Resources Articles Mothers In Law

Mothers In Law

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 1, Number 4
October 2005

Mothers in law are caught in a double bind. As much as they feel marginalized at work because of their commitments to family, they also feel marginalized at home because they are unable to see what they contribute. It is essential that women come together now to define role expectations that fit the reality of their lives.

“Concerning the conservatives’ argument that a mother’s disadvantaged workplace position reflects personal choice rather than discrimination; feminist lawyers have responded that choice and discrimination are not mutually exclusive. That a slave chooses to obey his master rather than to attempt to break away tells us little about the slave’s preferences for slavery over freedom. That a gay serviceman chooses to remain ’in the closet’ rather than be given a dishonorable discharge and deprived of his pension does not mean that the ’don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy is nondiscriminatory. Similarly, mothers’ choices are framed within a discriminatory system.”Crosby, Williams & Biernat 2004 1

Since September, 2004 I have been leading a virtual coaching group entitled, “Mothers in Law.” Participants have called in from locations as far flung as Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco, Hartford, Arlington, VA; and even cities in Canada to try to find solutions to what Diane Yu, Chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession calls the “work-family struggle.” They are bound by their common challenge: trying to maintain successful legal practices while raising young children.

They are also extraordinarily smart, determined and resourceful as attorneys and as parents. And, although their life circumstances vary in terms of their practice areas, the size of their firms, and the ages of their children, the similarity of their experience is compelling.

One caveat before I begin: I do not mean to imply that work-life balance is only a women’s or a mother’s issue. Since roughly 90% of young working women are likely to become mothers, efforts to balance work and life frequently become work-family struggles for many women lawyers. My apologies to the women lawyers who are not parents - I understand that the challenges they face are no less important than those I choose to address in this article.

It’s Impossible For Mothers In Law To Live Up To Our Culture’s Ever Increasing Expectations

We have implicit cultural standards about “good mothering.” As Judith Warner notes in her recent book, Perfect Madness, the bar keeps getting set higher. It’s impossible for mothers in law to live up to these ever-expanding expectations. 2

Mothers in law struggle to get out of the office in time to pick up their children from day care, imagining that the stay-at home mom next door has spent the day taking her daughter to Suzuki violin class, soccer practice, and mother-daughter art lessons at the museum. Although they know intellectually that their children are not deprived, the mothers in my group were reassured when I told them that children need time just to play - that the overscheduled lives of children reflect the same “more is more” ethic that drives overwork at their firms.

These Mothers No Longer Believe That The Only Committed Lawyer Is One Who Has Unlimited Time For Work And No Outside Commitments

Remarkably, most of them know that being a mother in no way compromises their ability to be good lawyers. They’ve developed robust client relationships. Their clients view them as responsible professionals and regard as irrelevant the location from which their lawyer is working. Perhaps because younger male attorneys are now willing to openly express their wish for more family time (although they are typically unwilling to risk asking their firms for a reduced hours schedule), these mothers no longer buy the “ideal worker” notion. That is, they no longer believe that the only committed lawyer is one who has unlimited time for work and no outside commitments. In fact, they proudly agree with the statement one of them heard from the general counsel of a company her firm represents: “If you want something done efficiently and well, give it to a working mom.”

Instead, the problem they face is convincing their law firm managers and senior male partners that “face time” is an invalid measure of contribution and commitment. And even in a firm that officially endorses flexible hours, the degree to which a lawyer mom must struggle to prove herself depends largely on the other attorneys with whom she practices. One mother who works in an all-male practice group gets little flack from her partners - they’re all parents of young children themselves.

But others are less fortunate. In spite of agreements with their firms to work part of the time at home, several women in my group have encountered outrage from partners who expect them to be down the hall at all times. Those who’ve reduced their hours fear that they’ve permanently lost access to partnership. They wonder what the term “of counsel” really means. Does it afford them the opportunity to slow down for a while until they’re ready to shoulder the demands of being a shareholder, as many firms assert, or does it forever consign them to the mommy track?

