My husband looks up as he is eating his breakfast, a bit awestruck. For a few moments I wonder what could possibly be holding his attention. “Taking multitasking to a whole new level, I see?” he quips. I take a second to survey myself. I am standing at our kitchen counter cradling my eight-month-old in my left arm as she nurses, while using my right hand interchangeably to eat my breakfast, check my BlackBerry® for emails, and type away at my laptop on a brief that I was drafting.
I must admit, I was quite proud of myself for a moment. Perhaps my balancing act was not Cirque-du-Soleil-ready, but it was a relatively good specimen of badassery, even for the most jaded, multi-tasking super parent.
The Inevitable Dichotomy
Then, doubt began to creep in. Is this something to be proud of? Here I am, a partner at one of the top law firms in the world, but what kind of example am I setting for professional women? Is this what is necessary for women attorneys to “make it” or to “have it all”? Is my behavior something to inspire pride? Or shame?
My “nursing-while-working” balancing act may have gone unnoticed, just a random mothering anecdote in my day. But, the most recent uptick in dialogue regarding the state of women professionals in the U.S. had placed such thoughts at the forefront of my conscience. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Still Can’t Have it All and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and a host of opinion pieces and articles that have followed in their wake, have sparked many a conversation in and outside of my law firm.
With most important conversations about women professionals in the U.S., I note the dichotomy that inevitably arises: to succeed, women need to embrace the system as it is and be more tough (read: “more male”) … versus … to succeed, women need to change the system and embrace a more feminine model. This dichotomy has inspired advice from a variety of different academics, commentators, and professionals regarding topics ranging from the selection of one’s spouse, the timing of having children, the relative importance of face time at work, and all the way down to what women should wear.
Ditching the Dichotomy
I find that my reaction to my personal “balancing act” echoes this dichotomy. On one hand, I am proud of my ability to be tough, to find ever more impossible ways to meet all of the demands of my career (and personal life), and do it awesomely (insert appropriate battle roar here). Yet, simultaneously, I cringe at the thought that the system in which I have grown professionally would require me to perform such barbarous acts of juggling.
My natural tendency toward dichotomies surfaces here. This dichotomy is false.
I have four children, spanning the ages of 11 years old to 11 months old. In this regard alone, I have opted to eschew the dichotomy of advice with respect to having children in your early 30s compared to having children in your early 40s. (As an aside, did you know that if you are pregnant past the age of 35, you are considered as having a “geriatric” pregnancy?) I have instead had children both in my early 30s and my early 40s. I am Latina. I am a successful attorney and law firm partner in the field of international arbitration. And despite cultural stereotypes and a recent, spurious Heritage Foundation report, my success is due, in significant part, to the fact that I am Latina, bilingual, and bicultural. (As another aside, my husband is Latino and came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. He also holds more degrees than I do and is a successful attorney and entrepreneur.) I have also been a single mom. Now, I have the great fortune of having an amazingly supportive spouse who is able to work from home and share in the raising of our children. I have a life that has not written itself like a recipe, and I am figuring it out as I go.
The Balancing Act
What professional women need to succeed is not a binary proposition, and there is no one formula to guarantee “having it all.” Any given day of a professional woman’s life might require varying degrees of stereotypical “male” and “female” behavior. But then, throw into the mix that every woman has her own unique wants, needs, and standpoint. No doubt, there are some women who will be inspired and even emboldened by my nursing-while-brief-drafting experience. Equally certain, there are many women who may think I am doing professional women and mothers a disservice by creating an environment where standards for success encourage a race to the bottom, with work invading every aspect of a woman’s personal life. Nonetheless, my balancing act works for me … most days. There’s the rub: finding the balance that works, on a painstakingly individual basis. Although the recipes for success falling on either side of the dichotomy may help each woman discover the right balance for her, there are no quick fixes, no one way to lean in or have it all.
When you consider the space that would be occupied on any historical timeline by the period in which women have been allowed something approaching equality with men or the ability even to consider themselves legal professionals, it is barely notable, if not a pathetically infinitesimal speck. Catharine MacKinnon in Feminism Unmodified states this truth most elegantly: “Take your foot off our necks, then we will hear in what tongue women speak.”
As I reflect on my particular way of “taking multitasking to a whole new level,” I find that my intriguing balancing act perhaps personifies the feminist notion of finding out who and what I am as a woman, mostly because there is no other option.
For now, I am a woman who delights in the sound of one hand typing.
About the Author
Gaela Gehring Flores is a partner in Arnold & Porter LLP’s litigation practice group and concentrates her practice on international arbitration and litigation matters. Ms. Gehring Flores’ has been recognized as one of the American Lawyer’s “Top 45 under 45” Top Women Lawyers in the Am Law 200 and as a leading practitioner of international arbitration in publications such as Chambers USA, Chambers Global, Chambers Latin America, The Legal 500, Global Arbitration Review, Latin Lawyer 250, and Euromoney, among others.