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Why Work Comes Before Kids for Lara Bazelon

The mom who sparked a national debate about work-life balance speaks out.

Courtesy of Troyan/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Troyan/Shutterstock

It might seem like ancient history to us today, but it wasn’t so long ago that working mothers were the exception rather than the norm. In 1975, just 47.4 percent of mothers with children under age 18 were active in the workforce. Today, that figure is nearly seventy percent. Yet for all of the change that’s happened in the labor market, many people still hold antiquated, or even prejudiced, beliefs about working mothers. 

Research has found that working moms are perceived to be less competent and committed, and that they suffer from lower rates of hiring and promotion as well as lower salaries. At the same time, though, many women who double down on their careers are often criticized for being bad mothers. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, and one that had long frustrated attorney and law professor Lara Bazelon.

As a defender of wrongly-convicted felons, though, Bazelon is not the type to take injustice sitting down. Her New York Times essay, “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids,” went viral for its bold stance, defending Bazelon’s choice to choose her clients over her kids and decrying the idea of work-life balance, which Bazelon believes is a myth. In the wake of the essay, Bazelon encountered a tidal wave of both support and criticism.

In the latest episode of Glassdoor’s podcast, IN PURSUIT, Bazelon spoke with Editorial Director Amy Elisa Jackson about the controversy the article provoked, her roles as both a defense attorney and a mother, and the double-standard that working women face. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Amy Elisa Jackson: You wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids.” This headline jumped out at me — what was it that provoked you to write this piece?

Lara Bazelon: I feel like so many women get that question, “How do you balance your work and be the best mother you can be?” Whereas men are never asked, “How do you balance your high-powered career and be the best dad that you can be?” It puts this pressure on women to chase after what I think of as a mirage in this exhausting quest for this perfect equipoise that doesn’t really exist. I felt like I was calling out what so many women know in their hearts to be true.

Amy Elisa Jackson: I love the line that you wrote in the article that says, “The term ‘work-life balance’ traps women in an endless cycle of shame and self-recrimination.” When did you first feel that shame or that self-recrimination around work-life balance?

Lara Bazelon: I think I first experienced it really profoundly when I was in a two-year fellowship where I was learning how to be a law professor. I had a small child and then I had another baby. I went back to work after 12 weeks because that was all the time that was given to me, and I felt that when people heard that I was coming back relatively soon, that I was putting my daughter in daycare, I got a lot of surprise and judgment, like, “You’re married to someone who works at a law firm. Can’t you take more time?” The truth was, I couldn’t. My job wouldn’t let me — I would have been fired. But also, I wanted to go back to work and I wanted to continue to do my job and finish my fellowship.

Amy Elisa Jackson: Going back to work seems to be such a taboo thing, whether it’s after three weeks or five months. There’s this thought that motherhood flips this switch where you no longer want to work.

Lara Bazelon: That is exactly right. A lot of women experience this where they’ve achieved a lot and then they find a life partner and have children and there’s this idea that some switch is going to go off in their brain and they’re going to cease to be ambitious. And that’s actually something that we as a society encourage. We don’t have paid family medical leave, and women are the primary caregivers for children. Often, they’re in relationships where they’re the lower-earning partner, so if somebody is going to have to step back, it’s usually women.

Amy Elisa Jackson: In your op-ed, you talk about being a trial lawyer on a case to free an innocent African-American man named Kash Register who was serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. You moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to be closer to the courthouse for the case, taking you away from your children. How did you navigate that decision?

Lara Bazelon: I was talking with my son about how much I was away, and I said, “Look, Kash’s mommy has been waiting for him to come home for 34 years — his mom needs him to come home, and that’s part of why I’m doing this.” It was a huge part because Kash’s mom, Wilma, was a force of nature and his primary connection to the outside world. Once I met her, it just became so much more imperative to be able to bring her son back. That was part of helping my kids understand what I was doing — that I was reconnecting and re-uniting a family.