As The Needs Of Their Children Collide With Demands For Partnership, The Women In My Group Feel Pushed Away By Their Firms

When some of these women try to talk about inequitable compensation issues, they find that these conversations leave their managers shocked and outraged. Managers expect gratitude for their benevolence in permitting flexible schedules. They regard a request for fair compensation as pathological entitlement.

As the needs of their children collide with demands for partnership, the women in my group feel pushed away by their firms. Because their firms don’t recognize their contributions, they feel discouraged. “We expect you to leave” is the message they hear from senior male partners. They hold on by their fingernails, not wanting to fulfill the prophecy. Their daily experience includes the rational fear that they will be judged only by their omissions. That is, all of their good work will become invisible because their managers view their contributions through a lens that focuses only on whatever they have not done.

“How can I begin working part time and not feel like I’m admitting defeat?” these women frequently ask me. From my perspective, they are blaming themselves for being unable to stop a volcano from erupting. So I then ask them, “Why do you want to be a member of this group?” And they answer, “I guess I was the victim of my own success. I got swept up in the culture of wanting to be partner, when that’s not what I wanted at all.”

Women Pay Career And Compensation Penalties When They Become Mothers, While Men Receive Financial and Pay Benefits When They Become Fathers

Years ago, as a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote about how stunned I was that so many academics - presumably educated and enlightened minds - responded to the American Association of University Professors recommendation that the tenure clock be temporarily stopped for parents. They decried faculty parents as “breeders.”

There’s been some change since then — but not nearly enough. I’m still astonished when I hear a young male lawyer say that women attorneys who “choose” to have children simply have to deal with the consequences of their choices. Women pay career and compensation penalties when they become mothers, while men receive financial and pay benefits when they become fathers. Yet, the belief that women need to choose either career or family retains its tenacious hold. Today’s mothers in law are trailblazers. The women who came before them showed them how to get hired, but now there’s no one to show them how to be a good lawyer and a good mother. Without a script and with no one to show them the ropes, they make it up as they go along.

Research Has Demonstrated That Women With Careers And Children Are More Engaged Employees Than Those With Less Complex Lives

Perhaps because women tend to have more highly developed empathy skills than many men, the most difficult challenge for moms-in-law is thinking they’ve disappointed someone. Being the first to leave the office in the evening means burdening others and this elicits guilt. Being reproached for being ambitious at the expense of their children causes anguish. What is unbearable to these lawyer moms is the sense that they are letting someone down. And it seems that whatever they do, there is always someone likely to be disappointed.

Contrary to the beliefs of many legal employers that women with children are insufficiently focused on their work, researcher Nancy Rothbard 3 has demonstrated that women with careers and children are more engaged employees than those with less complex lives.

But while men are able to compartmentalize work and family - which means, for one thing, that they don’t bring a bad day at the office home with them — women in negative work environments are less able to become engaged with their families. For example, the mothers in law in my group who work in firms that view flexibility as an accommodation to the family-challenged have a difficult time transitioning to home. When they have to leave the office to pick up their children without having resolved every issue at work, they feel preoccupied. Their inability to be fully present with their children is among the most painful and challenging obstacles to achieving balance that they experience.

Often The Same Women Who Protest Inequities At Work Accept Them At Home

Throughout the years I’ve been coaching attorneys, I’ve heard many women lawyers advocate for redesign of the legal workplace to make it compatible with the realities of women’s bodies and lives. But often, a couple of years later, these same women lawyers decide to put their own careers aside so that their husbands can pursue their own legal careers without encumbrance.

