While a young woman growing up in Puerto Rico, my mother’s biggest dream was to attend college. It did not happen. My grandparents allocated what limited resources they had to provide college educations for mom’s younger brothers, an opportunity denied her solely because she was female. Undeterred, while raising her elementary school aged children in New York City, my mom began attending night school. First she studied English. Then she went on to earn some college credits. All while working full time as a school cafeteria server. Despite her long days and exhaustion, my mom never complained. Instead, she emphasized how fortunate she was to be able to work. She hoped to be able to provide her children with a college education in the future.
By my mom’s example my work ethic was formed. My mom’s hope was realized. Some twenty years later I was both an Ivy League college and law school graduate. With approximately ten years of legal practice under my belt, I was hitting my stride professionally. Years of hard work and going the extra mile was seemingly paying off. Not only was I routinely handling high exposure cases at my firm, but more gratifying still, I was branching out and diversifying my areas of practice. As exciting as that was, it did not surpass the excitement I felt about becoming a mother. In that moment, I too felt fortunate, and I looked forward to success as a working mother just as my mother had experienced before me.
At no point while awaiting the birth of my first child did I anticipate the challenges ahead. While I now have two daughters, ages 10 and 8, and I continue to practice law, it has not been as effortless as I naively once thought it would be. Like most professions, the law has and continues to be a profession demanding long hours. The hardest part for me, much to my surprise, was not physical exhaustion and mentally taxing days, or frustration about denied professional opportunity. Rather my greatest obstacle was managing my own emotions, originating with mommy guilt. Guilt about not being a continuous presence for my daughters; guilt about missing milestones and events, and occasional guilt stoked by a belief that I was being judged by other mothers.
Even greater guilt that arose from my sense that as a first generation lawyer in my family, I should not squander my hard earned education. While I had witnessed many women decide to leave the workforce after becoming mothers, that felt like a privilege not easily exercised by me. To do so could jeopardize the start of a new legacy for my daughters that began when I became a professional working woman. Then beyond my family was my sense of obligation to women and particularly women of color at large. I had joined the ranks of the slow moving movement of diversifying a historically white male profession. Abandoning law felt like it would be a setback not just for my family, but for all women.
I have been able to remain a working mother by coping with these conflicting emotions. It began with embracing my spirituality, and remembering that God has a unique plan for each of us. That I should not compare myself to others, or empower others to judge me.
I also expected and accepted the unexpected. That the unexpected would necessitate altering career decisions, and that I should not be burdened with the belief that I had disappointed anyone or everyone. This resiliency developed after I was forced to consider becoming a stay at home mother to care for my older daughter, who at barely a year old, had developed a condition that led us to believe she would be chronically ill. By the grace of God my daughter’s health improved, but the whole experience was an awakening. I realized that if I could not continue to follow the career path I had created, that is what God had meant for me. When I was able to resume practicing full time, I realized that God had enabled it and it felt right for me.
Of course the unexpected happened again. This time my younger daughter had begun exhibiting signs of significant academic delays in her very first month of kindergarten. My five year old became extremely anxious and began refusing school. After months of emotionally taxing evaluations she was classified as a child with multiple learning disabilities. I was compelled, once again, to make adjustments at work, and I have continued to do so to this day. It is critical for me to meaningfully attend to my daughter’s academic and emotional needs.
However, my career has always been a part of who I am. After becoming a mother I never lost the passion to learn and engage in exciting work. I wanted to maintain my career and did so by proving my worth. Long before COVID, I demonstrated that my productivity was not measured by time in the office and that flexible hours did not mean I missed deadlines. To the contrary, greater control over when and where I worked created greater engagement for me. I continued to network, nurture client relationships, and consistently deliver an excellent work product. My personal best, a transaction that took place at the height of my daughter’s testing and classification, still holds the record as the largest multi-million dollar corporate transaction in our firm’s history.
I am truly grateful. COVID has forced many women out of the workforce. Ground has been lost in rectifying a glaring gender wage disparity and it will now take even longer to correct. I hope that long after COVID is under control, that employers recognize how flexibility can go a long way in promoting career longevity, and particularly for working mothers. That if afforded both an abundance of great opportunity and when needed, the flexibility to say no, many working mothers will exceed expectations. As for professional working mothers, I hope many will continue to lean in when and how they can. That they will do so without stigma or guilt because they have embraced the perpetual imbalance that is life. That they will appreciate, as I do, that success is borne of sacrifice. That they can take pride, as I do, in the fact that their success is not theirs alone and will create a more equitable and inclusive future for all working women.