Amy Elisa Jackson: I want to dig into this idea that you’re not a “normal mom.” When did you realize that?

Lara Bazelon: I’ve never felt normal, and I’m so curious to know if women listening to this also feel the same way. In my mind, I always had this idea of what a mom was, and that person was 150 percent present. They were on the soccer field watching every kick, they were on the playground watching every game. I’m the kind of mom where I’m there and then in my mind I’m writing my closing argument, or I’m thinking about this phone call. I don’t go home and forget about my job. I tend to want to talk about interesting parts of my job with my kids.

Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s interesting, because that’s the intersection of the personal and the professional — it’s not as though when you go to your law firm, or you’re standing in front of your students, that you’re somehow not a mom, and vice-versa. When else in your life do you feel that intersection?

Lara Bazelon: This past semester I taught criminal procedure, which is a class for about 70 students. It’s their first year, and you’re teaching them basics about their Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. It’s a podium class, and you lecture for an hour and a half to two hours. Normally, I turn off my phone and put everything away so I can focus on my students. But I said at the beginning of class, “Look, my son had an accident. He’s at the doctor, and we’re waiting to hear whether or not he has a broken bone. I’m leaving my phone on and if the doctor calls, I’m going to take the call and step out of the room.” She didn’t happen to call then, but if she had, I would have left. My students have seen me in the moment struggling with childcare falling through. It’s not like I bring it all out and overshare, but I’m very upfront about saying, “Okay. This is what it looks like when you are a working mom — sometimes you can’t perfectly separate everything.”

Amy Elisa Jackson: I would imagine earlier in your career, before you were tenured, it might have been pretty daunting to admit to a classroom that you needed to step away if you got a phone call. Was becoming authentic in front of your students a process?

Lara Bazelon: It really was a process. I think we have this idea, particularly as women, that we have to present this front of being perfect, and that if you show any sort of vulnerability or people question your commitment to what you’re doing because you have to leave early to get your kid, there’s going to be a cost that you have to pay. It took me a while to get to the point of not wanting to apologize or feeling like I should, and just being really frank and upfront with my colleagues, bosses and students, like, “This is my life. There’s a lot going on. I’m doing the best I can to juggle everything. Sometimes there’s going to be an imbalance, and you’re going to see it.”

It took me a while to get to the point of not wanting to apologize or feeling like I should, and just being really frank and upfront with my colleagues. —Lara Bazelon

Amy Elisa Jackson: Was there a watershed moment when you found yourself bringing your full self to work?

Lara Bazelon: The example that I’m going to give is actually the reverse. It was a male colleague, a single dad, and he and I were trying a case. I was 27, and he was maybe 41 or 42. Our jury went out at 3:30, and he was supposed to leave to pick up his two young sons at 4:30. The judge was not having it, and he said, “If the jury comes back, you’re coming back.” They came back after an hour, which was shocking, because they’re usually out for longer than that. He and I got into a huge argument walking back to court where I was just berating him. I remember in that moment feeling so unsympathetic. He really pushed back hard against me and I have appreciated it ever since because so many people are in that situation.

Amy Elisa Jackson: Talk to me a little bit about the feedback that you’ve gotten on your article.

Lara Bazelon: What I say to my students about litigation is, if you step into the arena, you should expect to get hit. I don’t think you should write a personal essay if you think that 100 percent of people are going to respond and tell you how brave and eloquent you are, because that’s not going to happen. People have really strong opinions about a lot of the issues that I write about: divorce, work, co-parenting. The reactions really run the gamut, and you just have to be prepared for that. This sounds weird to say, but try not to take it personally. The people who are writing don’t know you. They are speaking from their own life experiences, and those vary. 

