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Yes, A Family Competes With Women’s Careers, But Family Matters More


Some female lawyers are reportedly in an uproar over a recent article in the American Bar Association Journal, even demanding an apology and retraction, because it argues that a family is an impediment to the highest levels of professional success.

“There is nothing that can derail a career faster than the responsibilities of motherhood—ask any successful woman lawyer with children,” writes law career counselor Susan Smith Blakely. “It is a game changer that can cause very busy women lawyers to lose focus.”

Time is not unlimited, and neither is biology. These two physical limits, and others such as finances and serendipity, create the conditions under which people must make the best choices they can using the various life cards they are dealt.

Much of the angst and mistakes college-educated women engage in while attempting to maintain both a high-demand career and family aspirations comes from refusing to acknowledge such limits. So much trouble can be reduced by fitting oneself to reality instead of obeying the dominant cultural advice of attempting to achieve what is logistically unrealistic.

Both Kids and Careers Require Your Utmost Attention

Despite many workplaces’ salutary and needed attempts to be more family-friendly, Blakeley is right. It’s just a plain fact that, even if you work just 40 hours a week — or even if, like I do, you can flex much of your work into when the children are sleeping or at school — those are still 40 hours you must spend on work, and not your family.

Since raising a family is a highly time-intensive and deeply personal affair, most families are happiest and best organized when one parent can focus on the financial heavy lifting and the other on the relationship heavy lifting. For what should be obvious biological reasons — mothers and children are physically and emotionally deeply tied for years, and this is necessary for children’s happiness and success; women care more about relationships, while men care more about physical security — usually the person who focuses on breadwinning is dad and the person who focuses on nurturing is mom.

As Blakeley points out:

Motherhood is demanding. Too often, lawyer moms are so stretched and overscheduled that they cannot easily find time in their days to assist others. They focus on their own workloads and maximize their time between arrival at the office/logging in and leaving the office/logging out. Many of them do not take lunch breaks or have many conversations with colleagues, and they lose interest in promoting new work for the law firm, developing clients and attending firm social events. They are exhausted.

While I believe an employer’s social responsibilities include not overburdening employees to the point that work crowds out their ability to sustain a family, it’s simply a practical reality that family life competes with work, including for men. It cannot be otherwise, as children need serious attention from both their mother and their father.

This is a key reason husbands and wives traditionally specialized in household duties, and that traditional societies incorporated children more flexibly into the home economy than is possible within a 9-5. Why live like a single mother if you don’t have to?

Still, today most mothers work, although most would like to work less, which means many working women feel pressured into a job in one way or another (usually for money, social prestige, or both). This pressure dynamic is part of what makes honest discussions of reality like Blakeley’s so emotionally fraught for working women.

We hate having to choose one of two good options, or to accept the tradeoffs of the choices we’ve made. It’s only human; but to be a human well includes making a choice and then nobly bearing the consequences.

Women Deserve More Respect for Investing in Family

A woman who doesn’t have a family — or even a husband — can outcompete women who have such things due to more hours in the day freed for being a workaholic. Unless women with families are prepared to essentially jettison those families to compete with long-term loners, they should cheerfully accept that choosing to marry and have a child naturally precludes them from becoming addicted to their jobs.

This is in fact a good thing, because workaholism is not just bad for individuals, but also bad for society. The ultimate end of an economy is to serve human flourishing. And what makes people flourish is to live in well-functioning families. When work cannibalizes family life instead of promoting it by providing the means to sustain families, it’s out of joint and needs to be put back in its place.

An obsession with one’s career, such as most high-achieving people are prone to, rests on the assumption that getting to, say, the top 1 percent of lawyers worldwide is a worthy tradeoff for the joys of mutually loving within a family. Those who reach those kinds of career heights, however, very often have to sacrifice much of what makes life worth living, and obtain little of lasting value in exchange.

If you die having been even the world’s best lawyer, perhaps you won something like a significant Supreme Court decision that affects the entire United States for the rest of its history. That might seem like a pretty amazing way to spend one’s life, but doing something like that is like trying to be a professional athlete or YouTube celebrity — hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more people make similar sacrifices to try to get to such a position and never make it. They are then left with having spent their entire lives attempting to achieve something that eluded them.

High-status people rarely play the actual lottery, rightly sneering it as mathematically idiotic. Yet many play — and, importantly, push on the rest of us — a career lottery with far higher stakes, convincing themselves it’s the only intelligent option.

But what does one really gain from crowding all one’s life possibilities into the single basket of career? If that career doesn’t hit the stars, as the vast majority won’t, you will lose the one thing that gives your life meaning. That’s a pretty bleak second half of life to look forward to, and all due to making a pretty risky choice in your 20s and 30s. Instead, it is much more likely to pay off if you diversify your life investment portfolio by also creating a family.

A much more prudent life-risk calculation is to sacrifice your highly unlikely chance at winning gold in the career Olympics on behalf of the almost assured chance of winning gold in the family satisfaction Olympics. If you want to be happy, your best bet is having children, even if it costs you professionally. And it almost surely will, because good parenting is not a part-time job.

Mothers Are More Important Than Lawyers

As a fellow working mother of many children observed to me recently, “To even know what my kids need takes actual time and my mental and emotional bandwidth.” Children are not like plants or even pets. Raising children is extremely rewarding, but like most things, the reward is commensurate with one’s investment.

If you have a husband and children — and the vast majority of women very much want these things — it is counterproductive to acquire them only to take them out only on weekends like rented designer clothing. Not only do you miss the full experience of family life this way, you also miss the opportunity to shape your children deeply in the ways that women find so rewarding and society needs so badly.

Children are not at all like luxury cars or designer clothing, something you can pull out for a spin after hours. They are not even like friends, available for scheduled playdates. They are human beings with personalities, needs, and eternal souls. They are organic beings who have needs that cannot fit only between 6 and 10 p.m. on weeknights.

If you largely outsource childrearing to others, you are letting others determine your children’s values and mediate your children’s maturation. Some people may be comfortable with that risky proposition, but many are not. Those who wish to leave a deeper, personalized imprint on their children’s lives, thus benefitting everyone else with children who are less likely to need therapy as adults, should be honored as heroes, whose sacrifices are far beyond the degrading idea that they can be compensated with money.