead of just going through the motions of living it, building a resume that looks good on paper but leaves nothing meaningful in my wake. I want to figure out how to heal. I want to know whether I can handle more than one job and do both of them really, really well.
I can’t juggle. But, the beautiful thing is, the only person who really expects that of me is me, and I can stop whenever I want.