Parental Policies Make All the Difference for this Corporate Lawyer
I had a wonderful time interviewing Emily for our EEM Spotlight series. Emily is a driven young mom who completed law school in 2018, clerked for two judges in Delaware, and then joined a famed Silicon Valley law firm. Through this journey, she was very concerned about finding a firm with supportive parental policies and finally decided on Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, whose policies convinced her that the firm was serious about retaining women. Emily gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, eleven weeks premature, causing her to end her second clerkship early. She had an eight-month maternity leave, between the paid state leave from her clerkship and the process of transitioning to a new job. Emily speaks to the challenges of postpartum depression and the necessity of strong women mentors, who encouraged her to find the balance she wanted as she struggled with the decision of whether or not to return to work. The transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is included below.
What made you want to have children?
I come from a large family [and from a] religious background. It’s important for me to have children. It’s always been part of my life. It was never a question of “if,” more of a question of “when.” . . . Fortunately, I have a very supportive husband. So, [my decision] wasn’t as difficult as it could be for many who feel a little bit of pressure when they start having children to stay at home. I felt like I had all the options. I felt as if I could continue on with my goals professionally while also having a supportive family life.
What are things you love about being a mom?
I think there’s just an inherent goodness about babies. They’re just so sweet and loving but also very vulnerable. I [love] being able to provide for another human. For me, this includes creating a little slice of heaven on earth so that they can have the opportunities to really blossom as individuals. It’s been really wonderful. [My daughter] was born premature, so seeing her so small and vulnerable and then [seeing her] grow into a little babbling sweet baby that likes to plunk out keys on a piano—I mean, that transformation is truly miraculous.
What are things that are hard about being a mom?
I had my daughter amidst the global pandemic. Typically, in my family, my mother and mother-in-law would gladly come and help. [But] we had a stay-at-home order; we were under emergency circumstances. There was no one to help. So beyond just the separation from my child during her hospitalization—as I was living at home and commuting to the hospital, which was a challenge of its own—it was just me and my husband, and I really longed for the loving support of my own mother. And because of that isolation, I really felt at many times quite depressed. There’s a history of anxiety and depression in my family and I knew that I would be at risk. I just wasn’t quite prepared for how quickly [post-partum depression] can onset.
What did you hope for in terms of work-life balance before you had your daughter, and did it change after you had her?
I really waffled a lot. When I was pregnant with my daughter, it seemed clear that I wanted to go back to work. I had her, and I had some very serious doubts of whether I wanted to return. And again, towards the vulnerability, I felt a little bit of pressure. I also felt mom guilt [about] leaving her. You’re biologically wired to your child, and all of your hormones and everything are pushing you to be there for that person and care for that person, which I appreciate; that bonding is really fundamentally beautiful. The hard thing is that there are other parts of your brain, and sometimes [those parts of you] can get a little clouded. Fortunately, my husband has a great career. He was very supportive, so he said that at any time I could stay home and raise my daughter and that would have been one hundred percent okay. And because I had such a long time to really process everything, I got through the depression, I got through some of the other things, and I started to realize that there were parts of my life from before the birth of my daughter that I missed, and that included really stretching my brain muscles and working on complex issues. So, with time, I realized that I could do both.
In terms of balance, I’d hoped for part-time work, and I reached out to many lawyer moms, but many said, “Start full time; get your reputation in.” Fortunately, my firm has great leave policies, great part-time policies, [and] flex time, which is working from home. So that gives me hope for the future that as we add future children that I’ll have greater optionality. For now, full time is the right fit for me, and I’m lucky to work from home. I know that many women don’t have that option.
Have you felt supported in your faith community for the balance that you’re trying to find?
I’m very fortunate that the people who are closest to me have all been very supportive. I think that there will always be fringe people in your social circles who choose to operate their [lives] differently, and sometimes they let their judgments be known. But I think having a few people around you that are supportive of whatever you choose to do makes a big difference, because then you can make the choice that’s right for you rather than the choice that’s right for your community at large or for your culture.
Although there’s always been an expectation for motherhood and for a certain type of life [at home with children], I grew up with examples that were different. My mother was a single mom for almost a decade, and if she hadn’t worked, we would have been in pretty dire straits. … My mother-in-law is a physician and she worked part time when she was raising her children and now has a blossoming career and just a beautiful life.
I [also] had a wonderful mentor growing up. She was in our church as [one of my] youth leaders, and she is a partner at KPMG and has had a wonderful career. Her husband was my ninth-grade math teacher. They balanced their life and their family. They have four beautiful daughters, and I realized that there are other ways that you can balance your life. It does not have to be one partner has the dominant career and one partner doesn’t work. It can be a whole combination of things.
What has gone well in finding work-life balance so far?
I think I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I enjoy working from home and I can find time to do full-time work. I’m still in the ramp-up period; I don’t know what it will look like [when I’m up to full-time hours]—I’m just taking it a day at a time. I’m lucky; my firm also has a ramp-up/ramp-down policy so that as I’m returning from leave in the future I can work part time for a few months. These types of programs and policies are geared toward retention. And anything that firms and companies can do to retain women will help capture and retain talent while also helping individuals make really difficult life choices.
