Why Can’t a Lawyer Have It All? One Law School Mom Questions Work-Family Norms
Crystal grew up idolizing the mom from Cheaper By the Dozen and always planned to follow her example. But after completing an engaging internship in human resources, Crystal wondered if the professional world held more for her than she initially thought. As she and her husband grappled with infertility, Crystal continued to develop professionally, ultimately enrolling in law school at Boston University. At the end of her first year, she had her daughter. While she continues to love the intellectual challenges of law school, Crystal also wants to spend meaningful time caring for her daughter. She says, “I want to be involved and present in my kids’ lives. If that stifles my career growth, that’s a sacrifice I guess I’ll have to make. But at the same time, this is the hill I want to die on: parents deserve more.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.
My name is Crystal. I’m 28, and my husband and I have a 17-month-old daughter. I grew up in sunny San Diego and now live in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where I’m a third-year law student at Boston University (BU). I’m really passionate about criminal defense and immigration law. In the long term, I am also very interested in policy work—looking at systems reform—and I could see myself running for office someday.
When did you decide to have kids?
I grew up in a family culture where I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a mom. I remember idolizing the mother in the old Cheaper by the Dozen movies, and I could envision myself as the 1950s housewife ideal, singing to myself as I happily loaded laundry or washed dishes. I always expected to go to college—both of my parents did—but I never considered having a career. All of the serious goals I set for myself from that period of my life were things that I could do from home with kids—write a book, record my own music, learn languages.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized there might be other options for me. I landed an internship with a great company working in HR, and I had an aha moment: I realized that I loved what I was doing. I realized that I was making a difference and that I loved the people I was interacting with. I had some great female mentors who encouraged me to take on challenging projects and modeled having both a career and family responsibilities.
I got married when I was 23 with one semester remaining in my undergrad, and I was still working on the same HR team. I started really struggling with my identity—feeling like a lot of things I’d been taught about myself and my role in the world were wrong. I wanted to be a mom, but I didn’t know how to reconcile the values I had been raised with—focused on family above all else—with the ambition I was discovering in myself to have a broader impact in the world.
At the time, it felt really urgent to figure this out. But the reality is I’m still on that journey to determine how I want to spend my time. I also didn’t have to figure things out right away for practical reasons: my husband and I struggled to have kids for almost three years, during which time I continued to pursue my career in HR. Toward the end of that time, inspired by many injustices I saw in the immigration system, I decided I wanted to go to law school. A year and a half later we were moving to Boston to start at BU. Almost immediately after we moved in, I found out I was pregnant. My daughter was born three weeks before the end of my first year.
What do you love about being a mom? What is hard for you about being a mom?
It is so rewarding for me to see my daughter coming into her own human-ness. I love the little things like watching her learn to pick up her toys or watching her wholeheartedly stuff a new kind of food into her mouth or watching her grab her shoes the moment I mention going for a walk. I also live for the cuddles and for when it’s time for bed and she asks for another song with a sweetly intoned “La la?”
The part that’s hardest for me is the same-ness of time with her. It can feel monotonous, and I sometimes feel guilty for not filling every moment with new experiences or not savoring being present every minute. There will always be part of me that would much rather be reading a new case than reading Sandra Boynton for the two hundredth time. And, for much of her life up until now, my daughter has mostly needed someone to be present but not necessarily engaged for much of the time. She’s happy to play on her own, until the moment I try to pull out my phone or computer to get some work done. That’s when she suddenly wants my attention (or at least my electronic device). So finding a balance between being present but also letting her be her own person is an ongoing struggle.
How have you and your husband juggled the day-to-day schedule of law school, work, and child care responsibilities?
In many ways, I was very fortunate to be pregnant during the pandemic, when I had the option to either go in-person or take all of my classes online. I tried to go to campus for my first few months of law school when I was in my first trimester. I just remember carting in so many snacks every day so I could ward off morning sickness. Eventually the morning sickness, combined with concerns about the pandemic, led me to stay home and take the rest of the year remotely.
When I actually had my baby, I took a week or two off and just watched the recordings of my classes. My daughter had some breathing issues, and we ended up back in the hospital for another five days, where I was juggling learning how to breastfeed, pumping, and working with doctors who were in and out of the room all day and night. At the same time, I had to finish my readings for the semester and prepare for finals. I was grateful for the support of professors and the administration that allowed me to focus on my daughter (and resting) as much as I could. Even with all of that, it was an insane couple of weeks.
Since then, we’ve made child care work under a number of arrangements. My first summer, I had a remote, part-time internship, and my husband was working from home in a pretty flexible job, so we would pass my daughter back and forth between us. Sometimes our daughter would nap on a pillow on our laps while we worked. The best time to get work done was often when I woke up to feed my daughter or pump in the middle of the night—you can accomplish a lot of reading from a small screen in a rocking chair.
