Balancing Motherhood or Choosing a Child-Free Life

Jeena Cho
Whether and when to have a child is a complex issue for which there is not much guidance.

Whether and when to have a child is a complex issue for which there is not much guidance.

Peter Muller | GettyImages

Motherhood is more demanding than ever. Parents spend more time and money on childcare. They feel more pressure to breastfeed, to do enriching activities with their children, and to provide close supervision. And women underestimate the costs of motherhood. This was the recent finding reported in a New York Times article, “The Costs of Motherhood Are Rising, and Catching Women Off Guard.”

Whether and when to have a child is a complex issue for which there is not much guidance. I recall a mentor suggesting that having a child in my 20s would be career suicide, and I should put off having children as long as possible. I learned the hard way that the biological clock doesn’t wait for your career—that waiting could mean missing the opportunity to have your own biological child.

Female lawyers struggle and come up with various solutions for balancing motherhood with their careers. Some also make the very deliberate decision to be child-free. And it certainly affects one’s sense of well-being—no matter what one chooses.

Choosing Children

Chelsie Lamie, a personal injury lawyer in Safety Harbor, Florida, had a greater vision when she started her own law practice. “I created a baby-friendly law firm. I instituted a paid family leave policy—six weeks paid at 100 percent—and encouraged my employees to bring their babies to work. We eventually opened a daycare in the office,” she says.

She is very clear about her priorities. “I always put my kids and family vacations on my calendar first, then trials,” Lamie says. She is able to do this as a plaintiffs lawyer because she has more control over the trial calendar than if she was on the defense side. She also intentionally keeps her caseload at about 100 cases so that she doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

Kelly Erb is a tax attorney in Paoli, Pennsylvania. She practices with her husband, also a lawyer. She has three children and says she thinks about how her decisions will impact them all the time.

“A significant portion of my brain is devoted to my children. We’re also of a generation where we’re also responsible for taking care of our parents. So now we have to figure out how to take care of not only our children but also our parents,” Erb says.

Erb and her husband decided not to send their kids to daycare until the children were old enough to speak, so they brought the kids to the office. “Anybody that interviewed for a position at our firm, I made it very clear that my children were going to be at the office. Having staff that was aware of what my priorities were was very helpful,” she says. She also set expectations early with her clients and her staff. “I try to be a parent first, then a lawyer second,” Erb says.

She finds it empowering that she can balance motherhood with lawyering. “I look back and see that I’ve been responsible for these kids, and they are thriving. And [I can] still be successful at work,” she says.

Merle Kahn is of counsel at the Law Offices of Daniel Shanfield in San Jose, California. She had children later in life. She decided to work part-time because “both my teenagers developed health issues necessitating that one of us be able to be home with them at all times,” she says.

She always assumed that once her youngest was in high school, she would be working full time, but that never happened. “Very fortunately for me, I found a position as of counsel at a local immigration firm. I set my own hours and work on the cases that need time, patience and expertise. I don’t get paid as much as I would like, but I have the flexibility that I need,” she says.

She readily admits that the choices she has made were right for her and her family, but still she wonders on occasion where she would be if she had not made those choices. “Would I be at the ACLU running their immigration department? But [this choice] was worth it for me,” Kahn says.

Danielle Pener, principal attorney at Alta Employment Law in San Francisco, has a 2-year-old child. She has refined her employment law practice to limit litigation so that she can have time for her son and meet the needs of her clients.

She was almost 41 when she had her son. She stresses the importance of normalizing being a parent and a working lawyer. All three of the other lawyers at her firm also have children. “They’re all very good lawyers and also are the primary parent, like I am,” Pener says.

It’s important for Pener to be transparent with her clients about her boundaries. She isn’t shy about telling her clients: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have childcare. I can take the call now, but there will be background noise from my toddler. Or we can speak later this evening.”

Like many lawyer moms I spoke to, Pener struggles with feeling overscheduled. She tries to reduce the overwhelm by practicing being present with her son, even if it’s just one to two hours before bedtime.

Each day is a new learning opportunity. There are many days where she feels like she is a bad lawyer and a bad mom. But the next day, she feels like she’s a great lawyer and a great mom. The next, great lawyer, bad mom. Every day is different, and when something gets out of balance, she just tries to right the ship before it gets too far off course.