How much did institutional support factor into your decision to work full time while raising your daughter?
I interviewed while I was pregnant, so [family accommodations and flexible work polices] were very much on my mind for what type of culture I wanted, and I scoured the firms’ policies for not only just whether they had maternity leave but [whether] they [had] balanced leave for men and women. Did men take leave? If they did not, then is it going to be a culture where women will succeed long term? I wasn’t sure. So, I tried to find a firm that had really great policies, and Wilson Sonsini is one of the best. If you have to work remotely, they have everything you need. If you have to travel, they can ship your breast milk home. They are thoughtful about it. They’ve put time and energy into creating policies [to retain talent].
You were able to have quite a long maternity leave. Can you share a little more about that?
Part of it was just frankly unplanned; my baby came eleven weeks early. I had planned to end my clerkship with three months remaining, and fortunately the state of Delaware has it three-months’ paid maternity leave, and so I was going to utilize that. With a combination of my maternity leave policy from the state and then the start date that I negotiated, I had about eight months, which is unheard of in America. Only three of those were paid. However, I felt so grateful that I didn’t have to return at month three; my baby would have only been home from the hospital for a matter of weeks [at that point]. So, would I have been ready to go back? I don’t think so.
So, you had both the eight months of maternity leave and then this ramp-up policy. Can you explain that a little bit more?
Of course. So as a new employee I am not utilizing that policy yet and am working full time. There’s a natural ramp up for a new position—a steep learning curve. [But there’s also] a formal ramp-down/ramp-up leave at Wilson Sonsini that I plan to take advantage of in the future. So, let’s say you’re six months pregnant, [and] you anticipate that the next few months are going to be hard. You can choose to temporarily go to part time in anticipation of having a baby. And on the other end, alright, five months [of leave] are up, you’re not quite ready to go back full time, you need a little bit of ramp-up time again. You can work part time.
How important was it for you to find these sorts of institutional supports and flexible policies?
It was the tipping point for me to going back to work. [Just] feeling like I could find a place where I would have support was very encouraging. I had my first virtual happy hour with the firm, and there were six babies that came into the frame at one point or another in a group that’s 11 people large. I mean, statistically, there are just a lot of babies in the group, which makes it a lot easier. People understand that you’re taking a break around dinner time to be with your family and to put your child to bed. There were other firms where that was just not the norm, and the expectation was that you were there and in-person one hundred percent of the time and you always needed to be on. And I think that culturally that makes a difference. When I was interviewing, there were four people at the firm who were out on maternity leave. The women take maternity leave. It’s those types of policies that women should look for as they are interviewing for new positions. I.e., do men and women take parental leave? Are there planned policies that people actually use? Because it’s one thing to have a stated policy versus having one that’s actually utilized without penalty.
…Another great policy [at Wilson Sonsini] is that you can stay on partnership track even if you go part time for a while. It’s not all or nothing. And I think more policies like that can be instituted, certainly in large corporations, but also at a state and local level. I feel grateful that I’m working in a generation that has these options.
Did you feel supported by state and federal policies throughout this process of having your baby? Did you feel seen as a mother?
I was fortunate, again, to work for a state government that has a policy that any parent could take a three-month paid [parental] leave. And that policy actually gave me courage to have a child, knowing that I would have that safety net, and helped me have confidence in starting a family at the time that I wanted to. That kind of policy makes all the difference. But I do think, for women, there are so few states that have those policies. . . . The federal government has enacted FMLA, which gives bare-bones requirements that you can’t be fired if you leave for [twelve] weeks. . . . And it only counts for employers that have 50 or more employees, so there are a lot of people who would not even [qualify] under [such a] bare-bones policy.
If you were in charge for a day and could implement one policy to help mothers in the United States, what would it be?
I would say paid parental [leave]. Three-month minimum parental [leave] for everyone in America. As a country we say, oh, where could we find this money? We’ve seen the government come quickly to action during this global pandemic. We’ve seen airlines be bailed out to the tune of $50 billion. Well, where does the money come from? The American taxpayers. So, I think we just need to have a priority shift and look at what makes our society run. I think it’s families. I think it’s women. I think that without supporting that building block of society, we would all crumble. Having children is so essential. It’s how our society continues to flourish and function. I mean, the rising generation is the most important piece of America, and we need to put our money where our mouth is.
Well I’ve loved talking to you today Emily. Do you have any advice for mothers struggling with work-life balance before we close?
I would just say, be bold in what you want and have courage. There are options available to you at various levels, whether it be staying at home, working, or a mix. And I think life is really long. So [in] making these very big and difficult decisions, [recognize] that nothing is forever. So just be confident [in] the next decision you make, knowing that you can change your mind. It’s hard. But the more we talk about these issues, the better it gets for future generations, including the lives of our children.
Editing credential to Bethany Hailstone Bartholemew.