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May 19, 2020 Article

Milk and Memos: Lessons from My First Year as a Working Mother

You can have it all, just not at the same time.

By Jasmyn Richardson

This month marks one year since I returned to work from maternity leave. Our son, Booker, was born in January 2019. I spent more than three months on maternity leave and have been trying to learn the ins and outs of mothering as a litigator ever since returning to work. While I continue to learn something new every day, these are my greatest takeaways from my first year as a working mother. 

We can trust ourselves to make thoughtful decisions about the best way to raise our children and work.

We can trust ourselves to make thoughtful decisions about the best way to raise our children and work.

Credit: Pexels, Anastasia Shuraeva

You Can Have It All, Just Not at the Same Time

One of the most difficult parts of this year has been accepting that I have to slow down at work to keep up at home. In short, my workaholic mentality had to be tempered. Prioritizing motherly obligations like pumping in the office or spending quality time with my son meant I had less time to find the perfect case or draft a memo. It also meant that peers with more time to devote to work might outperform me and that I might miss some opportunities. As a young litigator with much to prove and as a female attorney with dreams of being the ultimate #momboss, I often resisted this new reality.

Take my first week back from maternity leave, for example. A senior attorney called to ask if I would like to travel and participate in a settlement meeting. He encouraged me to think about it and made clear that I did not have to attend. Nonetheless, I pressured myself to go. I wanted to prove that I was fully available for work and that motherhood would not prevent me from contributing to the team. I also did not want to miss the chance to participate in negotiations. In the end, I was not as present as I wanted to be in the meeting. Averaging about 1–3 hours of sleep a night, I arrived at the airport exhausted. I found myself constantly thinking about my pumping schedule and how to get my breastmilk through security.

In hindsight, I should have taken my time transitioning back to work mode and opted not to travel. There will always be a case, meeting, or assignment that seems crucial and feels like the perfect opportunity to gain experience  in a new area or build a new skill set. In reality, other chances to prove yourself will come. There are certainly some moments that require us to push ourselves beyond our limits, like the witness prep for which you are primarily responsible or the discovery deadline that cannot be changed. In retrospect, this settlement meeting was not that moment. There were three other members of the litigation team, the meeting was not long, and I have since had other opportunities to participate in negotiations.

Also, there were alternative ways that I could have contributed to the team. I could have offered to work on specific pretrial matters while they traveled. I learned early that I must approach every opportunity with an eye toward how I can add value and whether adding value requires me to “go hard,” rather than find an off-ramp.

Another lesson I learned was the importance of being open and honest with myself and my team about my availability, workload, and capacity for new tasks. If you set up expectations that you are always available, others will rightfully assume you are. You must set work limits for yourself and for the sake of the team.

Prioritizing my obligations as a new mother may mean I cannot take on the same workload as other colleagues. I have accepted this and consider it a small price to pay for the gift of my son. My goals of being the lead attorney on a major trial and deposing an expert witness are still attainable and probably closer than I think. As long as I continue to put in the work, those opportunities will come when the season is right.

Pumping Is a Full-Time Job

Breastfeeding has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience for me, despite its challenges. Still—and I say this in no uncertain terms—pumping is not for the weak. It requires time, commitment, creativity, discipline, and patience.

For the unfamiliar, breast pumps allow a working mother to continue supplying breastmilk to her child even when she is away at work. There is an entire business industry devoted to pumping equipment, including the breast pump, bottles and bags for storage, and even wipes for spills.

I returned to work with a storage box full of equipment. A fellow Section of Litigation member had advised me to buy two pumps, one for home and the other for the office, to avoid having to lug my pump to and from work. A colleague provided me with a small refrigerator so I could store milk in my office instead of the office refrigerator. Another colleague had acquired a free pump through her insurance company and offered it to me as a backup.

Despite that strong start, pumping remained a challenge. The fast-paced nature of litigation did not mesh with the demands of pumping at least twice a day. I could no longer jump up and run to every impromptu meeting. And while I could call into those meetings and pump from my office, I was still constantly rearranging in-person commitments and deadlines. Plus, the slight awkwardness of mentioning my pumping schedule to my all-male litigation team never faded for me, although they were all understanding and accommodating.

Work travel only heightened pumping-related challenges. I have pumped in countless airport nursing rooms and office buildings. I have had airport security hold up my milk for all to see and request a special scan for it. I have creatively assembled ice bags from different airport restaurants to keep my milk cold when my flight was delayed. One memorable time, I pumped in a nursing room at the Detroit Metro Airport while reading a whiteboard full of reassuring messages from other traveling mothers. I was exhausted but uplifted by the support and mutual experiences. Support is available in the unlikeliest of places—including the office—if you have the courage to look and ask for it.

Your Parent Tribe Is Invaluable

The encouragement you gain from shared experiences with other mothers and parents is why I advocate finding your “mom (or parent) tribe.” I do not mean to belittle the value of our friends without children. They are loved and important, and they make great babysitters. Still, there is a special connection you will have with those colleagues who have crawled into work after staying up all night with a baby that refuses to sleep. I have been fortunate to have a close friend and fellow attorney at work whose daughter is only six months younger than my son. Our bond has been strengthened by frequent check-ins about work, hardships, and missing our children.

Working parents with multiple or older children have become mentors. I recall going on a long coffee walk with a coworker when I was concerned about possibly having to go to trial. My son was not even six months old. She shared her experiences raising her children while litigating, and she wisely suggested narrowing down to the two or three witnesses I wanted to put on the stand and to propose a limited travel schedule to my team. Her advice gave me the confidence to advocate for myself and show I could provide alternative support from the office.

The most invaluable mother confidant during this last year has been my own. She has traveled with me on a few work trips so that I could bring my son and still get work done. She cared for him while I spent long days in the field working with my teams. A working mother herself, she promised me that she would do whatever it takes for me to get my job done. She has not let me down.

Decide How You Want to Parent and Stick with It

There are a lot of tough decisions that you must make as a parent to a newborn. How long will your maternity leave last? Will you go back to work full-time or part-time? Do you want to continue breastfeeding? And the ultimate question—who will look after your child when you are physically unavailable? Your partner, another family member, a day care, or a nanny?

For each decision, there will be countless opinions. Some people may question your decision to work at all. I recall telling my neighbor, a stay-at-home mother, that I was getting ready to return to work. Confused, she asked, “Who’s going to take care of your son?” Others may question your child care decisions. A family member became very concerned when I told her I was returning to work and placing my son in day care when he was just over three months old. Given the rise in breastfeeding, several colleagues may bombard you with their views on how often to pump, how much milk you should be producing, or whether or not to supplement with formula.

As the rapper Mase said in his 1990s classic, “Feel So Good,” “I do what work[s] for me, you do what work[s] for you.” Parents make different decisions based on work schedules, financial resources, time constraints, values, and child care options. We, as female litigators, have graduated from law school, passed the bar, and built a career based on our logical reasoning skills. We can trust ourselves to make thoughtful decisions about the best way to raise our children and work. 

Jasmyn Richardson is a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C.

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