In early July, Rolling Stone published an article called “Coronavirus is Killing the Working Mother.” Following up on its heels, FiveThirtyEight decried the new plight of the working mother in an article entitled “How the Pandemic Could Force a Generation of Mothers Out of the Workforce.” And lest we forget, the New York Times quoted economist Betsey Stevenson stating that the pandemic has exposed the existing gender inequities in the workplace.
Once again, the media has only taken into account part of the story. I left my law firm after being discriminated against during my pregnancy. This experience is not unique. Quite the opposite. It shows that discrimination against working mothers is about so much more than an unequal division of childcare responsibilities. It is about the self-fulfilling prophecy that haunts all women. We will be unable to work and be good parents and so we must choose. But, then, of course, our choice is not really a choice. In legal terms, it is unconscionable, defined by an absence of any meaningful choice by the disadvantaged party.
My heart was racing and my chest tightened. I stared out my window at the skyscrapers lining midtown Manhattan, as they appeared to form a cage around my office. This gives new meaning to the term “false imprisonment,” I thought. I broke down in tears, calling my mom.
“I’m pregnant!” I said in the first breath.
“That’s wonderful news!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t it?” sensing the hesitation in my voice.
“Yes, it is … but I just don’t know how I’m going to get through this pregnancy with my job. I just got staffed to a new deal. I’m sitting here with a box of saltines, vomiting into my trash can, and they told me I’m going to have work all night.”
This was not my first all-nighter by any means. Throughout my career, as a corporate finance attorney, I had worn the long hours and intensity of the job as a badge of honor. My colleagues and I often traded war stories, bragging about who was the quickest to leave the nail salon mid-manicure when a partner called on an urgent matter or who actually checked their emails during their annual gyno exam.
But throughout my pregnancy, sporadic spotting caused me to fear that the stress of being constantly berated by egomaniacs was harming my baby. I obsessively googled the effects of stress on pregnancy. My findings affirmed my certainty that this was the cause of the spotting, which had no identifiable medical reason. At every doctor’s appointment, I asked if I was placing my pregnancy in jeopardy by continuing to work in such a high-intensity environment. My OB reassured me that she had worked long hours during her pregnancy.
Sometimes I felt my future son begin to kick when a partner burst into my office without knocking, screaming “JENNNYYYYY!” I assumed it was because my son hated the sound of his mother being yelled at as much as I did, but truth be told, it was likely that he was just responding to my elevated heart rate.
Many of my pregnant colleagues appeared to just suck it up. It was widely rumored that a partner had gone into labor while closing a deal and successfully managed to complete her workday before calmly heading to the hospital to give birth, as if she was stopping by Zabar’s on her way home to pick up a babka.
Looking around me, my future seemed bleak. One evening I peered into the office of a partner, a young mother, who was passed out on her desk. On a client call one evening, I listened to another partner, this one a single mother, pleading with the client to push an arbitrary deadline to the next morning, as she needed to be home by 9 p.m. to relieve her babysitter. Her pleas were briskly dismissed.
This situation seemed preferable to the alternative: the partners who lived in the land of deep regret. There was the woman who kept an apartment in the city and only saw her kids on weekends. After her kids grew up, she moved across the country to where one of them lived, so she could at least be present for her grandchildren. One woman regretfully told me that she would never have kids. She worked too hard to either meet a man or to do it on her own. Another spoke about how she waited too long to have children and ended up needing numerous rounds of fertility treatments.
Taped to a partner’s door, a note written on Hello Kitty stationary in a child’s handwriting, “Daddy, I hope your trial ends, so you can come home soon. You missed my birthday.” After walking by this note a few times, I started taking the long way around the office in order to avoid seeing this apparition again. I feared it was my Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Finally, at 35 weeks pregnant, I experienced lawyer burnout. After billing 200 hours in December to hit my annual target, my thoughts shifted away from interest rates and towards images of fuzzy sheep on mobiles floating above porcelain-white cribs from Pottery Barn Kids. But the work kept coming. And like water rushing in through the cracked window of a car that had driven into a lake, I was being drowned.
It was Saturday night. I was working and began spotting again. In the midst of trying to determine if I was going to jump in a cab and take myself to the ER, a partner called me.
“Where are you on the commitment letter?” he shouted without even a hello.
Unable to keep my cool, I screamed back, “I can’t get to this right now! I need an hour.”
“Why? What’s the problem with the bank?”
“No, it’s personal. I’m spotting,” I said.
“Sorry, what’s the problem with the bank?” he repeated incredulously.
“No, I’m spotting … from my pregnancy.”
“Oh … okay,” he sounded annoyed. “Go. I’ll take care of it.”
Once I was able to take a deep breath and shove a slice of pizza down my throat, the spotting ceased. Feeling incredibly guilty, I decided to go into the office early Sunday morning. As I was going out the door, a friend from work texted, “I have something to tell you.” She had overheard the partner on the phone the night before. “He said you flaked again for some pregnancy-related excuse.”
The words stung like finding out from a friend that my boyfriend had been cheating on me. I had given so much of myself, my time, my sweat, my tears and my pregnancy to this man. But the second I expected some basic human consideration, I was thrown away like a dirty diaper. If I couldn’t give them everything, I was nothing. I had fallen into the stereotype of a woman whose priorities had shifted and my baby hadn’t even been born.
I knew there was no choice. I had to leave.
The pandemic has illustrated what I already knew — employers are just watching and waiting for working mothers to drop the ball.
Thirty-six years ago, my mom announced her pregnancy to a room full of male partners at her law firm — an experience not unlike my own. They told her that they were happy for her, as long as it didn’t affect her billable hours. Shortly after that, she became the first woman partner in her firm. Sixteen months later, she left private practice for a “compelling personal reason”: me. That was 1986. When will we stop lamenting the personal “choices” of women and admit that this is an institutional problem?