I’m 33 years old, married with an 18-month-old daughter and another one on the way in May. In about 10 weeks I will be starting my 12-week unpaid maternity leave from my job as an associate at a small law firm in Hartford. With 7 1/2 years of total practice, but a few job changes throughout that time, I am what you might call a “senior associate” if a firm were to officially label me something: not quite ready for partnership, but at the same time, not exactly green either. I tell you all this to give you the backdrop for my story: I have just started a four-fifths schedule, after approaching the partners and explaining that I could use a day off during the week to accommodate the increasing challenges of my advancing pregnancy and the demands of raising a toddler (i.e., I need a regular mental health break or I will stab someone). This means that I work 4 days a week instead of 5 days, when my workload allows it; that instead of 1800 billable hours a year I’m expected to achieve 1440; and that my salary is reduced by 20%. This isn’t pursuant to some kind of policy at my job – we’re way too small for that. It was an invention designed for me, once I raised the idea of reducing my workload somewhat. We’re still working out the bumps.
So my boss and I are in the bar (him with a martini, me with my club soda and already-huge-at-25-weeks pregnant belly), when I ask him about an attorney we recently hired. I already happen to know that she is in her late 40s, was a partner when she left her firm to take twelve (12!) years off for her kids, and is now returning to work on a part-time basis. Her husband happens to be a partner at another firm – I’m guessing he makes around $250k-$350k a year, if not more. Their kids go to or went to a private high school.
“She’s just like you!” says the boss, cheerfully gripping his third Bombay Sapphire. “You know, she wants to work part-time, for her kids …” Then he says some other stuff before returning once more to, “So she’s just like you.”
I want to say something, as of yet unarticulated in my brain, when we are interrupted by two other people and this conversation is brought to an untimely end.
Later on, I realize what it was that I wanted to say.
“No, actually, she is not ‘just like me.'”
At 33, having been out of school for more than a few but less than ten years, having found my footing, but still being very much an associate with a new mortgage and a young family, I am not a near-50 year old woman whose husband makes the lion’s share of the household income so that I can be home for 12 years and still send our kids to private school. With a paycheck that is still larger than my husband’s, even being paid at 4/5 my salary, it is a huge sacrifice – yes, one that I chose, but a sacrifice nonetheless – when you consider how much we rely on my income to meet monthly expenses. Not to mention that a mother of teenagers is not changing diapers, making toddler-appropriate meals for daycare, or pregnant, most likely.
At a time when my career is so important and I am ever aware of the negative impact I am risking in voluntarily opting out of full-time work, I was unhappy to be compared to a stay-at-home mom of 12 years who is looking to pick up a little extra on the side now that her children are grown.
So no, actually. She’s not just like me.
If at this point you’re wondering why this is such a big deal to me, there is more of a backstory here that deserves its own post, but I’ll add one thought here: Do the people I work for think that all working moms can be classified into one neat little trajectory of work for a few years, go “part-time” (hate that term, as 30-40 hours a week is not really part-time), and then leave their careers hanging for 12 years to live off a well-paid husband until they feel ready to pick up a little work again? Do they expect me to do the same thing, and if so, are they already making decisions not to invest in me because they figure I won’t be around in a few years? If this person is “just like me,” then do they think that I have a wealthy husband, a trust fund for my kids’ private school, and no bills to pay?
I want to end this by saying that the guy I currently work for is probably the boss I have enjoyed working for and respect the most out of anyone else in the past. I don’t want to make this a bigger issue than it may be, nor do I want to turn this into a typical “me against the man” post or make it sound like it’s something personal against this new employee, who I don’t even know yet. Of course not. But the thought has stuck with me for this long, so I felt compelled to write about it. And further, even if it was just an innocent comment, I guess there’s the rub … it’s “innocent” comments that indicate a societal attitude toward and stereotyping of working mothers that needs to change. We may have some commonalities, but we’re individuals with different talents that contribute to our workplaces in different, and valuable, ways. And I guess it’s the lack of recognition of this sentiment that I see in “she’s just like you.”