Single Mother By Choice

Colette Vogele, a senior attorney at Microsoft in Seattle, is a single mom by choice. She had a great career at Microsoft but felt she hadn’t figured out her personal life. When she was in her late 30s, she knew she wanted to have children and began exploring the options—adoption, foster-to-adopt programs and getting pregnant herself. At 42, she pursued in vitro fertilization and was able to get pregnant.

“I couldn’t imagine not having this experience. It didn’t really matter to me that I was pregnant. But having gone through it, I’m so glad I had the experience of going through pregnancy,” she says.

Shortly after she got pregnant through IVF, she had an opportunity to pursue an overseas role with Microsoft in Belgium. “This is my opportunity to lean in, so I decided to do both,” she says.

Vogele says she would recommend that women in their late 20s or early 30s consider egg freezing. “It’s powerful to have options. I think if you think it’s something you want to do, keep those options as open as you can. I was lucky that I was able to have children and freeze embryos,” she says.

Preserving Fertility

Shannon McMinimee, a partner at Cedar Law in Seattle, always wanted the possibility of having children and having her own biological children. She chose to keep the door open to motherhood by choosing to freeze her eggs, and she says she is prepared to pay for surrogacy if needed.

She spent her 20s and 30s very focused on her career. She decided in her late 30s to freeze her eggs after watching others close to her experience fertility issues and learned the statistics associated with egg viability after 35. McMinimee describes going through the egg- retrieval process as the “hormonal equivalent to being nine months pregnant and going through menopause at the same time.”

They were able to retrieve 18 viable eggs. She suggests that any women who want children consider having her eggs frozen. McMinimee was in the financial position to pay the $10,000 to freeze her eggs and thinks it was well worth doing to preserve her fertility.

Child-Free By Choice

Some women choose to be child-free so that they can pursue their legal careers. Chelsea Murfree, an associate attorney at Leslie Wm. Adams & Associates in Houston, decided to give up a child for adoption when she was 20 so she could become a lawyer.

She recalls being at the hospital after delivery and spending the entire night with her son, so she could know for certain that she was making the right decision.

Her son was adopted by a loving couple who has stayed active in Murfree’s life. They are very supportive of her, and they even attended her law school graduation. She has stayed active in her son’s life, and her son sees her as a very protective aunt.

The adoption was the “hard bottom” she needed to hit to motivate her to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. The adoption experience helped her realize she doesn’t want kids.

For other lawyers in a similar situation, Murfree says it’s important to have at least “one person that is supportive of your decision.” She had a co-worker in her late 30s who also gave up a child through adoption.

Her experience has helped her be more empathetic toward people who “make stupid business or life decisions. It doesn’t make it OK, but I get it,” Murfree says.

Melinda McLellan, a partner at BakerHostetler in New York City, never wanted kids and considers BigLaw a challenging environment for new parents. “Other career paths seem better suited to motherhood, in my view,” she says.

She feels privileged to be free of parenting responsibilities and is hearing the same from more female professionals. “BigLaw clients expect and deserve our full attention as their service provider. But babies deserve their parents’ full attention, too,” she says.

She appreciates not feeling torn between being an absentee mom or a distracted lawyer. Further, she says her child-free lifestyle has facilitated the intense focus necessary to develop deep expertise in her practice area.

“I always wanted to be a dad; I never wanted to be a mom,” McLellan says. She sees the roles as very different, even today. “Men often get a pat on the back for basic parenting, for doing things that aren’t even recognized when a mom handles them,” she says.

Female lawyers are exercising their right to choose. This includes choosing to not have children, choosing to start her own practice, or choosing to change jobs. All the women I interviewed talked about overcoming obstacles and challenges when it came to entering motherhood or choosing to remain child-free.

Our profession certainly has more progress to make for creating family-friendly environments, a more inclusive workplace, and allowing each woman to choose the path that makes sense for her. 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 ABA Journal magazine with the title “Family Way.” You can also find it on the ABA Journal website

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Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms on stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness, and meditation. She cowrote The Anxious Lawyer and practices bankruptcy law with the JC Law Group in San Francisco.