Last Friday at an evening garden party I sat next to a solicitor about to retire, and opposite a woman with grown-up children who had never worked outside the home.  A difficult conversation ensued when I tried and failed to tread a line strewn with mines between – on the one hand – honestly explaining to the solicitor my frustrations at having had to choose between my career and my children  and – on the other hand not offending the lady who had never worked outside the home.   

We moved around the table for pudding, and I was left with a feeling of having been misunderstood.  The solicitor could not understand why I could not find work that fitted around my children (though I told him I needed seventeen weeks holiday each year) and the lady could not understand why being a mother was not enough of itself.  It is not that I do not love being a mother but that I also enjoyed the intellectual stimulation, the male brain company and conversation, the status, even the earning power, of being a practising solicitor.  Prior to my daughter’s birth I had chosen to define myself largely by the lawyer label and the shock of the label being pulled off and replaced with one which said “mother” and nothing else was one which I remembered.   

Two days later the solicitor rang to ask if I would consider taking over his practice when he retired.  I could have seventeen weeks holiday since he thought that he would still like to do some work.  His clients were mainly commercial, lots of boat builders and designer, marinas, and agricultural landowners.  Interesting work, quite similar to the work I had been doing when I abandoned my own practice.  I tried again to explain to him that whilst becoming a father for him had not involved him in any sacrifice, I had had to give up something that defined me.  I contrasted my position to that of his wife.  She is an artist, a label that fits happily alongside “mother”.  Neither label need obliterate the other in her case.  At last I felt he understood. 

This is what I wrote to him, having considered his offer.  

“Dear G

Thank you for contacting me with such an enticing offer of a possibility of returning to practice as a solicitor.  I feel as if I have had to re-make choices that I made when I gave up my partnership when my elder daughter was born fourteen years ago.  I was enormously fortunate in my relatively short career to land in a firm which allowed me to spread my wings without clipping them.  It was a very exciting time for me, building a new department, forging links with European offices, and being part of bringing Tina Turner to my home town.  I still miss my work as a solicitor and the relative autonomy I enjoyed as a partner.  I would relish an opportunity to work again as a solicitor. 

But I cannot make any decision without taking into account my husband and my children.  D has a wonderful practice with endless interesting cases and he funds our life save for my very meagre contribution.  However his cases often, but unpredictably and irregularly, consume him so that we can have week following week where there is little room for anything else in his life and he can rarely leave London except at weekends.  I have to be able to manage everything that we are involved in alone then.  We also have two daughters who have become used to a mother whose work is almost invisible – done when they are at school – and who seem to be flourishing on the experience and are still too young to be left alone for long.  I am fortunate to have no economic imperative to justify any disadvantage to my children that a full-time work load would inevitably create.  I, too, would suffer if I worked full-time even if only in term time, since almost everything that I currently do would still need to be done.  I do not know how women do manage to work full-time and run a family.  I can only imagine that they have to delegate responsibilities that I do not wish to delegate or that their lives and those of their family are limited by the amount of time available or that they have more stamina that I have. 

I remember [Hero #1] telling me a couple of years ago that at some point he and his wife had agreed with their children that his wife had as much right to fulfil herself as any other member of the family, and that his wife had returned to work as a lawyer after that.  I think my family would agree with that too, but our constraints are different and I have to find a different balance.  I really do enjoy working at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and chairing the […] Committee.  These are two very different jobs.  The first allows me to practise my legal skills to a surprising degree and I find the work very rewarding.  The second allows me to experience the area of academic law I was teaching at University first hand and acquire new skills working in a very different environment to a solicitors’ office.  I have decided that I am happy with these occupations for now especially since they leave me enough time to look after my family without any of us feeling uncomfortably stretched. 

I am very grateful to you for offering me such a delightful package.  I am also glad, in a way, to have had to confront returning to work in more than a purely hypothetical way.  For now my children and my husband have to come first and I think those priorities rule out returning to work as a solicitor in private practice since the hours and commitment I can presently offer are not likely to commend themselves to many clients.  

With very best wishes,

 M” 

75 Years of Women Solicitors, BBC News 1997 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/40448.stm

Female lawyers earn half as much as their male colleagues, The Independent on Sunday, 2005 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4159/is_20050717/ai_n14784133

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