I’m going into my third year now with a much more active one-year-old and grateful for the same nanny. My husband has a new job, which is much less flexible than his old one. That means we no longer have the option for him to watch my daughter and work at the same time during the work week. We have a friend who has agreed to take my daughter while I’m at school one day, our nanny covers other days I’m gone, and then I spend two weekdays at home. I recognize that there are more traditional child care options, but so far I have appreciated the degree of control that comes with a nanny and the opportunity to spend more time with my daughter than would be possible with full-time day care. We’re taking things one semester at a time at this point. Beyond that, I’m not sure where I’ll land after I graduate. I’m still trying to stay open to the possibilities of what full- or part-time work might look like for me as a mom and the types of roles that might offer me the support and flexibility I want so I can be present with my daughter.
How has being a mom shaped your law school experience?
Thankfully, everyone at BU has been very supportive. The administration helped me navigate pregnancy and giving birth, including being out longer than expected when my daughter needed to be readmitted to the hospital. All of my professors were understanding, and other students are always happy to see my daughter when she shows up on campus.
At the same time, talking to my professors initially about my pregnancy was difficult. Having a baby during law school is clearly not the norm. I honestly worried that people would judge me for having a child at this stage in my life at all, but no one ever had that reaction. I’ve also developed a small community of other moms at BU, and it’s nice to help one another navigate motherhood and law school together.
On the other hand, law school is a small microcosm of a much broader legal field, which is not known for being flexible and family-friendly. For lawyers in many firms, there is a baseline expectation of extremely long hours and high workload. The long hours, among other things, have led to lawyers having a high incidence of alcoholism, depression, and suicide. For lawyers in public interest work, where I’d like to focus, people are genuinely dedicated to serving their communities but often at a cost to their mental health and balance.
Where do you hope law school and motherhood will take you in the future?
In law school, whenever parenthood is brought up (a rare occurrence on its own), parenting is often modeled as something to outsource or minimize. I’ve heard advice like “Get an au pair. Communicate with your boss—just let them know that you’ll be offline for an hour so you can feed your child dinner but you’ll be right back on soon.” Those answers don’t work for me and how I want to parent. I want to be involved and present in my kids’ lives. If that stifles my career growth, that’s a sacrifice I guess I’ll have to make. But at the same time, this is the hill I want to die on: parents deserve more. We are good employees, and we want to be at work. But we aren’t willing to give up everything for that. The system needs to change to accommodate more flexible work options and shorter hours.
As a law student, I’ve brought up the possibility of part-time career options in a variety of settings, and the response is always “I’d never thought of that!” I’ve been able to get two really meaningful part-time summer internships with stellar managers. When I’ve been open about what I need, for the most part, opportunities have presented themselves. At other times, unfortunately, I’ve come up against an entrenched mentality that shuts down the possibility of part-time work over and over again. Though I know part-time work is not what all parents want, for me it’s very important, and it’s been frustrating when those options aren’t available or even talked about.
What policies would be helpful to you as a mother?
Paid parental leave—for both parents—that lasts longer than two weeks is a must. But I also wish it were easier for employees to ask for flexible work schedules. It feels like such a big ask when you’re looking for a job to get reduced hours or flexibility. That goes for both mothers and fathers. In an ideal world, I think both my husband and I would work about 30 hours a week with part-time paid child care sprinkled in. That option just isn’t really spoken about. You have to kind of make your own path, which often means you have to work somewhere for a long time before having kids. Especially as someone who is new in her career, that’s really difficult.
I’m glad that work-from-home options are a lot more available as a result of the pandemic. But finding a place that trusts its employees and is willing to let them just get the work done can still be challenging. Particularly, it’s challenging to be open about juggling responsibilities and to not feel like you have to have your child sneakily playing next to you on a Zoom call while you pretend she’s not there. Ultimately, I would like to see policies focused on supporting family choices. I wish I had more choices for what parenthood and career looked like for my family. I wish that a greater variety of options existed between being a full-time stay-at-home mom and a full-time working mom. I also recognize that, for many people, staying home full time isn’t a viable option financially—so there’s really just one choice. I’d love to see employers and the government consider a fuller range of options in building policy and incentives. That might include providing support financially so that the choice of how to spend your time and how to raise your children is a real choice for each individual family.
What advice do you have for other moms trying to navigate work and motherhood?
I would say it’s okay to change your mind. I don’t know what I want for my future. I am not sure what next week will look like, let alone a year or five years from now. So I have to give myself space to make a decision today and say, “This is what I want my life to look like,” and then to change my mind in a week or six months. Parenting is always changing, you are always changing, and the environment is always changing, so don’t expect yourself to have everything figured out right now.
I’d also say don’t be afraid to speak up about what you need! When I first had my baby, especially as a law student, I felt so intimidated and isolated and different. I really struggled to speak up about what I needed. But over time, I realized that in advocating for myself I was also advocating for my daughter and my family. And, in general, people have responded really well to my efforts to be open about my family and what my boundaries are. You deserve happiness!
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.