That said, with this piece, I was actually pleasantly surprised because so much of the direct response that I got was overwhelmingly positive. I got a lot of letters from moms and dads, and they were really moving. The ones from some of the dads said, “I know this double-standard. I see my partner subjected to it and I don’t feel like there’s anything that I can do about it.” I had some women write to me and say something like, “You go, girl. I’m a generation ahead of you, and I did what you were talking about.” I had women write to me and say, “I made a different choice. I am home, but I support what you’re doing.” It wasn’t one particular anecdote. It was more just this really diverse group of people responding and saying, “This was my experience, and maybe I don’t agree with everything that you said, but it resonated with me for this reason.”

Amy Elisa Jackson: Was there a comment that someone said that made you think, “Hmm, should I have approached that differently?”

Lara Bazelon: One comment that I got from a bunch of people was, “I hope that you don’t expect your kids to visit you when you’re in a nursing home.” Essentially, they were saying you’ve de-prioritized them, so they are going to de-prioritize you. It really did make me stop and think. I mean, I will say in my own family situation, one of my parents got quite sick. I dropped everything and went 3,000 miles back home and felt like I was as present as I could be, given the distance between us. But that did make me stop and think. I have these times where I feel like, “Am I damaging my kids?” And I guess the converse of that is, “Is the damage going to come back to haunt you because they’re disengaged from you?” I don’t in my heart believe that’s true, but I guess there’s a tiny part of me that’s fearful that it might be.

I have these times where I feel like, “Am I damaging my kids?” I don’t in my heart believe that’s true, but I guess there’s a tiny part of me that’s fearful that it might be. —Lara Bazelon

Amy Elisa Jackson: For other professionals who are in very life-or-death types of careers where a lot of people will be affected by their professional decisions — doctors, criminal justice attorneys, astronauts — what advice would you give them about navigating this world of the personal and the professional?

Lara Bazelon: The advice I always tell myself is, “Play the long game.” I think with issues like childcare, work-life balance and relationships, it’s so easy in that moment to think, “I’ve really messed up and everything’s falling apart. I made this horrible decision at work or at home, and I’ll never get past it.” The truth is, almost everything is reparable in the long term. If you have very specific goals and you are committed to your job and you love your children, most likely it’s going to be okay — you just sort of have to keep your eyes on the horizon even though there’s a little fire in front of you that you’re putting out.

Amy Elisa Jackson: When you look back at your career thus far, what has surprised you the most about it?

Lara Bazelon: What surprised me the most and made me the happiest is that I’ve been able to combine different things that I love. I love having clients and I love going to court. I wake up a little disappointed if I have no one to cross-examine. I also love writing and teaching. I have a job where I get to do all three things — I get to teach my law students how to be lawyers by essentially having a small firm inside the law school, and that job gives me the freedom to write scholarly pieces or op-eds or a book. It just feels very dreamy to me. I never thought I would be able to find a job that satisfied all of those parts of me.

Amy Elisa Jackson: When have you felt the most in control of your career?

Lara Bazelon: The truth is, it’s now. I think once I got tenure, I realized I am probably going to be okay. I love this job, and now it’s more or less permanent. What that also means is, I have room to grow in the job and there’s new responsibilities I can take on. I can grow and shift and I don’t have to be afraid to ask for things like more money or different teaching assignments. There’s this magical thing that tenure brings to you, which is a real sense of economic stability and freedom.

Amy Elisa Jackson: Lastly, what’s the best thing your kids have said to you this month?

Lara Bazelon: Oh, that’s a good question. My daughter wrote this poem, it’s called “Getting Up.” She’s only eight and she’s a really great writer — so is my son. I don’t know if she wrote it for me specifically, but there are lines in it that I always say to myself, and I think that there are such important lessons in it. Part of it says, “If something deep and heavy is weighing you down and you fall down, get back up. If someone says something not nice to you and you think, ‘I will never talk to this person again.’ Think, ‘No, I will get up and I will talk to them.’ Even if they push me down, I will get up again and I will try again.” I think that encapsulates so much of what it means to be a woman, a person in this world, which is to be resilient in the face of adversity and never give up.

Originally published on Glassdoor.

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