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Par for the Course

A professor-mom tees off on balancing career and family


Published August 1, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.

Want to know what every new mom needs to balance work and family? A set of golf clubs.

As a tenured law-school professor, I have a great deal of flexibility compared to my friends in private firms and state positions. But when my daughter was born, I was afraid that my career might suffer. I worried that my colleagues would assume motherhood made me less committed and would overlook me for promotions or power positions. I refused to fall victim to what we now call "family responsibility discrimination." Back then, we called it the "mommy trap."

So I pulled my golf clubs out of storage and put them in my backseat. They conveniently covered up the infant carrier and gave the impression that I was a serious golfer. I parked next to my boss. I leaned the putter against my desk. When anyone asked me where I was going as I dashed out of the office early to nurse a sick baby, I'd simply say, "I have a tee time."

I was delusional in my early years of parenting. In hindsight, I'm sure no one thought I was actually golfing. But those golf clubs became my symbol of resistance to ways in which moms, and increasingly dads, struggle to integrate their career ambitions with their family responsibilities. When you're a lawyer, no one ever assumes you're less committed to your career when you leave early to golf.

That's exactly the point Anne-Marie Slaughter makes in "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," her much-discussed article in the July/August issue of the Atlantic — if you're a parent, you or one of your friends has probably shared it on Facebook. Slaughter was the State Department's first woman director of policy planning — until she found she could not care for her two teenage boys and meet the demands of the position. After two years, she left her dream job.

You don't have to be working for Hillary Clinton to relate to Slaughter's dilemma. Whether you depend on your own business or on a paycheck, and no matter how good you've got it, if you're a parent, you will have a hard time being present for your family and pursuing a career.

At least, I have a hard time with it. I can get so wrapped up in my writing, I forget to feed my two children. I yell at them unnecessarily when I'm overwhelmed. Once, when my now-8-year-old screamed obscenities while playing in our backyard, I told the neighbors that this is culturally acceptable behavior in families of Mediterranean descent. More than once, I have put my children in front of the portable DVD player, closed them in a closet and made a conference call. I sometimes cry on my way to work, not because leaving my children makes me sad, but because leaving them makes me happy.

I used to blame myself for these shortcomings. Or worse, I'd pass judgment on other parents because doing so made me feel better when faced with my own imperfections. Slaughter, however, does not take it personally. She blames the way our society structures work and what we value. She argues that if we just had work schedules that matched school schedules, less facetime at the office and more flexibility, we might be able to have it all — or at least experience less stress while trying.

She's not the only one making these suggestions. In her new book, The New Feminist Agenda, former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin argues that women should start advocating for pro-family policies such as affordable childcare and paid family leave.

I think Slaughter and Kunin are on to something. I'm glad that the national conversation about work and family is finally turning away from the mommy wars and toward restructuring the workplace. It gives us all something to focus on other than improving ourselves.

It took me a long time to realize nobody actually lives in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are all above average. Being a mediocre mom with wonderful, albeit ordinary, kids ought to be enough. But in today's culture of competitive parenting, it's easy to believe that there's some memo on how to keep it all together.

I missed that memo, and so I manage career and family the same way I golf: I'm a poser. I hack away, and it ain't pretty. Every once in a while I connect, and it's so beautiful in that moment I believe I do have it all.

Then the phone rings or someone throws up, and I have to take a deep breath and remind myself that the game's hard, and almost no one masters it. But I stick with it because I love it, and because, honestly, I have to.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.