Apparently these couples assume that once they’ve become parents, someone has to stay home. Women, socialized not to compete with men and to nurture others, avoid asserting their own ambitions over those of their husbands, especially when they’re married to lawyers. Each time a woman lawyer who’d spent the pre-motherhood years of her career fighting for gender equity in the profession tells me she’s leaving her job so that her husband can pursue his legal career full time, I want to put my arm around her, look her in the eyes and ask, “why do you assume that it must be you who makes this sacrifice?”

Often the same women who protest inequities at work accept them at home. This is a crucial issue. Obviously, the fact that legal work is structured to fit the biology of men and not women is not up for couples’ negotiation. And simply taking maternity leave can stall a mother’s legal career. Many mothers in law return to work only to have their skill level questioned because of their absence or to find that their work has been delegated to others in their practice group. All too frequently, the barriers to getting quality assignments seem insurmountable. It’s as if the record they’d established prior to their leave has been wiped out. They’re not just starting over - they’re now way behind.

Many Women Lawyers Still Assume The Bulk Of Domestic Responsibilities

Perhaps women withdraw from their careers and support their husbands’ because they expect that the obstacles to their own success will prove too formidable to overcome. In other words, their belief that their efforts to re-establish their careers are doomed to fail may leave them feeling already defeated. Relinquishing former ambitions may seem like nothing more than simply facing reality.

However, it’s also the case, in general, that women still assume the bulk of domestic responsibilities - and this is true for many women lawyers. They’re the ones racing to get their children to daycare in the morning and still make it to a client meeting. They’re the ones who’ve given up going to the gym in an effort to work as much as possible and still get to daycare before it closes. They’re the ones, in their firms, who are struggling for genuinely flexible schedules and on-site child care.

In their book, The Time Divide, Jerry Jacobs and Kathleen Gerson 4 demonstrate that statistics about overworked Americans primarily reflect the working hours of highly educated dual-career couples with children. If mothers and fathers equally shared the burdens of domestic work, including caring for children and ill or aging relatives, then male lawyers would face the same accusations of lack of commitment that their attorney-wives confront.

But a Work-Family Institute study in 2000 found that the majority of women professionals surveyed indicated that their spouses not only failed to contribute equally to household responsibilities but they also created more work for their wives.

Women Resist Shared Care Because They Feel Guilty Relinquishing Responsibilities They’ve Been Socialized To Believe Are Essential To Fulfilling The Role Of Mother

Mothers in law might have a more level playing field at work if they negotiated a more equitable home situation. I have the impression that the same fears of appearing ambitious or competitive “at the expense of others” hold women lawyers back from assertively campaigning for shared care at home. Internalized gender roles make it difficult for mothers to see alternatives to carrying the majority of the domestic burden.

Several of the moms in law in my coaching group have stay-at-home husbands — however, none of these men are lawyers. The assumption that a lawyer’s success depends on a stay-at-home parent have proved very resistant to change. In fact, many of the mothers in my group have been explicitly told by senior partners at their firms that the only way they’ll succeed is if their husbands assume all responsibilities for domestic work , enabling their wives to live up to unencumbered-worker standards.

A wonderful organization, The Third Path Institute, ( is dedicated to promoting the “outside-the-box” solution of shared care. As a member of the Board and a participant in their initiatives, I’ve witnessed the degree to which a shared care model can enable both men and women lawyers who are parents to continue their careers and participate actively in family life. Of course, this requires that they find employers who are equally open to alternatives like flexible schedules, telecommuting and job sharing.

The Third Path has found that resistance to shared care often comes from mothers. Many say that they don’t trust their spouses to do caring work in a manner that meets their standards. Perhaps this is simply further evidence that we use 1950’s standards against which to evaluate parental role behavior today. But more often women resist shared care because they feel guilty relinquishing responsibilities they’ve been socialized to believe are essential to fulfilling the role of mother. And their guilt is compounded if they also perceive that they’re succeeding at their partner’s expense.

As Much As Mothers In Law Feel Marginalized At Work, They Also Feel Marginalized At Home Because They Are Unable To See What They Contribute

Having a stay-at-home husband presents another set of challenges.

