I have worked a paid job in some capacity since I was 14-years-old. I worked summer jobs through high school, work-study and summer jobs during college and the same during law school. Since graduating from law school in 2006, I have worked as a law clerk, big law associate and an assistant attorney general. However, I have not worked a paid job, legal or otherwise, since October 2016 when I entered an intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP).
When I first left IOP in November, the idea of returning to my old job, or any job, was unimaginable. While I doubted my ability to make wise choices about pretty much everything in my life at that time, I was confident that returning to work so soon after leaving IOP would be harmful to me and my family.
It has been around three months since I told my supervisors I could not provide a date certain for my return. During that time, I have felt less anxious, less depressed and more able to care of myself and my children than I have in years — certainly since the twins were born in August 2015. For many weeks, I didn’t think about work or returning to work; how we would manage the logistics of three kids with two working parents; how, despite having 1,001 things to do each day, we could ensure enough time for me to take care of myself per IOP protocols. Recently though, my husband, my therapist and I have touched on the topic as in need of discussion.
My therapist asked me to come up with a broad list of potential work options, including the reasonable, the impractical and the practically impossible. My list included, among other options, returning to my previous job, full-time or part-time; returning to the legal profession in some other way; becoming a yoga instructor; working at a bookstore; writing a book; starting a non-profit to support parents with mental illnesses; staying home until the kids start elementary school; and staying at home indefinitely.
Since leaving IOP in November, I have spent more than half my time each day working at kid and family related tasks. We have a four-year-old son and 18-month-old boy-girl twins. I drive our oldest to school every morning and volunteer at his school one day a week. While we have an au pair to care for the twins during the day, I often work with her, including helping with feedings and naptimes, going for walks and taking the kids to music class and swimming lessons. I take our oldest to his swimming lesson on Saturday. I do the grocery shopping and everyone’s laundry. I spend an inordinate amount of time at our pediatricians’ office because my two boys have an uncanny ability to turn the smallest cold into a major respiratory illness. I read and I play and I dance with my children. I kiss their bumps and bruises, sit through endless steamy shower sessions and give them medicine when they need it. I lay down in their beds or hang over the side of their cribs to rub their back during the night. Basically, I do the same amazing amount of things that all moms do.
When we had only one child, doing all of these things while also working a full-time job was overwhelming at times but mostly manageable. Once we had three children, doing all of these things while also working (together with my family medical history and postpartum hormonal swan dive) caused me to have a mental breakdown.
I had constant panic attacks followed by days of debilitating depression when I simply could not leave my bed or even imagine doing so ever again. I could not stop crying, ever. In beween the panic attacks and days in bed, I pretended everything was okay but it was not. I was terrified of letting anyone down, at work or at home, and I felt like I was letting pretty much everyone down everyday. I went to my doctor but none of the antidepressants we tried helped. My therapist was basically in crisis mode, focused on keeping me safe and making sure I had people around me who could help (i.e. drive me to the psych ward and give my kids a non-scary explanation of why I had to leave for a little while).
Despite this trauma (which is not an exaggeration, I am traumatized by my experience last year), the idea of not returning to the job I left in October, or rejoining the paid workforce in some manner, unsettled me. It felt like a wrong or imperssible decision, a betrayal of myself in some way. It is only in the past few days that I have attempted to figure where these feelings come from. My conclusion: the idea of not return to paid work, particularly legal work, discomforts me because it means exitng the feminist ground floor, rather than continuing to climb up and up towards the glass ceiling.
There has been so much effort and struggle in the past, and even now, to guarantee women the same rights related to work and wages as men. Feminists who came before me built a floor so that women like me could start our careers on relatively equal footing with men. Not returning to my job as an attorney feels like a betrayal of that work and those values.
I realize there are many options other than returning to a full-time position as an attorney, but I already have a full-time job. Three small children is no joke. I am on my feet from 6 AM to at least 10 PM every day, not to mention the two to four times I am usually up during the night. I realize we could outsource some of what I do, but not all of it. And despite the fact that I often want to scream, hide, runaway or do all three at once, I sincerely find my work as a mother fulfilling; hard as hell, but fulfilling.
So the question is, can I exit the feminist ground floor in a direction other than up without feeling like a traitor, a failure or a coward? I believe the answer is yes.
While equality may be the primary precept of feminism, choice is also a major principle. Feminism includes a strong belief that a woman has the right to choose: to choose what to do with her body; to choose her life partner regardless of gender; to choose to marry or not; to choose to have children or not; to choose any field of study; and to expect equal treatment all along her chosen career path. Given this emphasis on choice, it seems reasonable to conclude that choosing to exist the feminist ground floor by leaving the building entirely is consistent with feminism, so long as I make that choice by and for myself.
As one of my most beloved legal role models, the Notorious RBG, has said: “It is essential to a woman’s equality . . . that she be the decision-maker, that her choice be controlling.”
If I decide to leave the paid workforce because that is what I want to do for myself and my decision is controlling, then it is not an affront to feminism. Rather, it is consistent with an essential element of women’s equality. In short, it is not the content of my choice but my freedom and authority in making it that matters most.
Much respect, RBG. And deuces (I think).