The irreconcilable dreams of a working mother

By Carinn Jade

“You’re a LAWYER?” a new friend asks me, her eyes wide.

“I am,” I admit.

I am both pleased and embarrassed by her reaction. She is clearly impressed. Lawyers are smart. Lawyers work hard. I earned those badges through two decades of schooling and I let these new assumptions soak in.

“I had no idea!” she goes on, giving me a gentle shove on the arm.

She is also clearly confused. If you’re a lawyer, why do you hang around the kids’ school as much as you do? she must be wondering. Why are you at every mundane event? Regular dismissal? I shrug, but don’t respond, even though the answer is on the tip of my tongue. She’s not familiar with that part of me because I’m on a leave of absence trying to figure out what is best for me and my family.

During exchanges like this one, I feel both Pride and Shame, the working mother’s constant companions. They have been with me since I achieved my two lifelong dreams of becoming a lawyer and becoming a mother.

I was five years old when my grandmother first asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t hesitate in exercising the newest word in my vocabulary: a lawyer. As a kindergartner I knew that lawyers read, wrote and argued all day long. I was instantly sold on the job. Those were my favorite things in the whole wide world! For decades that followed, words were my tools and I worked them endlessly.

But even before I could read, write and argue, I loved playing Mommy. I was mother to my doll, Linda, my stuffed cat, Amy, and Red Bear, my beloved teddy. My younger brother was born before I turned two and my nurturing routine got upgraded to actual human status. I never had any feelings of jealousy over the baby. I loved to love.

Somehow when I combined the two—mother and lawyer—everything changed. I found my heated arguments no longer involved the political systems of South Africa with a fellow Poly Sci major, or the fairness of the eggshell skull rule with another JD candidate. Now the most tempestuous debates exist only in my mind, as the two parts of my identity duel to the death.

I am a mother.

I am an Executive Director in-house at a global financial services company.

I am primary caregiver.

I am a provider.

I have Purpose at home.

I have Power at the office.

I have passion for life.

Responsibility is life.

I don’t know how to reconcile these parts of myself, and I feel very alone in this struggle despite the fact that many working mothers have recently stepped forward to reveal their inside operations. They openly lament missing spring concerts for important deal closings. They admit to store-bought cakes because there are not enough hours in a day to bake. When someone asks these women, “how do you do it?” with a pleading look on their face, they typically give a response about day-to-day management and the necessity of a partner willing to divvy up the work. I get it. Every bit of it. But I also want to talk about the burdens we don’t share.

I want to know how to choose between apologies:

I’m sorry I don’t have money saved for us to go on a spring vacation this year.

I’m sorry I couldn’t volunteer for that field trip.

Or unpack the kind of example I’m setting for my daughter:

Mothers belong at home with their children (except I don’t believe this). 

Mothers thrive in male-dominated fields (except I don’t believe this).

I wonder how I can ever do what’s best for me so long as I remain conflicted:

I belong at home with my children; my desire to nurture is greater than ever. 

I belong in a productive industry; my ambition is stronger than ever.

My life as a working mother is riddled with emotional stalemates.

When I’m disheartened, I try to focus on the tangible daily successes. Most days I’m on time for work and school pick-up. Most days I pack a healthy lunch for me and the kids. I stockpile the gold-star moments to build my hill of motivation, but all those nuggets combined don’t reach the level where the real battles are fought. Most days I don’t know where I belong, even when I show up exactly where I’m supposed to be and when.

In this way, I am reminded of the words of Tina Fey: “I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible — oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”

And I do. I keep going and keep going, pushing past the contradictions but never syncretizing the irreconcilable dreams of this working mother.

Carinn Jade is a conflicted lawyer, mother and writer. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, Brain, Child, Mommyish and DailyWorth, as well as several anthologies. She’s not conflicted about her love of yoga, donuts, tea, and a great contemporary novel.

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