In fact, the most poignant stories shared by our group’s mothers have come from women who’ve constructed situations where their children are well cared for leaving them free to meet or exceed the billable hour expectations of their firms. One mother described her experience driving up to her house after a long day at work. Her husband was playing with the children in the backyard; their nanny had made sure the children were fed well and on time; her children were happy, engrossed in play. And she sat in the car and cried, thinking, “Everything runs perfectly without me. They don’t need me at all. I’m unnecessary.”

This is the internalized standard that’s so hard to escape. As much as mothers in law feel marginalized at work, they also feel marginalized at home because they are unable to see what they contribute. We have a socially constructed image of a “good mother” - she is there after school and prepares meals and tucks her children in at night. She’s available when her teenager needs to talk about drugs or sex. If someone else is responding to her children’s needs, how can she feel essential?

It’s worth noting that in other, more collectivist cultures, mothers do not feel guilty or irrelevant when others care for their children. In Israel, children in kibbutzim are raised by multiple caretakers. No one questions the distinctive role that a mother plays in the life of her child. It’s simply assumed that children don’t require a single caretaker in order to survive.

In the U.S., however, women are bombarded with media messages scolding them for working while “outsourcing” the care of their children. Repeatedly rebuked for failing to be home with their children, many mothers in law feel guilty and inadequate as mothers.

In the U.S., however, women are bombarded with media messages scolding them for working while “outsourcing” the care of their children. Repeatedly rebuked for failing to be home with their children, many mothers in law feel guilty and inadequate as mothers.

It Is Essential That Women Come Together To Define Role Expectations That Fit The Reality Of Their Lives

Mothers in law often say that no matter what they’re doing, they’re not doing enough. Rarely do they frame the issue in terms of their own needs. Having been socialized to meet the needs of others, they deem it selfish to consider their own needs. This is part of what makes these mothers in law so vulnerable to the criticism and expectations of others.

Even on Mother’s Day, the women in my group focused on how their mothers and mothers-in-law (i.e., their husbands’ mothers) were disappointed by all they hadn’t done. “Isn’t Mother’s Day for you too?” I asked. Although they agreed in theory, they struggled against remorse and self-criticism for failing to live up to the expectations of their families’ matriarchs.

Without alternative standards by which to judge themselves, these women feel guilty when they fail to meet the standards of others. The only way to manage the work-family struggle in the face of this kind of criticism is to articulate a set of personal standards. The lawyer moms in my group realized they’d never considered the idea that this option existed.

Since role expectations are social constructions, I think it’s too much to ask any mom in law to assert a different standard in isolation. My Mothers in Law group has taught me how essential it is that women come together to define role expectations that fit the reality of their lives. It’s easy to opt out when you feel like nothing you do will ever be enough.

Women lawyers today are faced with a mismatch between role expectations and what is realistically possible. Focusing only on their failures to live up to outdated standards can crush their determination to accomplish their goals.

In her book on ambition in women, Anna Fels 5 demonstrates that we all require recognition in order to maintain our ambitions. Certainly our children are unreliable sources of recognition — that’s a developmental given. But spouses and partners can point to the myriad ways in which moms in law occupy an irreplaceable position in their families. And when like-minded lawyer moms talk to each other in a group such as the one I run, they acknowledge for each other the need to persevere in the struggle for balance.


  1. Crosby, Faye J., Williams, Joan C. & Biernat, Monica (2004). The maternal wall. Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 60 (4), p. 678.
  2. Warner, Judith (2005). Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead Books.
  3. Rothbard, Nancy (2001). Enriching or depleting? The dynamics of engagement in work and family roles. Administrative Science Quarterly (46).
  4. Jacobs, Jerry A. & Gerson, Kathleen (2004). The Time Divide: Work, Family, and Gender Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. Fels, Anna (2004). Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. New York: Pantheon Books.

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