My husband has a particularly unique and unyielding life challenge: he has a mother- in- law who is successful and self-righteous and seriously independent (and who happens to be a former High Court judge, the first woman to have been appointed in Johannesburg) and a wife who is self-righteous, stresses about the meaning of success and seriously dependent (on him) because she chose to become a mother. She also happens to be a mother in law.
Add in four children and this makes for quite a concoction. His mother in law and mother of his children have joked about the title of the book they plan to write one day , titled “Mother in laws and mothers in law”.
The truth is that his wife is nearly finished her next book because she believes passionately in the role of law and the rule of law; that mothers in law have a long way to go in being comfortable with their roles as lawyers, that they have skills like empathy and intellect and ambition to drive it all; that combined with a nurturing spirit and a determination for social justice for women in general they have contributions so great to give they’re immeasurable.
But what we women first have to learn, before we can teach our daughters about equal rights and closing the gender gap and ‘having it all’ is that we need to understand what we want for ourselves. And what we want for our children.
Because when I sat in the FINDING NEW WAYS Conference on the 5th floor at the fancy INVESTEC offices on Friday – which were much smarter than when I was an employee there some years ago, not knowing I was pregnant with my first child but so chuffed with myself for looking the part and earning a great salary – I saw lots of tears from these mothers in law. Most of them new mothers .
I knew how they felt, I could sense their discomfort, their trying to be big brave lawyers. Last year at the same conference it was me who had the tears but I’m big now. I’ve grown up a lot in the last year or so.
The tears, I think, are tears of ambition. They are tears of trauma: the attempt at reconciling the heart and the head because make no mistake, these women are ambitious. They have fought hard and worked hard to get where they are because they want to make a difference to the world. That’s why most people – men and women – study law. It’s not the money (that’s an illusion for most) and it’s not the prestige – it sounds good but most people don’t really like lawyers).
So. What are we going to do about these sad mothers in law?
This is what we are going to do!
We must show them that there is a way to lead and method to mother. This is not only the plight of lawyers – there are lots of women who struggle with the concept of ‘having it all’ but perhaps we mothers in law must lead the way.
We must show the world that in order to be equal in the workplace and equal at home, there is still much work to be done: we need to work out for ourselves how we want to practice our kind of law, and how we’re going to change the laws because that’s what lawyers can do in order to practice properly and also how we’re going to manage our home. This is going to require some ongoing and serious work.
We can call it part of the feminist movement or we can call it what we like but as women lawyers, we need to take the lead if we want the law to recognize the rights of the father as equal to the rights of mothers. This means in ordinary marriages, in relationships at work with employers, in arrangements on divorce, (and especially on divorce where the law currently supports mothers as being the custodian parent as being in the child’s best interests especially when the child is relocated as is a BIG issue in my book ) and in all areas which we have an influence.
Which is basically in life.
Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In has a lot to say about success and likeability and being on a jungle gym and about speaking your truth and lots of valuable things. I don’t agree with it all but there’s also a lot that we women lawyers can take from all it.
As one young bright woman lawyer said, “We can have it all- just not at all at the same time”
‘Til the next time- I’m off to play on the jungle gym and fetch the kids.
Here’s the ‘formal article’ I wrote for WHIPPING THE CAT, my sponsor at the 2016 FINDING NEW WAYS FOR WOMEN CONFERENCE:
Exactly one year ago, Amanda Lamond’s vision to bring together women in law to start a conversation about a new consciousness in law became a reality and WOLELA (Women Leading in Law) was born.
The conversation continues with numerous matters to deal with and develop, amongst them, issues such as:
- whether law serves the purposes it sets out to achieve and whether the processes are effective;
- whether the adversarial system of law is ideal and sustainable ;
- whether there is sufficient focus on the ‘humanizing ‘issues of legal education and how to bring ‘conscious’ lawyering into the curriculums and the profession;
- and of course, what the women’s role is in achieving and enhancing these ideals.
Mmabatho Seeiso, Director of the Bridge was the keynote speaker and gave an insight into how she managed to overcome serious health serious which severely compromised her ability to work. Thereafter three panel discussions took place, dealing with how women can contribute to the legal profession’s innovation, how to achieve balance in a stressful and anxious environment and how the personal journeys of women from diverse backgrounds have led to where they are today.
Innovation in law is necessary, not only in terms of how we manage our practices from a technological perspective, but how we see the role of women, and more importantly the retention of women. Collaboration seems the key, in terms of inspiring the younger generation to affect change from within and it is vital that culture shifts are made in order to make the new recruits more comfortable and familiar with what is expected of them. There is still currently a so-called ‘disconnect’ between academia and the types of attributes – like critical thinking skills- which are required to make substantial impacts.
How women adapt and perform in a stressful and largely still male dominated working environment will vary greatly, depending on personal circumstances and support structures. Some believed that women still can elect how they wish to practice and make the necessary changes to the type of work they want to do to thrive and make a difference.
In the spheres of legal education, it is encouraging to see that women are leading the way in a more holistic and feminine way of nurturing students.
Ultimately, any discussion on combining women and work though, whether within the legal sphere or not as illustrated by one woman who was the MD of Global Load Control at Lufthansa, will depend upon the values that women ascribed to themselves and their personal lives. Women display different characteristics from men, and tend to empathize more strongly with their clients, which often leads to further anxiety and burn-out.
Balance is key to all this and one solution is to focus on quality rather than quantity of work. With a firm like Whipping the Cat, which does away with the old practice of hourly billing and focuses on the outcome and intention of the client, new ways of practice assist the women lawyer.
There is still much work to do. What is interesting and encouraging about a seminar led by women and the Centre for Integrative Law is that they are collaborative, creative and courageous to find new ways to add their voice to the law which needs their nurturing and nourishing spirit.
It is through the interest and sponsorship of events like these that the conversations can continue and that young women graduates and those who feel inspired to practice from a different perspective can pursue new ways to lead in law.